Since the beginning of the 80s, creatives have been experimenting with MTV logo, pushing the boundaries of graphic design. This is how the logo of the iconic Music Channel changed over four decades, adapting to time and tastes thanks to radical variations and an ever-shifting identity.
The Music Channel is born
The 80s have been a ground-breaking decade for pop aesthetics, consumerism, cinema and lifestyle. Not surprisingly, this is when MTV was born, making history with its iconic identity and its non-apologetic attitude.
This is when the music industry moves from promoting artists on the radio to the production of video clips. From now on good music is not enough, and visual communication becomes a fundamental part of an artist’s work. As pop language evolves, TV undermines the radio in the hierarchy of the music industry. And soon a new television channel is in the making.
In August 1981 MTV Music Television is born. Owned by Viacom, MTV ironically goes on air with Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles. Here is an awesome video that shows the first two hours of programming.
MTV logo: 1980 version
Rober W. Pittman, an executive at Viacom, first had the idea of creating a thematic channel entirely focused on music, videoclips and youth culture. His first move is to hire the creative Fred Siebert, who was appointed to work on the identity of the new music channel.
The new Music Television had to show character and be appealing to a younger audience. This is when Siebert went to his old friends, graphic designers Pat Gorman and Frank Olinsky at Manhattan Design. Working from the backroom of a Thai chi studio on 8th street & Avenue, the graphic collective sketched hundreds of logos, until they found the right one. It was a cartoonish-styled hand holding a musical note.
But as it happens, the results of the creative team didn’t match the expectations of the board of management. They wanted the logo to include the Music Television payoff, the brand name had to be immediately recognisable.
And this is when the disaster happened. The designers tried to merge their drawing with the three letters “MTV”. They chose a serif font, and from the letter “M” emerged the illustration of the hand holding the musical note. In later interviews, Siebert himself openly declared that “It was awful”.
And this is how they all went back to designing.
Rock’n’Roll on the Moon
When on 1 August 1981 John Lack opened the first MTV broadcast with the phrase “Ladies and Gentleman, Rock’n’Roll”, he unknowingly started a revolution in music and pop culture.
The now-iconic logo stood on the bottom left of the screen. It was done by Manhattan Design again, who delivered a sans serif M with three-dimensional features. The big M carried the two letters TV sprayed in graffiti style. Like every good design, the logo incorporated just so many things – youth and rebellion of the graffiti art movement (which was huge in New York at the time), combined with the seriousness and authority of music.
More importantly, from the very beginning, there was no fixed colour scheme, giving space to creatives to fool around with colours and patterns. Over time the logo has seen so many variations it’s difficult to keep track – and it all started from the very beginning.
The new music channel opened with the famous moon landing. And from minute one we see the logo changing in so many ways: zebra, polka dots, stripes, bricks, flower patterns, high contrast colours and more.
Variations and iterations: MTV 80s logo
The first 80s MTV logo by Manhattan Design was used by the Music Television from 1981 to 1994, proving to be one of the most versatile logos ever. There are endless variations on the fat M that “has movement even as it sits there” and “has action because something is always being done to it”, as recalled by Fred Siebert.
The brilliant idea of refusing a fixed colour scheme opens space to experimentation. The logo constantly adapts to the trends of the moment, while serving the needs of the company.
These continuous small changes created a dynamic identity for the whole channel. Always ahead in youth culture, the logo was capable of adapting to just anything while remaining the same. Rebellious, fashionable and young, the many versions changed in colour, material, background and more. They have been animated in countless ways.
MTV Logo in the 90s
It’s 1994 and the iconic logo goes through its first redesign. This time the change in the classic 80s MTV logo is about the big M, which is now in Helvetica Black. You can feel the decade change and the channel adapting to a new taste in a subtle way, less playful compared to popular 80s fonts.
Those imperceptible changes to the design move it towards being more minimal. It is flattened in height and the M block is even more solid. However, the visual impact is unchanged and the colourful iterations of the logo keep going all through the 90s.
MTV’s identity was so well defined that soon collaborations started outside the television channel and MTV branded merch of all kinds appeared in the stores.
The 2000s: the end of the Music Channel
With the advent of the digital age, the decline of MTV begins. The channel’s strategies change radically and with those, the logo changes as well. The blocks of video clips typical of the 80s are now replaced with reality shows like Jackass, The Osbournes and finally Teen Moms and Jersey Shores. The big shift in the programming of the channel is represented in the logo as well.
This is when the third and latest version of the logo appears, the one still in use today. Designed in 2010 by Universal Everything, the logo doesn’t lose its old looks despite its height being squashed. It also goes for solid colours, as opposed to the many playful variations of the past.
In its third and latest version, the logo drops the words Music Television and embraces the philosophy of the logo being a container for images. The broader shape of the M allows for footage, faces and promos to be showcased in its internal area. This is a more fashionable choice compared to the ground-breaking solutions of the past.
2000s: A new look
Since the rebranding in 2010, MTV has gone through numerous refreshes that did not change the shape of the logo, or the general identity of the channel.
For those who were fans of the channel in the 80s and 90s, this might quite be depressing to see. However, MTV is staying true to its commitment to giving young people content that engages and entertains. In its contemporary looks, MTV incorporates younger trends like vaporwave, and seapunks – their new identity and visual approaches are more internet-inspired and edgy.
MTV creatives and its 80s logo got us used to variations, iterations, continuous changes in dress code and identity shifts. Their creatives are still changing the channel looks for adapting to the times and new trends. Let’s stay curious and see what the future brings!
Looking for more 80s inspiration?
Are you are looking for inspiration for using those iconic 80s looks in your design? Here at Indieground Design, we are fans of 80s and 90s design and culture – take some time to explore our site and find all kinds of templates for your own designs.
Not sure where to start? Have a look at our Vintage 80s Text Effects, a collection of resources that can give that retro touch to your poster, website or flyer. You can go even further and look at our Roundup of Radical 80s Fonts. Check them out and see what you can create with them!