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The Greatest Airline Logo on Earth    a personal memoir by Larry Leonard

A genius is somebody who sees what has been right in front of
 people all along, yet none of them have noticed.  -- P.T. Barnum

The term "logo" comes from the Greek word logos, which means name.  In the advertising business, it refers to the element of a company's communications which identifies the firm, even symbolizes it.  If you are not in the business, you don't realize the historic importance of these symbols, or what goes into their creation.  By the time you finish reading this piece, you will.

                                    The history of the logo

   Commerce was invented when the first man made a living by specializing.  Perhaps he was good at fishing, but lousy at gathering nuts.  Perhaps he lived in a place with lots of fish but no nuts, and knew a fellow who lived in a place with lots of nuts but no fish.  Commodity trading began and the world was guaranteed that one day there would be a Chicago.

   Soon, our first businessman wondered if  he could trade his fish for more than nuts.  He started waving a dried fish at passers-by.  The problem was that some people didn't speak his language, and thought he was threatening them with a mackeral.  What he needed was a way to let everybody know he was a peaceful merchant -- open for business   So, he carved a sign on a piece of wood and attached it to his fish racks.  He used a symbol that all would understand no matter what their native tongue -- a picture of a fish.

   That was the first business logo.  It led to today's multi-national identity symbols. 

   From that first sign came signs featuring tankards of ale for Middle-ages inns, signs with a shoe for those who made and repaired footgear, the anvil and hammer of Colonial America's blacksmith's signs and the eskimo in the photo above.
  It was not until universal literacy became a fact that words replaced this kind of direct reference symbol in signs.  As late as the early 20th Century in America, the picture was the dominant element in business signing.  Public education changed that.  When you see that sort of thing, today, it is normally the result of tradition -- unless the corporate logo is so well-branded that you don't even need to name the company.  Who made this pair of shoes?

                                A brief period of personal history

   After graduating from Hillsboro High in 1959, I worked at quite a few different jobs until, one day in Coos Bay, the local paper hired me to run errands for the display ad department.  (Also known in the trade as "retail" advertising, this department does the ads that aren't in the classified section of the paper.) 

  That job led to others in newspapers, then advertising agencies.  By the early 70's I was the Pacific NW creative director of Richardson, Seigle, Rolfs and McCoy -- the largest independent advertising agency chain in the west.  On my walls today hang award certificates and gold medals from most of the advertising competitions of the day.  And, of all the clients I served, from small Oregon banks to international corporations like Peterbilt, Sealand, Hewlett Packard  and Greyhound, one sticks out above all others.

                                     Alaska Airlines

   I have walked the frozen ocean in a midnight blizzard, and out of pure chance found my way back to Nome.  I have raced across a Turnagain Arm muskeg wetland with a 1,000 lb. moose on my tail, trying to kill me.  I have awakened from a reverie on a pebbly North Slope beach to find myself in in the middle of wandering bears.  I have downed shots of whiskey in the workshop of the Arctic Trading Post while helping the caucasian proprietor make genuine hand-made Eskimo artifacts for tourists out of walrus tusks.
   It can be said that I owe a great debt to Alaska Airlines, but then in my opinion I have more than repaid that debt by providing them with the greatest airline logo on Earth.

   Alaska is a big place.  Larger than Texas, it spans a land area equivalent to roughly 20% of the lower 48. What it doesn't have is much in the way of roads.  There are probably more miles of paved roads within the city limits of Portland, Oregon than in the entire state of Alaska.  Juneau is the only continental state capitol that cannot be reached by car.  You can walk, fly, dogsled or paddle to it, but you can't drive to it. (In a normal car, at any rate.  A hum-vee might make it.)    Thus, Alaskans fly a great deal. They think of an airplane the way you think of a car. 

   Alaska Airlines developed out of the dreams and efforts of bush pilots.  But, small bush planes cannot fly a thousand miles carrying fifty passengers, two tons of dry goods and a printing press.  So the pilots bought some big ones.  Before long they were flying Boeing 727's into airports that were bigger than the town they served, and so for the first time brought together the outposts of the Great Land -- the SE coast with its Indian totem poles and Russian churches, the gold rush culture of Juneau, the vast interior and the Eskimo lands of the far north.. .

   Near the end of my agency career we received a request from Alaska Airline's advertising manager, one Bob Giersdorf.  This request was passed to me through the agency's account executive, Bert Nordby.  (An account executive, or AE, is the liason between a company and its advertising agency.  AE's work for the agency.)
   "Larry," Bert said one day, "the airlines wants a completely new ad concept.  You have three months."

   A concept usually means a theme.  For some time we had been promoting the airline's elegant "Golden Samovar Service," which had the stews (now called by PC designations) in Russian style costumes, serving meals with a Russian flavor. 
Caviar and so forth.  The reference to the "samovar" had to do with a giant metal teapot they pushed up and down the aisle on a wheeled cart. Instead of hot tea, the pot was full of a famous Russian adult beverage.  I wrote and produced a television commercial (shot by Portland's John Wilder Mincey) on this subject.  It won the top award at the Alaska Ad Club competition in 1971.

   But, this was different.  What they wanted was a completely new direction.  Something mammoth, newsworthy.
   Now, the way you do advertising properly is not the way most folks think.  You don't sit around and dream up cute phrase twists and spontaneous graphic ideas.  No, the creation of advertising is a process that is as close to science as any of the social sciences can possibly be. 
   You analyze your market via statistical data from flight surveys and market polls, determining your competitive differences from the other carriers, then using that information as a guide, develop highways of discipline on which the creative people (copywriters, illustrators, graphic designers, photographers) must travel, searching for the artistic solution to the problem.

   That is exactly what we did, for three months, without finding the answer.  Once the data was in, the creative team pounded their typewriters (no computers in those days) and drew their pictures week after week, but nothing clicked.  Idea after idea popped up, but all were rejected before the client even saw them.  What happened next was right out of a cheap novel.
   On the last day, I walked into Bert's office.  Never have you seen a more miserable human being.  He was a big Norwegian fellow with a round head and a ruddy face.  That head was sunk down into his large shoulders like a bowling ball sitting on an empty cloth suitcase.  There was a half-empty bottle of expensive scotch sitting on his desk.  When I came in, he looked at me with bloodshot eyes.

   "Leonard," he said.  "If we lose the Alaska Airline account, I lose my job, my car, my home and probably my wife.  You are supposed to be the hottest creative director on the coast, and what have you come up with?  Nothing!  Not  a damn thing!  I'll tell you this, though, you are going to come up with something good, and you're going to do it today.  I am not going out to that airline tomorrow without a great idea, period."
   "Bert," I said, "We're done for.  I've searched this thing from every angle.  It just won't come.  It looks like we'll both be out of a job tomorrow."
   Bert stared at his whisky glass and began to rumble like Mt. St.
Helens.  I expected him to explode soon, spraying chunks of himself all over the office.  Just at the moment I thought he would detonate, he snarled and looked at me.

   "No," he said.  "I'll quit today rather than go out there tomorrow with nothing.  You have got to give me something, now.  Right now.  I don't give a damn what it is.  I don't care if you put that on the damned planes, but I want it now!".
   The that to which he drunkenly referred was a photograph of an Eskimo taken by a famous pair of NW photographers,  Bob and Ira Spring.  That blue photo, an artistic presentation known in the trade as a "dropout," had been hanging on Bert's office wall for years.  Hanging there in front of all of us, right in plain sight.
   I whooped so loudly that Bert dropped his whiskey glass, then ducked as I came over the desk at him.  I think he thought it was an attack.  I pulled the framed photograph off the wall and left his office cheering like a fan whose team just scored the winning touchdown with one second to go.

                                     Some final observations

   The agency president, Harry McCoy, decided to add to the concept.  He selected the domes of the Russian churches, a raven totem from SE Alaska and a gold miner.  All these along with the Eskimo were painted on the tails of the planes.  The Four Culture concept he called it.  It made the aircraft into flying tourist billboards for Alaska.  I have the original painting of the four planes flying past Mt. McKinley hanging on the wall not ten feet from where I am typing this story.

But, in the end, it was the Eskimo who survived.  After I left the business to write books, articles and magazines like this one, Alaska Airlines management removed the Russian church, raven and gold miner.  I heard later that somebody at the airlines wanted to get rid of the Eskimo, too, but when the idea was made public had to change his mind.  Apparently letters and telegrams came in from all over the planet about it.  One Alaskan I knew at the time said that the Alaska legislature received so many complaints that they passed a resolution demanding that the airlines retain the Eskimo.  I do not know if this last is a true story.

   What I do know is that somebody way up in management hated that Eskimo.  Probably we can attribute that to the disease of power.  Until you have spent a decade or so in corporate boardrooms, you don't really understand the power of the ego.  In any event, whoever he was, he decided (probably to save face, and there's a bit of irony) that he had to change something.  So, he altered the mouth of the Eskimo into a smile.  He's a happy Eskimo, now, instead of the noble Eskimo he originally was.  (See photo below.)

   It was a silly thing to do, in my opinion.  A bush league move, probably done, appropriately enough, by an old bush pilot still in management..  They're a breed with the guts of a grizzly and the artistic sensibilities of a dumpster.  But, no doubt some folks agree with him.  We have a culture these days that ranks artificial nice ahead of honest character.  Both David Letterman and Jay Leno said the original reminded them of international thugs.  Che Guevera and Saddam Hussein were their comparisons.

In any event, I have heard that the old bush pilot claimed the Eskimo as his own after the transformation..  It's a false claim, though, because I know exactly who came up with that marvelous visual -- Bob and Ira Spring took the original and a drunk Norwegian ad agency account executive by the name of Bert Nordby brought it to my attention.  All I did was recognize a great airline logo idea when it flew past. 
   It was far and away the finest idea I never had.

Postscript:  Wednesday, January 02, 2002:  When informed of the existence of this story, Alaska Airlines Manager of External Communications, Jack Evans, sent the following email to Oregon Magazine, and I quote: "Fascinating. Yet another person who claims responsibility for the Eskimo!"  That, my friends, proves two things.  First, since I didn't claim I came up with the idea, his comment means he didn't read the whole piece, and second, that he is living proof of the old maxim that no good deed goes unpunished.
P.S.S July 24, 2011:  Our OrMag stat page indicates another online discussion about the Eskimo. This one is. at


Vic Warren is named in one of the replies.  He was my second in command at the RSRM ad agency, and the man I told Charles Heinrich (successor to Harry McCoy in Seattle)  to give my job to when I quit the agency and returned to Oregon.  Vic Warren was (perhaps still is) an honest man, and would never take credit for Bert Nordby's Eskimo -- LL/OrMag


Another Update:  July 24, 2012

From: Jacqueline Spring
Subject: Bob Springs obituary attn Larry Leonard

Message Body:

Hi Larry;
I'm one of Bob Spring's two daughters. Dad died on July 3, the last of his generation.  Uncle Ira had passed away a few years back as did my mother, Norma. I came across your online writing for the Oregon Magazine that mentions Dad's Eskimo picture that ended up on the tail of Alaska Airlines planes. Your account tallies with my family's knowledge of this picture, anyway. Not sure why they didn't want to credit his work, also no mention of Bob and Norma's Springs work on the Russian charter flights in an Alaska Airline's exhibition I saw in Seattle a few years back when I was in the country. 

The Bellingham Herald kindly wrote a little obituary for Dad since one of their staff was familiar with Dad's final area of work in his last years.  I wrote an obituary for family, but had hoped at that at least the Seattle Times would use some of the material I provided and run something, considering all of the articles and pictorial work that Bob and Ira Spring did for the. But I guess that’s not how it works these days. Happy to send you a copy at any rate, if you wish.

Ira's daughter and her husband carry on the outdoor photography work (Spring and Kirkendahl), the rest of the family descendents are scattered over the globe, in various creative professions.

All the best;

Jacqueline Spring
(in Melbourne, Australia)

Text (C) 2001 Oregon Magazine  All grapics except the four planes and the last one are hotlinks, and the copyrighted property of the folks you reach when you click on them.