The Play’s the Thing: The National Theatre logo at 40

national theatre logo in use
The National Theatre in London, photographed by Wayne Ford, @WayneFord

In 1974, Ian Dennis spent a year as a designer at FHK Henrion’s London studio, HDA International, and while there he came up with the logo for the National Theatre in London, which is still in use today.

The mark was first unveiled when the theatre company moved to a new site on the South Bank in March 1976 – it had been based at the Old Vic theatre in Waterloo since 1963 – while contractors’ delays meant that its official opening did not in fact take place until October 25 (even then the building remained unfinished). Until recently the design of the logo was usually credited to Henrion himself.

While the German-born designer did pitch one of his own concepts to the theatre – an informal ‘NT’ with a nose and eye device contained within it – it was Dennis’s clever, economic stencil that was eventually selected. Henrion, perhaps a little nonplussed at having to inform one of his design assistants that their work had been chosen over his, was pleased enough that the firm had won the pitch – against the likes of Banks & Miles and Pentagram – to reward Dennis with a £50 bonus.

Ian Dennis’ original artwork for the National Theatre logo. FHK Henrion Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives. By kind permission of the Henrion Estate
FHK Henrion’s proposal for the National Theatre logo. FHK Henrion Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives. By kind permission of the Henrion Estate

“Henrion had been working on a design but had to go to a conference, so he asked his assistants to have a go,” recalls Dennis, who worked alongside Peter Cockburn and David Hyde at HDA, and now runs the studio Indent Design in Reading. “He’d created a Union Jack design made up of triangles and I could sort of see an ‘NT’ in it, but I worked up something at home in Letraset.”

After rejecting a version that he considered too similar to the ‘NT’ ligature in Herb Lubalin’s masthead for Avant Garde magazine, Dennis traced the letters in a stencil font.

Logo of Avant Garde magazine with ‘NT’ ligature, designed by Herb Lubalin

“I then developed it by hand after suggestions from Henrion to make it more unique and to give a better balance to the elements,” he says. “The proportions changed during the drawing process, with the letters becoming wider so as to shorten the vertical stroke in the ‘N’.”

In essence the final design makes use of just five thick chunks of type. But it is the conjoined ‘N’ and ‘T’ that creates a satisfying visual trick, achieved through the serif stroke at the top right of the ‘N’ sharing the same physical space as the one that forms the top left of the ‘T’.

national theatre logo in use
NT paper bag, badge, cup holder and ticket, courtesy Ian Dennis

Dennis’s letterforms originally had a curved outline, but as this later proved difficult to reproduce when hand cut in vinyl (the designer had asked his friend at the theatre, in-house graphic designer Richard Bird, to push this version through), the logo morphed into a design with straighter edges, giving it a more Brutalist appearance that gradually became known as the official version.

As a result, it was long thought that the Béton brut architecture of the National Theatre, designed by Denys Lasdun, had been the primary influence on the logo’s conception, but, Dennis explains, he only ever visited a building site on the South Bank, prior to the theatre’s completion.

(In fact, Dennis had been to the previous Old Vic site six years earlier as part of a school trip to see Volpone – the programme for the play, designed by Ken Briggs, made it back to Barnsley in the hands of a newly converted modernist.)

Working at Henrion’s studio the new symbol for the theatre, Dennis says, came more from a feeling that “it shouldn’t be pompous, or a sans-serif, but made in the spirit of the times. The first time I saw it in use,” he adds, “was in The Daily Telegraph Magazine when the theatre had opened. It was stencilled large in white on a red door.”

The opening of the National Theatre in March 1976 was covered in a seven-page feature in The Daily Telegraph Magazine. A huge stencil of Dennis’s logo was even used as a backdrop for the 5 March issue cover. Photographed in front of this version are Peter Stevens, Sir Peter Hall, Sir Max Rayne and Sir Denys Lasdun

Michael Mayhew, the National’s art director until 2009, used Dennis’s design extensively, having come to the theatre as a freelance designer when it opened.

“The NT logo was great to use,” he recalls. “Roughly square, it worked well in both landscape and portrait formats and looked good due to simple, happy shapes.” Its simplicity also meant that it could be transferred to a range of other media. “It was used in a variety of ways,” Mayhew adds, “projected on the building itself, or in an engraved style on glass. At different angles, or with cropping, it could be used to generate a variety of display forms.”

Posters designed by Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew for Ben Jonson’s Volpone or The Fox, 1977 (illustrator unknown)

And, in no doubt something of a personal triumph for the young designer Dennis, Briggs’s celebrated poster designs of the 1970s also incorporated the logo.

To date, the NT device remains in use across the theatre’s publicity material, though largely in connection with the main South Bank site, since, as Charlotte Wilkinson, creative director of the theatre’s graphics studio from 2009-2014 suggests, its design still works so well with the aesthetics of the building.

national theatre logo in use
Poster for John Mackendrick’s Lavender Blue, 1977, designed by Richard Bird and Michael Mayhew

“As the theatre has grown as a global brand and expanded its audience with the National Theatre Live broadcasts in cinemas,” Wilkinson adds, “we felt we needed to write our name in full, since the letters alone might not sufficiently convey who we are and what we do.”

The sleight of hand of the subtle combination of the ‘N’ and ‘T’ certainly has a resonance that would be hard to replicate. “It has stood the test of time,” says Mayhew, “because it is so beautifully simple, as are all the best logos.”

This is an edited extract taken from TM: The Untold Stories Behind 29 Classic Logos by Mark Sinclair, which was published by Laurence King in 2014 (£28), A history of the National Theatre is available at Photographs of The National Theatre by stevekeiretsu/Flickr

Ian Dennis and his grandson Harper. Photo: Jo Dennis

The National Theatre logo is on our list of Top 20 logos of all time.

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