Hong Kong Identities - HSBC - Q&A with Henry Steiner


Through the series of articles, Hong Kong Identities, I hope to capture part of our current brand landscape, by talking briefly about a number of socially important identities. Through a series of questions I hope to get an insight into the designer's process when forming these iconic marks.

HSBC is one of the most famously recognisable brands in the world. HSBC was founded by Scot, Thomas Sutherland after profiting from the shipping trade. The original logo symbolised shipping trades with a ship. The identity was redesigned in 1983. To understand more, I sent over four questions to the iconic logo's designer, Henry Steiner.


A.C: To what can you attribute the long lasting success of the HSBC identity?

H:S: The mark is timeless due to its geometric simplicity and consistency of implementation. A successful brand mark needs to be visually indestructible. 


A.C: Of course it is always easier to look into a logo once completed, but what were your initial design references and inspirations that had the greatest influence on the design of the symbol?

H.S: After a period of research and gestation the most promising option seemed to be the Bank’s house flag.

This in turn was based on the Scottish flag which shows a saltire, or diagonal cross of St. Andrew. This grid was the basis of the many ‘hong' company flags which were started in 19th century Hong Kong. Upon analyzing the look of the flag I decided that the rectangular shape would work better as a square, with two more red triangles containing the internal white ones. Red and white were the Bank’s colors. The resulting image works well against virtually any background and is instantly identifiable. Being abstract in appearance it allows for a variety of interpretations.


A.C: How has your process developed since completing the HSBC identity in 1983?

H.S: My design process remains consistent; based on research and gestation of ideas; using the principal of contrast both visual and psychological. I try for an appearance of timelessness rather than fashion. And to have an idea which is explainable, behind the design.


A.C: Has your outlook to client partnership changed since you started your design practice?

H.S: No, but I find recent clients to be more opinionated and concerned with style rather than substance; preferring designs which are complicated, colorful, cheap and cheerful. For, say, the first thirty odd years of my practice, most Hong Kong clients were more open to fresh ideas, more venturesome, more involved at the highest corporate level.   


The ability for the HSBC logo to symbolise so many things, is inherent in its symbolic strength and therefore perceived brand value. I was once told that the four red triangles of the HSBC logo, are constructed so as individually they represent the sails of the ship, icons from the old identity, whilst the triangular construction also looks like an opened ‘red packet’ envelope. Interpretations like these substantiate and give the brand a deep level of authenticity.



About the author, Adam

Adam is the design director of BrandCraft. BrandCraft is a branding and design consultancy based in Hong Kong. We specialise in branding, visual identity, corporate identity and rebranding.

Adam is a branding consultant and has worked with clients in the UK, USA, Hong Kong, Tokyo, South Korea and China. He has had self-initiated art and design projects exhibited at various galleries and museums including the Victoria & Albert Museum of Art and Design and regularly writes about branding and design theory.

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