MY FAVOURITE LOGO
Memory plays tricks. I could swear the little flat, round blue tin I hold in my hand looks the same as the one my mother used when I was little. Well, it does and it doesn’t. As far as the logo’s concerned, that is almost identical to the packaging I remember from childhood (it’s the bottom-left one in the “evolution” picture at right), except that now the thin white circle is gone and the words “Nivea Creme” are a little smaller. What I particularly like about the Nivea logo and packaging is that it has always stayed the same—or so I thought.
Nivea was invented in 1882 by a German pharmacist, but it wasn’t until 1925 that the famous blue packaging was introduced. The name of the original designer of the logo is lost in time, but as the 12 little tin tops on the right show, the only thing that has stayed the same from the beginning is the name and the little round tin. (There was a brief spell in the late 60s and 70s when the tin was replaced by modern-seeming plastic that made it a race to use up the product before the casing broke.)
A modern simplicity
Nivea blue was established early on, but the distinctive bold letters of “NIVEA” took a while to evolve. I can appreciate that the designers, whoever they were, looked for distinctive shapes in the name and wanted to play up the connections between the three triangular letters—the points of the N, the V and the inverted V of the A, with its echoing internal triangle—and no doubt chose lettering that emphasized this. The overall effect achieved by dropping the word “Creme” from the logo typeface in later designs and minimizing it by writing it in a calligraphic hand helped heighten the simplicity of NIVEA on its own. In the 1950s many beauty brands used calligraphy for their products and advertising: it gave products an informal yet distinctive feel. And, of course, there were also far fewer typefaces to choose from.
If the lettering for the word NIVEA was ever a typeface, it was probably first a wooden display face, not a metal font such as is used for ordinary text. But I imagine that over the years the lettering was refined by hand as the company noodled with the design. Cleverly, the style of the lettering does two almost opposite things at once: it has faint suggestions of European Art Deco (the pointed diagonals) mixed with a very modern—still modern!—Bauhaus, 1920s, less-is-more boldness. The font closest to it and still available today is Morris Fuller Benton’s titling face Eagle Bold, drawn in 1933 for the National Recovery Administration or NRA (not to be confused with the National Rifle Association); it came to be considered too eccentric for its original use and was changed. Now Eagle has been redrawn in various weights by Lucian Bernhard, David Berlow and Jonathan Corum.
For me, the Nivea logo isn’t just the lettering of NIVEA, but a combination of elements: the colour, lettering and calligraphy and, of course, the little flat, round blue tin. The colour is so distinctive that it now belongs to the product, and no one else could use it for fear of being accused of imitation. What makes the overall design so special is its simplicity.
Another thing I was looking forward to writing about as I contemplated Nivea’s logo was the company’s wisdom in not messing with what it had. The little blue tin isn’t the only size or product the company now makes, and as it has grown and its variants are being manufactured all over the world, the simplicity of the look has inevitably been eroded. In branding-speak, it has “lost consistency.” Lately, in an unfortunate effort to tighten all that, as well as to build on the original (“the emotional connection”), the look has lost consistency even more. The new bottles look like a cross between the Shard and a plastic milk bottle. As it was, Nivea, a product found in cheap drugstores, nonetheless looked, well, expensive. Now it just looks designed. As it turns out, it was the little blue tin that had that rare quality that is timeless design.
The creme de la creme
Here it’s also worth mentioning the thing we can’t see—that is, what’s inside, the cream. In a way, it’s also an element of the logo. The “creme” is super-white, and set off by the strength of Nivea blue with its contrasting white lettering. (Nivea is a made-up name based on the Latin adjective niveus/nivea/niveum, meaning “snow-white.”) The purity of the inside goop is part of the simple-seeming whole. It’s almost something you might ingest rather than just put on your skin. I wonder if Nivea’s evocative smell—as if sunscreen had been run through the dairy—is the same as it was when Oscar Troplowitz first developed his emulsifying agent?
Still beautiful after all these years
Although I’m putting this forward as a favourite, as a designer I have always been puzzled by one thing: why Nivea could never correctly space—kern—the five letters of the word. Done well, kerning allows the eye to travel along the word without interruption. A good test of kerning is to isolate three letters at a time and see if the background colour looks as if it’s the same amount between each letter. If it doesn’t, the chances are it’s badly kerned. You’d think after all that noodling over the last nearly 100 years Nivea could have got that right. But despite all that, it’s still beautiful.