The Review/Feature/

The Hidden History of the Jurassic Park Logo

The blockbuster franchise's iconic T. Rex emblem has some troubling genes in its DNA

JURASSIC PARK filming location, Kualoa Ranch, O'ahu, Hawaii © Will Fisher (via flickr)

by Craig Caron
Jun 20, 2018

In the early ’90s, while Steven Spielberg and the SFX team he had assembled for Jurassic Park were in the process of figuring out how to bring their dinosaurs to life, the crew charged with marketing the forthcoming film were facing challenges of their own. To begin with, the film’s title had little traction in the marketplace: the Michael Crichton book on which the film was based had been a hit, but it had still only sold a few hundred thousand copies to that point. Secondly, since Crichton had not opted to more straightforwardly name his book Dinosaur Park — or even Billy and the Cloneasaurus — the title would have to be contextualized for a public that would largely not know what the word “Jurassic” referred to. And lastly, Spielberg himself had compounded the challenge by insisting that none of the film’s dinosaurs should be glimpsed in the marketing materials prior to the movie’s release.

The solution that the marketing and design team came up — a brilliantly simple visual analogue that swiftly and efficiently encapsulated the premise of the film — became perhaps the most instantly recognizable symbol in modern movie history. Rarely has a logo taken such a quick hold in the public consciousness. “I think that's the phenomenon of Jurassic Park — that around the world there is such a strong identity for this movie and its logo,” Elizabeth Gelfand, senior VP of marketing for MCA/Universal merchandising, told Ad Age in 1994. “It's amazing that within a three-to-four-month period, a movie logo can really be up there in terms of awareness.” In 1993, thanks to the mammoth popularity of the film and its inescapable marketing efforts, JP’s yellow-and-red emblem was everywhere, appearing on cereals, knapsacks, fast food, and toys — even entering hallowed company by year’s end when Weird Al Yankovic parodied it on the cover of his album Alapalooza.

Twenty-five years later, that original emblem remains the face of the multi-billion-dollar franchise spawned from Spielberg’s blockbuster hit, and it has had a profound and lasting impact on visual language — an impact that hasn’t necessarily been positive. Like the Jurassic films themselves, the story of how the series’ iconic logo came to be is a cautionary tale. Colin Trevorrow, the director of Jurassic World and a producer on the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, has said that the new film is heavily influenced by the idea that "a mistake made a long time ago just can't be undone" — a statement that becomes unwittingly ironic when one discovers the hidden, highly problematic history of the franchise’s famous symbol.

Jurassic World digital poster (2015), Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom digital poster (2018), Universal Pictures/Amblin Entertainment

That story begins with the creature that provided the logo’s main visual. More than any of its Mesozoic brethren, the Tyrannosaurus Rex has captured the public’s imagination for generations, and almost singlehandedly stoked the ongoing cultural fascination with dinosaurs. That journey into our collective consciousness began a little more than a hundred years ago, at one of the nerve centres of popular dinosaur history — the American Museum of Natural History — and largely through the efforts of one man, Henry Fairfield Osborn.

Pint-sized admirers size up the American Museum of Natural History’s iconic T. Rex skeleton (AMNH 5027) in the 1960s

As president of the AMNH, Osborn curated one of the world's best fossil collections, and thanks to the museum’s groundbreaking displays he helped fuel America’s love affair with the terrible lizards. He was also responsible for naming the Tyrannosaurus Rex after it was first discovered in 1902 by one of the museum’s paleontologists, Barnum Brown. In a 1905 article, Osborn introduced the world at large to the king of the dinosaurs, both in name and with this anachronistic diagram.

William Diller Matthew, Tyrannosaurus Rex (1905)

While the initial discovery didn’t contain enough material to mount the skeleton, six years later Brown found a second, more complete fossil, and combined together the two finds provided an almost complete picture of the T. Rex. Catalogued as AMNH 5027, this Tyrannosaurus mounting was unveiled in December 1915, and it towered above visitors to the museum until 1993. (Osborn had originally envisioned a more dramatic display where one T. Rex was posed over the remains of another dinosaur while a second T. Rex closed in on the prey, but the museum floor didn’t have sufficient space for the diorama.)

AMNH 5027 in its original mount at the American Museum of Natural History

A model of Osborn's planned T. Rex display, by paleo-artist and sculptor Erwin Christman

The AMNH’s Tyrannosaurus influenced how the public imagined the prehistoric predator for the next 75 years. Museums around the world followed AMNH’s lead when mounting their own T. Rex skeletons and models, as did the innumerable illustrators and painters who shaped the popular image of the creature in magazines and books.

Charles R. Knight, Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops (1928), Field Museum of Natural History (fieldmuseum.org)

Shortly after the museum debuted its T. Rex, Osborn published The Origin and Evolution of Life, which included anatomical studies of the museum’s many paleontologic finds, including an illustration of AMNH 5027 that was still being used in dinosaur textbooks in the early 1990s — which is exactly how Osborn’s illustration found its way onto the cover of Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park.

Chip Kidd, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990), Alfred A. Knopf

Jurassic Park went through more drafts than any book I’ve written, and the cover went through more iterations than any other,” Crichton recalled in 2002. Crichton and his publisher Alfred A. Knopf agreed that the one thing they didn’t want was a flesh-and-blood dinosaur on the cover. The publishing house’s first concept was a close-up of leathery brown dinosaur skin, which Crichton thought looked like a football. After this fumble, Knopf editor Sonny Mehta assigned Chip Kidd, the company’s rising star designer, to the project. Kidd churned out concept after concept, approaching the book’s prehistoric beasts in a variety of indirect ways — dinosaur footprints, shadows, eyes — but nothing clicked with either Crichton or Knopf.

Finally, Kidd figured he could do something with skeletons, despite the author’s skepticism. (“Skeletons missed the point. The point was, they were alive,” recalled Crichton.) Visiting the American Museum of Natural History in search of inspiration, the designer came across a reproduction of Osborn’s original 1917 T. Rex illustration in a book in the museum gift shop.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, The Origin and Evolution of Life (1917), p. 764 (archive.org)

In a 2012 TED Talk, Kidd described how he used a photocopier and a piece of tracing paper to reconstitute Osborn’s T. Rex figure, producing something between a skeleton and a silhouette. “What I ended up with was a graphic representation of us seeing this animal coming into being,” Kidd states. In the TED Talk, Kidd shares Crichton’s faxed response to seeing the cover design for the first time.

Courtesy www.ted.com

While Knopf was preparing the book for publication, Crichton was being courted for the film rights to Jurassic Park. The author was no stranger to the movie biz: many of his previous novels had been adapted into films (including The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man), and he had helmed half a dozen films himself, including the high-concept sci-fi flicks Westworld, Looker, and Runaway. (Indeed, Jurassic Park began life as a screenplay until Crichton rejigged it as a novel.)

Westworld US one-sheet poster (1973), MGM, 27” x 41”; Looker French poster (1981), Warner Bros.; Runaway US one-sheet poster (1984), TriStar Pictures

Shortly after Crichton submitted his already buzz-worthy manuscript to Knopf, his agent devised a scheme whereby the author would consider offers from four studios, each offering $1.5 million and each with a creative team attached, with the idea being that the author would choose the team he felt was best suited to adapt the book. Warner Bros. proffered the scalding-hot duo of Tim Burton and producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard), Twentieth Century Fox ponied up Joe Dante, TriStar Pictures had Richard Donner and Batman producers Peter Guber and Jon Peters, while Universal had Steven Spielberg. For Crichton, the choice was an obvious one: months ahead of the book’s October 1990 release, Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment announced their forthcoming film adaptation, and Spielberg and production designer Rick Carter began pre-production while the novel was still on the presses.

From very early on, Spielberg and Co. had the idea that the onscreen branding for the dinosaur theme park built by the avuncular impresario John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) would pull double duty, with the logo depicted on the fictional park’s toys, lunchboxes, and T-shirts replicated on the real-world analogues to those products.

Jurassic Park (1993), MCA Universal/Amblin Entertainment

This was far from normal practice at that time: even Star Wars, the most hawked movie of all, had maintained a strict divide between its onscreen empire and its billion-dollar merchandising one. Like most movie props, logos for fictional companies usually only needed to be minimally plausible — observe, for instance, the logo used in the film for Hammond’s bioengineering company, InGen.

By contrast, locking down the Jurassic Park logo was crucial to the film’s release strategy: Universal and Amblin had inked licensing deals with over 80 companies around the world (including Kenner, McDonald's, and Sega), and the logo was to appear on every item. With this urgent charge to finalize the logo before shooting began, Rick Carter’s production design team joined forces with the studio’s marketing department to create a single visual that would brand Jurassic Park both on and off the screen.

In addition to mobilizing his in-house team, Universal’s Senior VP of Creative Print Advertising Tom Martin recruited many boutique design agencies to develop logo concepts. One of these hired guns was Mike Salisbury, who had previously served as art director at Rolling Stone and Playboy, had created the infamous Joe Camel character, and had come up with the concept of the white-socked Michael Jackson that graced the cover of the artist’s multi-platinum album Off the Wall. Salisbury isn’t shy about blowing his own horn: in a 2015 interview, he claimed his work had contributed “over $200 billion to the American GNP — $100 billion alone just from the Levi’s 501 brand name I created.”

In his book Art Director Confesses: I Sold Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll, Salisbury recalls that for Jurassic Park, “Spielberg simply wanted a badge. An icon trapped in a shape that would be instantly merchandisable.” Salisbury worked with artists like Terry Lamb to create scores of concepts for Martin and Universal.

Mike Salisbury, Jurassic Park logo concepts (filminutiae.com)

Terry Lamb, Jurassic Park logo concepts (screenused.com)

Martin collected this prolific output into a big book of logos to show Amblin. “We generated 100+ title treatments, none of which were what they were looking for."

Selections from Tom Martin's book of unused logos © The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (Arts & Sciences/Medium.com)

This exhaustive creative endeavour eventually led right back to square one. As Martin tells it, “One of the film’s art directors, John Bell, sent over a rough thumbnail sketch of [Chip Kidd’s] book art in a circle with the title in a horizontal bar. Super simple.” Likely created by Sandy Collora, a concept artist on Bell’s team who is often credited with “designing” the film’s logo, this initial one-inch sketch was then fleshed out by Martin and his team. “We added this little jungle scene at the bottom in order to give it scale, because without that the dinosaur could be any size  —  it could be a baby,” says Martin. “With the jungle below it made the dinosaur look huge. That’s my contribution to making that logo work.”

“When someone phoned me from MCA to ask about the rights to the image, I didn’t think much of it,” Kidd recalled in his 2005 collection Chip Kidd: Book One. “As a salaried employee of Knopf I had no rights to it, which of course I knew from the outset. I referred them to the permissions department and pretty much forgot about it.” Nevertheless, in a gesture of gratitude to his star designer, Knopf editor Sonny Mehta gave Kidd the licensing fee that the company received from Universal. “It was a sign of appreciation that has always meant a lot to me,” says Kidd. “And I’ll bet it’s a lot more than Paul Bacon ever got for Jaws.” (Bacon, one of the most lauded book designers of the 20th century, had created the cover for Doubleday’s hardback edition of Peter Benchley’s novel, which clearly served as the inspiration for Roger Kastel’s famed cover for the Bantam paperback edition and the Universal film poster that followed; following a legal wrangle between the two publishers, both designers received what Kastel deemed “a fairly decent-sized check.”)

Paul Bacon, Jaws hardcover design (1974), Doubleday

Roger Kastel, Jaws US one-sheet poster (1975), MCA Universal, 27" x 41"

Unlike Bacon’s blunt-nosed shark, Kidd’s T. Rex made the unheard-of leap from book cover to movie poster almost completely unchanged — even though it wasn’t always the plan to hinge the entire poster on the logo. At the same time that Martin was locking down the logo, he was also working with famed poster designer John Alvin — who had previously painted the posters for the Spielberg productions E.T., Gremlins, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, and Always — to create a one-sheet for the film. As one can see from the unused concepts included in the book The Art of John Alvin, by the late designer’s wife and partner Andrea Alvin, the artist initially went down the same path as Kidd: fossils, footprints and dinosaur eyes.

Unused Jurassic Park concepts by John Alvin, The Art of John Alvin, Titan Books (johnalvinart.com/)

Once the logo had been finalized, Alvin began to explore ways to incorporate Kidd's T. Rex while still testing a few wholly original concepts, including the obligatory floating heads poster depicting the film's human cast.

Unused Jurassic Park concepts by John Alvin, The Art of John Alvin, Titan Books (johnalvinart.com/)

Eventually, “a final image was selected by Universal and John was asked to do a painting,” Andrea recalls in the book. “It was a large painting — 40 x 60 inches — of the gate to the park with huge reptilian footprints coming out. It was nearly completed when he got a call from Universal to stop working.” Spielberg had made an executive decision: the Kidd-derived logo would appear by itself on the poster.

Not entirely by itself, however. Even as they were working on their concepts, the Alvins were among those involved in the marathon pitching sessions for the film’s tagline. “We would sit in a room and throw out ideas for headlines. Some we knew were ridiculous, but those often led to a good copy line or a visual concept,” says Andrea. These ranged from the banal (“They are real!”) to the punny (“The ultimate form of REcreation”) to the whiplash-inducing (“Experience the past, in the present, at the theme park of the future.”)

The line used on the final poster — “An Adventure 65 Million Years In The Making” — was one of Andrea’s pitches. (A look through Alvin’s concepts reveals that the line began its journey as a gag: “150 million years in the making. Only ONE more year to wait.”) Spielberg and Martin liked it: they thought it sounded like something from a prehistoric action film from the 1950s. (Editor’s note: effective though the tagline is, it cannot make up for the atrocity of capitalizing “In The.” Shame, shame eternal.)

Jurassic Park US one-sheet poster (1993), MCA Universal/Amblin, 27” x 41”

Upon the film’s initial release, the bulk of the print advertising hung on the logo with its three constituent parts: Kidd’s dino, Martin’s trees, and the distinctively clunky lettering used for the film’s title. That last element tied the Jurassic Park design to a history that was nearly contemporaneous with Henry Fairfield Osborn and his T. Rex — but one with far more sinister resonances.

While finalizing the logo, Martin’s team had paired the visual with one of the countless title designs that had been created for the big book of logos. Mike Salisbury recalls that he was driving on the Sunset Strip when he saw a wild posting of just the film’s title. “[I] thought where did that come from, because it wasn’t all that attractive. Going back through my files, I found it was lettering I myself had put together.”

Original Jurassic Park title treatment, from Art Director Confesses by Mike Salisbury

For this title treatment, Salisbury had adapted lettering from what has become one of the most notorious typefaces of all time. In the nearly 100 years since its invention, Neuland has become a flashpoint for debates about whether a font can be racist. It is often cited alongside Papyrus and Chop Suey as one of the more egregious examples of “stereotypography” — a term coined by MoMA’s design director Rob Giampietro to describe the phenomenon whereby a typeface comes to reductively symbolize entire cultures, nations, or continents.

To many, Neuland is a typographical shorthand for “jungle” or “African” — even though it was never intended for anything of the sort. Neuland was designed in 1923 by Rudolf Koch, who at that time was one of the pre-eminent designers of blackletter typefaces, a style of calligraphic script that was widely used in Western Europe from the 12th century onward. (When you picture a “Bavarian font,” you’re probably picturing blackletter — another excellent example of stereotypography!)

Eventually, because of concerns with legibility and the difficulty of setting it as movable type, blackletter was ousted by Roman letters (i.e., the type of letters you’re reading right now). But in Germany before the First World War, blackletter was still very much in, and Koch was one of its leading exemplars. He was also a patriotic German, so when war broke out in 1914 he enlisted in the infantry, at the age of 39. After witnessing the horrors of war on both the Western and Eastern fronts, Koch — a devout Lutheran — returned home and set about creating a modern, Roman typeface that could be used for the sorts of text-based religious artworks that had previously been produced in blackletter.

Example of blackletter on 14th-century Luttrell psalter

Neuland used as originally intended by Rudolf Koch

Koch designed Neuland to be typeset with minimal space between the letters (as was typical of blackletter), and hand-cut the letterforms for each size of the typeface to occupy as much space as possible. In Koch’s original lead type, each size held its own idiosyncrasies: imagine if each time you changed the font size on your computer, the letters looked slightly different from the previous size. (It must be noted, however, that Neuland’s subtleties are non-existent in its digital versions.)

Neuland 10-point letterpress type

In the early 1930s, Neuland was introduced to the US market — a country that never had much use for blackletter — where Koch’s original intentions for the font were tossed aside as North American typographers found a new use for the irregular typeface. Neuland’s chiselled appearance quickly began to be used by designers as shorthand for “primitive,” and was used as such on items such as safari adventure paperbacks, sleeves for “exotica” LPs, and, perhaps most famously, American Spirit cigarette packs.

When, 60 years later, Salisbury hit on Neuland for the Jurassic Park typeface, he clearly understood the semiotics of this choice — and, to a certain extent, that choice has validity within the film’s fictional world. Neuland is exactly the sort of typeface that a designer hired to brand a poorly thought-out, prehistoric-themed amusement park would settle on. It’s a bad aesthetic decision in an onscreen world filled with bad decisions of every variety, from using frogs to fill in gaps in dinosaur DNA to hiring Newman to oversee your IT.

But just as Spielberg’s filmic depictions of Jurassic Park-branded knickknacks intentionally bled over into reality, this use of a font of ill repute had implications beyond the edges of the frame. Though it surely wasn’t the intention of the film’s makers, Jurassic Park solidified the idea that Neuland was a tropical typeface, and thanks to the film’s popularity, the then-underused font saw a major resurgence in the mid-’90s. Jurassic Park came out a time when desktop publishing was in its infancy, and after the film’s release demand for Neuland increased — and it surely wasn’t because PC users were eager to typeset the Beatitudes in Corel Draw.

On a more high-profile level, Neuland was used on the posters for films like Cool Runnings and Jumanji and the Broadway adaptation of The Lion King — properties that didn’t have any narrative context to explain such a typographical choice. To paraphrase Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm, many of the designers who found Neuland after Jurassic Park stood on the shoulders of giants, took a design shortcut, slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and sold it before they even knew what they had done.

Back at the Park, the extended Jurassic braintrust understandably opted to not fix something that wasn’t broken. When it came time for Kidd to design the cover for Crichton’s 1995 sequel The Lost World, he simply paired a cropped version of the Tyrannosaurus silhouette with Crichton’s name — a combination that was so instantly recognizable that the publisher didn’t even feel the need to invoke the title of the book’s predecessor. (By contrast, a less confident Universal made sure to tack on the words “Jurassic Park” to the title of the Spielberg-directed film version that came out two years later.)

Chip Kidd, The Lost World by Michael Crichton (1995), Alfred A. Knopf

The Lost World: Jurassic Park US one-sheet poster (1998), MCA Universal/Amblin, 27” x 41”

As with Kidd’s Lost World book cover, this nearly straight-up replication of the poster for the first film clearly indicates the studio’s faith that their cash-cow franchise was effectively bulletproof, allowing more than a little laziness in their marketing. By contrast, Jurassic Park III’s twist on the logo in 2001 was one of the few interesting things about a movie that is best thought about as little as possible. The poster’s grotesque distortion of the trademark T. Rex into the film’s big, scary Spinosaurus shows at least a modicum of imagination — though as with the poster’s predecessors, the continued presence of the Neuland typeface gives evidence of the clichéd cultural assumptions underlying all the franchise’s promotional efforts.

Jurassic Park III US advance poster (2001), Universal, 27" x 40" (ha.com)

Obviously, Jurassic Park didn’t invent the dubious use of Neuland, but it did help to perpetuate and popularize it. It’s an uncomfortable shadow on a beloved piece of pop culture — and a rather unfortunate one, since the rest of the logo transcends language — but it’s a learning opportunity. While we might not be able to undo the mistakes of the past, by knowing the history behind the language we use (and exercising a little discipline), we can try not to repeat them.