Whale of a Logo

Whale of a Logo

Peter Good was working late. The young graphic designer—he was 36 in 1979— was sketching a logo. The finished product would come to be viewed, for better or worse, as the signature triumph of his long and distinguished career.

Never mind Good’s design of U.S. postage stamps, or the Peterson Field Guides, or Special Olympics logos. This night would garner him way more than 15 minutes of fame. His magnum opus is more recognizable today, more emblematic of Connecticut than the official state seal.

In the four decades to follow, his creation would adorn tens of millions of dollars worth of clothing (donned by the likes of Snoop Dog and Adam Sandler); it would get Peter Good on television; last year, Sports Illustrated referred to its designer as Da Vinci; scholars have penned Ph.D. theses on the logo; and not incidentally (given the miserly fee), his masterwork would provide him and his family with free hockey tickets for life—the life of the team, that is.

Thirty-nine years ago, the Hartford Whalers needed a logo—and pronto. Having migrated from Boston, their first game was just months away. They didn’t have any preconceived aesthetic notions: “just do it” was their charge to the designing Hartford native.

At 2 a.m., it all came together for Good: the sweeping shapes, the deep blue and green colors, how the W interacts with the whale tail to create the white H in negative space. His chef-d’oeuvre manages at once to be simple and complex, modern and old school, evocative of subtle grace and raw power. It also reflects the inherent modesty of a provincial city. Though central, the white H isn’t obvious at first glance.

“They didn’t give me too much information,” Good recalled of his palavers with Whaler brass. He is sitting in the office of Cummings & Good, the firm’s 19th century stone building that stands guard over downtown Chester. Jan Cummings Good, his wife and partner, is also an accomplished artist and designer.

“They showed me their old logos and just kind of let me go,” he said. “This would be unheard of today— there would be 25 designers working on it, and volumes of market research, and focus groups and all that stuff.”

Leaving Peter Good to his own devices turned out to be one of the best moves the Whalers ever made. In three weeks, for a measly couple of grand, he gave them—and Hartford—a symbol for the ages. Complex.com, a media platform for young hipsters, ranks it as the second best sports design of all time, ahead of the Dallas Cowboys and the Patriots, trailing only the classic interlocking N and Y of the New York Yankees. In an article on its website, the National Hockey League lists Good’s handiwork first among its best team symbols ever.

Hockey fans—as well as design-savvy consumers who couldn’t tell a deke from a cross-check—like it, too. More than 20 years after the demise of the franchise, Whaler merchandise manufactured by Reebok and marketed by the NHL has sales approaching $1 million a year.

Surprisingly, for all its enduring fame and commercial cachet, the Whaler logo remains shrouded in legal limbo. It is not clear who owns it. Peter Good believes he has as good a claim as anyone; he never assigned his rights to the team. But when he tried to make his case several years ago, he learned that the deadline had passed for copy writing it. The NHL has a trademark on the design to market merchandise, but a trademark is not always exclusive.

“I wish I had done something when the Whalers moved out [in 1997], that would have been the time to do it,” he said. “But who would have thought that it would become as popular as it is.”

In 1988, the Whalers sent him a check for $1 and asked him to assign to them the rights for the logo. Needless to report, he demurred. He still has the letter and the un-cashed check. Later the team asked him to update the logo, to make it “more aggressive.” He declined. He referred to the eventual tweaking of his design by someone else in 1992 as “unfortunate.”

Recently, Good and his wife have asserted the right to his original artwork by selling logoed clothing in the boutique she operates on the ground floor of their firm’s stone building. Whaler t-shirts and hats rub elbows with elegant women’s apparel and accessories. Prints of the logo are for sale as well. He’ll sign them, too.

The couple also is contemplating new fashion territory for the iconic symbol. “We’d love to do a silk scarf,” he said. “The logo has reached the point where it can stand on its own.”

He added, “I hope they come after me for doing this; it will settle the issue.”

On that frosty spring morn long ago, when the Hartford Whaler logo emerged on Peter Good’s sketchpad, he rushed home and woke up his wife. He had to show her what he’d done.

What he’d done was to bequeath to Hartford and Connecticut an enduring work of art that would transcend and long outlive its narrow commercial mission.