Logotype Case Study: Sealaska

Creative typography design process inspired by Native American art
Style inspiration for logotype for Native American corporation logo

Namgis, Thunderbird Transformation Mask, 19th century.


As an expressive lettering designer I always look for projects that allow typography to blend with art. The Sealaska identity project offered a chance to create letterforms directly inspired by the language of Northwest Coast Native art. The Sealaska corporation represents the heritage of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian tribes in a vast enterprise spanning timber, mining, fisheries management and government. My project brief was to create letterforms that reflected Northwest Coast art and sensibilities, while including the existing symbol of the organization. The traditionally styled icon shows the joined heads of a raven and eagle, symbolizing the Tlingit and Haida nations.

Sealaska Symbol

Before starting I looked at many masks, carvings and garments to see how the motifs interact and how they might be reflected in typography. The graphic system of Northwest Coast art relies on a distinctive balance of negative and positive space. Many of the shapes have the character of feathers or the scales of fish, of leaves, or beaks and claws. The challenge with typography for a modern corporation was how to reference traditional motifs without becoming kitschy, or seeming to parody the culture. A letterform that is explicitly an animal or bird very quickly becomes a cartoon. The logotype went through months of design and revision and review, and the brief changed as ideas were presented. Here is part of the process. Some are shown without the symbol, as the brief required that the logo stand alone as well.

Logotype incorporating Native American motifs


This idea, one of my first, was also my favorite. The forms do not directly mimic those of the existing symbol, but they have a fluidity and elegance that made a strong statement of identity and quality.


Logotype process for Sealaska


This option squares the letterforms in a way more directly based on indigenous motifs. All of the versions in upper case faced the eternal problem of “ALASKA”— the space between the L and the A. If you want to annoy a typographer, just assign them this word. That mile of unfortunate space must be solved either by artful kerning, or by widening the overall letter spacing of the word. Because the graphic language of the art motifs required tight positive-negative lock-ups letterspacing was not really an option. To compensate for the gap I worked with creating large counter spaces elsewhere in the word to distract the eye, or alternatively I coaxed the L and A to move in together and share the space.


Sealaska logo process,hand lettered typography


I really loved this version. It references Native American motifs subtly, indirectly, and makes a contemporary corporate statement. This went quite far in the approval process and was applied to proposed letterhead and business collateral.


logo design process incorporating native american motifs


Here I redesigned the letters to more directly reflect the blunt shapes of carved motifs rather than the crispness of painted forms. This one relates very closely to the symbol. There was no way with this style to successfully close the gap between the L and A (I would have had to shorten the L until it was illegible), so I placed the symbol above it to make the negative space more intentional. I’m not sure this worked, but I was happy with the stylistic harmony of alphabet and icon.


Sealaska logo process


Ahh, lower case, how we love the spacing between these letters! Erring on the side of corporate here, with just a hint of Native American identity.


kerning in logotype design


Here I made the most of relationships, and let the A go a little wild in its connection to other letters. Although I liked the individual letters in this, as well as how it relates to the font for “Corporation,” the energy escapes along the top and bottom of the design in a way that distracts from the idea of institutional solidity.


Innovative typographic logotype design


This series developed in response to committee comments: Where is the water? Much of the identity of the Sealaska region revolves in some way around the water, whether as a fishing resource or as a traditional form of transportation and inspiration for art. Here the condensed letterforms represent Alaska’s mountains, while the crossbars of the A’s  suggest waves, horizon lines, or the distant profiles of canoes.


Logotype development process


The final stage of this process went back to something invisible: Energy. The committee decided that the most important idea behind the logo was motion forward, a confident dynamism, and the sense of the people involved, together creating an energetic whole. A lowercase italic is more personal than uppercase. It is approachable, conversational and inviting. The characters, being so clearly hand-made, are in a sense stand-ins for human “characters.” This style can create a more emotional relationship with the viewer.

Unfortunately after presentation of this last round of ideas the organization changed leadership, and minds. Although a version of script appeared on apparel none of these concepts were ever used as the final logo. I kept this project and all the steps, because they form a sort of bible of design process. A project like this demonstrates the complex messaging that goes into a wordmark design. It also shows the intricacies of how cultural motifs and subliminal symbols can integrate with letterforms to influence the message in different ways. In an ideal world I would make whatever I thought worked best and my clients would just love it. In the real world I often work with groups, and many opinions come into play. My job as a designer is to be nimble and responsive and willing to begin again as many times as it takes to get to the goal.

Share this