Toeing the Line: The right logo at the right moment

Climb with us into a time machine back — well, not all that far really, just to late summer 2012. CBS Television Distribution had just announced that Arsenio Hall would be returning to late-night television a year hence after a nearly two-decade hiatus.

The no-longer-young Arsenio was to be repackaged with a new syndicated talk show for a new generation, and CBSTD was reaching out to brand Hall in a way that wouldn't paint him as an irrelevant relic struggling to reconnect.

It was the kind of challenge that Alex Swart relishes.

Swart is a graphics and design wizard who runs the Glendale mom-and-pop shop Swart Advertising with his wife, Ellen Considine. He's the go-to guy for sharp, imaginative, eye-popping visuals in everything from commemorative Oscar posters to news and entertainment marketing campaigns.

So when he was approached by the Arsenio Hall people to craft a logo for the forthcoming show, Swart had no hesitation.

Well, maybe a little.

"I'd had some familiarity with Arsenio as a person, but I was admittedly relying a little bit on memory," Swart recalled. "I remembered his show as being hip, cool, unexpected, the best party on television."

But how to convey that in a print logo in a medium where it's difficult to effectively express action? It was especially vexing considering that Swart was really given no marching orders. He pretty much had to guess what the tone of the show might be like, since the producers themselves didn't yet know.

It was a little bit like trying to bake peanut butter cookies for people who may or may not be allergic to peanuts. Moreover, Swart was flying blind in a shootout with a pair of competing design agencies whose output would be directly measured against his.

"My thought was to craft a theme that instilled a feeling of excitement and dramatic anticipation," Swart recalls, "to show the moment just before the action happens. It's that instant before the lips meet — or in this case, before the lights come up."

He knew that it would obviously be disastrous for the logo to illustrate a guy freeze-framed in 1994, the last time television viewers laid eyes on Hall's visage nightly. But it probably wouldn't be a good idea if he reminded you of your aging uncle, either.

Swart wound up submitting eight different logo concepts, one of which was his personal favorite all along.

In its original incarnation, the graphic shows a suit-clad Hall in his trademark pose anticipating the opening of the curtain to herald the beginning of the show. He's looking down, hands clasped at the waist. And he is fitted inside the "A" of a block-lettered "ARSENIO" above "The Arsenio Hall Show" (in smaller block type).

The show's white letters are dramatically set against a jet black background, with Hall the only color element. We also see the reflection of the "ARSENIO" letters to give it the lustrous look of a polished stage floor.

Rarely does a simple logo express the kind of passion that this one engenders. It's sleek, sophisticated, classic and contemporary all at once, driving the impression that the host is poised to emerge from a 19-year cocoon and be reborn.

CBSTD flipped for it. So did Arsenio. And now, Swart's logo is seemingly everywhere in accompanying Hall's successful series launch earlier this month.

"We were able to create something that matched Arsenio's high production values as kind of a modern interpretation of art deco," Swart says. "All I was trying to do was craft a look that would be in sync with the old show. And that composing-himself stance that Arsenio does just before going onstage has always impressed me. It expresses an attitude of humility."

That Swart successfully captured that attitude in a kind of magical way is clear by the mark's incorporation into the "Arsenio Hall Show's" set design and advertising. The secret, as it always is in design, was its distillation of the Arsenio brand down to its essence.

In this case, that meant portraying a host who hasn't changed much in nearly 20 years. And indeed, in his new logo, the man is forever young.

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RAY RICHMOND has covered Hollywood and the entertainment business since 1984. He can be reached via email at ray@rayrichco.com and Twitter at @MeGoodWriter.

 

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