My Best Friend’s Logo

September 22, 2007 at 8:53 pm · Filed under Identity / Systems, Type / Fonts

There are certain figures who are determined to have an impact on one’s life: Their parents, their teachers, their coach, their camp counselor; these are all people who essentially signed up to help shape a young person’s future—for better or worse—and their influence is usually quite compelling. But often, it seems the ones who just happen to be in a certain place at a certain time figure most in the development of another. This is the ground of peers: classmates, neighbors, friends. The most hallowed of this ground, of course, is that of the best friend.

My best friend growing up was a kid my age named Charley. We happened to go to the same (very good) inner-city elementary school, where we were not much more than acquaintances. But we also happened to go to the same (very mediocre) rich-yuppie middle school on the hill, which turned out to be a friendship-making fluke. Of course, we also happened to have a few similar interests and philosophies on the most important issues of our time (you can imagine what those might have been in seventh grade).

More than anything else, Charley was cool. He looked cool: tall and stately from the day he was born. He had cool clothes. He had cool things. He listened to cool music. He lived in a cool house in a cool neighborhood. He even had cool parents: His dad was a real, long-haired, tattooed biker who built and rode his own choppers, and his mom seemed straight out of a hip family TV show. He was funny and sharp, and he had cool stories that he knew exactly how to tell. Charley also seemed to do the coolest things. And, though I hardly noticed it at the time, these were an enormous influence on my life…

Charley and I both had radio-control cars when we were young, but I would go on to pour many months of my life and huge percentages of my income (allowance, mostly) on enough R/C paraphernalia to choke a horse. Charley was on a swim team one summer and – of course – he was very good, even though he was just having fun. I then swam for five years straight, year-round, eventually becoming captain of my high school team, but I’m pretty sure I never enjoyed it as much as he did. We also used to ride bikes together and have unofficial trick competitions or races that he would always win. I later went on to devote a massive chunk of my life to bike racing, and, after a few years, I got fast enough to compete in some relatively big regional and national events, but even that didn’t seem as cool as when we would cruise around the lake on BMX bikes. When we got to be in our early 20s, Charley bought, worked on, and drove a 1970s Swedish sports car, and so did I.

There was one cool thing that Charley did that I (probably wisely) never touched: skating. Sure, I had coasted around on skateboards when the craze hit (sometime after the break dancing- but before the Hammer dancing-crazes made their marks). But Charley’s skating tenure transcended fad, and he was actually good enough to define himself as a “skater” if he wanted to. He also became quite a fine craftsman, and, sometime in his mid- to late-teens, he decided that he would make his own decks to ride and possibly even sell. That’s where I came back into the picture. This was around the time when I was just figuring out what graphic design was and realizing that it was probably something I should look into. And, as far as I remember, my first actual design commission was to create a logo for Charley’s skateboard company.

Charley had an imposing presence, with an athletic build that would rise well over six feet tall, but this silhouette housed an impressively cool temper. He hardly ever fought or even got into arguments with anyone, even in youth, when those situations are the norm. There was only one thing that seemed to faze him on a regular basis, and that was when people got his name wrong. It was Charley. It wasn’t Charlie. It definitely wasn’t Charles. And, it absolutely, most certainly, was not Chuck. But, as the saying goes, rules are made made to be broken. So, the name he came up with for his new venture was actually a play on the latter: “Chuck Wagon.”

I remember that my idea for this logo came to me almost instantaneously and without much exploration. It just seemed perfect: a little red wagon with skateboard trucks and the name retro-scripted on the side. I took to my desk and, in short order, came up with this:

Chuck Wagon logo

Chuck Wagon logo, pencil and pen on notebook paper / 1995

Conceptually, I sometimes wonder if a little more exploration might have been a good thing. After all, why a little red wagon as opposed to a stagecoach (surely the more direct reference)? And if it was a little red wagon, what about the iconic handle; why did I never resolve if that might have or might not have worked? And if the script was such an important personality cue, why was the name drawn so mechanically (or at all) on the wheels?

Formally, this was – of course – well before my education in Swiss-style mark making, where economy of form, dramatic figure-ground contrast, geometric reduction, and instant legibility at large or small sizes are defining characteristics of the success or failure of a logo. This thing has all kinds of gradients, complex, organic, and intricate shape relationships, and it also happens to be rendered in pencil and pen on college-ruled notebook paper, which surely isn’t ideal for reproduction.

Nevertheless, while it may not be finished, I still think it works. For one thing, little red wagons are way cooler than stagecoaches, and more abstract or ironic references can be more interesting than direct ones, anyway. As far as the type is concerned, skaters often mismatch their decks and trucks and so on, so it isn’t that strange that the name would be rendered differently on different components of the same illustration. And formally, street vernacular, DIY artwork flourishes in the skate industry, even in logos. Hell, I could even see this thing screen printed on a T-shirt, college-rules and all. The whole presentation speaks to a youthful, independent take on entrepreneurship.

But all of that is relatively meaningless in the end. There is really only one reason why the design was successful: Charley thought it was cool.


  1. Jesse said,

    September 25, 2007 at 1:14 am

    Did someone say Charley?

  2. Daniel P. Johnston said,

    September 25, 2007 at 3:04 am

    Wow. Misspelled, completely unrelated, and a little disturbing, but an entertaining movie, nonetheless.

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