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Iconic graphics: birds of a feather

2010 July 1

Following on yesterday’s Wonder Woman inspired exploration of visual icons among comic book superheroes, we continue with today’s post (alternate title: visual iconography 2: electric boogaloo).

As I mentioned, I believe the logos of my beloved Iowa State Cyclones, and the detested Iowa Hawkeyes, may be worth a closer look for those interested in what makes an iconic graphic.

Iowa Hawkeye logos: traditional and failed alternative

The 'Tiger Hawk' logo. At left, the traditional design; at right, a failed redesign

I submit that the Hawkeyes’ logo, in its traditional configuration (above, left), definitely has iconic qualities, at least within the state of Iowa. Which isn’t to say that I think it’s great. I think it looks kind of dumb. But, as I’m making no attempt to deny, I’m enormously biased on the subject!

Setting aside my personal feelings for the “Tiger Hawk” and what it represents, it has at least some good things that must be acknowledged. It’s simple, and it’s sturdy. Four shapes, monochromatic; you could reproduce this thing at an eighth of an inch without losing significant detail, let alone recognizability.

Simplicity is probably a bonus for a would-be iconic visual. Returning to yesterday’s subject matter for a moment, Wonder Woman’s traditional costume also consists of fairly simple, solid shapes; the redesign loses a lot of that. And, as noted, Batman (like Mickey Mouse) can be reduced to a silhouette and be recognizable.

I think that the Tiger Hawk logo, particularly with its stark graphic simplicity, is also somewhat unique in big-time sports; such designs are mostly reduced in number to a few legacies these days, amid a sea of fancy-pants, multi-color, double-outlined graphics. And uniqueness might help a design become iconic, though I’m uncertain on this point; lots of unique designs never make an impact on an audience, while I believe a “me-too” design can absolutely reach iconic status if it attaches to something people are close to. It seems unlikely that the logos of the Texas Longhorns or the Nebraska Cornhuskers ever offered any great visual uniqueness, yet both probably have at least as much iconic status as the Tiger Hawk, probably a good deal more.

As for the Hawkeye logo, the reason I thought of including it in this study is that, like Wonder Woman’s costume, it was once redesigned to less than rapturous applause. I remembered a friend once mentioning the alternate design (shown above), which he referred to as “bird on heroin.” Yet it took a long time searching the web to come up with an image or any information about it. Pretty much everything features the traditional logo, and various anniversary write-ups about the Tiger Hawk didn’t even bother to mention this attempted coup. In the case of a redesigned Hawkeye logo, that bird definitely did not fly.

Which, to steer us back toward more friendly territory, is an interesting contrast to the visual history of in-state rivals and heroes of our story, my own Iowa State Cyclones.

Iowa State Cyclones logos, previous and current, c. 2010

Iowa State Cyclone logos; at left, 1995 - 2009, at right, 2009 - present

The logo at left debuted the year before my freshman year at dear auld ISU, replacing a kind of graphic hodge-podge similar to that of Cleveland’s Browns. Personally, I liked what I dubbed “the Tasmanian Cardinal,” in reference to the whirling Looney Tunes character. My above-mentioned friend on the other hand, about four years ahead of me in school, was unimpressed by what he called the “bird in a tornado,” as were at least one or two College of Design faculty who occasionally grumbled about the athletic department’s failure to consult them in any way.

On the whole, though, I don’t think there was much of an outcry, any more than there was last year when ISU demoted the cyclonic cardinal graphic in favor of the “I-state” graphic, also shown above. I’m sure that there was some grumbling both times, but unlike the Hawkeyes’ attempt at a redesign, grumbling never went beyond radio show or message board fodder. There was no counter-revolution by the old regime.

What significance might this hold for our exploration of iconic graphics? Probably more evidence of the importance of simplicity and consistency, for one thing. The Hawkeyes adopted a simple logo, and stuck with it. Whereas ISU, as noted above, had a rag-bag of graphics prior to the 1990s redesign, which itself did little to simplify matters; the version above is one which I happened to find, but there were at least three or four variations, with not even one being especially simple or prominent above the others. Even if that system had hung around for 30 years, it’s doubtful that an iconic status would have emerged.

There’s also the issue of ubiquity; the Hawkeye graphic is all over the state of Iowa, on cars, on hats, on barns. By contrast, Cyclone emblems are thin on the ground once one travels more than 15 miles or so from Ames.

The significance of an image’s meaning might be observed here, too. Hawk fans can look at the Tiger Hawk and think of Rose Bowls and rose-tinted memories of their celebrated football coach, Hayden Fry.

Whereas Clone fans’ associations for the “Tasmanian Cardinal” logo are not only brief, but pretty mixed; we won our first bowl games but also saw the football program go back down the tubes afterward, and the departure of two good basketball coaches, one in a cloud of scandal, which were followed by a return to mediocrity for men’s hoops as well. If the “I-state” logo holds on for 20 or 30 years, there just might one day be a generation with happy memories of it going back to their childhoods, but like any tradition, I think you simply can’t rush an iconic visual.

Some day, I should probably gather up my thoughts about the “I-state” design itself. Before that, though, I’ll be exploring some further aspects of iconic graphics. Stay tuned.

8 Responses
  1. hank kelly permalink
    July 17, 2010

    I don’t why Iowa State got rid of the “whirlybird.” It’s much more creative. “I-State” could be Illinois State, Idaho State, Indiana State. It doesn’t readily identify Iowa State!

  2. Matt permalink
    July 19, 2010

    I need to come back and write more about this in its own post one of these days, but yeah: one of my first thoughts when the “I-State” graphic was rolled out was something like “I didn’t go to Illinois State.”
    The Cyclone Cy graphic was probably too complicated a design, and was probably also somewhat confusing. But as you note, “I-State” is arguably pretty confusing, as well.

  3. Aneremdo permalink
    July 25, 2011

    I’m putting together a sponsorship program for the Hawkeyes, and I have to leave a quick note. The icon, as it stands, is everything you say it is. But I do have to say, it looks to me like a parrot with saggy under eye bags, instead of the dynamic mascot it is intended to be. The failed redesign was far better, and the whirling dervish a la tasmanian devil is fine as well.

    just a thought.

  4. Matt permalink
    July 26, 2011

    Yeah, the round shape under the eye is probably the weakest element of the Tiger Hawk logo: it introduces a jowly, flabby form into a design otherwise made up of mostly sharp, pointed shapes. “Fixing” that, by contrast, was probably the best thing about the redesign.

    Thanks for your comment!

  5. Micheal permalink
    September 25, 2011

    I really like the redesigned (though failed) Tiger-Hawk. It looks far “meaner” than the traditional Tiger-Hawk. But, alas, I am in the minority so I have to “Love” the Tiger-Hawk as is … 🙂 As far as the I-State logo, I like it – NOT. I could not put my finger on exactly why until hank kelly’s comment. But, that is it. I-State does not identify Iowa State (which may be the whole idea!). I liked the old Iowa State “whirlybird) better … as I cheer for ISU, as long as they are not playing IOWA. So, go ‘Clones … make it 12-0.

  6. Matt permalink
    September 25, 2011

    Appreciate the comment, Michael! I will always like the previous, Cy version of the athletic logo, too. (I posted at greater length on that, here:

    And thanks for the good wishes for my Cyclones! So far, so good this year, but I’ll always welcome whatever support my team can get.

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