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A Penney for your Thoughts

Reviewed Feb. 23, 2011 by Armin

Industry / Retailers Tags /

JCPenney Logo, Before and After

First opened as a dry-goods store named the “Golden Rule” in Kemmerer, Wyoming by James Cash Penney in 1902, JCPenney today is a publicly-traded company with 11,000 department stores across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, mostly in shopping malls. Providing fairly decent middle-of-the-road merchandise, JCPenney is an extremely popular destination for finding affordable items without the top brand names attached — they develop many of their own brands. Yesterday, JCPenney announced that its transformation “to become America’s favorite shopping destination for discovering great styles at compelling prices” would be celebrated with a “bold new logo” that is set to go into effect at the end of this month. The new logo has been designed by Luke Langhus, a third-year graphic design student at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. That’s right, a company with $17.8 billion in revenue in 2010, has a logo designed by a student. Oh, and also, forget all that complicated casing, just call it and write it as “jcpenney.”

To choose a new logo design, jcpenney sought submissions that reflect a wide range of perspectives. Participants included the Company’s associates, several design agencies and two art schools — University of Cincinnati and Rhode Island School of Design — that collectively submitted over 200 designs for consideration.
Press Release

Consider the above process against the one that Unimark went through in 1968 when it got the job to redesign JCPenney, at the time known as Penney’s, led by partner Jay Doblin:

[…] Unimark was selected through a screening process that ruled out twelve other candidates. “We had to find a firm with a broad scope, which would understand our complex needs — everything from architecture and packaging, to advertising and corporate design,” said Robert Smith, J.C. Penney Product Design Manager.
Unimark International: The Design of Business and the Business of Design

True, the days of the monolithic identity designer or consultancy that could push their bold vision on a client are long gone but a 200-logo bake-off is the absolute worst way to define the visual representation of a company. Since 1969, when Unimark established Helvetica as the type family, JCPenney — excuse me, jcpenney — has been using the same typeface, going through a period in the last ten years (I believe) of placing the name inside a very tight square, which has been gone in the last year or so.

The jcpenney logo puts greater visual emphasis on a new, lowercase “jcp” by positioning it slightly off-centered in a red box while still featuring the Company’s signature red color and Helvetica font. The logo was designed to evoke a sense of movement and discovery as the letters appear to break out of the box, symbolizing an emergence into an exciting, new future.
— Press Release

The biggest problem I have with this whole thing is the perception that this is a “bold new logo”. It’s not. It’s rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, reupholstering them if you want to be generous. But bold or new? No way. Looking at the result… as a type exercise it’s actually very decent, it’s well spaced and nicely positioned, can’t argue with that but it is also a confusing visual and verbal nomenclature. Are we supposed to call it “jcp”? What do we do then with the “enney”? Why the division? No one calls it JCP, it’s always been “J. C. Penney”. Simple and memorable. I don’t think the old Unimark wordmark was any kind of work of genius, it was one more company to Helveticize, and it reflected a visual dogma of the time. This new logo simply waters down that premise without really looking at what the company might be able to contribute to twenty-first century retail.

This whole post is in no way a knock on Luke’s work, his actual execution is perfectly acceptable and so much power to him for being able to have such a high-profile mark in his portfolio, but the process that led to it and what the result represents is a little too disheartening.

Thanks to Amar Singh for the tip.



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