The Volkswagen logo is a household image that is known on an international level. In over seventy years, the logo has not changed a great deal and has stood the test of time. What most people do not know how ever is it's lush history dating back to Hitler's reign to current day with law suits debating the original creator of the logo. In short, the Volkswagen logo is memorable, scalable, and effective without color. In addition to discussing the evolution of its design, what makes a good logo, and my opinions on it, I will also discuss the historical background of the logo and the company itself. Although the design itself is very recognizable, I would say the history behind it is more intriguing.
Brief Volkswagen History
The beginning of Volkswagen actually begins on May 28th, 1937 in Germany. Automotive history was made with the founding of a brand new company called Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH. Just over a year later, the name changed to simply Volkswagenwerk GmbH. This name change would really mark the official time line start of the Volkswagen brand. This time line is extremely important in both the companies history and the logo design in which I will discuss a bit later.
According to some historians, the creation of Volkswagen actually marked the end of Germany's World War I economic depression. But sadly, in my mind, really marked the beginning of a darker time to come which would be World War II. It's important to keep these historical events in mind when trying to analyze a design or logo. Could World War I and the depression influenced the look of the logo? Could events to come have an impact of the evolution of the logo? Sure, and it did.
If Germany was going through such a rough time, how did the Volkswagen brand come to be so quickly and how did it become so successful? The answer is actually Adolf Hitler. I'd like to take you back about four years to February 11th, 1933. On this day, Adolf Hitler, the new Chancellor of Germany made a public speaking appearance at a Berlin Auto Show. On this day, there was a huge crowd of auto executives and media personnel. Here, Hitler announced his plan for the motorization of Germany. The basic premise for this plan would be to produce a car that was affordable for everyone.
Not a bad idea in my opinion. Probably one of the only decisions I'll agree with Hitler on. At the same time this was going on, a German automotive designer, Ferdinand Porsche, was designing and building a prototype for a strange looking, sleek, inexpensive, rear engine, air cooled car that could hold five people. Adolf Hitler and Ferdinand Porsche had meetings in 1933 and 1934 with them agreeing that Porsche would deliver the prototypes within one year. This is when, in 1938, all the testing was finished and they were being manufactured.
Oddly enough though, very few were being produced at first. In fact, they were building military vehicles which included the “Kubelwagen”, meaning the German Jeep. The reason why I mention this is because there war vehicles did not have the VW logo in it like we see today. Instead, they had the KdF symbol meaning kraft durch freude which means strength through joy.
What Makes A Successful Logo
Before diving in to the evolution of the Volkswagen logo I would like to spend a little time discussing what makes a logo so successful. The reason why I want to go over some of these points is because I feel the current Volkswagen logo design is a great example at perfect logo design. For one, a successful logo needs to be both memorable and describable.
Sure, with thousands of logos out there it gets extremely difficult to keep things simple and effective at the same time but it can be done. What I mean by memorable and describable is a design that really gets imprinted in the viewers head. For example, the I Love New York logo by Milton Glaser or even the Nike swoosh. If someone asked me to draw them, I could easy draw them both in seconds without much thought. The same goes for the Volkswagen logo. Another factor in a logo I think a lot of people forget is color. A successful logo should work both with and without color.
This is important because a lot of the time, the logo will be used across all mediums. For example, it could be carved in wood or made with metal. Scalability is another great attribute in a successful logo. Whether the logo is on a tag under an inch in size, or on a billboard, it should be legible. Lastly, the logo should obviously be relevant to the industry the company is involved in. This might seem like common sense to most, but a lot of ineffective logos out there really don't fit the current trend or design sense for said industry. With that being said, all these points are just my personal opinion and will come up later when I start discussing the evolution if the Volkswagen logo.
The First Design
The very first Volkswagen logo was developed in 1938 and was actually the result of an office competition. Franz Xavier Reimspiess, an employee of Porsche, created the first logo during the logo design competition within the company. He was given a one time payment of 100 Reichsmarks (about $400). Reimspiess was also the engineer who perfected the actual engine for the first Beetle's in the 1930's.
The initial design done by Reimspiess and the current 3D design they use today really is not that different for having so much time go by. The initial logo indeed contain the “V” sitting on top of the “W” in a bold sans-serif font that is still used today. Surrounding the two letters is a circular shape that has little bumps evenly separated around it. The best way I can describe it is, it reminds me of a ships wheel. From selected planks along this wheel, a solid black bar continues out above the circle. From this line, three curved lines are placed evenly separated going back down to the wheel.
This is done four times around the whole logo giving it this sort of windmill effect. Many say its actually supposed to be a Nazi Swastika in motion with the lines showing some type of movement. It is actually extremely hard to critique this logo due to the fact I am as conditioned at looking at its current and up to date status. Overall, if they used this today, I still feel its an effective logo. The “V” and the “W” are both extremely memorable and describable. The only thing that doesn't really work for me is the windmill or swastika effect. As stated earlier, an important part of logo design is being related to the industry its in. To me, this windmill or fan shape reminds me of some sort of radio broadcasting or marketing type of company. Definitely not a car company.
Shortly after this design was released, they decided to change it slightly. Right before World War II they decided to remove the windmill or swastika effect I mentioned earlier. They did however, decide to keep the wheel type figured that surrounds the V and the W. As stated earlier, I feel this was an extremely needed change in the design of this logo. It made the overall logo twice the save as it needed to be and also made it an unconventional size. Now, its simply just circular.
After World War II, the British took over the company and changed the logo. Once of the first things they did with the company was actually renamed the car as the Beetle. Next, the decided to change the look of the logo. Overall, they really didn't change much which was smart on their part. They did however remove the wheel type shape that was surrounding the logo. Again, I feel this was another smart decision in the evolution of the design. The removal of the wheel really gave it a more corporate and modern look for its time and even now. This is important because I feel it appeals to more people now than just Germans.
Another important change to the logo was they decided to reverse the colors. What was then black (the V and the W) now become white. This was another attribute that really gave the logo a modern look. The V and the W now easily connected with a large white inner border which produced lots of interesting shapes with the negative space. Overall, I feel this logo is the best design out of them all. Shortly after, all the car makers like Ford and Fiat declined to take control of the factory so it was returned to the German government where it become one of the best selling cards ever.
The current logo, as stated earlier, is actually not very different than the logo produced after World War II. A few minor modifications made the logo extremely elegant, a lot more modern, and very corporate. One of the changes in this final design was the introduction of color. I feel this was a very interesting design choice because I really felt it looked great in black and white.
Sure, it is still used today in black in white in some cases but overall, I'm not too sure on the reasons behind that design decision. I assume its for marketing and branding purposed on their website and whole identity. Another huge change in this addition of the logo was the introduction of a third dimension. Now, the overall shape of the V and W now has depth and looks as if it is resting on the blue circle behind it.
Shadows under the shapes reinforce this concept. Sure, I agree this addition does follow current trends and adds a more modern look to it. But I really feel the added depth really hurt the impact of the black negative spaces in the previous design. From a design standpoint, I found those shapes to be extremely intriguing. Sure, the shapes are still there, I just feel they have less of an impact now.
Volkswagen Logo Dispute
As stated earlier, the history of the logo design seems pretty clear. But according to designer Nikolai Borg, he created the Volkswagen logo. Nikolai is an 86-year old graphic designer who comes original from Sweden but now lives in the Tyrol. In the summer of 2004, he decided to finally take action against Volkswagen because he felts he deserves legal recognition of his copyright to the logo.
According to his lawyer, Borg was not at all concerned about money but more about the historical facts and truths involved. According to the statement, “Borg had been commissioned in 1939 by the then Reich Minister Fritz Todt to prepare designs for the VW emblem” (Trademark News). After the logo had been delivered, Borg was told that things we going to be postponed until after the “Final Victory” meaning if the Germans would have won the war. Shortly after in 1943, he saw his logo on a vehicle that belonged to the army.
Thats when Borg realized he was being cut out. So, over sixty years later he decided to try and fight Volkswagen. The court however found in favor of VW. According to Michael Walter, an expert on Copyrights and Patent laws, some of the initial designs actually were developed in the late 1920's before Reimspiess (the contest winner mentioned earlier) even worked on them. Walter also said the actual inventor of the emblem should be Franz Xaver Reimspiess whose design had actually been submitted and trademarked in 1938.
Overall, I feel the Volkswagen logo is a timeless logo that isn't going anywhere soon. It is the perfect combination of describability and memorability. The Volkswagen logo is a perfect example on how politics, governments, and other historical factors can contribute to the look of a logo and really, any type of design for that matter. Its interesting to look back and see how these factors really establish the look of a brand and really evolves the look overtime. From a political Nazi Party group to a thee dimensional, extremely elegant corporate design in just over seventy years.