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New Work: Saks Fifth Avenue

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A new identity designed by Pentagram for iconic New York retailer Saks Fifth Avenue launches on January 2, 2007. After the jump, partner Michael Bierut describes the process behind the development of an identity with more variations than there are electrons in the known universe.

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Saks approached us in 2004 about designing a new identity for their stores, seeking a graphic program that would encompass signage, advertising, direct mail, online and, most importantly, packaging.

We understood quickly that this was more than a logo design project. The current Saks logo, shown above, had been in use since the mid-nineties, but had done little to create a profile for the brand, particularly as part of a gray-on-gray packaging program that was recessive to say the least. Terron Schaefer and the leadership at Saks were looking for something that could be ubiquitous and iconic, immediately identifiable when glimpsed across a busy street. But, unlike Tiffany, the store has never had a signature color; unlike Burberry, no signature pattern. On the contrary, examining their history we found the store had used literally dozens of logos since its founding.

There was one interesting fact, however. Many of these logos were variations on the same theme: cursive writing, sometimes casual, sometimes Spencerian.

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Of these, one stood out, the logo drawn in 1973 by Tom Carnese, adapted from a signature introduced almost twenty years before. In many people’s minds, this still was the Saks logo. By coincidence, I knew it well: it was the logo that was at the heart of the identity system designed by my first boss, Massimo Vignelli, shortly before I started working for him in 1980.

But simply reinstating a 30-year-old logo wouldn’t be enough. Saks was happy to emphasize its heritage, but it was even more eager to signal that it was looking to the future, a place of constant change and surprise with a consistent dedication to quality. In our early creative sessions at Saks, we’d gathered a lot of visual inspiration. The team kept coming back to the boldness of artists like Franz Kline and Barnett Newman. Was there a way to get that kind of dramatic scale and energy into the program?

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We were excited when we finally hit on the solution. We took the cursive logo, redrew it with the help of font designer Joe Finocchiaro, and placed it in a black square. Then, we subdivided that square into a grid of 64 smaller squares.

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The 64 tiles can then be shuffled and rotated to form an almost infinite number of variations. We say almost infinite, but obviously there’s a fixed number of possibilities. Curious about what that might be, we consulted a friend who’s a graduate student in theoretical physics at Yale. He calculated that the number of possible configurations is in fact 98,137,610,226,945,526,221,323,127,451,938,506,431,029,
735,326,490,840,972,261,848,186,538,906,070,058,088,365,083,852,800,000,000,000. He helpfully pointed out that this is nearly 100 googols (a googol is a 1 with 100 zeros after it), and many times the number of electrons in the known universe.

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Most of the individual logo tiles are quite lovely in their own right, and within the system can be used in various combinations to form still more abstract compositions. Each of these suggests within its details the graphic character of the new logo. Enlarged, they have a kind of energy and drama that contrasts nicely with the original mark from which they were derived.

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The advantage of the program, deployed in black and white like the store’s holiday “snowflake” packaging, is that it creates recognizable consistency without sameness. The logo elements will be used in signage and direct mail and advertising. Most importantly, there are over forty different packages in the program, from jewelry boxes to hat boxes, and four sizes of shopping bags. In the new program, no two of these are alike, yet they all go together. Our hope is that they will all become associated in the minds of shoppers with the style and elan of Saks Fifth Avenue.