14 min read

The German artist and graphic designer Anton Stankowski (1906-1998) produced a great number of brand images during his time. Many of the iconic text-and-image logos he created are still in use today, and have lost none of their visual power. His most famous form mark, recognised around the world, is the Deutsche Bank logo.

Anton Stankowski was born in 1906 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. He first trained as a decorative painter and church painter before going on to study graphic design at the Folkswang School in Essen, and then to work in advertising. However, Stankowski, was not interested in limiting his creativity to one single area. He pursued a number of artistic disciplines, including commercial art, photography, painting, drawing and graphic design – and in all of these fields, his work was visually captivating.  For Stankowski, art and design were inseparable.

Anton Stankowski with the oblique stroke in the studio, 1980.
© Nikolaus Koliusis, Stuttgart. Source: Stankowski Stiftung Stuttgart.

In the 1960s and 1970s his graphic design studio produced numerous well-known brand images which are still in use today, including text logos for Viessmann and the Deutscher Werkbund, as well as the logo of the German Design Council, which has served as the foundation’s visual identity since 1960. In 1974 Stankowski designed the logo for Deutsche Bank, a square with a diagonal line through it. In his later years, Stankowski dedicated himself exclusively to concrete painting.

The article below by German Design Council CEO Andrej Kupetz, originally published in 2014 in „The Major German Brands“, explains the genesis and unique qualities of the image that has served as the logo of Deutsche Bank for over four decades.

Brand value added squared

How Concrete Art revolutionised financial communications 40 years ago.

By Andrej Kupetz.

“Long live our new logo. After a corporate history stretching back 100 years Deutsche Bank has now drawn a (final) line through the oval of its logo.” These were the euphoric words to be read in December 1973 in the staff newspaper “db-aktuell” celebrating the launch of the new Deutsche Bank logo. It was the brainchild of German design pioneer Anton Stankowski, and the radical thrust innate in the statement made by the line which runs not below but through the oval of the former logo hits the nail on the head. With his symbol, a square with an ascendant slanting line visually set off at the centre (mathematically speaking it is precisely not a diagonal) he created an epoch-making logo for Deutsche Bank. With the benefit of hindsight, the fact that it has been in uninterrupted use for four decades indicates just what aesthetic qualities and validity it has.

Stankowski’s logo is one of modern Germany’s most striking shapes, like F. A. Porsche’s Porsche 911, Peter Raake’s Mono A cutlery, Richard Sapper’s Tizio luminaire or Otl Aicher’s corporate design for Lufthansa, all of them still in use as good as unchanged. Yet while other outstanding logos of the period, among them Stankowski’s own creations such as the logos for Iduna or Viessmann, combine words and visual symbols, the Deutsche Bank logo is unique. It contains no formal reference to a bank, no explanatory reference to the company’s name or activities. Rather, it is a pure, clear shape and yet also the fundamental result of a visual inquiry by Anton Stankowski as a member of the Concrete Art movement, with the geometric elements of the line and the square.

Staff newspaper “db aktuell”, 1973

Creating the symbols for a new age

In the early 1970s, Deutsche Bank restructured, emphasising personal banking business, and there were changes in its Board. Eckart van Hooven, the pioneer of retail business, joined the Board in 1972 where, among other things, he was responsible for personal banking, advertising and building finance. He later managed Deutsche Bank’s entry into the insurance and building loans segments. With him at the helm, innovations such as eurocheques and ec cards were advanced to a point where they constituted a uniform European payments system.

With his focus on personal banking business van Hooven became the man on the Board driving not only a democratisation of the general thrust of business, but also a modernisation of the company’s image. He found an ally in the Board Spokesman, Franz Heinrich Ulrich. “In 1972 the issue was a new logo for the bank, which at the time still used the interwoven vignette with the letters DB that dated back to its very beginnings. Over dinner in Paris I showed him [Board Spokesman Franz Heinrich Ulrich] our host’s modern logo [Société Generale] resplendent on the menu, drawn to resemble a ball, and suggested to him that we have a new logo developed for Deutsche Bank. He concurred.” (Eckart van Hooven, Meistbegünstigt, p. 64)

A competition for the new logo was held with a restricted number of invited participants. Those invited included the major designers of the day, among them Frankfurt designer Olaf Leu, Stuttgart’s Hace Frey, Cologne’s Coordt von Mannstein, Armin Hofmann from Basel, Switzerland – and Anton Stankowski from Stuttgart. It was an age when big names ran their own “graphic studios”, and the large, international brand agencies and networks had not yet emerged. The outstanding group of participants was judged by a no less outstanding expert jury that was to recommend one of the proposals to the Board. Among the jurors were Jupp Ernst, who designed the Afri Cola bottle and had been Director of Kassel’s Werkkunstschule, Hans Kuh, Editor-in-Chief of the trade journal “NOVUM Gebrauchsgraphik”, and Prof. Stefan Waetzold, Director General of Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

The briefing was succinct and to the point: “It must be possible to use the new logo anywhere in the world, to produce it graphically and technically in high quality it must be easily recognisable, and as unmistakable as possible. It should be consistent with the importance and character of our company while also expressing dynamism and a progressive outlook. When designing the vignette you may use either a) the combination of letters ‘DB’ or b) a symbol that exhibits the above characteristics.”

A total of 140 entries were submitted and the jury of experts had the job of compiling a short list and then nominating a favourite. At its meeting of 19 January 1973 it chose from among the sub missions Olaf Leu’s highly abstract letter combination “DB”. However, Leu’s logo did not appeal to the Board which instead preferred Stankowski’s “Oblique stroke in a square”.

I had placed today’s logo, the square with the oblique stroke, in the centre and managed to persuade the Board Spokesman to study the designs before the 11 Board members entered the hall to make a final decision. [ … ]. There were no objections and the logo was accepted, albeit not by all the directors present.

Eckart van Hooven, Meistbegünstigt (p. 64)

On 29 October 1973 the bank’s head office sent out a special circular to all the branch offices on the introduction of the new logo. It explained the decision as follows. “From among a whole host of designs we have chosen the above symbol because:

  • With its deliberately simple design it functions as an unmistakable sign that can easily be noted and remembered;
  • It is timeless and not fashionable;
  • It can be used in many ways;
  • It clearly differs from the logos of other banks and banking groups;
  • In the opinion of experts it can compare with renowned international corporate brands.”

The staff newspaper “db-aktuell” celebrated the new logo in December 1973. Especially as it all seemed so abstract for staff members. What did the “oblique stroke in the square” stand for? The familiar letters of “DB” in the vignette, as an abbreviation of the bank’s name, had disappeared in favour of a purely graphic symbol. There had been some scepticism. What to do to successfully manage the launch of the new logo? Deutsche Bank’s advertising department had proposed a staff competition to give the new baby a name. And it was successful.

In early April the advertising staff and the heads of the personal banking sections in the main offices all convened in Friedrichsdorf. The group had been entrusted with the task of using a points system to decide which name best characterised the logo’s semantic content.

Deutsche Bank, 1973

The committee felt that the name “signpost” best captured the intentions. The logo then premiered a little later, on 26 August 1973: at a far remove from the action in its domestic market, Deutsche Bank opened its representative office in Sydney with the new logo on the door and as lapel pins for all those attending.

In Germany, the logo went public at the press conference presenting the annual financial statements on 2 April 1974. The press response was not long in coming. Most commentators welcomed the development, although with a degree of scepticism at the protagonists’ audacity as regards the desired change in the bank’s image. As one thing is clear: Deutsche Bank, that venerable institution established in 1870 to finance German industry’s foreign trade, was now a member of the avant-garde. Not only in terms of the business fields it developed and its efforts to extend its international reach, but also in the field of external communications around the world, blazing the trail by discovering the potential innate in relying on Concrete Art.

Stankowski and Concrete Art

From the perspective of design, the logo’s quality is clear from its unmistakability and its timelessness. The artistic genius innate in Anton Stankowski’s design only emerges if one concerns oneself with his prints and those currents of the day that influenced him and which he in turn actively shaped. The square as a theme plays a key role in 20th century abstract art. In 1915, the perfect geometric form with all its pure force provoked a fully fledged scandal in the high-minded world of the art salons when Russian painter Kasimir Malevich first exhibited a painted black square on a white background. In his wake, the square became a key element of Modernism, occurring in the work of the Constructivists, the De Stijl movement in the Netherlands, the Zurich Concrete Artists right through to Minimal Art. In the first few decades of the 20th century, countless artists addressed the square in the form and content of their work. Stankowski, who had trained as a decorator and church painter and then from 1927 onward studied Prints, Typography and Photography at the Folkwangschule in Essen under Max Burchartz, relocated to Zurich in 1929, where he came into contact with the ideas of Concrete or Constructive Art.

The term “Concrete Art” was coined in 1924 by Dutchman Theo von Doesburg to describe a movement in art that was based on mathematical/geometric foundations. Concrete Art is not abstract, for it concerns itself solely with shapes and colours and the potential of constructive principles, rather than seeking to abstract from reality. Stankowski was seized by the ideas that were being bandied about in the vibrant discussions among the Zurich protagonists of Constructive Art, including Richard Paul Lohse, Hans Neuburg and Max Bill. He transposed the ideas of Concrete Art into his own subject matter, namely graphic design and advertising. By considering photography and typography as constructive geometrical elements, he laid the basis for “constructive graphics”.

In 1934 Stankowski was forced to leave Switzerland and forthwith worked as a graphic designer in Stuttgart. After serving in the army and a spell as a POW in Russia, in 1951 he founded his own graphics studio on Stuttgart’s Killesberg. In the 1950s, the leading circle of modern designers emerged in Stuttgart, in the form of Stankowski, painter Willi Baumeister, architect Egon Eiermann, Mia Seeger, the first General Manager of the German Design Council, Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Herbert Hirche. Stankowski devised ground-breaking advertising for IBM and SEL. In the 1960s he developed the visual identity for the City of Berlin, the legendary “Berlin layout”, and the logos for the Signal Iduna insurance company and boiler technology company Viessmann, both of which are used to this day.

As early as his time in Zurich and the development of “constructive graphics”, in his picture compositions Stankowski was emphasising the oblique stroke, which he felt expressed great dynamism – an element that created tension in the pictorial composition and formed a compositional counterpoint to the intrinsically tranquil form of the square.

He repeatedly related the elements to each other in both his artistic and his commercial work, conducting an almost empirical investigation into the potential for creative composition. The symbol that thus emerged victorious in the competition for the new Deutsche Bank logo was thus not some piece that solely arose in the framework of the competition, but instead relied on the countless years Stankowski had spent exploring the relationship of square and oblique stroke.

Stankowski himself explained what made the logo so outstanding and what constituted the brand characteristics and special artistic status:

The theme underlying the visualisation is the polarity between the solid base and a future-oriented dynamism. The staggered diagonal appears symmetrical, but is in fact asymmetrical. The sloping bar that makes up this forward slash is arranged that it does not divide the square diagonally. That is its defining characteristic. The graphic composition’s ability to attract attention is this unexpected visual shift.

Anton Stankowski

In the 1960s the square inspired a whole host of logos devised for industry and public institutions. Above all in Switzerland and Germany, Concrete Art infiltrated commercial graphic design, which in turn permeated industry. Among the works of Germany’s Anton Stankowski and Herbert W. Kapitzkis as well as Switzerland’s Kurt Huber, Walter Bangerter and Kurt Wirth (to name but a few of the major designers of the day) we find countless brand logos that structure, divide or simply try formally to explode the square. All these pieces are two things at once, both works of Concrete Art and as commercial designs symbols that express the identity of a company or institution. Stankowski himself did not distinguish between art and design, saying “it’s irrelevant whether it’s art or design. What counts is whether it is good.”

Winning with the logo – or from two to three dimensions

With the advent of the new millennium the “oblique stroke in the square” logo had been in use for 30 years. Initially, its application in ads, printed matter or to designate buildings followed the customary logic of all the corporate design systems of the day, namely to be positioned as closely as possible to the words Deutsche Bank. As we can see from his designs for print ads and savings books from these early days, Stankowski wanted to have the logo function more on its own, without the typographical elements entering into a direct relationship with the symbol. However, it was not until 2005 that this was to become reality – in a manner far more visionary than what Stankowski had in mind. Today, the brand achieves recognition of over 90% and the logo has more than fulfilled the brief of being a design that is as unmistakable as possible. Now the idea is for the brand to move closer to the clients, to become part of business and social life. And Deutsche Bank’s international operations mean it requires an overarching symbol that can be understood and experienced the world over.

The starting point for the new use of the logo was the presentation of a 3D sculpture of the “oblique stroke in a square” on Wall Street in New York. The global brand campaign “Winning with the Logo” was launched. The idea: the logo takes centre stage in communications as a threedimensional volume and as the medium for the bank’s brand messages. In this way, it becomes the central image element and thematically acts as the interface between the bank and the outside world. Since the campaign kicked off, worldwide 3,000 ads have been placed that display or adapt the three-dimensional logo – for different themes and target groups, depending on the respective needs of the particular market or region, as part of the customers’ lifeworld wherever they may be, as a metaphor of the bank’s performance. The Frankfurt headquarters sets the overall framework and the local communications heads and their respective agencies round the world then realise the idea individually in their location.

That said, Deutsche Bank has gone one step further in its brand communications. Since the beginning of 2010 the logo has been presented on its own against a white background and with no link whatsoever to the company name. It is thus following the same strategy as other major global brands such as Apple and Nike. In the banking world, though, this is an absolutely new approach. Once again, Deutsche Bank has proved its pioneering spirit and has blazed the trail for the industry. In 2011 it then went even further and opened a “BrandSpace” in the Frankfurt HQ building, a platform on which to present the Deutsche Bank brand and where staff and clients from all over the world can, along with interested members of the general public, experience the company interactively. The spatial experience of the brand is a coherent and consistent advance on the “logo in space brand concept” realised globally in 2005. Now there is a location where the Deutsche Bank brand’s DNA is given manifest three-dimensional form, with the four core characteristics of passionate, precise, self-confident and open for the new.

It’s irrelevant whether it’s art or design. What counts is whether it is good.

Anton Stankowski

In the “BrandSpace” essentially virtual products and services that are not exactly tangible are transformed into physical experiences. Using the principle of anamorphosis that has played such a role in art and architecture since the Renaissance, whereby the images first become comprehensible to the viewer from a specific angle or by the introduction of mirrors, the “BrandSpace” is turned into a structure that can be experienced spatially: inside the “BrandSpace” the “oblique stroke in the square” dissolves into individual three-dimensional forms. These extensive shapes only reveal themselves as the constituent elements of the Deutsche Bank logo when seen from specific vantage points. These large anamorphoses also set the frame for three large media installations, one being autoactive, the second reactive, and the third interactive. The installations make up parts of the logo sculptures and are smoothly integrated into the architecture. Analogue and virtual design elements thus merge in space to form a self-confident image of the brand.

Ever since it opened, the “BrandSpace” and its media logo presentations have won countless international design prizes, including two Lions in Cannes, the ADC Golden Cube, the Red Dot Design Award and the ICONIC Award bestowed by the German Design Council. What is even more impressive is the sheer number of visitors the “BrandSpace” has attracted since it first opened its doors, namely more than 60,000. It would definitely seem that with the “BrandSpace”, this cutting- edge and yet popular brand stage, in passing Concrete, Kinetic and media art have joined forces to create a realistic visitor experience of the ever more virtual business world of the banking industry. Not least here we can once again discern the visionary qualities of the “oblique stroke in the square” and its ability to superbly represent Deutsche Bank in the future, too.

Share this post on Social Media:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email