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May, 2012

A logo on the national news caught my eye a few weeks ago. It was by no means a familiar logo, I had never seen it before. Nor was it particularly stunning. It caught my eye not because of its graphic qualities at all. No, it jumped out due to its cultural references.

The Company is called SWIFT, a clever acronym for Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. Swift is a platform that allows global financial transactions. Almost all banking transactions pass through Swift. This financial pipeline has been referred to as the ‘glue’” that holds the world’s financial system together.

Swift is in the news because, at the urging of the U.S. and the European Union, it has pulled the plug on Iran as tougher sanctions are imposed in response to increased Iranian nuclear efforts. What this means is that Iran is financially cut off from world commerce. Except for paying in gold, or lugging suitcases of cash around the world, it is all but impossible for currency to enter or leave the country. Iran is cut of from all official banking channels.

But, it was the logo that caught my eye. I believe the logo I first saw on the news was not it’s most current logo but an earlier iteration.

This logo was in use at least through 2007 when it was refreshed with a new typeface, a change in color and this disappointing loss of the periods between the letters.

I say disappointing because the blue, dotted version is what caught my eye. It is particularly rife with cultural references. The first thing it reminded me of was a TV show from my childhood, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E aired from 1964 through 1968 (winning many Emmys and Golden Globes) and sought to capitalize on the James Bond craze of the time. Artifacts from the show still grace the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, the CIA as well as other Intelligence agencies.

U.N.C.L.E. was an acronym for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, a fictitious secret international espionage and law-enforcement agency. The series focused on the exploits of two agents, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) in their exploits against THRUSH whose aim was simply to conquer the world. THRUSH believed in a two party system, masters and slaves.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a 60s television phenomenon, Swift was founded 15 years after the show first aired. What is amazing is the similarities of the logos of the fictional international spy agency and the very real international banking platform who more than 9,700 banking organizations, securities institutions and corporate customers in 209 countries trust to process millions of financial exchanges every day.

The naming convention of both follow the acronym convention utilizing common words, uncle and swift, to represent, simplify or mask much more formidable names.

Each, initially, used a period to separate the letters of their name and indicate the simple word actually stood for something very serious.

And the globe, certainly in our world of globalization globe logos are a dime a dozen, but still, these two logos separated by at least a decade depict the world in a very specific, shared way.

The Swift logo utilizes a font approximating Times Roman Bold Italic, about as innocuous and unimaginative as it gets. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. displays the font Decorated 035 designed by Eugen and Max Lenz in 1946 and still available though one would be hard pressed to use it in a way that doesn’t reference back to the show. Alas, it has been typecast.

Back to that outline globe. There are many ways to graphically represent a globe. The cartographic versions in both the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Swift are both reminiscent of two specific treatments dating from the 60s.

The first would be the classic and enduring Pan Am logo, designed in 1955 by New York architect Edward Larrabee Barnes and his associate Charles Forberg.

An undeniably classic logo that has outlived Pan Am itself, who went bankrupt and disappeared in 1991. It now survives as a show on ABC, capitalizing on the 60’s nostalgia of Mad Men, and as a licensed lifestyle brand of travel accessories.

And that same globe design has another notable expression beyond the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Pan Am. When Pan Am was at it’s peak in the 1960’s Saul Bass offered his iconic reinvigoration of the globe form in his title sequence to the highest grossing American film of 1963, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World.

So, back to SWIFT. It is a logo at the center of international politics right now. A company that is generally invisible to most eyes. Most of us have never heard of it before, and even their logo more or less obscures their purpose, except we know it is somehow global in character. The logo itself hardly stands out as a contemporary graphic expression and is readily dismissible as a relevant graphic expression of an increasingly essential business to global financial exchange. As designers we can look at it and simply shrug it off as insignificant graphic design. In a word, banal.   But sometimes, a logo’s value is measured in its cultural capital, its references to popular culture. And in that sense, the SWIFT logo is bountiful.

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