British Steel
‘S’

1969–1999

Design: David Gentleman (UK)

British Steel was a major UK steel producer established under the Iron and Steel Act of 1967 – a decree that brought together 90% of Britain’s steelmaking companies.

In 1969, David Gentleman (an artist-designer who is perhaps better known for his illustration, stamp design, protest graphics and wood engravings, in an impressive career spanning nearly six decades) was commissioned to design a symbol for the newly nationalised corporation. Gentleman was only approached after another design firm’s work was rejected by the client. As a one-man practice, and working to an extremely tight time-frame, he devised a logo masterpiece.

Whilst gaining insights into the steel-making process, Gentleman became fascinated by iron samples that were contorted for strength and stress tests. These incidental shapes inspired a symbol consisting of two bent steel plates that formed the letter ‘S’. According to Gentleman, the idea “came first from my own wish to suggest that steel was strong and flexible. Only later did I discover that steel was bent in order to test its strength … so I used this as a rationale, but I didn’t know that at the time!”

The simple geometry of the customised ‘S’, which shares the same proportions as the A series of international paper sizes, meant it could easily reproduce at any scale. Apart from black or white, the symbol could only be rendered in Pacific Blue. It was used in many iterations, from huge steel plants to print collateral and livery assets such as trucks and trains. The motif is a harmonious marriage between form and content – and expressed the characteristics of a powerful industrial process with great economy. According to designer Mike Dempsey, Gentleman’s symbol is “the epitome of pure modernist graphic design,” – “maximum effect employing the minimum of elements. It is witty, distinctive, memorable and over four decades on, it still looks fresh and beautiful.”

Gentleman’s design survived both a conversion of the company as a public limited company (plc) and privatisation in 1988. However by 1999, British Steel had agreed to amalgamate with Hoogovens of the Netherlands. As ‘a merger of equals’, the new concern adopted a new name Corus and logo (designed by Enterprise IG). British Steel’s unforgettable symbol was deemed obsolete and ungraciously dumped on the scrapheap.

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