House Style – Why it important? by Alec Davis

House style can give identity to the diverse products or activities of a firm. It stimulates loyalty, helps to reduce costs, and has advertising value.

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Article and images from Design, Council of Industrial Design, 95, November 1958

LOOK AT THE ADVERTISEMENTS in today’s paper; then cover up the advertisers’ names and look again. Your probable failure to identify more than a few of them is evidence of the need for better house styles among national advertisers.

And, of course, it is not only newspaper advertising that provides scope for a distinctive house style. It will show itself also in posters and exhibition stands, catalogues and letterheads, and in many things which are not connected with advertising, except in a broad sense: in the scheme of paintwork for a store’s delivery vans, the menu card for a works’ outing, the nameplate beside an association’s office door.

In the absence of dictionary definitions, a house style may be described as the result of having a visual character – in all the means whereby an organisation comes into contact with people – which is recognisable as belonging to that organisation. The vague word ‘organisation’ is used here deliberately as a reminder that a municipality or a Government department, a trade association or a nationalised industry is as eligible for a good house style as a limited company.

Symbols can be useful linking factors in house style. Properly designed they can be adaptable, and will identify the source of a wide range of products or pieces of equipment. The Bowaters' symbol, whether it is an inch long on a book of matches, a foot long on a lorry or twelve feet long in a foyer, is instantly recognisable. A symbol should also be pleasing to the eye and, as these illustrations show, decorate aswell as identify. (Symbol designed by F. H. K. Henrion).
Symbols can be useful linking factors in house style. Properly designed they can be adaptable, and will identify the source of a wide range of products or pieces of equipment. The Bowaters’ symbol, whether it is an inch long on a book of matches, a foot long on a lorry or twelve feet long in a foyer, is instantly recognisable. A symbol should also be pleasing to the eye and, as these illustrations show, decorate as well as identify. (Symbol designed by F. H. K. Henrion).

Among manufacturers and retailers, there are some firms whose merchandise has such a marked style of its own that the question of house style in its presentation may be of secondary importance; but these firms are a minority. In a wide range of utilitarian products there is little or no scope for individual style; many others – liquids, pastes, powders – cannot be designed at all. A sizeable part of British industry is concerned with such products as these and each manufacturer is naturally anxious to suggest that there is a difference between his product and his competitors’ (slight though that difference may be). There is therefore great scope for house style in the presentation of these amorphous articles; good presentation can give them that visual attractiveness and character which, in other industries, the product itself possesses.

Advantages of a house style Before discussing how a good house style comes into being, it is logical to consider why it is worth having. Creating and maintaining a recognisable company handwriting will almost always require the expenditure style – in this instance a PRO who evidently (and wisely) takes a broad view of his duties. In most instances, the administrative responsibility for seeing the house style through will fall, logically, on the shoulders of the person within the firm who was first concerned about its adoption. He may well delegate a considerable amount of this responsibility to a design or print consultancy organisation, or to the firm’s advertising agency. The use of advertising agents and advertising consultants as unofficial design advisers to British industry is probably more widespread than is often realised.

Factors in house style

House styles are essentially visual, in this context, illustrations speak louder than words; but it is useful to attempt an analysis of some factors which, separately or in combination, can make up a recognisable style.

Distinctive colours for different groups of products, and a background pattern common to all, characterise these catalogues of Boulton & Paul Ltd, Norwich engineers and woodworkers.
Distinctive colours for different groups of products, and a background pattern common to all, characterise these catalogues of Boulton & Paul Ltd, Norwich engineers and woodworkers.

Colour: The GPO provides a familiar example of its use, in ‘pillar-box’ red which gives Post Office character to mail vans and urban telephone kiosks as well as to the pillarboxes themselves. The green of Marks & Spencer’s fascias and vans, and the black and yellow of the Automobile Association, are other well-known, if undistinguished, house colours.

Pattern: This is used less widely than one might expect. Examples are the alternate broad and narrow stripes of Richard dress shop fronts, similar arrangements in Steiner packaging and in Boulton & Paul catalogues, and the diagonal stripes of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines: these are used in press advertisements, print, display material, and even on the portable steps by which passengers board KLM aircraft.

Identity through pattern. Since 1949, diagonal striped backgrounds have characterised KLM press advertisements, print and display material designed in England, used in many countries. A good house style is internationally recognisable a point of some importance in the export trade. Press advertisement for Goa, DESIGNER: W. S. Crawford Ltd: art director, Ashley Havinden.
Identity through pattern. Since 1949, diagonal striped backgrounds have characterised KLM press advertisements, print and display material designed in England, used in many countries. A good house style is internationally recognisable a point of some importance in the export trade. DESIGNER: W. S. Crawford Ltd: art director, Ashley Havinden.
Another example showing the use of pattern on the fronts of Richard Shops to give a character which is immediately identifiable. DESIGNER: Bronek Katz.
Another example showing the use of pattern on the fronts of Richard Shops to give a character which is immediately identifiable. DESIGNER: Bronek Katz.

Borders are adaptable because they can be flat and typographic in character when used in print, three-dimensional and architectural in display. Hope & Sons have used borders in this way for 30 years at least; Bowmans of Camden Town for 20 years. The Army & Navy Stores and Heinemann books also are advertised in bordered advertisements; the Stores have found that when space is limited, three, two, or even one and a half sides, instead of a complete frame, will still establish an individual character.

Identity through borders. Army & Navy Stores' advertisement of 1952, and 1956, (the border now vestigial but still recognisable) and different type of border in an advertisement for Bowmans - part of a house style which has been consistent for the last 20 years and which remains remarkably undated.
Identity through borders. Army & Navy Stores’ advertisement of 1952, and 1956, (the border now vestigial but still recognisable) and different type of border in an advertisement for Bowmans – part of a house style which has been consistent for the last 20 years and which remains remarkably undated.

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Trademarks & Symbols cannot (as some users seem to think) make a house style in themselves, but they can play a very important part in one: especially if they are simpler and more adaptable than most of their kind. London Transport’s crossed circle, for example, is recognisable whether it is used with or without wording on the cross-bar, and as to adaptability, the media in which it has been used range from pictorial posters’ to station signs and seat-covering materials in Underground trains. Bass’s red and blue triangles, Shell’s seashell, the Gas Council’s Mr Therm, Bowaters’ bow are all potentially or actually useful components of house styles, whereas a more elaborate trademark will often be unadaptable to varied surroundings, so that the designer ends up by applying it as a rubber stamp, reluctantly finding space for it in an out-of-the-way corner.

Symbols - not a house style in themselves, but important ingredients. BNS (British Nylon Spinners Ltd); DESIGNER: C. D. Notley (Advertising) Ltd; Mr Therm (The Gas Council), DESIGNER: Eric Fraser; TI (Tube Investments Ltd); Shell (Shell Petroleum Co Ltd); 'Pyrex' (James A. Jobling & Co Ltd), DESIGNER: Milner Gray; Tibor (Tibor Ltd), DESIGNER: Tibor Reich.
Symbols – not a house style in themselves, but important ingredients. BNS (British Nylon Spinners Ltd); DESIGNER: C. D. Notley (Advertising) Ltd; Mr Therm (The Gas Council), DESIGNER: Eric Fraser; TI (Tube Investments Ltd); Shell (Shell Petroleum Co Ltd); ‘Pyrex’ (James A. Jobling & Co Ltd), DESIGNER: Milner Gray; Tibor (Tibor Ltd), DESIGNER: Tibor Reich.
The simplest, most adaptable trademarks and symbols are likely to fit well into a house style. London Transport's crossed circle is instantly recognised even when seen without wording or with unexpected wording.
The simplest, most adaptable trademarks and symbols are likely to fit well into a house style. London Transport’s crossed circle is instantly recognised even when seen without wording or with unexpected wording.
The value of simplicity in a house mark is emphasised by this stencilled version of the Penguin mark on an export packing case.
The value of simplicity in a house mark is emphasised by this stencilled version of the Penguin mark on an export packing case.

Lettering (in the sense of both typographical letter forms and hand lettering) is the most important single factor in house style. There is wording on most manmade things, from the woven label on a necktie to the cast iron bed of a machine tool and, most conspicuously, on stationery, advertising and packaging material. Lettering would therefore be important in house style because of its wide application if for no other reason. But it has also the advantage that it can be combined with any of the other factors already noted. If a firm is so short-sighted as to be content that distinctiveness should begin and end with the letters of its own name, the course to be taken is simple: to have that name drawn in an individual style as Victorian as the script used by Boots, as tortured as that used by John Collier – and to use it everywhere, without regard to the style of any other lettering which accompanies it. But the result is not a house style.

It is important that the name, a frequently recurring element, shall be in lettering which is quickly recognised, but it should be distinctive, not merely unusual; moreover, it should not be considered as a thing apart for it will appear with other words before or after it.

Many advertisers print their names in a hand-lettered version which has been designed for their exclusive use and cannot be exactly duplicated by anyone else; but there are many others who choose a distinctive type-face and use it so regularly that they and it become linked together in the public mind, though they have no exclusive right to the type-face in question: Blado Italic for Hiduminium for example. A few firms have compromised between these two courses by having type-faces cut for their exclusive use: notably Times Roman for ‘The Times’ and Cyclone for BOAC.” (Both faces have subsequently been made available to other users.)

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The Cyclone type face, designed and produced for the Fanfare Press under the supervision of Ernest Ingham, is used on BOAC's aircraft, vehicles and buildings, as well as in advertising and display material. Its use is necessarily limited because it has no Roman or upright version, and no lower-case. Today it is seldom employed for anything more than the corporation's name or initials perhaps as a reaction from its more extensive use a few years ago, above, left. The BOAC symbol was designed by Theyre Lee-Elliott.
The Cyclone type face, designed and produced for the Fanfare Press under the supervision of Ernest Ingham, is used on BOAC’s aircraft, vehicles and buildings, as well as in advertising and display material. Its use is necessarily limited because it has no Roman or upright version, and no lower-case. Today it is seldom employed for anything more than the corporation’s name or initials perhaps as a reaction from its more extensive use a few years ago, above, left. The BOAC symbol was designed by Theyre Lee-Elliott.

Another compromise, which is more generally applicable, is to use for one’s brand name an adaptation of a typeface. For various reasons it is sometimes desirable to adapt, however good aesthetically the chosen face may be: it may be that the type ‘family’ does not include, say, condensed or expanded versions, or a bold italic, and that these are required for flexibility in the house style. A well known example is provided by Sainsburys, which some years ago standardised Albertus and has since supplemented the weights in which this typeface is available by shaded, condensed, and extra bold lettering designed by its own design consultant, but based on the original type design by Berthold Wolpe.

The Albertus type-face (designed by Berthold Wolpe for Monotype) is prominent in Sainsbury's house style. For greater variety, several adaptations of the basic letter forms have been introduced by the firm's design consultant, Leonard Beaumont, e g the shaded capitals seen on the vinegar label.
The Albertus type-face (designed by Berthold Wolpe for Monotype) is prominent in Sainsbury’s house style. For greater variety, several adaptations of the basic letter forms have been introduced by the firm’s design consultant, Leonard Beaumont, e g the shaded capitals seen on the vinegar label.

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'Signatures of industry' as seen in recent press advertising: a few of which are clearly calligraphic in origin and all good of their kind . . . . and others equally successful which are typographic. Some of these examples follow type-designs exactly, others modify them for technical or aesthetic reasons, or to be 'different'.
‘Signatures of industry’ as seen in recent press advertising: a few of which are clearly calligraphic in origin and all good of their kind . . . . and others equally successful which are typographic. Some of these examples follow type-designs exactly, others modify them for technical or aesthetic reasons, or to be ‘different’.

It may be, again, that adaptation is required to modify slightly the weight of a type design, or the space which it occupies: thus Brown, Muff’s version of Perpetua Italic (lettered by W. Musgrave-Wood) is slightly narrower than Perpetua Italic itself. A modification which has practical advantages, in relation to the process of reproduction used, may be indistinguishable from the original except on close inspection: most people, seeing Spicers’ stationery, would identify the lettering on it as Perpetua Titling capitals, but in fact, “many experiments were undertaken to determine suitable letter form for the nameplate, and ultimately the letters were hand drawn with close reference to 10 inch tracings of patterns for Perpetua Titling supplied by the Monotype Corporation Ltd. In relation to the equivalent size of the type, the thick strokes have been made fractionally thinner, and the thin strokes fractionally thicker, which in conjunction with a slight thickening of the serifs has ensured against the danger of filling-in during long runs”*.

A new range of business stationery for Spicers Ltd. Hand drawn lettering closely based on Perpetua Titling capitals is a characteristic of Spicers' house style. DESIGNER: Edward Price.
A new range of business stationery for Spicers Ltd. Hand drawn lettering closely based on Perpetua Titling capitals is a characteristic of Spicers’ house style. DESIGNER: Edward Price.

Whether a name is hand-lettered or typographical, it is still essential to a successful house style that the appearance of the accompanying wording shall not just happen but be planned. It may be similar to the name style or in contrast with it: Mac Fisheries often uses the Cartoon Bold typeface because it has something of the informal character of the ‘Mac Fish’ brush script drawn for the firm by Hans Schleger.

Laing uses a variety of type-faces in press advertising and printed matter but still maintains a marked house style because the material all comes from the same group of designers, and the faces, though not rigidly standardised, all have a more or less classical feeling.

Apart from the fact that type is a basic ‘raw material’ of letterpress printing, it is worth remembering in the present context that:
(a) printers by photo-lithography and by screen process are accustomed to using proofs of type-set matter as originals for reproduction by their own processes;
(b) several modern techniques for producing metal nameplates and instruction plates, such as are widely used on both domestic and industrial equipment, are virtually printing processes, so that they too can use proofs of type as originals (chemical etching and tin-printing for example). The same comment applies even to such a specialised craft as the making of advertising devices in mirror glass, in which today a seriffed typeface can be reproduced in sizes down to about 6-point without destroying the character of the type design.

The honest advocate of house style must admit that occasionally a distinguished example is achieved without deliberate effort. An organisation which has the enterprise to find good designers for all the media it employs, as well as the skill to brief them, a theme to inspire them, and money to pay them, may find that it has acquired a recognisable house style without consciously setting out to do so.

Lettering on the product in this instance, men's socks in harmony with lettering on the transparent band and on the box: all planned by the same designer. DESIGNER: Hans Schleger, for W. Raven & Co Ltd.
Lettering on the product in this instance, men’s socks in harmony with lettering on the transparent band and on the box: all planned by the same designer. DESIGNER: Hans Schleger, for W. Raven & Co Ltd.

This happy state of affairs was seen in the Empire Marketing Board’s advertising campaigns in the late ‘twenties; in many ICI prestige advertisements and exhibition stands just after the last war; in the architecture, display design and typography of the 1951 South Bank exhibition. One catches glimpses of it in the products and publicity of Olivetti, the Orient Line, the Container Corporation of America; and if we consider consistent style in one medium only in the invitation cards designed by the Nicholson brothers for the Cotton Board Colour, Design and Style Centre, the press advertisements by C. R. Casson Ltd for Murphy Radio, and many of the BBC’s talks booklets.

But it is given to few to achieve success without trying, and for most organisations the way to achieve a good house style is to strive for it.

* “The British Printer’ March 1956.

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