Of Billikens and Plaid-Patterned Elephants
A while back I got a note from William Powell at St. Louis Magazine, asking me for comment on the new redrawn Saint Louis University Billiken, its oddball mascot. I'd editorialized on mascots for the magazine a few years back, so I guess I popped up on the electronic rolodex, so to speak. I'd forgotten about it until somebody said something to me today, having seen the February issue of the mag. The feature-lette bears the headline "Saint Louis University's New Billiken Logo Falls Short: An art professor reviews the recent redesign." As it happens, my lack of enthusiasm has more to do with contemporary tools and approaches to such problems than this particular mark, which is utterly of its time.
Below is the expanded version of my thoughts, which is what I sent to the magazine. Mr. Powell edited for space, understandably lopping off some of the content. Since I had it in the draft I sent to him, I thought I would save it here.
The Billiken is a creation of modern consumer culture, having been dreamed up for commercial purposes by a Kansas City illustrator named Florence Pretz. She secured a design patent for an elfin figure with giant feet, a tuft of hair and vaguely Asian affect in 1908. Advertising personalities and ersatz totemic characters were part of the emerging mass culture landscape at the time, and the Billiken had a short, lucrative run as a national fad. Briefly, Billkens were everywhere. (Grace Drayton’s variations on her “Campbell’s Kids” and Rose O’Neill’s Kewpie dolls are comparable examples, although both had a bit more staying power than Ms. Pretz’s Billiken. But it can be argued that only the Billiken–thanks to SLU–remains standing.)
At some point–-there are competing versions-–the Billiken became attached to SLU athletics. He received variously formal visual treatments as the character solidified. In the 1980s he had a hand-drawn Seussian quality, later codified in the 1995 version, badly.
The newest Billiken–redesigned by the Minneapolis brand shop Olson–has been standardized into an emblem. He has rotated into a full frontal view. His formerly lumpy cheeks and pronounced chin–which made him look like a clove of garlic endowed with ears–have been pumped up by geometry, like mid-2000s Cadillacs. Once elfin, the Billiken has gone gremlinesque.
As with many contemporary sports logotypes, the “drawing” of the character seems to have been been produced by a laser cutter. This is the legacy of Adobe Illustrator, the 21st century tool of choice for hard-edged representations.
The new guy is impressive enough, I suppose, but the image lacks all touch—it looks decreed, not drawn.
The calligraphic origins of all such drawings are lost in latter-day translations. The best mid-20th century advertising characters were made with ink and brush, and you could tell. For anyone with a geek’s interest in such things, check out Meet Mr. Product, by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain, 2003.
A last point. Olson’s Billiken is a two-color treatment: blue and gray. But there’s no logical reason for the second color. The gray passage on the right side of the Billiken’s face is intended to convey shadow. The light, such as it is, suggested by the form reads left to right. The gray could just as easily be a screened-back version of the blue, printable as halftone. (Translated from printer’s language, that means it could just look like light blue with a darker blue.) I would have skipped the second color or given it something else to do.