[Alyson Kuhn] Mohawk has been making premium printing paper since 1931. As the company begins its ninth decade, Michael Bierut of Pentagram looks back on 20 years as Mohawk’s brand architect. He also looks forward — to seeing the new branding come to life in the hands of Mohawk’s many design partners.
How would you describe the parts and layers of the new logo?
The logo is of course a monogram for the name Mohawk. It’s based on the letter M, but it’s also constructed to evoke the papermaking process and the printing process, both of which involve paper going around cylinders. In an abstract way, it suggests how big rolls of paper look when they’re stacked up in a warehouse or when they’re being shipped. You know, those cylinders when they’re stood on end have round bottoms and straight sides. So, the M can also be four rolls of paper interlocking with each other.
And what about the notion of connecting the dots?
Exactly. You have five dots being connected by those four lines, which speaks to the basic idea of connection, which is what Mohawk paper is designed for. It’s designed to be printed on. These days, it can be printed on in a million different ways. And no one prints on paper unless their goal is to communicate something to someone, right? Whether what you’re communicating is “Happy Birthday, Aunt Martha! Here’s a little book I put together with pictures of your niece and nephew,” or whether it’s the corporate responsibility report for a giant global corporation, it’s about communication.
And communication has to do with making connections between the publisher, in effect, and the audience, between one person and another person. You know, the permanence of printed materials — for the writer and the reader — when something is captured in print, it really is a way of sharing language and ideas. As human beings, it’s this sharing that makes us a civilization, I think.
As someone who admired Pentagram’s two previous logos for Mohawk — both of which were monochromatic — I am quite curious about the dramatic use of color in the new brand.
If the recent revolutions in communications technology have done one thing, I’d say they really have liberated us from a lot of the earlier cost and production limitations. You don’t need to worry much anymore about how a piece of communication will look when it’s faxed. Instead, you can think about how it will come to life online.
So for the past 20 years, we’ve created understated identities for Mohawk that were very deferential. And I think the new identity is likewise prepared to defer to the communications around it. However, it can also seem lively, engaging, and surprising — which I think is part of what we’re trying to communicate about Mohawk itself. We want to show that a company that has been around as long as Mohawk has — with stability and endurance — is still capable of changing the way it looks the next time you see it, and the time after that and the time after that. Color is a great tool to do that.
New Mohawk business cards (from the Luxe line at MOO.com) feature a surprise on the back. Michael Bierut describes the exclamation point as a “visual rhyme” that brings the logo to life. “The dot at the bottom is identical to the five dots in the logo. The teardrop shape of the exclamation point echoes one of the upper dots in the logo where it’s extended by the intersecting lines.” Photo: © 2012 StudioAlex
Was it challenging to decide which colors would communicate that?
Well, there was no agonizing. I remember how easy it was for Katie Barcelona and Joe Marianek and the other designers on the team to experiment, to try different things and play with it. I would say the hardest part was reducing all the different colors and combinations that looked fantastic to a practical number we could use for the launch.
The logo is kind of toy-like, which encourages experimentation, and I think it will continue to encourage other designers who will use the new identity on Mohawk’s behalf. Mohawk has always been great about wanting to use the best person for any project. Pentagram has done the branding, but other studios — VSA Partners, AdamsMorioka and Robert Valentine, for example — have designed wonderful pieces for Mohawk over the years. And Mohawk has also worked with other people at Pentagram — like Abbott Miller and Woody Pirtle. I think Michael McGinn Design Office was the perfect choice to engineer the new Mohawk product selector — and Jennnifer Wilkerson at Aurora Design did a great job of implementing such a complex program.
In what ways was this rebranding different from your two earlier identity projects for Mohawk?
If you think about it, when Mohawk was just manufacturing paper, the main place you’d see its name show up was on advertising, swatch books, brochures or ream wrap. Mohawk continues to make paper, but it also does more. There are situations where it functions as more of an ingredient, an “endorsing brand,” like in the case of Felt & Wire and other digital media enterprises. For these, Mohawk should not be the headline, but something supporting a larger experience.
How did this affect your design approach?
We are in a world where a lot of things depend on apps, so having a logo that can be reduced to a button and that works adjacent to a URL and so forth is important. I thought Mohawk actually needed a symbol, a symbol like the Apple apple or the Target target or the Nike swoosh — a reducible thing that can stand for Mohawk and work with the name “Mohawk” but also stand alone. This time, the identity needs to function in many, many more ways than the first and second times we had approached this.
Those symbols — Apple and Target and Nike — are so full of meaning, and yet really they’re so simple. How does that happen?
Paul Rand (1914–1996) has written quite eloquently about how logos really are vessels for meaning. He says the best thing a designer can do is to listen carefully, and then create a vessel that’s the right shape to hold the meaning that can only be added to over time by the company that it’s representing. If the company does a good job with what their business is and what their enterprise is all about, the goodwill they generate will then accumulate in this vessel that starts empty but eventually is filled up with meaning — meaning that comes from real life and real experience, rather than from the reactions one has just to colors and shapes, which can be so subjective.