My favourite logo ever is for GNU Pascal

A digital pen drawing of a gnu and of Blaise Pascal, side by side, from the shoulders up.

This is easily my favourite logo in the world. It is for a computer program called GNU Pascal (a programming language in fact). To the left, we see a gnu. To the right, Blaise Pascal. Rather than trying to convey brand values through metaphor, the name is depicted in the most literal way imaginable.

It’s not just the literalness that is unusual. The use of this kind of figurative illustration in logos is rare. The only niche that springs to mind is 1970ies retail chains.

Visual abstraction has becomes the norm in corporate branding since the post WWII period. In America, designers like Paul Rand and Saul Bass started to produce logos in flat colours and simple shapes that aimed to convey what the companies are about. It is this language that has stuck with us for logos ever since.

Even though it might be useful to convey a brand message that is clear and straightforward, there is an obvious limit to the benefits of abstraction. As the brand values a logo is supposed to express get exceedingly open ended (‘œinnovation’, ‘œintegrity’), it becomes more difficult to visually evocate them. That is how we end up with logos built around isometric cubes and moebius strips, and with company names like Agilent and Avilant.

It is here that the literalness of GNU Pascal provides the counterbalance I look for. I heart the complete absence of symbolism. And the departure from traditional corporate marketing is all the more exciting because it rhymes with the product itself. GNU Pascal is open source software: it is changeable and redistributable at will. As such it is built more on the values of the academic world than on the traditional corporate ethos. And while visual identities for open source software tend to be pale imitations of corporate aesthetics, GNU Pascal is one clue of how such software could find a style of its own.


Well, the logos of the GNU project do not seem to be all up to this level: Logos of GNU packages - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation (FSF).

One reason it works to be literal here, is because the name actually does convey values pretty well to the intended audience. Pascal is already a well known programming language, and the GNU moniker will tell the audience this is a free and open source version of this specific language. Though it is true the logo tells nothing of this; it just refers back to the name.

logos in flat colours and simple shapes

Flat colours are not as popular as they were though: in redesigns these logos often get faux 3d effects. Check out redesigned AT&T logo.

Grand post! However, I don't think "complete absence of symbolism" is totally right. Look at how the eyes of the gnu and the philosopher are identical, linked in a bovine, mysterious, mutual Mona Lisa gaze. The juxtaposition of a human face with an animal's is rather striking, reminding me of Derrida's essay on animal encounters, "The Animal That Therefore I Am."

"I often ask myself, just to see, who I am—and who I am (following) at the moment when, caught naked, in silence, by the gaze of an animal, for example the eyes of a cat, I have trouble, yes, a bad time overcoming my embarrassment. Whence this malaise?"

Derrida mentions Nietzsche's encounter with a horse being whipped in Turin, and I found another piece of amateur art that strongly resembles the GNU Pascal logo:

Pascal wrote:

"When I commenced the study of man... I thought at least to find many companions in the study of man, and that it was the true study which is suited to him. I have been deceived; still fewer study it than geometry."

One can see a kind of humanism in the detailed, anti-geometrical style of the GNU Pascal logo. This is already present in the GNU logo itself, and GNU as a project of course is of course deeply humanistic. It has always been about the liberty of the individual human-cum-hacker. It resists the slick, streamlined, saleable aesthetics of corporate marketing. It is imperfect and open for change. Pascal said: "We find fault with perfection itself."

There is also a kind of weariness visible in the two faces of the GNU Pascal logo. Pascal, the philosopher, was not an optimist, not a salesman. He wrote about the bondage of man:

"Let us imagine a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death, where some are killed each day in the sight of the others, and those who remain see their own fate in that of their fellows, and wait their turn, looking at each other sorrowfully and without hope. It is an image of the condition of men."

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