SUP’s Art Director on designing the Redwood Press mark.
The Stanford University Press redwood tree doodle is about sixteen months old this February. I call it the Dwood for short. When we relocated the Press HQ to Redwood City in late 2013, Alan (the director) suggested it might be time for a new colophon—which is what stodgy book people call logos. So after about six months of scribbles, furrowed brows, more scribbles, courteous puzzlement, more scribbling, a couple snippy e-mails, two martinis with copious tears, and a coin toss, we had one. It isn’t easy to follow a classic like the stacked-books “S” that had been Stanford Press’s mark for about three decades. But when someone looked at my tree and said, “Rob, that is the least crappy work you have done in years,” I finally got the validation I’d been craving since I started here.
Eight months later, Alan came over and said, “Guess what! We’re going to start a trade imprint! Shorter subtitles, no date spans—that sort of thing. We’re going to call it . . . guess.” Like the jeans? I said, and he said, “No, guess. What it’s going to be called.” No, I said, and he said, “Redwood Press!” Cool, I said. He said, “And we need a colophon.” I handed him a business card with the redwood tree on it. “No,” he said. “A new one.”
“A new one? You’re calling it Redwood Press but you can’t use a redwood tree?”
“It’s a whole new thing!”
“But it’s called Redwood Press.”
“But the logo can’t be a redwood tree.”
“Yes! It can’t!”
“Can we call it something else?”
So I started scribbling again. I’ve been doing book jackets and covers now for more than fifteen years, but logos are very different. It’s amazing how easy it is to do a bad one. You can work for days on something that ends up being tired and forgettable, and you should hope that if you fail, this is how you do it—tired and forgettable is getting off easy. Because worse is that you will do something dorky and design the Ford Pinto of logos. They are everywhere—little over-complex or oddly blobby doohickies that you know someone’s relative did because the company was too cheap and the nephew or cousin or whoever thought, “This is my ticket, baby!” and forever after the lady sees it on the bag of bread or someone walks under it at the body shop and they shake their head and think, “Really?” This is preferable still to The Nightmare—which is that there will be some innuendo no one noticed until you had the stationery printed. For the rest of its short life, all you will see when you look at that logo is the Yorkshire terrier committing its unspeakable act.
Two weeks later, I made a presentation to all the players. I used a flat-screen TV to show just how seriously I was taking this. I flashed a photo of a grove of majestic sequoias on Stanford campus, and in my best Don Draper began, “Sequoia sempervirens, el palo alto . . . there are many names for the tree that Stanford University has—”
“Are we looking at more trees?” Kate, the editorial director, whispered.
I went on. “There are many names for the tree that has become the symbol of Bay Area ingenuity and—”
“I thought you told him no more trees,” Dave, the marketing director, asked.
I had expected a measure of resistance. Creative prodigies are used to this. I began showing trady variations on the Dwood—swooshy, more elegant, boxed, circled, inside a book. People didn’t say anything for a moment. There is the silence of awe, and there is the silence of the awkward, and I was trying to distinguish which had just settled over the room.
“Well, this is awkward,” Dave said.
So I went back to my desk. Kate suggested just using the letter. We had had the S made out of stacked books for thirty years. How about an R made out of a tree? I worked on it a couple of weeks. I tried a wooden R. Fiddled with an RP, and R back-to-back with a P. How about letters completely unrecognizable as letters at all unless you were told what they were? Eventually I had half a dozen candidates. They included a heavy-block R in negative relief, a long, horizontal lower-case cursive r with “R E D W O O D” widely spaced beneath, a script r that cut through a square and looked like a piece of chocolate, a number of RPs.
“No trees,” I said.
Someone said “Nice r’s” and someone thought they said “nice arse” and we all chuckled at that and the ice was broken.
“I kind of like the big one there.”
“What’s wrong with the big one?”
“It looks like K-Mart.”
“The swirly one’s nice.”
“It’s very elegant.”
“How’s it going to work on a spine?”
“It’s a little wide.”
“Solution—all Redwood Press books, 400 pages minimum."
“That’s not a solution.”
“Still. It’s elegant.”
“Maybe a little too elegant.”
The responses in the end were positive but diffuse. I took six weeks off to work on the seasonal catalog. When I went back to the logos I was sick of the letters and went back to brainstorming about trees. I know—it’s how artists think. Without our brains. I googled “redwood branch.” Sequoias, the largest trees in the world, have very small cones. The branch has a very distinctive line, drooping like a ballerina’s arm outstretched. The cones hang along it in little clumps of twos and threes or fours. It’s one of the most aesthetically pleasing things you’ll ever see.
I started sketching. I dropped an image into Illustrator, traced it, and began simplifying. I smoothed out the lines, used a few dashes to render some needles. Added a couple of cones. I reworked it over and over, distilling. I was, after three days, in love.
I didn’t even call a meeting. I mocked up the branch on a book spine, a title page. I put it on a mock web page. You know the feeling when you’ve found the perfect tagline for Lucky Strike? I e-mailed everyone, gave them links to the mock-ups. “Folks, I think we have our colophon. It’s gorgeous, it’s a redwood, and it’s not a tree. It’s beautiful and will never change.” I sent it out at about 3 and waited. Everyone was in the office. I figured about twenty minutes for the first response. At 4, I realized people were busy. At 5, leaving to catch my train, I was a little disappointed, especially since it was Friday and I’d have to wait through the weekend now to get a reaction. But I slept well for the first time in months.
On Monday morning I checked my e-mail and then thought, “Huh.” There was some conference or other, and I thought, Darn, now I’m going to have to wait longer. But after two weeks of cavernous silence, I knew I had my reply. There’s a scene in Mad Men where Don Draper thinks he’s yet again going to work another marketing magic trick, and he tells a couple candy bar executives that every time he unwraps their chocolate, he remembers their candy as the only happiness he had as a kid, growing up in a whorehouse. Brave move. Unsuccessful. The redwood branch was my whorehouse moment. At least I’d made no references in the e-mail to a sordid childhood. The problem with the branch was that, at the size it had to be on the spine, the branch wasn’t even a twig. It looks maybe like an Arabic letter. Or not. It wasn’t anything.
I wept. And I went back to letters. There were a few that had stuck with me. I still kind of liked the K-Mart R myself, and I did other renderings with different typefaces. I tried a lower-case r sitting atop a dash, and a P following it. They were all as good as, but no better than, they had been the last time. Then I went back to pen and paper, just as I’d done with the Dwood. Just started doodling.
I’m in front of a computer screen eight hours a day, it’s amazing how mesmerized and stuck you can get. I’d done a number of designs, with trees, branches, and letters, inside circles and squares. I started working just with line. The Stanford Press tree is a scribbled line. The Redwood Press “r” would be another line. I made a perfect, Palmer-method lower-case r. The kind of letter that to my son, who’s a freshman in college and was never taught cursive, may as well be in Carolingian miniscule. I traced a circle around it. I liked it. With a little imagination, you could say it looked like a Redwood cone. You could also say it looked like a wasp larva, but I still liked it, and after a couple of days kept on liking it. I sent it around with three or four other contenders—no grand pronouncements—and set a date for us to sit down again. I made no speeches. We all looked at the choices, talked, and in about ten minutes, we had our Redwood Press colophon:
I have no idea how long either the tree or the r will last as marks. Maybe they’ll age quickly, maybe they’ll stick around. They’re right for this moment, I think, and I think they also stick with you because they’re pretty easy to draw with a pen. Go ahead and try it. So easy, right? You’d think.