Counting Neutered Sprites

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In April 2009 Michael Bierut wrote on Design Observer of a “plague” of “sexless, blankly cheerful little people” in contemporary logo design. The piece, titled “Invasion of the Neutered Sprites,” struck a chord among designers, many of whom lamented the ubiquity of the abstract figures and vowed to abstain from what they viewed as an out-of-control, hopelessly clichéd logo design trend.

Five years later, it is possible to analyze data from the United States Patent and Trademark Office to assess the impact of this trend. Was it really as widespread as Bierut and others made it out to be?

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Yes it was! It turns out that Bierut was writing in the veritable heyday of the Neutered Sprite, as the innocuous logo design elements were rocketing to previously unseen levels of popularity. Their use in US logos shot up in 2006 and 2007, before peaking in 2008, when they could be found in 1.15 percent of all new logos, and they made up 11 percent of all logos featuring human figures.

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Bierut asserted that “the traditional habitat of the Sprites today, of course, is Nonprofitland. Finding them isn’t hard. Look for logos for organizations dedicated to community-building, or health-supporting, or any kind of relentlessly positive thinking.”  Indeed, analysis shows that sprites are most common in the medical field, as well as in the personal services industry, and in education. They have yet to invade the firearms business, however.

What is behind the Neutered Sprites trend? We can only speculate. It may have to do with the increasing propensity in recent years of nonprofit organizations to adopt the branding and identity strategies that were already well-established in the for-profit world. The Neutered Sprite represents a handy graphic peg on which these organizations can hang their new identities.

Another factor may be a pent-up desire for more humanity in logos. Since the sixties and seventies, when modernist logo design had, in the eyes of a number of designers and critics, devolved into a meaningless amalgam of cold, abstract forms, many have called for a return to a warmer, more personal style of logos. In an age of economic and political uncertainty, as companies seek to appear less foreboding and more approachable, the Neutered Sprite may represent an attempt to inject a human element back into logos. Yet it is an unsuccessful attempt, as the design cannot escape the overly-abstract tendencies of its predecessors.

In fact, in looking again at these Sprites, it seems possible that they have evolved from the “swoosh” logos of the late-nineties dot-com boom. They are perhaps nothing more than anthropomorphic swooshes.

Essential to both the swoosh and the Sprite is the notion of curvedness:

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Analysis shows that Sprites are far more likely to be curved than are other logos depicting humans or logos in general. As Emblemetric recently discussed, rounded and curved logos have been replacing angular marks, and Neutered Sprites live on as a big part of this movement.

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