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Pentagram’s Michael Bierut Geeks Out Over the Color Theory Behind the New Mastercard Logo

“The design team here is so jazzed.”

By James Cartwright

Originally published by AIGA
July 18, 2016

“We’re living in a world where getting nasty tweets about your work is the second worst thing that can happen to people launching new logos—the worst is that nobody notices.”

Michael Bierut is talking a day after the release of Pentagram’s Mastercard rebrand, to which the response has been predictably mixed. At one end of the spectrum sit naysayers decrying the agency’s conservative output and high fee-to-work ratio. At the other, those relishing the simplification of Mastercard’s public presence and celebrating an “elegant return to basics.”

As for Bierut, he’s “highly conscious that the thing we’re talking about is just two circles and two primary colors.” Perhaps, but this particular combination of shapes and primaries is one of the most recognized brand marks in the world today.

Mastercard’s original logo in 1969

The Mastercard logo has hardly changed at all since its inception in 1968. A move from upright type to italics and slight variations on how those famous circles overlap have been the only tweaks made in almost half a century of service. Nevertheless, Mastercard was conscious that its current iteration, instated in 1996, was starting to look a little dated, and failed to serve the purposes of an increasingly digital brand.

“The kinds of media and production techniques that have been used to represent the company to the public have changed,” says Bierut. “I think that big global enterprises are entitled to communicate on a simpler level. You’re doing them a huge service by making sure their mark’s not a complicated hot mess every time it appears.”

To wit, a lowercase sans serif word mark in FF Mark and two simplified circles (overlaid instead of interlocking) designed to read as sharply on giant billboards as on tiny Apple watch screens. “The charge was to take these basic elements and make them fit the uses they’re subjected to today,” says Bierut, “to look like a more modern, contemporary expression of the brand.”

As a brand with over 2 billion global users, ranging from individual customers on up to the largest global banks, Mastercard’s client base is pretty diverse, and the applications of its logo understandably varied. Mastercard doesn’t often exist as a brand in isolation, but in partnership with an incredible number of financial institutions and vendors. As such, says Bierut, pushing simplicity was key.

“As I’ve gotten older I’ve become less and less interested in novelty or cleverness as a really important attribute of good design. It’s disconcerting when you do this sort of work to see what kinds of things have truly endured, and a lot of the time they’re not clever. You can say that there’s something interesting about calling a computer company Apple, but when the logo for that computer company is a picture of an apple, that’s not clever—it’s deadeningly literal.”

With the basic elements of Mastercard’s logo non-negotiable, the challenge for Bierut and his team was to inject it with some stroke of ingenuity. For this they turned to a design theory mainstay, Michel Eugène Chevreul’s theory of simultaneous contrast as outlined in Joseph Albers’ Interaction of Color.

“The way a color looks depends on what other colors are adjacent to it,” says Bierut. “What you learn is that you can create an illusion of gradation and dimensionality when in fact a shape is actually flat. We were so into that aspect of this mark: it’s three flat colors, but when you put them together the orange in the middle looks lighter when it’s touching the red and darker when it’s touching the yellow.

“The design team here is so jazzed about this and felt like we’d created some unprecedented miracle of graphic design.”  But if it fails to excite you, Bierut understands. “Nobody’s going to say, I wish I’d thought of that, how clever.”


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