September 12, 2017

The spirit of ’77, reimagined for 2017

It’s been a long, long road to Polaroid Originals. When we set out to take up the mantle of one of the world’s most iconic brands, we knew we had some pretty big shoes to fill. Our creative director, Danny Pemberton, dug through Polaroid’s extensive archives in his journey to turn an idea into a visual language. We thought we’d let him take you through those steps in his own words…

Polaroid Originals Logo Concept
Polaroid Originals Logo

“Polaroid has often been described as “the Apple of its day”, and it’s easy to see why. Not only was the brand groundbreaking in a technological sense, it also made massive contributions to visual culture through its art, photography and design. Of course, that meant when we embarked on this project, we faced the rather daunting challenge of doing justice to this legacy while creating something compelling and original in its own right.

It’s important to point out that Polaroid itself hasn’t had a rebrand – they’re still very much around. Polaroid Originals is a new chapter of the story, completely dedicated to analog instant photography, and built by members of The Impossible Project.

Polaroid’s history spans a massive 80 years, so naturally there have been multiple versions and variations of their identity over that time. Pretty early on, our creative team realized that if we were going to have a hope of doing this project justice, we would need to understand Polaroid beyond the aesthetics. What is it about this medium that still inspires such affection on a personal level? What was the broader impact of the brand in the 20th century? Fortunately for us as members of the Impossible Project, we’re surrounded by passion for the medium (we have employees whose personal Polaroid camera collections are well into the triple digits!).

Polaroid Originals Refurbished Packaging
Polaroid Originals Film Packaging
Polaroid Originals Refurbished Packaging

The organized research began in January when our team traveled to Boston and spent a few days digging through Harvard’s Polaroid Archive. They’ve got something like 4,000 linear feet of Polaroid’s corporate material stored there, from the very early days, right up to 2006. It’s a modern day treasure trove, containing R&D records, marketing materials, custom packaging, test photographs, and much more. The visual material that we gathered served as our departure point for Polaroid Originals, and throughout the design process, we have constantly referred back to this material.

I’d like to make a special mention to Paul Giambarba in connection to the archival material. Giambarba is the art director who was responsible for, among many other wonderful things, introducing the color stripes (the “rainbow,” if you prefer) to Polaroid’s visual identity during the 1960s. His thinking around “product identity systems” is exceptional, and can be seen in how he took a brand element like the rainbow and treated it differently depending on the product line for which it was intended. The result was a graphic system broad enough to cover a wide range of products, but versatile enough to tell you exactly which product you were looking at with nothing more than a glance.

For example: if in the 1970s, you saw Polaroid’s distinctive rainbow colors arranged in a diamond, you knew immediately that you were looking at something to do with the SX-70 line. If those same colors were arranged in a square, you were looking at Type 88, and so on. We’ve tried to take some of this thinking through to Polaroid Originals. Each format we produce film for is represented by a color: blue for 600, red for SX-70, and so on. This color acts as a wayfinder for the customer, from the packaging, the user manuals, the brand photography, right through to the entire digital experience. But finding the appropriate executions for simple ideas is alway far more difficult than it seems. To quote Giambarba himself; “You know how long it takes to do simple? About ten times longer than fast and dirty.”

Polaroid Originals Collectors Cards

The two-tone camera illustration style we developed is another nod to Giambarba’s illustrative work for Polaroid. We created these camera images the modern way (using vector software), but because they felt a little cold, we ended up re-drawing them by hand. The result is a kind of warmth that speaks to the power of analog creativity – such as that of Polaroid pictures themselves.

The typeface was obviously a big decision, and the archive was instructive here, too. Giambarba had originally chosen News Gothic because it was, “the only decent sans-serif face available at the time.” It’s a classic, and we spent a lot of time considering a return to News or something similar, but it never felt quite right.

We were eventually drawn toward Polaroid’s typography of the 1980s, which was when the brand made a shift toward Helvetica, and a more International Style type treatment. On the surface, their decision to use Helvetica wasn’t exactly an original one, but some of the typographic applications from the ‘80s that we uncovered at the archive were brilliant, inventive and playful. However, the visual landscape has changed a lot since then, and a return to Helvetica didn’t feel right either. We also wanted to steer clear of neo-grotesk typefaces, and strove to avoid designing for current trends (no geometric sans serifs, then). When we came across FF Real, it clicked almost immediately. FF Real is a grotesk designed by Erik Spiekermann and Ralph du Carrois, with more warmth than you’d expect from the category, and full of charming little details, like the old-school double-storey “g”, and a slightly odd “7”. The relatively high x-height and the round points give the typeface a character that asserts itself without ever overwhelming or shouting for attention. FF Real is a contemporary take on a solid 20th century typographic tradition. Much like Polaroid Originals.

Polaroid Originals Development

A visual identity system is an important tool that helps us communicate our passion for this medium. But we wouldn’t be at this point at all without the years of hard work and belief from all the past and present members of the wonderful, crazy, and now-complete Impossible Project. Employees, customers, beta-testers, pioneers: you dared to dream, and refused to accept the status quo. You are the reason Polaroid Originals exists, and this is your brand.

Polaroid Originals Film Packaging

Adapted from an exclusive interview first published by It’s Nice That: