Does the Best Logo in Professional Sports Belong to a Defunct Franchise?
Dissecting why the Hartford Whalers’ logo is still culturally relevant despite the team being gone for over two decades.
It is an iconic, timeless logo that belongs to an irrelevant, defunct NHL franchise, that in seventeen years lost 175 more games than it won, but the Hartford Whalers’ logo is still culturally relevant and a cash cow for the NHL. It has become an official symbol of the State of Connecticut, commemorated on license plates, and its colors have been adopted as the colors of Hartford. The Whalers logo has entered the iconography and lexicon of the country.
Full disclosure, I grew up in Whalers’ Country, smackdab in north central Connecticut between Hartford and Springfield, Massachusetts, the only two homes of the Hartford Whalers. The Whalers’ brand consisted of three pillars: the logo, Pucky the whale (mascot and secondary logo) and the Brass Bonanza (goal song), which has its own kitsch appeal. The logo is the pillar that transcends sports and has become as synonymous with Hartford as insurance.
Even if you are not from the area or a sports fan, there’s still something about the Whalers’ logo that gives it universal appeal. How does a logo for a bad team—a team that doesn’t exist anymore—remain popular and profitable?
The logo was created in 1979 when the New England Whalers joined the NHL, shortly after relocating to Hartford. The task of creating a new identity for the franchise was given to a local firm, Cummings & Good, based in Chester, Connecticut. The logo was created by Peter Good.
The original logo for the New England Whalers had been a harpoon, but Good felt uncomfortable designing around a harpoon when the team’s mascot was a whale. Instead he focused on three elements, the whale tail, the ‘W’ and the ‘H’.
In a public access interview, Whale Talk, Good broke down the design: “It has the three symmetrical elements: symmetrical letter form ‘W’, symmetrical letter form ‘H’, and the whale’s tail is a symmetrical form. It offers symmetry given to you. This is very rare. I saw all kinds of potential in the simplicity of it…How it could be reproduced very small…There were no reproduction problems inherent in the design.”
The beauty of the Whalers’ logo lies in its simplicity and symmetry. The whale tail and the ‘W’ converge to form sort of a badge, and in the negative space an ‘H’ is formed. The symmetry gives the logo great balance.
It is the negative space that Good believes makes his logo memorable: “What gives it its optical impact—I believe—is the negative space that creates the ‘H’. In fact, fifteen years after I did this someone would come up to me and say ‘oh, I saw the H’. In the design vernacular, it’s called figure-ground relationship. It’s that ambiguity that makes it optically interesting; it gives it energy. The figure is the whale’s tale and the ‘W’. The ‘H’ is the negative space, which is the ground. If you focus on the ‘H’ all of a sudden that comes forward, and it’s that optical dynamism that really makes it memorable and that makes it a strong identity.”
The negative space ‘H’ is a prime example of the Gestalt Law of Closure. Our minds mentally fill in the ‘H’ even though it is not a figure and helps to explain why people find the Whalers’ logo so interesting to gaze at.
This is before we’ve discussed color. When I was first learning digital design, my instructor was a firm believer in making logos look good in black in white. If a logo looks good in black and white, it has a quality design. When color is introduced, it has such impact that it can elevate a mediocre design or mask a weak design.
Now the color of the Hartford Whalers’ logo is interesting. It doesn’t fit text book rules of color harmony. The blue and green aren’t perfect analogous colors. They’re both cool colors, giving the logo a calming quality, which may add to its appeal.
In White Space is Not Your Enemy, Hagen and Golombisky, explain that naturally occurring colors can create an effective palette. “Colors that appear together can make pleasing palettes for your designs.” This concept helps to explain why the green and blue work well in concert – they often occur in nature together. Think of lily pads on a pond or seaweed in the ocean.
It’s worth noting that the blue was added later and eventually replaced the green as the primary color. The green and blue colors contrast enough that text is easily readable, but the text doesn’t pop because the colors are too alike, both saturated colors. However, the white text really jumps off both colors, making it the perfect color to add pop to the design.
Why is the Hartford Whalers’ logo enduring?
It has three symmetrical elements and brilliantly uses negative space to form the ‘H’, which taps the Gestalt Law of Closure. The naturally occurring blue and green give the logo a calming effect and the white adds energy. Let Brass Bonanza play, Peter Good scored a game winning goal when he designed the Hartford Whalers’ logo. Its modernistic design has preserved and thrived far longer than the mediocre franchise it represented. It has become a cherished state treasure— fitting that it was created by the same firm that created the logo for the Mark Twain House, a Hartford landmark.
Hindle, P. (Producer), & . (2014, September 9).
Whaler talk: Hartford whalers logo peter good & jack lardis. [Video] Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30i40oaH5mk
Hagen, R., & Golombisky, K. (2017). Color basics. White space is not your enemy: A beginner’s guide to communicating visually through graphic, web & multimedia design (Third ed., pp. 115-136). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Hagen, R., & Golombisky, K. (2017). Mini arts school. White space is not your enemy: A beginner’s guide to communicating visually through graphic, web & multimedia design (Third ed., pp. 46-64). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Santaniello, G. (2018, December 21). The whalers are back in the N.H.L. sort of. The New York Times Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/21/sports/hartford-whalers-carolina-hurricanes.html