The WHSmith cube logo and our orange and brown colour scheme was a dynamic change for us as a brand. Customers were used to the beautiful oak-fronted shops designed by F. C. Bayliss, distinctive egg-shaped ‘WHS’ symbol and the famous newsboy symbol, but at the start of the 1970s we were looking for a more uniform and modern identity as we began to diversify our market. We were still primarily known for and were the leading retailer in books, stationery and newspapers, but you could also expect to find toys and games, records and cassettes, cameras and radios, leather purses and briefcases, and more in our shops.
David Smith – the seventh successive member of the Smith family to lead the firm – retired as Chairman in May 1972, ending direct family involvement in the business after 180 years. It was clear that a change was needed. The business was now largely publicly owned and was still suffering from post-war ills. And the UK was changing too; people had more disposable income to spend on leisure, libraries were being replaced by book clubs, computers were just starting to become relevant to business. We sold and moved our London head office and relocated distribution out of London. The future of the business could not be left to improvisation; it had to be planned.
In 1973 the new Chairman Mr Charles Troughton launched the Design Programme to transform the company’s corporate image. He approached Professor Richard (Dick) Guyatt – now considered one of the 20th century’s most seminal figures in the world of graphic design – initially to design a new symbol for WHSmith. It soon became clear however, that more than just a symbol was needed and that several people would need to be implemented to create a whole new house-style.
Ian Middleton, Nick Jenkins, Jane-Ann Withers (L-R)
Dick Guyatt approached a senior tutor at the Royal College of Art – where Dick himself was the youngest ever professor – Mr Nick Jenkins. Nick was an established freelance designer and Dick was interested in collaborating with him on the WHSmith Design Programme. Ian Middleton was brought in as designer and studio manager, and Jane-Ann Withers (nee Bocock) was brought in as his assistant having worked with Ian for another design group. Thus the Guyatt/Jenkins design group was founded off the back of the WHSmith project, going on to design for many more prestigious accounts, including the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (you’ve probably seen those plaques in the pavement all over London), Marks and Spencer, The Globe Playhouse Trust and many more.
The team worked on various ideas for a symbol and logo for the new WHSmith look, but a strong early contender was a symbol of a gift. Design assistant Jane-Ann Withers reflected,
‘All sorts of variations were tried and considered, but always the idea of the “gift” came up as favourite, so I was eventually given Dick’s scribbled “parcel” to work on. He had originally visualised it as a long thin box in perspective (irreverently but affectionately nicknamed “the coffin” by us!), with ‘WH’ on the short side and ‘Smith’ on the long side, and in one somewhat horrendous incarnation, with a bow on top. But gradually it seemed to me that the ‘S’ should be dominant, ‘W’ and the ‘H’ needed to be equal to each other and secondary to the ‘S’ (all of which seems perfectly obvious now!). This was worked on for some time with regard to spacing and weight of letters, and gradually the ‘cube’ symbol took shape.’
Now that the team had the beginnings of a symbol to work with, discussion turned to how the WHSmith name should be represented. It was a careful balancing act between acknowledging the prestigious design heritage of Eric Gill’s elegant lettering, and achieving a more up-to-date style. A version of Times Bold was suggested as being legible and dignified, and weight of letters and spacing were carefully considered. The idea to remove the dots after ‘W’ and ‘H’ and run it together with ‘Smith’ was a controversial idea with the WHSmith board. As Jane-Ann comments, ‘perhaps it was seen as a step too far into modernity!’ Nevertheless, the idea went ahead and continued into today’s blue and white design.
Many colourways were considered before the team arrived at orange and brown. Two widely different ideas were presented to the board, and eventually the ‘cube’ and dot-less WHSmith logo was accepted. A repeat pattern of the cube design was evolved and, together with the logo, carefully sized for the fascias of every shop in the country. The design was adjusted for various different uses, and went on to appear on vans, lorries, bags, products, fascias, wrapping paper and much more.
The WHSmith cube has become a symbol of nostalgia for many of us who remember popping into WHSmith in our younger days and is one of the most fondly remembered logos from the British highstreet.
The cube even went on to feature in fashion designer Anya Hindmarch’s collection of accessories featuring iconic brand logos from 1980’s! Anya’s collection featured handbags, jackets and tops inspired by the retro WHSmith logo, bringing nostalgia to the catwalk.
Jane-Ann said ‘I find it absolutely astonishing that such a simple symbol should be remembered so fondly by so many people. I can only imagine that the ‘cube’ may bring back nostalgic memories for those who grew up both during and after the 70’s, but I am immensely touched that people do remember it. Just sad that Dick, Nick and Ian are no longer with us to see the ‘cube’ design reappear! I suspect there may well be laughter in Paradise!’
To celebrate our 225th anniversary in 2017, we have brought the well-loved cube logo back to our stores by featuring it on our canvas and plastic bags for a limited time only. Pop into your local store to find out more.