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Lost in Translation: Monthly Design Perspective March 2009

Posted by: Dyfed "Fred" Richards on March 01, 2009

Two years ago I wrote a Design Perspective on the overuse of banners and flags in package design. Originally, banners were heraldic devices that helped to identify various groups on a battlefield. They were a simple way to cut through the haze of war so that generals on the hills above could monitor the battle’s progress; in essence, an early form of branding and identification. In the modern era, however, banners became a way for a brand to trumpet, “I am different; notice me!”

One historic heraldic device that today is widely overused in logo design is the shield. Most people are under the impression that, in battle, a shield is used only for protection. In fact, it can be a very effective offensive weapon. Over the years, the shield has famously appeared in logo designs for UPS, Harley Davidson and the Salvation Army.

Why does the shield wield so much power in American design? Road signs, sports companies, car manufacturers, beer brands, comic book heroes and food brands have all used the shield as a graphic device at one time or another. There seems to be several graphic interpretations of the same basic form, from the simple round to the more elaborate scalloped top. I would imagine that designers and clients alike – particularly in the health care and security industries – think that the shield represents security, trust and even value. But at the end of the day, what does the shield mean to the average consumer, particularly when its use is so commonplace that it has lost most of its value and meaning?

I’m not sure whether a simplified graphic interpretation of a device that is both defensive and offensive can articulate the right message for so many different industries, companies and products. Honestly, how many consumers would even know the difference between one shield form and another?  Would a Spartan shield signify something different to the consumer than a Roman shield and link certain attributes with a specific brand? Probably not. Also, isn’t a shield old-fashioned and outdated? So why then does this basic shape keep surfacing in so many industries? The next time you are out and about, count how many shield shapes you see. Once you start to recognize the shape, you will be staggered at how ubiquitous it has become – so much so that it has started to melt into the fabric of our visual society.

Frankly, I would avoid using the shield at all costs, as this tired, overused symbol has lost its value and uniqueness in all but a few brand categories.

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