City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


As part of the recent ‘BBC 2.0’ project I worked on, leading on design and navigation, I proposed that the BBC’s approach to branding elements and syndication of content should be characterised by a suite of metaphorical ‘tear-off strips’ or syndicable widgets i.e. should, where possible, follow the approach driven by the likes of YouTube, Odeo, Google, Widsets, our own prototypes/Backstage, and many others. Given the environment we’re working in, branding elements aren’t things we can ‘control’ nor is content something we can – or should – lock down. We should instead ensure that branding elements can be given away, like active badges that people can glue to their sites, creating multiple entry points and reinforcing personal engagement with brands and services. Equally, content itself can float freely throughout the internet, carrying embedded navigation, branding and attribution within. This is all rather basic media2.0 *cough* thinking, of course, but in somewhat traditional, large media or marketing organisations it could take careful advocacy and imaginative presentation to win hearts and minds.

So it’s with great pleasure that I read the following item about the great graphic designer and illustrator Abram Games and his work on the Festival of Britain identity in 1951. Not only does it suggest that there is nothing new under the sun, but it also provides a neat precedent for me, given that it relates to design for the British public. Reference is the excellent book "Abram Games Graphic Designer: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means".

After a well-contested competition, Games won the right to design the symbol to promote the Festival. The brief effectively exhorted designers to not mention the war, and Games managed to do just this whilst presenting "a non-aggressive naturalism" with considerable elegance. There were grumbles that his Britannia looked a bit much Marianne of France and that "there ought to be a lion around somewhere", but generally it was considered a great success. Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, in the foreword, talks of Games’ "domesticated form of modernism", and noted that: "Everything else representing Britain in the early 1950s seemed to covered in lions, unicorns and heraldry, but this Britannia was more stripped down, more forward looking, like the Skylon on the South Bank."

The particularly interesting aspect is the approach to rights management and syndication, not that it would have been expressed in those terms:

"Games’ symbol proved to be a success. It was reproduced in an astonishing variety of sizes, colours and contexts. It adorned the exhibition pavilions and the Festival ship, it was franked on the nation’s mail, it was printed on cellophane toffee wrappers, on the stationery of the Festival administration and on the covers of the Festival programmes. It was decided that the use of the symbol should should be ‘free for all with no strings attached’ although use on high quality commodities was encouraged. Inevitably, many souvenir manufacturers made the most of the opportunity to profit from this national celebration. There were suggestions that it might be used long term as a ‘Made in Britain’ symbol and fears were expressed from the Board of Trade that overseas competitors might use it ‘to foist non-British goods on the British consumer’. Though prolonged use of the symbol did not materialise it remained immediately associated with the summer of 1951. Its unrestricted use did not bring about the debasement, as some had feared, but contributed to the ubiquity of this optimistic and contemporary motif." [my emphasis]

As a general comment on his work, unrelated to the symbol, Games said:

"I wind the spring and the public, in looking at the poster, will have that spring released in its mind. You have to involve the viewer in your thought processes. There will be an inevitable association between image and advertiser. Lettering, to be kept to a minimum, is never to be added as an afterthought."

I find his work – rigorous, driven, and always "the product of second thoughts", according to Frayling – is shot through with that depth of thinking. His ability to see that the viewers will make inevitable associations between image and advertiser led to him seeing that as a benefit of letting good imagery go; that his symbol would spread like a benevolent virus. It’s heartening to see that a post-WWII Britain, oft perceived as stolid, stuffy, and austere, actually appears to be as forward thinking, creative and imaginative as contemporary design strategies.


Abram Games Graphic Designer: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means [Amazon UK|US]
Some press on BBC 2.0: BBC Press Office | Guardian | Economist I /.
Designing Britain: Festival of Britain


2 responses to “Abram Games and how syndicated branding ‘winds the spring’”

  1. molly Avatar

    The ironic thing about this, of course, is the backlash the Festival of Britain unleashed. Its overly romantic, vernacular approaches to art and architecture did not speak to the desires of those who were in the war. Reyner Banham’s The New Brutalism, of course, gives an amusing characterization of this within its first pages.
    So maybe it was maximum meaning and minimum means… for a festival that did not recognize abstract art. Compare to the exhibitions at the ICA, like “Parallels of Life and Art” (1953) just two years later.
    .. but then, so were the exhibitions at the IC


  2. Frankie Roberto Avatar

    Interesting to re-read this article in the context of the Olympics logo row.
    See for more.


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