The famous IBM 8-Bar logo is a great example of why it’s important to consider where and how your logo design is likely to be used.
For example: is it just black-on-white, or will it be white-on-black, or both?
Created by legendary designer Paul Rand, the basic design of the IBM logo has remained unchanged since 1972.
Its consistent, visible use reinforces the IBM brand, makes it more memorable and authenticates the things to which it is applied.
It is an essential component of the IBM Look—used to lend authority and engender trust wherever it appears.IBM
Optical vs Mathematical – A Valuable Design Lesson
If your logo, wording, or any visual graph etc is going to appear in both contrasting scenarios, then it’s important to understand why white-on-black visuals can look different to their black-on-white counterparts.
Even though the design is exactly the same; the same line thicknesses, or the same height and width, in almost every instance of white-on-black will look like the white elements are heavier/thicker then the black elements on a white background.
IBM demonstrates this ‘optical illusion’ in their online IBM Design Language (their equivalent of Logo & Brand Guidelines), by utilising a numbered logo grid for both variations, and explaining the key differences between the two.
IBM 8-Bar Positive logo Grid
Above we have the IBM 8-Bar Positive logo, that utilises a 11, 10, 11, 10 etc vertical grid arrangement.
The horizontal grid keeps a steady is 11, 11, 11 etc, so only the vertical grid has the alternate variations in grid size.
IBM 8-Bar Negative logo Grid
In contrast, quite literally, the IBM 8-Bar logo grid uses the same vertical values, but flip-flops them.
Instead of the grid starting and ending with 11 as in the Positive Grid, the vertical negative Grid starts and ends with 10.
As IBM explains for the Negative 8-Bar:
The logotype has been adjusted to work well reversed on dark backgrounds.
In this case the white stripes are thinner than the black stripes to adjust for optical differences but like the positive version the stripes should appear similar in weight.
This is the important key difference: this difference in the vertical grid alignment ensures that the white elements appear optically the same thickness as the black-on-white elements.
Optical alignment is a different, and often times a more important approach, than the mathematical one.
As with typography, letter & word spacing spacing, and kerning pairs between letters set by the font/type designer etc might not always work, so we sometimes we need to go with what looks right optically, opposed to any mathematical equation, or measurement.
What looks right to the font designer, might not look right in a certain visual format with another designer; don’t take kerning pairs as Gospel, they are solid recommendations, but artistic license is allowed.
Positive and Negative
Using the illustrations IBM has on their Design Language page for the 8-Bar logo to show this optical difference, I’ve put them side-by-side, so you can see how much of a difference in height the white (on black) elements are compared to the black (on white).
The blue circle is used by IBM to show the difference in this one specific are of the letter M. I’ve then added the pink and green horizontal guides, plus the blue shaded bar, to show the difference in height of each white horizontal bar.
IBM on the differences: In addition to the differences in bar thickness between the positive and negative versions there has been adjustments to the points in the counter shape.
The positive being a sharp and the negative more blunt. This subtle difference between the two ensure optical integrity on light or dark backgrounds.
Not that subtle
It’s not really that subtle when you think about it, and that’s how much white-on-black can really throw off your design, if you’re not fully aware of this optical disparity.
If anything you design in positive (black-on-white), is going to be used in reverse, then you’ll need to make sure you keep this IBM example in mind.
There’s no real exact one-size-fits-all value/measurement/equation, it’s mostly about adjusting the white-on-black elements to look the same as the black-on-white, and you can only freely do that on a case-by-case basis.
The IBM Solid Logo
It’s worth digesting all the information on IBM’s Design Language in relation to their logos, as they also show other styles of the IBM logo that can be used.
There are alternative colour and style logo versions, including a solid IBM logo (above), which was the predecessor to the 8-Bar, but it’s still used as it’s optimised for smaller scales.
Solid logo: The solid logo is the predecessor to the 8-Bar and is optimized for usage at smaller scales based on its simplified character. Works well in digital and print applications where the 8-Bar doesn’t render well at small sizes. The negative version is lighter in weight to compensate for optical differences.
Worth noting that the black-on-white version of the solid IBM logo has the same negative treatment—it’s lighter in weight) as we’ve seen above for the 8-Bar.
IBM Logos: The IBM logo is one of our most valuable corporate assets and is among the most recognized corporate identities in the world, uniquely distinguishing us from our competitors and other companies. It’s the tangible symbol of our brand, representing everything we are: our expertise, our values, our people, our offerings.
Paul Rand’s IBM Graphic Standards Manual
With all the talk above on the IBM 8-Bar logo, you’ll see below that there was even a Thirteen-Stripped IBM logo!
Vintage IBM Film Packaging
You might also be interested in a little post for some colourful vintage IBM film packaging: