Typographically speaking, the bones of a capital “A” are mostly non-negotiable: two diagonal strokes, one crossbar, and a single counter. But within those constraints, there’s a world of opportunity. In the hands of a graphic designer, an A can be a line that wraps around itself and rises into a peaked coil. Or a triangular block that’s merely the suggestion of the letter’s original form.
For Belgian designer Christophe De Pelsemaker, there’s a beauty in expanding the simple concept of a letterform into something abstract and almost art-like. “There are many ways to depict the same letter,” he says. “It’s all in the details.”
De Pelsemaker is the co-author of Letters As Symbols, a visual survey of alphabetically driven logos that he wrote with Belgian designer Paul Ibou. The book (now up on Kickstarter) started as a seed of an idea decades ago when Ibou was running an organization called the International Trademark Center. The now 79-year-old Ibou, who is well known in Belgium for his corporate logos, had spent years gathering logos from designers around the world including Saul Bass, Takenobu Igarashi, and Burton Kramer.
Ibou would reach out to designers and ask them to submit a form outlining basic information about their logos that he would keep on file in an archive at his home. “He always kept everything physically,” says De Pelsemaker, who got in touch with Ibou last year after reading some of the designer’s earlier books. Ibou was interested in using the ITC to build an archive of logos that could be used in books and exhibitions. “He wanted to publish the logos in as many forms as possible,” De Pelsemaker explains. “He just wanted to create a platform for designers to show their work to the world.”
Ibou started compiling logos for Letters As Symbols in 1991, but the project stalled and then was forgotten about until De Pelsemaker began collaborating with Ibou in 2017. Even still, the original concept hasn’t changed much. For Ibou, the book is a way to celebrate the most straightforward of logos. Letters, De Pelsemaker explains, are inherently clear in their meaning. “Letters have a strong connection with humans because their shapes are recognizable,” he says. “It’s one of the fundamental ways of communicating.”
In the book’s foreword, Ibou writes about what makes a successful logo:
“When talking about logos, they should neither be linked nor limited to a specific culture but should be understood by people of different cultural backgrounds, worldwide. A logo should be independent of most standards and be accessible to anyone, irrespective of education or level of intelligence. In fact, a logo that is created for a company or organization is intended to ease visual perception. The simpler the form of the logo, the more effectively it catches the human eye.”
Of the book’s 326 logos, most fit Ibou’s criteria for accessibility and clarity despite being spread over decades and being stylistically varied. Some letters are crafted from simple lines, others use negative space, curves, and repetition to achieve their effect. All of the logos are rendered simply in black on a white background, which adds to the book’s taxonomic style. “We didn’t want to use color,” says De Pelsemaker. “We tried to focus purely on the shape of the logo.”
It would be misleading to say that Letters As Symbols is anything more than a flippable coffee table book of clever logos, but there is something fascinating about seeing side-by-side the same letter rendered so differently. It’s as if you’re peering into the various creative machinations of designers’ minds. Scrolling through the selection of images in Letters As Symbols, it’s clear that there’s an adoration of the logo as a singular form of graphic communication. For De Pelsemaker, a logo is one of the purest forms of creativity because it leaves little ambiguity about what it’s trying to say. “It’s maybe a little weird to say because it’s just a logo,” he says. “But a logo can also be a piece of art.”