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Wednesday, 14 January 2015

May the fonts be with you: the history of the Star Wars logo

The first appearance on screen of the Suzy Rice Star Wars logo, as revised by Joe Johston

Its appearance at the very beginning of Star Wars is a great moment in cinema.  But until recently, I had never given any consideration to the origins of the film's famous logo – and it turns out to have a fascinating history.

The Star Wars logo recedes as the film's
opening crawl begins, long before
'Episode IV' was added

The logo fills the screen at the same instant as John Williams' music explodes into life on the soundtrack. Then it recedes into space to make way for the opening title crawl. Not too many film titles are displayed as excitingly as that. And when you think about it, not too many film titles appear on screen in the same form that's used in print.

Yet the Star Wars logo that we're all so familiar with was not originally intended to appear in the movie. 

The Dan Perri Star Wars logo and the Suzy Rice Star Wars logo

The graphic that was supposed to begin the film was created by Dan Perri, who designed the rest of the text. Perri's version ended up being used in most of the first generation posters – but in the movie, it was replaced by a logo that was originally intended only to appear on paper. 
Dan Perri's logo on a
1977 Star Wars poster

The logo as we know it was largely created by Suzy Rice, an artist at Seiniger Advertising, a design studio working for 20th Century-Fox.  She had been responsible for logos for other Fox films that year, including Smokey and the Bandit.  Rice tells the story of the logo's creation at length on her own website and recalls that no one else in the design studio was keen to take the job.  The agency's contract was with Fox rather than Lucas himself, and word had spread that Lucas “had been repeatedly rejecting image work – logos, advertising – that Fox had been obligating him and the film budget to cover".

The brief was to design a 'bid brochure' for Fox to send to cinemas, encouraging them to book the film.  “The logo was originally intended for the front cover of the bid brochure, and for application to other print advertising and sales packaging materials: a shipping box for the brochure, some special tape with the logo repeating on it to seal that box, the logo, the brochure itself,” Rice writes.

George Lucas and the 'fascist' logo design

The Star Wars logo as designed
for a 1977 'bid brochure'
by Suzy Rice
At their first meeting, Lucas asked for a design that was “very fascist”, Rice recalls, and coincidentally she had been reading a book about German typography the night before. “I returned to my work, looked through a few books with reproductions of political artwork from the 1930s ... and, having made an enlarged copy of the font, Helvetica Black, used that photostat of that font as reference, drew the two title words on two lines, stacking and squaring them ('intimidating' and 'fascist' in statement).”  

(I should add, at this point, that Suzy Rice's comments started a pretty esoteric and angry online debate about whether Helvetica was a 'fascist' typeface, but she says this was never her contention.  I think we can also ignore the eccentrics who have concluded that George Lucas or the film were somehow 'fascist'.)

1977 advance poster
containing the Suzy Rice
 logo with the square 'W'
The early version of the logo was produced within a few hours, hand drawn by Rice, and was then put onto a mock-up of the brochure cover, her account says. At a second meeting, Lucas asked Rice to tweak the shape of the 'S' at the start and end of the title, and he approved the results. (Rice's account explains how a fourth meeting, to sign off the bid brochure, took place at a sound stage on Hollywood Boulevard, where re-shoots for the cantina scene were being done, with Greedo himself answering the door when she visited.)

A few days later, Rice recalls, producer Gary Kurtz rang her to say that Lucas had decided to use her logo in the titles, because it fitted better than Perri’s. “I asked Kurtz if I could have film credit for the logo design but he declined, saying, they’d already completed all the titles and couldn’t redo it. But I was happy to know my logo worked and after seeing it at the cast and crew screening on the big screen (I was invited and did attend), it worked very, very well.”

There had been a little more tinkering before the logo made it to the screen, however.  According to The Star Wars Poster Book (Chronicle, 2005) and the website Tenth Letter of the Alphabet, Joe Johnston of Industrial Light and Magic re-designed the ‘W’ and spaced the letters a little wider before it was put on film. (Incidentally, Marvel’s letterer Jim Novak seems to have taken Rice’s logo and redrawn it as well, but slightly differently, as the Tenth Letter post recounts.)

Variations on the Star Wars logo

The UK Star Wars novel,
still with the square 'W'
What strikes me about the Star Wars logo, once you start to examine it a little more closely, is how much its treatment has varied in print, yet how instantly recognisable it has remained. Sometimes the text has been printed in outline, sometimes filled in. The colour of the outline has changed frequently. The letters have been infilled in with white, blue, red, silver, gold. The words that Rice “stacked and squared” have sometimes been printed on the same line. And the shapes of the letters have even been stretched.  And I’m talking here just about the variations that could be seen in 1977-78. Since then, the shape of the logo has settled down, but the colour has changed over the years according to successive marketing and merchandising campaigns.

Rice hit on a design that would lend itself to enough variations to remain fresh for decades. And I’ll bet there must be kids all over the world who have, at one point, tried writing their name in that Helvetica-derived font – and been slightly disappointed if there was no way of joining some of the letters together like the ‘ST’ and the ‘RS’ of the movie.


johnnyivan said...

Interesting stuff Darren. Charles Lippincott has written quite a bit about this on his Facebook account. He disagrees with Suzy Rice on several points though, especially with regard to some of the alleged meetings with George. Charles reckons george was just too busy to meet a graphic designer at that point.

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