Putting a new face on a common design element

Throughout history two masks have come to symbolize theatre and its two major dramatic categories of comedy and tragedy. Such masks have played an important part in the history of drama since the time of the ancient Greeks, originally allowing actors to clearly convey emotions such as anger, joy, or sorrow to the entire large audience. Masks also made it easier for the performers, limited to the male of species, to portray female characters.

During that same theatrical history the mask images were used in architecture, art, design and printing as graphic representations of stage venues, performance groups and plays. The result has been the overuse of mask imagery, in recognizeable forms, again and again.

As a designer who has created theatre graphic images for over 30 years, it is a challenge when being asked to use common elements in related graphics - especially in the design of logos for theater spaces, production companies or theatrical events. When creating such identities, it is necessary to move beyond the literal to produce fresh imagery making use of ancient themes.

In 1995, I was asked to design the logo for a San Francisco nonprofit using comedy performances to raise funds for AIDS organizations. The identity for Laugh Line Productions (below left) incorporated a interpretation of the comedy mask as the "U" letterform in the word "LAUGH." Today the logo looks a bit too basic and literal to me - but it is where I began to think about alternative treatments of the masks for future designs. The Laugh Line image is featured in the books Letterhead and Logo Design 4 and The Best of Letterhead and Logo Design.

One of my favorite theatre logos is my design for the former Main Street Playhouse (above right) in Portland. The space was located in the old Masonic Building, designed by renowned architect Pietro Belluschi. (The building has since been completely renovated and is now part of the Portland Art Museum complex.) Outside of the building, lining the streets along the city's South Park Blocks, are beautiful cast iron street lights. While standing near the theatre one night, I realized that the globes of the light fixtures could easily become the masks of comedy and tragedy. The graphic treatment, with the human imagery almost coming across as reflections in the glass, is so subtle than many people have missed the meaning completely. Still, the design was recognized with an American Graphic Design Award and publication in the PRINT Regional Design Annual.

Following the death of Portland actor (and acquaintance) Rob Buckmaster, I was asked to create a logo for the foundation established in his honor. It was a very sad time for the local theatre community, but still, thinking of Rob could immediately bring a smile to anyone's face. Once again I felt the masks of comedy and tragedy could provide a graphic solution to the design challenge. In the design the masks became a bit more graphic than in previous designs, and I purposely placed the sad image upside down to focus on the happier element within the logo. It was a widely accepted identity for the foundation. The Rob Buckmaster Fund logo appears in the books American Corporate Identity 14 and The New Big Book of Logos.

Much of my logo design for the theatre has been during my relationship with the triangle productions! production company, which began back in 1990. Each new season of plays and musicals has required the creation of an anniversary logo image to be used on ticket brochures, the website, posters, ads and playbills. When it came time to design the 14th anniversary identity, I immediately saw the numeral "4" as an abstract human form that could take on the characteristics of one of the historic mask forms. With my creation of the tagline "14 years of tears & cheers," placement of the the tragedy and comedy masks was determined within the design. I have mixed feelings about the fact that most people see either the "14" or the two masks in the logo - but not both design elements. The few that do "get it" have an "aha!" moment that is very gratifying to me. The identity appears in the book 100s Visual Logos & Letterheads (UK).

I wanted to present these examples to show that with a little creativity, and effort, a designer can avoid the "easy out" of just slapping very common imagery up next to some text. The result can be a unique design solution that attracts the attention of the viewer and, in some cases, draws them in for a closer second look.

©2010 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives