Idea to Image: How the Modern War Institute’s logo was shaped by James Bond, an Indonesian artist, and Mike Tyson

*Note: Written to join my own “Arsenal of Ideas”…not for any wider publication.

Every good idea sits atop a skull-mound of bad ideas.

At least, that’s the way it works for me. So, in late 2015, when I wanted a novel idea for a logo to fit this new organization I was helping build, the Modern War Institute (MWI), the initial inspiration came from a night vision goggle company poster that had been hanging in my office for several years.

I used this poster to cobble together a composite sketch (below) which integrated some other ideas I had been working on from the recently deceased WarCouncil.org site (the content from which was ultimately rolled into the MWI Commentary & Analysis site; some might recall the familiar “WarBooks” design and even the West Point athletic logo). Notice the handwritten notes – I was fairly specific about moving the ancient part to the left side of the design – because I wanted it to appear as we often depict time – left side = earlier/historical, right side = later/future.

Armed with these sketches, I contacted an independent graphic designer (an absolutely bargain basement-level price) and asked him to mock up a design, and this is what resulted (an absolutely bargain basement-level design):

Could it get any worse? The colors are horrendous. Even the orange, inexplicably, fails to pop at a viewer, which is amazing because that’s orange’s job (what other color is going to protect all those road cones?). Certainly not the “orange drab” edition above, which would be the crayon in the box that never, ever, gets picked. Not to mention the ancient part of the helmet looks like a Mike Tyson special.

I did what any self-respecting person would: I hid my shame and never shared this image with a soul (until now, of course).

Mercifully, a few months later, in the winter of 2015, when MWI had the money to pay for a proper graphic designer, I had the fortune to capitalize on my awful experience. As the Frenchman Ferdinand Foch once said – “It takes fifteen thousand casualties to train a major-general” –  in suit, for me, it’s fifteen thousand bad idea-corpses to make one living, successful idea (for those counting at home, yes, that means there are fourteen thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine dead ideas stacked like cordwood underneath the MWI image – making it the Highlander of logos). The upshot: I had traveled down the wrong road and was prepared to find the proper path when the time came.

The MWI leadership contacted an online design service firm, which specialized in a competitive bid process – essentially, you put out a written request, provide some examples, and designers from around the world bid on your job – after a specified time, with your coaching and suggestions, a design “wins” the money you’ve put up. After the competition, you’re guaranteed a logo you like or you get your money back (terms, unfortunately, not offered by my previous, orangesicle-inspired designer).

The interesting thing about this process is you get to see multiple approaches to the design you’re interested in – ideas you never considered come out of the designer, enabling you to mix and match to suit your taste. The designer I liked, who went by the handle “J.Tot” (from Jakarta, Indonesia), seemed always to surprise with new combinations I didn’t expect or intend. Over time, I’d catch a particular theme in his designs, and I’d play off them and twist them to fit his images to my purpose.

I was fixated on the helmet – as it’s the only equipment used by all warriors, at all times, in all military services. Doesn’t matter if you’re a soldier, marine, coastie, in the air or at sea – we all wear helmets at some point or another – because the helmet protects our mind and military judgment. One mind, any weapon. The ancient fading into the modern also connects warfare in all ages; while MWI focuses on the modern, there’s an implied acknowledgement that war is (sadly) eternal. After much back and forth with the designer, this was the first mock-up I was happy with:

I’ll pause here to state, clearly, what you’re reading is my own part of the story with the MWI logo design. Others from the MWI staff contributed mightily to the same process, and several had strong feelings during development about the mock-ups and direction the design was taking us in. Not all agreed. Some didn’t, and still don’t, like the helmet motif, because it looks “cartoonish,” a position from which I dissent. And, to be honest – it’s only used sparingly nowadays.

Either way, this was our helmet. The key point was it’s ability to scale up and down, go big and go tiny, so it could be be seen and easily recognized at multiple sizes. The design couldn’t be too intricate.

But that was just one component. Then we had the problem of creating the rest of the logo. We wanted simple lettering, because recognizability with respect to social media matters and simple is better in many ways. We wanted more than just to splash M – W – I onto paper and call it a day; we wanted something unique, something that tells a story about our heritage, where we’re coming from and where we’re going. To reflect our location at West Point, we chose school colors, with a specific old gold: Hex Value #9C8E4F if anyone wants to know, or alternately, Color Values R=156, G=142, B=79, C=39, M=36, Y=81, K=8.

In the back and forth with our designer, he started toying with different MWI lettering. I encouraged him to create an external shape reminiscent of an army checkpoint (more on that later), and he started integrating different shapes – but the MWI lettering was always too small. The “MWI” had to be more prominent. [Note: a couple examples, with miniscule MWI lettering, from early in the process are below. Sorry the images are so small, that’s all that could be retrieved from the design competition website.]

That’s when it hit me – we needed to blend it all into one. Integrate everything – the checkpoint symbol, the lettering, the helmet – all of it. That’s the turning point, the light bulb – when the idea came to life and was bound for survival. The imagery, the story, all of it, in one package.

So here’s the story behind the story: land warfare is critical to West Point as well as the nation. We live on the ground and wars are ultimately won on the ground. And so we wanted to make the ground-focused engineer reference prominent in our design for a lot of reasons – including West Point’s heritage as an engineering school. It also represents metaphorical mental mobility – breaking cognitive roadblocks – mobility is what engineers often provide in land warfare. Beyond that, there’s the checkpoint symbolism – on a military map, a checkpoint is a known point, a reference point, where you know where you are. This evokes what we want out of MWI – a place that can help you understand the war you’re a part of. It’s also like a rally point symbol – where military units gather and come together. Lastly, you can see the entrenching tool imagery in the overall scheme – used commonly in ground units to build stronger fighting positions; in this case, to fortify the mind for the storms of steel on the horizon.

Then we had the problem of words – what do we use for text in the graphic? We couldn’t simply get lazy and use Times New Roman, which typographers have dubbed the “sweatpants of fonts.” Where else could a sophisticated, complicated, small band of misfit, roguish, government-affiliated lethal instruments look for insight?

Bond. James Bond. Of course. “He” was everywhere, as “his” most recent film was out at the time (Spectre).  At the same moment, the British singer, Adele, also released a new album – after she had done the theme song to Bond’s previous movie, Skyfall. So amidst this swirl of Bond-centered activity, I was cognitively primed to pull up a YouTube video of Adele singing the title track to Skyfall, and when I did, I happened to notice the film’s promotional imagery and liked the font’s sleek, modern look, particularly in the word “Skyfall.” So we found the closest publicly available (read “free”) approximation: Visby font.

Voila. All the components were in place – image, story, lettering – with the help of my good friends Mike Tyson, J.Tot, 007, and the rest of the MWI staff. It started with an inspiration from life, then sketches, followed by tragically terrible ideas marked for death, that littered my mind’s battlefield with casualties that, thankfully, died in ways only painful to me.

There was one survivor. With many siblings. In the end, our designer produced 185 separate images (in multiple formats), many of which the public has not or never will see (some variants are below). The MWI staff chooses which to use for particular needs or events. Over time, some have been used more, some have been used less, and some will never escape the dark digital folder they were stored in on Day 1. The Darwinian selection process continues. Which one will emerge?

We’ll see in ten years.

 

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