The Virgin (Scrawl) Logo

In the first edition of his autobiography ‘Loosing My Virginity’ Richard Branson claimed to have been personally involved in the design of the now legendary Virgin scrawl Logo. While his story has changed over time, he still claims that the conception of this iconic corporate identity involved a napkin in a restaurant, and that he was involved in the process.

However, the current description in Wikipedia, which I believe was edited by Simon Draper, comes closer to the truth. After experimenting with several alternate short-lived Virgin label designs in 1975 and 1976, the current Virgin logo (known informally as “the scrawl”) was created in 1978, commissioned by Simon Draper, then managing director of Virgin Records Limited. Brian Cooke of Cooke Key Associates commissioned a graphic designer to produce a stylized signature. The logo was first used on Mike Oldfield’s Incantations album in 1978 and by the Virgin Records label exclusively until gradually other parts of the Virgin Group adopted it, including Virgin Atlantic Airlines.

Well, Simon Draper did indeed commission Cooke Key Associates, who were Virgin’s design agency at the time, to come up with designs for a new logo. It was March 1978 and we had just redesigned our own logo, which is shown here. At a meeting about the label’s logo Simon remarked on how much he liked ours and maybe we could look at doing something similar for Virgin. The Cooke Key logo was our concept, which in truth was inspired by a lithograph by the famous Dutch graphic artist M.C.Escher, which depicts two hands drawing each other with pencils.

I may have been away for some part of the process as I have no recollection to support or challenge the memories of two others who were involved. First Tony Hutchinson says “I was the third director of ‘Cooke Key’ at this time – brought in to free up Brian Cooke and Trevor Key to concentrate on their first loves photography. I along with Trevor took the brief from Richard Branson at our regular monday morning marketing meeting over breakfast in the Portobello Hotel. On returning to the studio we decided to brainstorm the project at our favourite creative lunch venue, the local ‘Pizza Express’ close to the British Museum. Present I think were the usual gang Brian and Trevor, John Varnom and John Ayton and myself. Between us we knew Virgin well. We all saw it as a dynamic young personality led business, a family with Richard at the head and our thoughts honed in on the idea of a signature, as if penned by Richard himself. I recall trevor doodling a ‘Virgin’ on a napkin which I took back to the studio. (Tony may not have been privy to Simon Draper’s suggestion of it looking like our Cooke Key logo, may have forgotten about it or may even have not joined us at that stage.)

That afternoon, Trevor and myself with Hillary Goodwright, who was one of our designers, spent our time signing A4 sheets of paper with Virgin signatures. We used ball point, fountain and calligraphic pens, magic markers and anything and everything we could find to sign with. We enlarged and reduced on the ‘grant’. The best we put up on the studio walls. The chosen one just shone out as good designs do, and looked remarkably like that original doodle by Trevor. I remember tweaking the final version, slightly narrowing the angle on the V and adjusting the inter-character spacing. Trevor and I presented the idea to Richard in his office and I started the presentation by laying down the napkin, followed by applications such as the circular labels on vinyl and a range of stationery. Richard liked it, however, soon after the presentation he wanted to see more ideas. We presented new ideas monthly for the next 6 months and I must say nothing came close to the simple beauty and strength of the signature.  Time constraints mainly caused by the twins logo looking increasingly dated pressurised Richard into re-looking at the first idea, the signature. We visualised many applications of the logo applying it to the other virgin divisions and re-presented to Richard. We got the approval to proceed to artwork.

It was only at this point we brought in Ray Kite as an illustrator/typographer to create a range of three masters which would reproduce at 6 to 24 point, 24 to 240 point and finally for larger applications. He had no involvement in its conception. As for inspiration, the claim that it came from Ray Kite’s identity for Cooke Key was certainly not the case in my mind, I was not a part of Cooke Key at its inception. For me the inspiration came from that creative lunch and the tuned understanding we had of ‘Virgin’ the company and for Richard himself.”

However John Ayton, our accountant and some time conceptual conspirator and male model remembers, “As I recall, as I think you do, Simon Draper spoke to Trevor about wanting to create a new logo for the Virgin Label and said in passing that he liked the signature style of Cooke Key Associates; Trevor arranged for some mock ups to be created by Ray Kite (who had designed CKA’s logo) and Trevor presented them to a meeting on Branson’s barge, where the idea was accepted and then developed by CKA.  I billed the design in its required applications for £2,000 to Virgin Records (without any specified usage – whoops!) and Ray Kite was paid £250 for the calligraphy.  Richard reinvented, we assume by way of poor recall, the events of that meeting in the first edition of his autobiography, suggesting he had come up the idea. Characteristically, there were “no flies on him” to dispute this claim.  I remember you telling me that Ray Kite was upset at this misrepresentation and had contacted you – and after some discourse, Richard rewrote the event in the revised edition.”

Being photographers we had commissioned graphic designer, Ray Kite of Mind’s Eye, to undertake the calligraphy for the Cooke Key name and airbrushing for the pencil to our design concept. Once it had been decided, by whatever process, how our new Virgin logo would look, we briefed Ray to undertake calligraphy which really emphasised the V of Virgin, making it a tick, a strong mark of approval. He produced a number of alternatives on water-colour paper, which we had specified so that the edges would be broken, making for an undisciplined feel.

We decided on which we liked the best and I photographed the original onto 5”x4” black & white film. From this tone negative, shown above, I made a high contrast positive by ‘contact’ printing, and then a high contrast negative, shown below on the left. After some retouching I then made a high contrast positive, below right, by the same means.

This positive was again contact printed onto lith film to give us the final negative from which prints would be made to produce the artwork. This final negative is shown below.

We then passed this over to our paste-up artists who made mock-ups of the label using the new logo and we submitted them to Simon who approved the design and commissioned the artwork. On delivery of the finished artwork back to Simon, I clearly remember him saying that we should hold on, as he had better get it approved by Richard.

When the use of the logo started to spread, first to the Virgin Records’ corporate identity and then to Virgin Retail, we said nothing as Virgin was still Cooke Key’s main customer and we did not want to rock the boat. By the time it spread further Cooke Key had disbanded and all evidence of our work on the logo had disappeared, so it became impossible to prove the issue one way or another. However, I have recently discovered the original negatives and positives that I made in the process of designing the logo, which clearly demonstrate our provenance.

There is a postscript to this story in that in February 2014 I travelled to America for the first time and we flew with Virgin Atlantic. We were set to fly at night and I knew the Aurora Borealis was very active at the time, so I made sure we had seats on the right hand side by a window. The Northern Lights are a phenomenon that both my wife and I have on our list of things to see so we were delighted when just south of Greenland they duly appeared. In truth they were very pale but fortunately I had my new Nikon Df with me, which has a fantastically sensitive chip, which allowed me to take the picture below.

My music business pictures are available at Getty Images and on my own website A lot of my/our (Cooke Key) Virgin Records work can be seen here.