Heraldry, the art of creating a coat-of-arms, is a complex discipline that requires a holistic approach to design. It’s also almost dead, at least as it was once known anyway. Yet, beyond small pockets of enthusiasts congregating on online forums, its legacy lives on through contemporary graphic design and branding.
As a display, it is somewhat elitist, emanating grandeur and ceremony. It’s not an everyday thing, not for every day people. A coat-of-arms denotes rank and tells a story. In heraldic achievement, we can see all of the components that one is entitled to, allowing us to understand the person’s lineage and social standing.
In years gone by, this would often be displayed on various armorial artefacts; shields, helmets and armour itself. On it would not only be various crests, decorative elements and symbols, but also names and mottos. Its origins lie in exactly this - revealing who someone is when they’re otherwise unidentifiable. Developing in the High Middle Ages, when those of rank wore full-face masks and helmets, their visage obscured, a crest would symbolise who was hidden underneath.
Although this is a disputed view of history, it is largely recognised as a likely source. Thought of as such, it is a non-verbal language, a storytelling device grounded in practicality over decoration - despite becoming a decorative device over time. Once the eras of heavy armour being worn in battlefields had passed, heraldry was well ingrained as a socio-cultural denominator adopted by countries, cities, companies and organisations to communicate their own history and roots.
One name that is well-known in the heraldic arts is Russian Yevgeny Ukhnalyov, a founding member of the country’s Guild of Heraldic Artists and leading figure in the prominence the form was given in his home country. Ukhnalyov is responsible for creating many state symbols of modern Russia, most famously its coat-of-arms, eventually being awarded the title of People’s Artist of Russia in 1997.
Russia is viewed upon, at the moment, as a country of strength, weathering vicious climes and as such, portrays this strength of identity as part of its global brand. Taking these historical points as means of creating the design, Ukhnalyov adapted the double-headed eagle from the Russian Empire (abolished by the Revolution in 1917) as the focal point. The eagle itself was traditionally imperial black, and traced back to the reign of Peter the Great (or even earlier in the Byzantine Empire), but is golden in the more modern iteration, with its claws clasping a scepter and orb - two traditional heraldic symbols for authority and power.
Unbeknownst to these heraldic artists was that they were setting a precedent for our current era of graphic design, as well as how brands choose to communicate their vision, ethos and personality through logos. Heraldry itself is still ‘grand’, but its grandeur is seen as superfluous to companies who are looking to communicate in a far punchier way - kind of like translating a monologue into a catchy tagline. A lot is lost, yet similar points can be communicated in a more minimalist manner.
Without these heraldic designs, it’d be difficult to imagine the logos we take for granted - particularly in the realm of sports, many of which clubs use their logos to pull together various aspects of their history and culture into one unified vision. If you think of supercars, Ferrari or Lamborghini as examples - those too use logos indebted to the heraldic arts.
Contemporary brands utilise all the tools of heraldry and, just like the knight in battle, when the product isn’t recognisable in and of itself, the logo is enough to say more than what’s inside, but exactly what the product represents and why it is something to be respected. It's still about rank and grandeur, only in a more subtle way as a device of recognition. Still, the process behind it hasn't changed at all.
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