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Great Logos for Science

Game:Portal 2 Release: 2011 Platform: PS3 / Xbox 360/ PC / Mac Art Director:Jeremy Bennett
If you are concerned about minor plot spoilers from the single player campaign of Portal 2, it is advised you do not read this article.

Unlike books, music, or even film, I often treat the virtual spaces that games carve out in the world as though they exist unto themselves, in a vacuum free from outside influence and/or knowledge; alien artifacts churned out of some unknowable machine. This perspective does not gel well with the fact that I am also constantly searching for and interested the origins of things; searches which often take me several leaps away from the thing that piqued my interest.

As I’ve grown older and thus my mind expanded I really appreciate being reminded that an artist exists behind the art. Valve is a developer who regularly sets off these little reminders for me. As I’ve discussed previously, their attention and dedication to crafting mechanically solid as well as visually interesting and informed games is almost unlike any other currently active developer. Portal 2 is but the most recent example of their amazing talent at art direction.

At the mid-point of the game, the player finds themselves at the bottom of an improbably deep chasm underneath Aperture Science’s main research facility. Chell begins her long ascent back to the top of the facility, she weaving a path through layers of Aperture’s corporate history in the form of signs, slogans, photos, test chambers and office equipment left rotting at the bottom of a pit; each new incarnation hastily built atop the bones of the previous.

To illustrate this progression Valve uses cues both overt and subtle: the style of architecture, changes in interior design, the increasingly deranged and weathered voice of Aperture’s founder Cave Johnson, the tone and content of verbiage pasted on the walls. Most importantly, Valve uses changing corporate logos to bookmark the various “eras” that the player moves between on their climb up. These logos not only serve to inform the player of the different “phases” of Aperture, they are designed in such a way that feels as though really come from the place in history they represent.

Aperture Fixtures – 1943

Aperture Science Lobby Trophy Case

It begins with the company’s origins as a bathroom fixture manufacturer and distributor in the post-war era of the late 1940s. This first logo is only briefly seen inside the trophy case in the lobby of what was the original incarnation of Aperture Science . Among numerous awards and accolades for advances in science and potato…science is one particular certificate bestowed to Cave Johnson by “Aperture Fixtures”. In seems that between Cave’s banner year in 1943 and the latter half the decade he not only took over the company but changed the “Fixtures” to “Science Innovators” and immediately began expanding the company’s offering.

Aperture Fixtures Certificate Aperture Fixtures logo recreation

It would be stretching (a fair bit) to really analyze this logo. In all likelihood this particular mark is probably just the next logo with details removed for this, almost completely hidden, in-joke for the game. I doubt much time was spent on this particular logo, but I think its important to note for posterity’s sake at the least. I suppose at the outside its vaguely reminiscent of a water valve or the bottom of a shower-head.

Aperture Science Innovators- 194? – 1969

Aperture Innovators entrance sign

Now we’re getting somewhere. This logo, prominently displayed at almost every opportunity, represents the real beginning for the Aperture we see in Portal and Portal 2. In the post-war U.S. of the late 1940s and 50s, the United States had become a superpower. Atomic energy was changing the face of science, technology, and commerce and consumerism was king. This idyllic, smiling housewife, pipe chewing Dad, Rockwellian scenario nearly crawls out of this logo and off the screen.

As I said, Valve loves to do their homework and with this particular mark they’ve really managed to retain the “present” identity of Aperture Science while simultaneously dating it about 60 years previous to the game’s release. With the Atomic Age in full swing a great number of companies chose to incorporate elements that reflected this time of rapid technological advancement into their visual identity. A few of these logos pre-date the era in which I’m talking about, but I felt their inclusion had merit based similarities both visual and conceptual to the fictitious Aperture Science Innovators.

TMC (circa 1950s) Telcolabs (circa 1940s) Roland von Siebenthal (1957) Robotron (1948)
Pan Am (1950s) Sovtek (circa 1940s) Heathkit logo (1949) Bell System logo (1939)

Taken as a group we can see certain commonalities emerge. In the mid 20th century logos started to become more abstracted, less literal and rendered and more evocative of an ideal or a concept (Robotron, Pan Am, Siebenthal mark). Many logos of the time are very circular in nature, and for the most part, the information they portray is contained within the shape or a border-line rather than outside or in conjunction with it (Quaker, Pan Am, Bell, Heathkit). Most obviously is the inclusion of “energy” motifs, sometimes specifically atomic in nature (Telefunken, Robotron, Sovtek, Telcolab, Whiz etc).

One of the things that really fascinates me about older logos is that many times a brief description or list of what the company actually does is included in the brand itself. We can see on the above Robotron and Bell System logos specifically tell the viewer what the company provides or does.

Aperture Science Innovators board Aperture Science Innovators recreation

Similarly, the Aperture Science logo from post-war/cold war era Aperture Science lists its primary shower and bath products (this despite the fact that in the corresponding test chambers you are working with anything but bath fixtures or home insulation).

This logo really manages to incorporate all of the above themes I’ve listed. It is futuristic, but in that naive pre-space race kind of way that is more charming than impressive. The fact that Valve went so far as to create both a vertical and horizontal version of the logo really just astounds me. Often companies will have two (or more) versions of their logo in either orientation so as to accommodation either possible configuration. That this consideration exists for a fictitious company in a videogame helps to sell the idea of Aperture as a real functioning entity and on a niche level informs that the game’s designers really love and are educated about what they do.

However the logo is partly anachronistic. The font used here is a horizontally squished (or vertically stretched) version of Helvetica Inserat, a font that did not technically exist until 1957. The other element here of particular note is that this logo incorporates both the first Apeture Fixtures logo and a slightly different version of the most recent Aperture Science mark. The below graphic attempts to explain what I mean:

Aperture Logo heritage

You can see that the ring outside the atom graphic in the logo contains lines that are at angles to the center, and lines that follow the 8 cardinal directions. Separating these lines out by themselves (all the at-angles lines, or all the cardinal lines) yields the two logos: the oldest Aperture Fixtures logo, and the newest Aperture Laboratories logo.

aperture- 1970 – 1982

aperture sun lobby sign

By the 1970s, the allure and wide-eyed hope of the Atomic Age had washed away in a cascade of rock music and psychedelic drugs. Accordingly many companies, some of whom had been long-standing institutions since the turn of the century and earlier, had to modify and update their branding to accommodate a rapidly changing majority demographic: stoned flower-children.

For many businesses both newly created and re-branded, this meant a further abstraction of their visual identity. Some so far as to be represented by simple geometric patterns and shapes, influenced by the proliferation of colorful patterns and strange acid-influenced film and television media. Since this period of design is so clearly influenced by the burgeoning alt-cultures of the time, I have included some images that are more indicative of the popular aesthetic rather than specifically corporate branding.

Minolta (1978) CBC (1974) Adidas (1972) Living room setup (1970s)
Televisa (1973) Various marks (1970s) “Living room setup (1970s) Food wrapper (1972) Ocean City, MD (1970s)

I am in a unique position with the “Ocean City” logo as I remember seeing it as a very young child when I lived in Maryland. Upon seeing the new mark for Aperture Science, now just “aperture” stylized in all lowercase, in the game it conjured up that dolphin and the stylized sun motif immediately. You can see this idea of increasingly smaller lines and using multiple lines in general in across many of the above logos. In addition, it seems that in the 1970s everyone really liked the colors orange and brown, and just about any approximate in between. This is similarly reflected on the additional signage and interior design of this particular section in Portal 2.

aperture logo recreation aperture lobby sign

In conjunction with the stylized sun motif the mark uses the typeface Cooper Black (today simply “Cooper”), designed as a heavier variant on Cooper Old Style in 1922. The typeface was popular in the advertising of the 1920s and but faded into near-obscurity when its patent was lost in 1930 amidst a flood of knock-offs and the rising popularity of cleaner typefaces like Futura and Helvetica.

It was not until 1965 when the font made a major re-appearance on the cover of the seminal Beach Boy’s album Pet Sounds. The album musically is considered a landmark of 20th century music, heralding the “psychedelic” era of pop and rock and thus became a common icon for fans to rally around. As such, Cooper Black became a very prominent typeface throughout the next 20-30 years.

Tootsie Roll (1960s) Payless Shoe Source (1960s) Ziggy Stardust (1972)
Doors L.A. Woman EP (1971) M*A*S*H (1972) Pet Sounds (1965)

However like its contemporary typeface Avant Garde, Cooper Black lost its counter-culture cachet and became victim to over-exposure and complete lack of tact in its use. Today the font is equally synonymous with “the hippy generation” as it is with slogan t-shirts, low-grade food products and “World’s Best _____” mugs.

Vote for Pedro (2004) Top Ramen (19??) Goblin (2011) Garfield at Large (1980) Fraser Farm (19??)

Despite this, the font’s use in the “aperture” mark is at the very least, highly appropriate. It fits the era from which it comes from, and fits the sort of free-wheeling if not entirely dubious spirit of the company.

Aperture Laboratories- 1982 – Present

Aperture Laboratories elevator

Upon entering the final test chamber before rapidly ascending the rest of the way up, Chell experiences something a little more familiar. The start of the Aperture she knows best. This is where things can get interesting if I sat here long enough and ruminated. There’s no particular outstanding aesthetic about this final version of Aperture Science, now with the appended “Laboratories” that anchors it in the 1980s. Likely this is owed to the fact that the logo was originally designed for the first Portal and was intended more to reflect a cold, faceless, and monolithic technology organization.

Aperture Laboratories (current)

On this level the mark succeeds beautifully by incorporating a more stylized “aperture” icon (note the interior is a negative space octagon as opposed to the circle shape cut out of the initial 1950s-era logo) and the go-to “clean and corporate” typeface beast of Arial.

Wait what?

Indeed, it seems that here, just as was pointed out to me in When Your Tires Kiss the Street Part 2 what appears (and is easily assumed) to be Helvetica is in fact Arial.

Why is this important?

It’s not particularly. The biggest reason to make note of this stems from the fact that many graphic designers, typographers, and general internet armchair snobs boycott the Arial typeface. In the early 1990s, Arial was included on copies of Microsoft Windows whereas Helvetica was not and was primarily used on Apple platforms. Most design purists contend that Arial is essentially a hack-job of Helvetica but in being “the font that comes with every copy of Windows”  fails to educate, license, or give credit to Helvetica and its original designers.

From a design standpoint it’s fairly moot to me. The letterforms are marginally (to the casual audience) different, but the general purpose and use of the typefaces remains the same. I suppose if anything its interesting that I assumed game developers would have access to the Helvetica font and choose it over Arial if given the option.

Aperture Labs vs Aperture Science Innovators logos

So, as a mark the current Aperture Laboratories branding does a great job of projecting the monolithic-corporate look. Additionally, it also pays homage to the origins of Aperture Science some 40-50 years prior. It’s a great connection that Valve has made between these two brands; the current logo is made to seem like a purposeful callback to the old one. This tactic of “making something old new again” is utilized time and again with modern-day companies (see: recent spate of retro logos on junk food and soda packages), and is just another way that Valve’s games stand up to more than just a shallow level of scrutiny.

Interesting sidenote: the year this logo makes its first appearance, 1982, Sonoran Sans Serif was created as an alternative (rather than licensing the rights) to Helvetica for IBM office printers; Sonoran Sans Serif was renamed Arial in 1991. The following year (1983) Helvetica received a shot-in-the-arm for its popularity when the font was re-visited, more strictly codified, partially redrawn and re-released as Neue Helvetica.


It’s clear that a lot of time and thought went into the creation of Aperture’s back story and that Valve was not content for its efforts to live inside of hidden corners of the game, or in a text document buried on a website; these logos serve as the load screens for the second half of the game. They are the product several deft touches and nuance poured into singular works of art that speak on a deeper level as to the thoroughness of the Valve creative process.

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Posted in Games, Logos, Logotypes, Portal 2, Typography

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