11 iconic Belgian logos: the design and stories behind the country’s trademark symbols

Like most countries, Belgium counts its fair share of brands – record labels, pension funds, public transport networks, supermarket chains and the likes – that have transcended time and entered the people’s collective consciousness, the mental imprint left by their distinctive visual universes seemingly passed on from one generation to the next. Some evoke after school sweeteners, others evoke stability and savings whilst others still evoke an entirely more sinister feeling (cue FN Herstal). We take a trip through memory lane and revisit some of the titans of Belgian industry, both past and present, through their iconic visual identities.

Quick

While most European countries’ fast food fodder back in the early 70s amounted to one of three choices – McDonalds, Burger King or KFC –, Belgian people had a fourth one, Quick. Launched in 1970 by Belgian entrepreneur Baron François Vaxelaire, Quick – the first European hamburger chain of its kind – today counts over 400 restaurants in the country and abroad. Owing to Vaxelaire’s position as director of Belgian supermarket chain GB (since swallowed up by French behemoth Carrefour), the first Quick outposts were implanted on the same locations as the supermarket’s, resulting in its first name, and logo, actually being GB Quick. Visually, and right from the beginning, its burger joints’ distinctive architectural look – think lampshade-like rooftop – was designed into the logo, with the letter Q also prominently displayed. In 1987, the year the GB initials were removed from the name, orange and black were replaced by dark yellow and brown tones. Then, in 1992, the beloved logo underwent a radical change, adopting the bright red we know today while going for cleaner, sharper and more modern lines. “We commissioned a study revealing that no one wakes up in the morning and decides to eat a fast food burger,” remembers Gwenaël Hanquet, who worked on the project for Minale Design Strategy, adding: “It’s something you see while out and about, thinking ‘I’ll stop and have one.’ That’s why signage is extremely important and needs to make a huge impact. As the colour is the first thing you remember about a logo, we went for just one colour, red, which is lively, powerful, and clear and is associated with food and passion.” The design of the house was equally thought-through: simple and welcoming, its shape references European codes, building on the strategy to not just follow McDonalds but instead offer a European alternative. Finally, in 2015 and for the first time since its creation, the logo got rid of its iconic little house, opting for a simple text-based logo. The goal according to Quick: to simplify, convey modernity and add dynamic while focusing on its most defining characteristics – quick service and the Giant.

Jupiler

As Belgium’s best-selling beer, Jupiler is somewhat of a national treasure. Its logo not only graces millions of beer bottles but has also become an integral part of Belgian society through countless sponsorships, not least the official one of the Belgian Pro League. Besides its distinctive colour combination of black, red and white, the logo is famous for its bull. Its first version is thought to have been designed in 1954 following a very specific brief by Albert Van Damme, founder of the Piedboeuf brewery who owns the Jupiler brand: “I want a bull, the symbol of power, who is coming back home in good spirits after a night out.”  Albert got the idea during a trip to Italy, where he spotted a bull on the logo of the Torino football club. As Liège is also linked to the bull through a statue and the annual student celebration Saint-Torê, it was a great fit, standing the test of time until today. The bull’s design underwent a few changes over the years, most recently earlier this year, but it was more of an evolution than a revolution: “Originally depicted in a rearing position, it was later adjusted, as bulls don’t actually do that,” explains AB InBev’s communication manager Stein Falk, adding: “Apparently some people also said that the bull looked drunk.” Behind the first designs was Bernard Defrere, who led the initial project of conjuring a bull on one foot, the so-called “dancing bull”. It not only functioned as an iconic symbol but also as a reference for a perfectly served beer: until today the level of foam is supposed to be exactly at the level of the bull’s balls depicted on the classic Jupiler glass.

Banque Bruxelles Lambert

In 1975 Banque de Bruxelles, founded in 1871, joined forces with Banque Lambert, a banking house with a long tradition in wealth management that had been set up by the Lambert family and had existed since Belgium’s independence in 1830. When, following an acrimonious takeover battle, Banque Bruxelles Lambert became ING Belgium back in 2003, it signified the disappearance of one of the country’s most well-known logos: three bold white letters underlined by an orange bar on a green background. It was so iconic that the decision by ING to eventually replace it cost the company 23 Million Euros and was labeled at the time as a “completely crazy bet” by Belgian daily La Libre Belgique. The latest version of the logo right before takeover, whose shape was meant to evoke a sheet or leaf, had been developed in the 90s by Minale Design Strategy. “We conducted a study revealing that most people go to the bank that is closest to their home or workplace, meaning that we had to create something easily visible and inviting,” remembers Minale Managing Partner Gwenaël Hanquet, adding: “Colour choices were very important, as each bank had its own colourr codes. We chose green because it`s young, fresh, and friendly.” Whatsmore, it had already been part of the preceding logo. Along with the reinforced green and its leafy style came a visual identity referencing flowers and fruits. “That was quite a big trend at the time,” recalls art director Alexandres Nauman who also worked on the project. An entirely new element to the visual identity was the additional orange line. “We wanted to add a complementary colour which would wake and warm up the green,” explains Hanquet. Although the colour choices were made for visual reasons only, oddly this all happened at the time the ING takeover started taking shape, a coincidence that proved useful. “The CEO at the time was worried about sending out the wrong message but in the end it (the addition of the orange line) was a good way to make the shift towards ING,” says Hanquet.

1975-2003

Colruyt

The logo of the family-owned Colruyt supermarket chain, which started out as a bakery in 1925 and today counts over 200 stores across Belgium, has changed significantly over the years. The first one, developed in the 60s, featured the Greek letter Pi with the aim of symbolising productivity and stability. Colruyt’s signature orange made its debut in 1976, when an orange bar was added and the Pi received a less prominent position. Jo Willemyns, Head of Corporate Marketing at Colruyt, explains why it was not a good choice: “The capital letters are too aggressive, and overall it’s too complex, trying to include too many elements.” The current version we know today, a sober and simple textual emblem, was designed in 2002 by Minale Design Strategy (them again), following the new CEO’s ambition to rejuvenate the company. Capital letters were replaced by lower case and a small orange diamond references, ever so slightly, the previous orange bar. “The colour orange was important as it had become part of Colruyt’s identity and association with the best price,” says Gwenaël Hanquet, who worked on the project. “It’s also a strong colour for activation and promotion, and it’s associated with appetite,” Jo adds. “The basic idea was to demonstrate that Colruyt is about essentials, without any pretentiousness,” which also justifies the shift to small caps. “What you see is what you get,” says Jo. As the average person generally sees rather than reads a logo, the choice to go for an intrinsically text-based one is a little surprising. “The subtitle ‘best price’ is not actually meant for the customer but for the employees. It’s what they should always adhere to when doing their jobs,” clarifies Willemyns.

2002

CGER

Before it merged with Fortis to become BNP Paribas, La Caisse Générale d’Epargne et de Retraite (CGER) was, for more than 130 years, the most important savings bank in Belgium, growing from a state-owned to a privately-owned institution over time. Set up in the 1850s when Belgian authorities began encouraging individual savings to improve the standard of living of the working class, it enjoyed until the 1950s a de facto monopoly on savings, its company culture characterised by its service to society. It was, for instance, the place to go for housing loans or pensions. CGER’s most memorable logo was created in 1964 by a graphic designer whose name got lost in the archives. In fact, the visual identity was the result of a contest, open to advertising students, and which included 11 Belgian schools. In a press release sent out at the time, the company explained why it wanted a change: “The old logo has become anachronistic. Today the trend moves towards sober lines and simplicity.” Accordingly, the winning logo, which was drawn up in black and white but was quickly adapted to white on orange, is clear and restrained, depicting a piggy bank shaped as a house, topped by a crown, evoking the French expression « pauvre homme en sa maison est roi ». The idea: to underline that only through saving will you succeed in building a safe haven.

Bonzai Records

Bonzai Records, a Belgium-based record label that dabbled in techno, trance, hard trance and hardcore music, was founded in 1992 by Christian Pieters aka DJ Fly in the back of record shop The Blitz. Its world-renown visual identity – adorned on t-shirts, sweaters and hats today thought-out by collectors – was designed by Alec Van, who was only 17 when he created it. “It was an extremely lucky shot and a great kick-off to my design career,” he says, adding “It was just something I did for my friends. First I had to look up the definition of the word bonsai because I wasn’t sure about the its specifics.” Back then, there were no computers or Internet, and everything was handmade – think airbrushes, scotch tapes and no Google. Choosing a font was also a little more complicated than today: “At the time, there weren’t many typographies. You could maybe buy ten different ones as stickers in stores. I wanted to do something else.” Alec found inspiration in the form of an Asia restaurant’s menu, building his own typography from scratch. Although it directly reveals an Asian touch and the A evokes the outlines of a Japanese house, it is easily readable and Christian instantly warmed up to Alec’s first proposal, to the latter’s delight. “Nowadays you can quickly change things on the computer but back then you had to start all over again,” he says. One thing he managed to adjust during initial tryouts was the colour of the tree trunk: “First I made it brown but it looked too old and boring. Blue is much younger and fresher.” Following a period of change and restructuring, the logo also got an update, taking a somewhat more minimalist inclination to adapt to modern needs: “Not only did the music changed but the formats did too: you need something that works as a small size, for example for iTunes,” he says. Despite these unavoidable changes, the logo remains one of the most iconic emblems of Belgium’s rich tradition in electronic music.

1992

Metro de Bruxelles

Did you know that a mole crawling out of a tunnel almost became the mascot of the Brussels subway? A contest coordinated in 1976 by the Federal Ministry of Communication produced 16 proposals, and a jury selected four that were submitted to a public vote. There were hardly any constraints, which is why it was possible to get a proposal as strange as a mole. Only in terms of colours were there a few restrictions: red and green were not allowed, for example, as they evoke traffic lights. The winning logo, a white M on blue background, was created by Jean-Paul Edmonds-Alt, a trained sculptor who sadly passed away in 2014 and is also responsible for the design of the very first SPA plastic bottle. “It was chosen for its clarity,” says An Van Hamme, communications manager at the Brussels Intercommunal Transport Company STIB. The white M on a blue background, which can be found hanging above all subway entrances in Brussels, became one of the most famous symbols in Brussels. While ribbon typography is often synonymous with kitsch, Jean-Paul’s design is clear, minimal and sober. And although the original proposal contained an additional arrow which disappeared pretty quickly for unclear reasons, every other element has pretty much remained unchanged. And, according to STIB’s Guy Sablon, it won’t change any time soon: there are currently no plans to update the logo, which attests to its longevity and timelessness. Since almost all subways are called ‘metros’ around the world, most logos are variations of the letter M and, comparing the more than 70 versions, the Brussels logo stands out as one of the most distinct and bold. And that’s in all objectivity of course.

The Brussels Metro

Côte d’Or

With Belgians consuming no less than 600 million Côte d’Or products a year, the chocolate manufacturer founded in 1883 by Charles Neuhaus is undoubtedly one of the country’s most beloved. Indeed, in a study conducted in 2012 to find out the Belgian population’s favourite brands, Côte d’Or came in first place, resulting in every second chocolate bar being sold in Belgium being a Côte d’Or product. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that the company’s logo is as iconic as its chocolate. The first one was created after the image of a Ghanaian stamp, featuring an elephant, a palm tree and three pyramids, symbolizing Africa and its exoticism. The elephant, which became the brand’s main mascot over the years, not only represents strength, memory and longevity, but is also a reference to the African origin of the cocoa beans used in the manufacturing process. Although the animal has been representing Côte d’Or for more than 125 years, it hasn’t aged. It did get a few makeovers though, being modernized and turned around, to adapt it to the reading direction from left to right. Besides the elephant, the color red has been associated with the brand for a very long time, chosen to represent its African spirit as well as the warm intensity of the taste of its products. Most of the time, the logo, which also features black and gold, is presented in an arrow shape: a reference to the export stamps of the Golden Coast after duty had been paid.

RTBF

It was in 1967 that one of Belgium’s heavy hitters in the graphic design scene, Michel Olyff, designed what would become one of the country’s most iconic emblems: the visual identities for TV stations RTB and BRT. While the media and public often refer to it as an ear, this is not at all what its creator had in mind. “This does bother me,” says Michel, adding: “It’s thought up as a transmitter, referring to the horn of the very first phonographs. An ear is exactly the opposite: a receptor. Western cultures are really not good at reading signs.” One of the most amusing interpretations he came across: an ostrich who buried his head in the sand. In 1994, RTBF, the public broadcasting organization of the French Community of Belgium, gave the logo a lifting without consulting its inventor, who brought the case to court and won. RTBF was not allowed to use it and had to pay a fine. That’s why Michel’s transmitter continued to be the official emblem until 2006, when the company replaced it in sync with an overall renewal of the brand. “We wanted a new start,” says Alain Vander Poelen, RTBF’s artistic director, going on to say that “The individual channels already had new, strong graphic identities. In this context we wanted to restrain the company logo a bit by eliminating the shape and limiting it to typography only.” A purely text-based logo calls for a strong typeface, which is why RTBF created its own. “We went for a rounded version with small letters because we wanted it to be soft and convey a welcoming feeling. We also tested squared versions but they were too cold. And of course it had to be very recognizable,” Alain explains. Colour choices were limited, as most colours were already assigned to one of the channels – except black. “Black stands for a hole that can absorb you. You enter into a hole to experience something,” Alain clarifies. In 2010, the .be was added, mainly a strategic choice, as Alain explains: “We wanted to make people understand that there is an online offer, and reference a certain Belgitude.”

Sabena

There are mainly two logos that come to mind when remembering Belgium’s prestigious state airline Sabena, which transported passengers all over the globe from its foundation in 1923 to its bankruptcy in 2001. While the story around the sober and stretched out white S shape on a circular blue background adopted in the 70s, which graced the tails of Sabena’s airplanes for years, remains a mystery, there’s more known about the bird logo introduced back in 1966, probably because of its prominent creator: famed Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. The so-called “Sky Bird”, a dove filled in with a cloudy blue sky, was featured on aircrafts, tickets, tableware and more. In a letter to its staff, Sabena clarified the thought behind it: to transfer the notion of prestige from the painting to the company. The artwork “L’Oiseau de Ciel” was commissioned by Sabena in 1965, and its sale at an auction in 2003 for 3.4 Million Euros was used to help finance the former employees’ redundancy package. The image was so iconic that Sabena’s successor Brussels Airlines later used it again on some of its airplanes.

Fabrique National Herstal

While FN Herstal occupies an essential role in Belgium’s industrial makeup, it has repeatedly been the subject of controversy. A subsidiary of the Herstal group, it is by far the largest small weapons manufacturer in Western Europe, its products used by the armed forces of more than 100 countries. About half of its global workforce is based at the red brick headquarters in the Wallonian town of Herstal, where its engineers produce everything from mounted weapons systems for helicopters to ammunition. Better known as Fabrique Nationale, it was founded in 1889 as “Fabrique Nationale d’Armes de Guerre”, tasked with manufacturing 150,000 Mauser rifles for the Belgian government. When, in 1997, its parent company GIAT Industries attempted to sell Herstal to the US small arms company Colt, the Walloon regional government intervened under national security grounds and acquired the entirety of its shares, causing a national uproar due to conflict of interest concerns, the Walloon government being the competent authority for arms export licenses. Visually, its identity’s many alterations over the years have continued to perfectly embody the company’s dark underlying undertones, its choice of medieval typography both terse and threatening. Its overlaying F and N can be traced back to its early 20th century beginnings, with records showing it used on bicycles produced in 1905 and pistols manufactured in 1910. Intended to inspire tradition, heritage and quality, the FN logo, which detractors see as a sly reference to the Nazi’s swastika,  remains one of the country’s more sinister exports.