d.i.y. perfection

you draw it stupid!!!…

by Art Chantry (art@artchantry.com)

this is one of the most brilliant and perfect logos in design history.

“K” records was formed in olympia, washington, in the early 1980′s as a little indie record label intending to put out records by calvin johnson’s little weird band called “beat happening.” the covers were drawn by hand and all the lettering was also done by hand. the result was an almost childish, certainly child-LIKE look that quickly became the primary aesthetic of the entire olympia music scene. this is pretty much where that whole ‘emo’ style started (and “alt” and ‘sensitive singer songwriter noodling on the internet’ fad).

AC:there are SO MANY looney K/olymia stories waiting to be told. the importance of K and the olympia scene has been ignored too long. there's a HUGE book waiting to made about that stuff. so many genius talents and styles and ideas were born in that scene. it's one of those 'motherload' subculture moments.

soon, calvin was recording and releasing little 45′s by his friends that he hung out with and played music with, too, and in no time at all a whole label roster of interesting eccentric talents emerged – mecca normal, some velvet sidewalk, mary lou lord, girl trouble, bratmobile, beck, nirvana. the influence of this little music scene really can’t be underestimated. bruce pavitt was profoundly inspired by calvin johnson’s label (they were both living in olympia and met each other at evergreen state college (the ‘post hippie’ state college where hey both studied.) soon, bruce was starting his own record company (called ‘sub pop” short for “subterranean pop”) based loosely, but heavily influenced by the taste and thinking of “k”. bruce went on to extoll the virtues of “K” records in his rocket magazine column. the title? “K” records is the best record company in the universe!” without “k” i wonder if there would ever have been a sub pop or grunge at all…

when “K” records created itself, it was so classically “DIY” (do it yourself) that it was virtually created out of thin air. like i pointed out, when it came time to make a record cover for the little 45′s, calvin simply sat down(seemingly with a coloring crayon) and DREW them. all the images and lettering were childish scrawls scribbled in a same crude amateurish style that was hilarious when first encountered. at the rocket, whenever we got a new “K” record in, we’d parade around and show it off and laugh and laugh at how ridiculously crude it was. we thought we were such big shots, but the joke was on us. soon, the “K” style was everywhere around us and we actually found ourselves trying to look like it as well..

of course, when it came time to create a business identity (everybody has a logo, right?) calvin sat down and drew that, too. this is it (above, drawn by me, a couple of minutes ago). i don’t exactly know where the “K” name came from (it may have had something to do with john foster’s “OP” magazine that documented underground independent music in alphabetical order . issue 1 was “A” profiling every underground alternative music performer or band starting with the letter “A”, the second issue was “B”, etc. it quit after 26 issues. i think maybe calvin noticed there weren’t many in the”K” issue?). but, when he sat down to draw his little logo in the corner of the 45 cover, he did something primal and brilliant. he drew a coat of arms/shield and scrawled a capitol letter “K” inside of it. simple, pure, essential, primal and scary smart.

the simple clarity of the image itself was only a small part of it’s brilliance. the real genius came form the application. because this was such a low budget, DIY business, they really couldn’t afford proper production or graphic design prep work . they all did their own graphic design sitting at the kitchen table. computers weren’t around yet. so, what do you do when your completely broke and want a logo that is consistent as a brand? you draw the same thing over and over. this simple trademark was that image drawn over and over – whenever they needed it – with your own hand. the identifying factor was the crudely hand- rendered appearance of it (as well as the shield and the “K”) to properly depict this logo in any graphic environment, you had to sit down and DRAW it in by hand. any scribing tool was fine – a crayon, a pencil, a brush, a stick in the dirt…) now, THAT was pure genius. basically anybody could simply draw the log and it was a legit corporate image for use! YOU need a “K” logo? then YOU DRAW IT, STUPID!!

i remember at the rocket when we would have to slap together layouts or adverts for the little labels. when we came to a “K” records item, we sat down and pulled out a pencil or pen and literally DREW it into the paste-up. when we did articles on the label or one of their bands, whenever we needed to mention the record label in the article itself, we DREW it into the text in a little gap provided. when you talk about 8 point type, that’s pretty small. the resulting articles were peppered with these little tiny crude hand drawn logos as part of the alphabet.

the “K” style and the “K” logo became so influential that it became part of the standard underground lexicon. it was as if calvin and “K” were simply teaching by example how to do what the big boys do. except you didn’t need an official label provided

o of the trademark on the (for example) sticker, all you needed was a pen. a “K” label product could be identified in a quick glance even in a huge chain record store it stood out like a big sore thumb. the logo was such a big successful marketing campaign (by accident) that it began to make olympia famous for its music and culture and style across the planet. when curt cobain got his first tattoo, it was a the “K” logo on his forearm.

eventually, as the look became copycatted and emulated, the necessity to standardize the logo and identity became “necessary.” not because of mis-idenfication or sloppy reproduction or inconsistent interpretation of values or anything ‘normal’ like that. all of that unprofessionalism was perfectly fine, even desirable to the trademark. what happened other professional concerns like other major record companies and mainstream magazines and ad agencies, et. al., didn’t understand just sitting down and drawing a logo when you needed one, that the hand-made look was a major component of the identity itself. so, “K” eventually broke down and had a ‘logo sheet’ done up to hand out to those businesses that ‘needed’ them. it was so weird to see a b&w sheet of photostat paper covered with identically scrawled “K” logos in assorted sizes. some businesses were so befuddled by the logo even in that form that calvin had to add the word “records” to a selection of the logos (scrawled by hand, of course) just so people in the mainstream world would actually understand what they were looking at. it really felt like a sellout the first time i saw it, as if a moment of independence and magic was passing. it felt like growing up. so sad.

“k” records was brilliant in that it standardized DIY as a graphic mainstream concept. with out “K”‘s decidedly lame, accidental (and naively brilliant) entry into the hipster sweepstakes of the 1990′s, we probably wouldn’t have this flood/fad of hand-scrawled graphic design that we have today. we wouldn’t have the rich plethora of DIY nerd fashion so prominent right now. “K” was the seed, the original, the smartest and the best. “the greatest record label (logo) in the universe!”


AC:the brilliance of total DIY is that it entirely eliminates any middle man. the thought goes directly from your brain tot he finished product – the actual use. who even needs graphic designers anymore, eh? i mean, really, who needs a computer, either? keep your money and do something important with it….

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