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NISSAN STORIES | EUROPE :  PEOPLE INNOVATION FUTURE - EVOLUTION OF THE SUN

Nissan’s brand identity has always reflected the meaning of the company name. Indeed, in Japanese characters, “Nissan” can translate as “sun product” or “birth of the sun” - giving rise to the now-famous brand logo that boasts more than 80 years of automotive history. But how did it evolve from its humble origins into the globally-recognised motif seen today?

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Badges on vehicles

Birth of the brand logo

The story starts back in the 1930’s. Dreaming of creating a strong Japanese auto brand, Yoshisuke Aikawa merged his holding Tobata Foundry Co., Ltd. with Nihon Sangyo and Dat Motorcar Co. (whose predecessor started producing DAT cars back in 1914) Together, this unified company was renamed NISSAN – selling cars badged under both the Datsun and Nissan names.

This is what gave birth to Nissan’s first brand logo in 1933. Inherited from the Datsun design (see interactive image), it utilised the same style of emblem motif, featuring a blue rectangle with the brand name inscribed in white letters, together with a red circle in the background which symbolised “a rising sun”.

Professor David Bihanic, Designer and Lecturer at the University of Sorbonne, in Paris, is an expert on graphic symbolism. He confirms this first brand logo is immediately emblematic of the brand’s Japanese roots, synonymous with the red disc on flag of Japan.

Used as Nissan’s visual identity throughout the 1930’s, this first brand logo was immediately iconic – lasting right through until 1970! And despite 4 revisions since, each brand logo has always retained its integral link to the company’s heritage and culture.

Brand logo vs badges on vehicles

However, if you take a look at Nissan cars themselves through these decades, you might find the official brand logo hard to spot. Instead, you’ll find a whole range of other Nissan badges, in many different graphic styles, representing the Nissan name.

Why? Because as vehicle design evolved, automakers wanted brand badges on cars to reflect their name in contemporary styles, separate to the more stable, traditional brand logo.

Mid-Century Nissan badges

Some of the best examples of this are Nissan badges in the mid-20th century.  Formal, capitalised “NISSAN” badges were commonplace in the 1950’s, while the 60’s saw these replaced with italic typefaces. This change gave a sense of motion in a time of burgeoning car ownership and more personal freedom, while the more informal touch also nods to liberalising attitudes - with the 1960 logo even dropping the capital N!

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1960 ---------------------> 1989

Bold and brash

The following decades then saw a return to capital letters on Nissan car badges as trends shifted towards the brash, business-focused 80’s. This was an era of individual status and making a statement - giving rise to a number of flash metallic badges with heavy typefaces. Often these differed from region to region, and even from model to model.

Age of Modern Industry

Yet it soon became clear that to have a strong global brand presence, Nissan needed a unified visual identity for the millennium. Featuring a metallic monochrome design, the 2001 brand logo was created as a symbol of modern industry that would also be worn on every vehicle, eliminating the practice of different badges for each model.

Professor Bihanic explains that the industrial-style design seen in the 2001 update became “common to almost all car manufacturers: 3-D extrusion or light volume (bas-relief) and metallic grey giving a shadow or reflection effect” - as each clamoured to portray a vision of advanced manufacturing.

 

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Into the future

As we enter the 2020s, the industrial age gives way to the electric. To mark this, Nissan unveiled a new, simplified logo, worn with pride on the front of the all-new zero-emissions Nissan Ariya. The new brand logo adopts a sleeker, single-colour “flat” 2-D format, with thinner lines and sharper definition. Representing a new era of seamless, intuitive and electrified mobility, it’s also adapted for the smartphone age, where clean graphics stand out on pocket screens.  

Even so, heritage is not forgotten, thanks to the familiar sun disc shape with the Nissan name through the centre. Tsutomu Matsuo, deputy general manager of Nissan's advanced design department, reveals, “the new Nissan logo communicates our guiding message, carried over from past iterations: If you have a strong, determined belief, it can even penetrate the sun."

 

 

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Analysis of 2020 logo

Changing the most visible aspect of a brand’s identity is always a big step. Professor Bihanic explains while a logo will ”inevitably change, transform, mutate in order to match the new moods of the present day”, its leading recognisable graphics must be carried over to preserve “the DNA of a brand” and stand the test of time. He affirms “This part of the identity must never be seen to give way, or be interrupted when updating a visual identity - except to signal a radical change in management or in the direction of the company.”

For this reason, Nissan’s 2020 brand logo is an evolution, rather than an entirely new incarnation. It speaks to an ongoing journey Nissan is making towards a zero-emissions world through Nissan Intelligent Mobility, while retaining its spirit of innovation and heritage. It’s pleasing to see Professor Bihanic agrees, as he concludes “this is the strong sign of a brand which, while bearing witness to its history, is now more fully open to the future than ever before.” And better still, it will be worn by Nissan vehicles the world over.

UNDER THE SIGN OF THE RISING SUN

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The Nissan logo


Interview with David Bihanic

Designer and Lecturer
at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

No.1: As a designer-researcher with vast experience in graphic conception and design, please could you tell us what the guiding principles and/or key drivers are that must be followed and applied to create a "good" logo? First of all, can you tell us exactly what a logo is? For it to be "good" or successful, should it be simple, schematic...?

David Bihanic: What should be borne in mind when it comes to a logo, which is just one of the many "elements" in the identity and reference universe of a particular brand, is that it is above all a "strong" sign which, to gain and maintain a certain visual significance over time, calls for ever more "visual-graphic reduction".

A sign, let us say here of a "logo-typical" nature, is at the same time what "seals" or establishes the representation of the key values of a given brand and distinguishes it, differentiates it, "sets it apart", we could say, from its neighbours and/or competitors. Also, in addition to the cultural evolution of the frame of reference in which the visual identity of a brand "bathes" (we will come back to this later, for sure), a logo, to remain this strong sign, must evolve in the direction of simplicity. Achieving this ultimate goal is the guarantee of the brand's real sustainability over time.

A logo is made up of at least 2 elements that may or may not be associated with each other: a "graphic stamp" and "a name or label 'text'" (brand title) - to which a "baseline" or key phrase acting as a "slogan" can be added. Multiple combinations are possible1: the 'text' label can be placed within the graphic stamp or the 'text' label can be surmounted by a graphic stamp, etc. This same "text" label can also just exist on its own, this time with graphic work specifically focused on the lettering (creation or typographical composition - original alphabet).

The same applies to the graphic stamp which does not always require the co-presence of a ‘text' label. It is common for a logo consisting of a stamp and a label when it is created, to evolve through "reduction", by "getting rid" of one of its two components. Let's take, for example (among many others), the Nike and Starbucks logos, which have developed quite remarkably, with the reduction here being "suppressive" in nature.

No.2: You were just talking about the importance or impact of what you call the "frame of reference" of a visual identity. Is this related to the influences and trends specific to an era?

David Bihanic: Indeed, in addition to the reduction I have just mentioned, each logo, insofar as it is a sort of "elementary component" of the identity universe of a brand, is as if it were "stuck" within a frame of cultural and stylistic reference then in keeping with the particular era. Colours, lettering (body strength and font size; choice between "upper case" and "lower case"), textures, thickness of outline traces, etc.; all of these visual-graphic attributes that make up the design of a logo are the result of external influences, which are often specific to the "business" field as well as to current "graphic trends".

Consequently, over the years, a logo will inevitably change, transform, mutate (sometimes radically) in order to match the new "moods" of the present day. These changes sometimes have a fairly significant impact on its graphic form but will not affect or alter (if the brand is "strong" enough) its signum (in Latin), in other words its "imprint", its "seal", or again its "symbol" (so to speak).

Unless you revise its field of values, the way in which the logo will withstand the passage of time defines what is commonly called "the DNA of a brand". This part of the identity must never be seen to give way, or be interrupted when updating a visual identity, except to signal2for example, a radical change in management or in the direction of the company, thus requiring the repositioning of its very brand. In addition to this type of major "shift", the signum of thelogo must always be strong and withstand the test of time. Therein lies a "guarantee of confidence".

No.3: Based on what you have just pointed out (i.e. the complementarity of "graphic reduction" work in connection with a "cultural, stylistic reference framework"), how do you perceive the developments of the Nissan logo? Do you find it successful and convincing? Or more fundamentally, do you think it is a "strong sign" that has survived the times?

David Bihanic: In this respect, the logo of the Nissan brand is, it seems to me, quite exemplary in that it shows that despite or because of a history made up of many "twists and turns", the sign must be able to evolve, either through reduction (No.1), or updating (No.2) sometimes finding itself "off-set" or "off-centre" from its point of "origin", without being cut off from its native or initial DNA.

 

2001 - 2020

For example, the 2001 logo is in keeping with the trend of the time, and common to almost all car manufacturers: 3D extrusion or light volume (bas-relief) + metal grey + shadow and reflection effect, etc. The logo thus re-establishes its basic "skeleton" and is then able to move forward serenely in "graphic reduction" terms. This is what happened between 2001 and 2020.

The most recent version of the logo (2020) underlines in "thin" lines the fusion of the "text" cartouche and the disc. The logo is now on a single level. This is the strong sign of a brand which, while bearing witness to its history, is now more fully open to the future than ever before.

 

  1. e.g., the logos of the Elf and Pepsi brands have constantly varied the "stamp + label" combinations.
  2. in the sign, there again.
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