Oh, that Symbol…
1 Dec 2003 2 comments. tbs.pm/1922
Fifty years ago, on December 2, 1953, the BBC unveiled a new symbol for its Television Service, replacing, for most occasions, the BBC Crest that had introduced television programming since the service had restarted in 1946. Here’s how the symbol – the first animated on-screen television identity in the world – was designed and realised by leading graphic designer Abram Games.
Best-known, perhaps, for his wartime posters, Abram Games was responsible for some of the most arresting and memorable graphic images to emerge from mid-20th century Britain. Born at the start of the First World War in East London, the son of Latvian émigré photographer Joseph Gamse, Abram’s rebellious attitude lost him his first job in a London commercial art studio. As a result, he decided never to work for someone else again. But his excellent draughtsmanship and largely self-taught style – summed up in his philosophy “Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means” – resulted in stunning, sometimes surrealistic posters produced for the War Office in the early 1940s, advertising posters after the War, and in a stream of other freelance clients during his working life, which branched out later to include product design and unique inventions.
His most memorable graphics are perhaps the 1956 Guinness ‘G’, his 1942 ‘Your talk may kill your comrades’ (above) and the stunning poster he created in 1960 for the UN, ‘Freedom from hunger’ (see bottom of page).
After the War, Games was invited to design the emblem for the Festival of Britain, a massive event on London’s South Bank and at other points across the country that symbolized Britain’s emergence from wartime and its progress in the white-hot technological revolution. When the emblem, red white and blue compass points surmounted by the head of Britannia, was initially judged not festive enough, Games livened it up by stringing a ‘washing line’ of tricolour pennants from east to west. It is as memorable today as it was then (below).
It was as a result of the successful Festival of Britain commission that Games received the invitation to join a competition to design a new symbol for the BBC Television Service, other competitors including BBC employees and members of the Society of Industrial Artists.
Games apparently had misgivings about being able to create a design at all. “Television was an entirely new aspect of science and social life,” he wrote two years later, “and we are still so close to it that it is very difficult to express its significance with any degree of certainty.” If a symbol was to be successful, he maintained, it would have to cover not only the known aspects of the medium, but also encompass new developments. “What did television stand for?” he mused. “I realised that any symbol would be based more on the unknown than on the known,” and “would not date with the rapid development of television… if it were to do this it would probably surprise even me, in its final form, let alone viewers…”
There were not only conceptual challenges; there were technological ones too. Some figures would reproduce badly on 405-line black and white TV. As a result, he devised a test chart (above) consisting of lines of different widths, curves, tones, patterns and other figures. It was pinned up in front of a camera at Lime Grove and viewed on the screen at different angles. Games soon realised that many shapes simply could not be used. “The safest solution… seemed to be the circle or arc,” he noted, “as it only fell on the horizontal scanning lines at north and south…”
Games began scribbling ideas on any piece of paper that was to hand (above) – he often covered sheets and sheets of notebooks, sketch pads and even newspapers with ideas in development, and kept every one. He began to develop the basic ideas.
“The circle was round, a sphere; a sphere might be the world… one had to comment on the world in terms of television, and that was a business of light lines and electrical impulses,” he wrote. “The light waves should also be made to feature in the design and they must also be linked with the symbol of electrical force.” From this thought came the idea of curved streaks of lightning, echoing the inner circle of the world. This brought to mind the atmosphere, and the light waves being transmitted through it to reach their objective. He chose to represent this with many arcs converging on the central circle. “Three elements then had been settled,” he noted, “by means of the desired circle – the world, the lightning and the lines of light – and all compass drawn: what a relief!”
Now he had to consider what went on within the world. All the different aspects of television, he considered, had one thing in common: they were looked at, and the only universal symbol for viewing could be the eye. So he drew an eye, and noted that it picked up the lines of light linking the lightning to the inner circle, representing the lines conveying, finally, an image to the viewer.
But Games had already decided that this symbol had to be a moving thing. As soon as the eye rotated from a horizontal position that link would be broken, leaving a void. This suggested another, contra-rotating eye, “to complete the circle and the thought.”
The concept was almost ready. But there was one problem: the ‘wings’ seemed to be rocking the circle: the whole needed stabilisation. Games solved this with an axis running vertically up through the centre, with arrows pointing up and down.
Here was the basic symbol, but it took many drawings and redrawings to get the thicknesses of the eyelids right, the size of the eyeball, the weight of the arrowheads, and much more.
Work still needed to be done on how the symbol was to move. The world – the circle around the eyes – had to rotate horizontally on its axis, but if the circle were to rotate there would be nothing left of it. So there had to be a fixed circle, and a rotating one.
Then there were the wings. Games originally thought of flapping them, but that gave the wrong impression. It was light that was wanted, moving through the atmosphere to the eye. He hit on the idea of a sweep of light inwards across the wings, timed to coincide with a quarter-turn of the eyes. “The light rays were now feeding the two eyes at regular intervals and always ‘went home’,” he said.
From his sketches, Games developed a submission drawing (below).
He presented the idea to the BBC and the committee eventually saw the potential in the design: he was able to go ahead.
Games had always been fascinated by the workings of machinery – in 1950 he had redesigned the Cona Coffee Company’s ungainly laboratory-like machine into an elegant, easy to use product. In the case of the BBC symbol, he had visualised the design and its movement: he now called on master craftsman, sculptor, inventor and modelmaker J F ‘Johnny’ Johnson to help realise his idea. Games went over detailed mechanical drawings with him, covering every detail of the design.
After many weeks of work, Johnson (below) developed a remarkable model from Games’ detailed plans. Fashioned of brass, it was eighteen inches across and suspended in a wooden frame by fine wires. A central drive wire ran vertically up through the lower arrowhead to the eyeball, while a differential gear operated the contra-rotating eyes. The same drive rotated the ring representing the world. The eyes themselves were convex. The letters ‘B B C’ were included in an arc at the bottom.
Lamps in rotating, slotted drums in front of either side of the model, driven by a crossed belt, provided the flashes of light inward across the ‘wings’, synchronised with the main drive. The wings were curved so that they remained the same distance from the light source that flashed across them as the slotted drums rotated (see drawing, below, one of the detailed plans used by Games to describe the details of the symbol’s movement to Johnson).
The only problem with this arrangement was that the use of fine piano wire for the drive resulted in a juddering every so often as a result of torsion on the wire.
It was evident that the best solution to the problem of televising the symbol was to film the model, as it was too fragile to withstand continuous live use.
To overcome the problem of judder, the movement of the model was speeded up, and the BBC camera team brought in to shoot the model speeded the 35mm camera up accordingly, to maintain the deliberate movement Games envisaged for the symbol. The model was painted grey to give the right level of contrast – the eyes had to be darkened somewhat to avoid them standing out too much as a result of their movement. The amount of ambient light required for filming largely overcame the moving light effect on the wings, so the lamps in the drums had to be made more powerful, which resulted in overheating if the model was run for more than a short time. When it came to shooting, they would have to get it right first time.
Finally the model was ready for filming and everyone in Johnny Johnson’s workshop held their breath as the lights came on, the model turned, and the camera captured the scene (above). Luckily not a single judder or unevenness of movement occurred and the next day the ‘rushes’ indicated that the job had been completed successfully – and not before time. Naomi, Abram’s daughter, remembers that the model ceased to function soon after the filming had taken place.
Vision may have been the primary aspect of the new symbol, but there was sound too. In addition to occasional sonorous announcements stating, “This is the BBC Television Service,” the rotation of the symbol was accompanied by harp music whose arpeggios synchronised with the flashes of light across the wings. Sidonie Goossens, principal harp with the BBC Symphony Orchestra for fifty years from 1930 to 1980, improvised the piece.
In addition to the filmed model, Games designed static cards featuring the symbol, including special regional variations. An accompanying clock, with extraordinarily lengthened second hand, featured a simplified version of the ‘wings’, as did a number of presentation captions. Games later designed the so-called ‘Angel Wings’ tuning signal, of which a colour version was created for the BBC’s modified NTSC tests.
The new symbol was first aired on the evening of December 2, 1953 to a potential audience of 2,700,000 TV screens, and got a mixed reception. Even Games himself commented, “I know it’s a bit frightening when you first look at it, but it will be all right when you get used to it.”
The BBC commissionaire called it “a ruddy cross-eyed wonder”; others called it “The Thing”, and “The Staring Eye”. The Glasgow Daily Record announced, “By the sign of the rolling eye ye shall know the BBC…” and one headline complained, “Oh, that symbol!”
The official BBC description was, “An abstract pattern consisting of two intersecting eyes which scan the globe, symbolising the power of vision. Flashes of lightning either side represent electrical forces and the whole form takes the shape of wings, which suggest the creative possibilities of television broadcasting.”
The Corporation also described it as “a hallmark or monogram”, the visual equivalent of “This is the BBC Home Service” and the chimes of Big Ben. It was the subject of appreciation and brickbats; of Letters to the Editor and newspaper cartoons. But this extraordinary, memorable and evocative symbol remained in use for over eight years.
Use of the animated version of the Symbol, and the associated clock, continued until the very end of 1959, but the symbol continued to be used in static captions until October 1960. At this point, a new corporate style, that had started to creep in towards the end of 1959, was fully introduced. However aspects of the symbol, notably miniature versions of the lightning flashes, were used in Schools programming for another 12 months, until around October 1961.
After designing the Symbol, Games went on to become Art Director of the first colour covers for Penguin Books, and was awarded the OBE in 1957. In 1959 he was appointed Royal Designer for Industry, designing the Queen’s Award for Industry emblem in 1965. He redesigned the cover of the Radio Times (early October 1960 onwards). He also designed not one, but two uniquely innovative copiers, the Imagic and the RLF (Reduced Layer Formation) portable machine, the development of which occupied many of his later years. Abram Games died on August 27, 1996.
A DVD is available from the Abram Games web site which includes a discussion of the BBC Symbol by Martin Lambie-Nairn, as part of a detailed and fascinating documentary on the artist’s life and work. The entire BBC Television Service startup shown above appears as an extra on the disc.
Abram Games is the subject of a book by Naomi Games, Catherine Moriarty and June Rose: Abram Games, Graphic Designer – Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means, published by Lund Humphries, ISBN 0-85331-881-6.
Many thanks to Naomi Games for her help in the preparation of this article. Photographs and illustrations appear courtesy of The Estate of Abram Games except where indicated. Startup original film kindly provided by Arthur Dungate.