Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Decoder Ring: Sign Secrets Revealed

This Decoder Ring Design Concern started in 2004 in downtown Austin and has won numerous awards for its design work in music, retail identity, and promotion as well as having their work published in notable magazines like Print and ID and books like New Masters of Poster Design: Poster Design for the Next Century (Rockport Publishers, 2006). The company’s client list includes Whataburger, Levi’s, Modest Mouse, Capital Records, Austin Museum of Modern Art, and Austin City Limits. As for its name choice, the website says, “Actually, we chose Decoder Ring because it's used to solve complex problems.” More on the name later.

An employee at the firm revealed a number of decisions regarding the logo’s typography. The word “the” was written in a white script font, modified by its designer. “Decoder,” centered beneath “the,” was written in white Alternate Gothic in all capitals, while “Ring” sits below it, also in all caps in white, and seems to be a modified Century Gothic or Sans No. 1. “Decoder,” condensed, lean, and long in the center, contrasts with “Ring” which appears a little wider, rounder, and squatter. Since the sign is written with sans serif font for the most part, the characters’ bold and clean lines look legible from a distance. By having the main words (Decoder and Ring) use more geometric fonts, the sign also appears modern. All the words are center stacked, encased in a black circle surrounded by a bold grey border and a semi-bold black border; the text, literally inside a ring, sits above the agency’s address.

Despite the letterforms appearing modern, the overall design of the agency’s logo retains a vintage quality implying that it was inspired by an early to mid-Twentieth Century aesthetic. Alternate Gothic was created in 1903 by Morris Fuller Benton, while Century Gothic was created by Sol Hess in the 1930’s. Over half of the letters have curved forms which respond perfectly to the circular shape of the graphics. Furthermore, the round quality of the letters – notably in D, C, O, R, and G – relate literally to the word “ring” in the business’ name. A representative from the company admitted that signs from the 1930’s to 1950’s era and neon signs inspired the logo’s design as well as much of their client work. Neon signs relate very well to the modified script font because in many “drive-in” and restaurant neon signs, a script typeface is used; these lit signs also had a tendency to combine both script and sans serif typefaces.

These two fonts combined with a script font hearken back to the 1950’s style of typography, when advertisements frequently combined many different fonts together. Most of the time, those logos and advertisements seemed too messy and chaotic with too many graphic elements and competing typefaces. The difference is that Decoder chose legible, geometric fonts for most of the text on the sign while using script for just one word.

In fact, for those familiar with graphic design history, the Decoder Ring shares a lot in common with the Lucky Strike logo designed by Raymond Loewy, the same man who developed logos for famous companies like Exxon and Shell, in the 1940’s. The Lucky Strike logo has the black text centered in a red circle surrounded by a white, green, and black border. The combination of the simple graphic element and the one script word emphasizes the 1950’s feeling of the Decoder sign. On the other hand, the cleaner sans serif text also lends a modern context to the logo.

With more of the logo’s design and history deciphered, it’s time to consider what it means to the company’s identity. A decoder ring is a toy that was popular in the 1930’s, given away as little prizes in food items like cereal. Some were actual rings, and others were badges. These toys had adjustable dials with numbers and letters used to reveal messages in secret encryptions. The agency’s logo responds very well to a decoder ring’s image and concept.

The circular logo takes care of the image part, and the fact that the text is lucid answers to the concept of a decoder ring being able to make a message clear. Adopting the toy’s idea and name was an intelligent move by the company to suggest that it can solve any design problem, no matter how difficult. A passerby could notice the sign, pause to see its simple, appropriate form, and be able to understand the agency’s design goals and work aesthetic. Everything about the logo’s design boils down to making the message concise and legible without compromising its historical influences.

Placing the sign in its urban context reveals and helps describe the sign’s effectiveness. Congress Avenue is littered with store, restaurant, business, and museum signs. Many of these places have eclectic signs like the store Canvas while others have a more modern look, such as the CVS or the Arthouse. Canvas, a bar and gallery, has a 1930’s, Art Deco-style, and the letters appear hard to read because they look like very geometric glyphs.

The bar and gallery captures Austin’s eclectic nature, keeping with the idea of the city being a diverse place with “weird” people. CVS, a convenience store and pharmacy, consists of big, bold sans serif letters in a bright red color. The sign appears modern, but says little about Austin.

Another modern sign, Arthouse by the company Viewers Like You, depicts the lowercase text in clean, sans serif font similar to Helvetica inside a hollow square with half of the “a” and “e” hanging outside. In a way, this could symbolize Austin’s art scene breaking boundaries, suggesting that it goes beyond the box.

The Decoder Ring feels like a synthesis of its urban surroundings in Austin, resembling either an old business’s sign or a new one. It has traces of a vintage aesthetic similar to Canvas while retaining a clear, modern design like ArtHouse.

My exercise in redesigning the logo took some of the modernity out of the Decoder Ring and throws it back further into that vintage feeling that might feel a little bit closer to Austin. My new logo used the typeface Braggadocio (produced by W.A. Woolley in 1930), inspired by the stencil-like, glyph-like, and Art Deco properties of the Canvas typeface. It also uses a serif typeface, Gloucester MT, which the Monotype corporation updated in the early nineties.

The mixture of these two very different fonts goes back to the feeling of the 1950’s advertisements and signs. “Decoder,” written in Braggadocio (except for the “O”), turns the company name into a literal code. “The,” “Ring,” and the “O” in “Decoder” are Gloucester MT; “The” is placed over the “O,” following its curve, and “Ring” is below the “O,” also following the curve. Above the new logo, in an arc, is the address left in Century Gothic to emphasize the circular feeling. Though this reinvention does not have the same crispness and legibility as the current Decoder Ring logo, it does bring in a different aspect of signs; it asks its viewer to take part in deciphering the message.

The original Decoder Ring is difficult to improve upon because of its simplicity and legibility. More importantly, it considers the balance of its urban context and its historical influences while my new sign only addresses historical influences. Along with acknowledging the importance of typographic choices and context, the Decoder Ring also accounts for its strong visual impact with simple graphic design elements – the circles that surround the text. The Decoder Ring logo spells out the rest of the company name and what it does without using text; it truly shows design concern.


scott davidson said...

How about this for a design for a wall painting, in the tried-and-true Art Nouveau style?:, by the famous English artist, Audrey Beardsley himself. You can also order a canvas print of the picture from

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