BMW Black & White

A spec update for an old classic.

BMW has been using the same logo, in some form, for a hundred years or more. They do update it – but not often, and not lately. In fact, it has looked more-or-less the same since 1954.

This is the BMW roundel. Everyone knows this logo – it’s been around in some form for a hundred years or more. Since 1997 it has been official practice to show the roundel in this rather gauche 3D-ish fashion (1), even on printed materials. BMW says it makes the brand appear more dynamic. People are used to seeing this thing affixed to the hood of a car under a shiny bubble, so maybe they’re right – but I doubt it. What this version mostly affords us is bad faux 3D, and without the sheen of that shiny acrylic it’s not very elegant. It’s long past time BMW got a facelift.

The Problem

The flat-colour version (2), which we seldom see in an official capacity, is the logo’s base form. Even minus the clumsy bevels it has flaws, mostly with regard to the type. Let’s take a look:

The geometric construct of the roundel has many flaws, mostly typographic.
  1. The roundel in the centre is the most recognizable part of the brand design, but its existence forces the three letters of the name to work around it. Not very efficient for visibility.
  2. The placement of the letters should suggest a natural circle around the roundel, but three items isn’t enough to properly imply the curve, especially with the bottom of each letterform so rigidly flat (a, b, c).
  3. The visual weighting of the letters is far from perfect. The B and M feel about the same weight, while the W is much heavier. All three of these letters are awkward to work with at the best of times, never mind getting them to play nicely together on a curve.
  4. Stylistically it’s looking a bit tired. The company prides itself on precision German engineering, but those values seem strangely absent in this design.

BMW might be holding on to their legacy brand equity with an iron grip, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. The whole thing is a bit dated and deserves a casual revisit.


  • Name – It’s BMW. It’ll always be BMW. Not Bavarian Motor Works or Bayerische Motoren Werke or any other cleverness.
  • Roundel – One of the most recognizable brand symbols in the modern age. It is not, as urban legends suggest, a symbolic aircraft prop, nor the crash test dummy icon reimagined. It’s simply the colours of the Bavarian flag, abstracted. With so much equity tied up in it the roundel must stay – in some form.
  • Colours – It’s interesting to ponder what might happen to sales if they switched overnight from blue to red, but the brand’s classic colour combo isn’t going anywhere. Blue is conservative, reliable, safe. Red is what happens in car crashes.


For communications BMW loves Helvetica – always has. They use it with near-religious adherence on everything from company emails to in-vehicle UI. Their own cut of it, BMW Helvetica, was renamed BMW Type Light (“in a refinement barely noticeable to the naked eye”, according to Forbes) but it’s still Helvetica, with all of its flair and faults. Its presence automatically suggests a couple of approaches obvious enough that I would expect them from first-year design students:

Nothing against all-lower-case when it suits, and Helvetica certainly has the flair to pull this off (4) , but it would be better suited to a digital bank or an edgy recruitment firm. It’s trend-ish, so it doesn’t project the sense of stability, safety and reliability people want from a car brand.

The upper-case version (5) highlights a bigger problem – the sheer awkwardness of all three of those letters. They simply don’t like each other that much. The letters in the BMW logo are not pure Helvetica (as these are) but they’re clearly derivatives, and they don’t like each other either. Treating these three such that they’ll cooperate enough to add up to a cohesive whole is near-impossible because to be blunt, Helvetica’s letterforms simply aren’t robust enough. They’re clunky and imbalanced, and downright adolescent at large sizes.

A better approach is to put Helvetica aside and evolve what’s already there: the three letters in the roundel are based on Helvetica, but they’re extended – especially the B – which helps mitigate the tensions between them. There is much room for refinement here:

Further fine-tuning at the macro level affords the letterforms a more distinctive ‘swept-back’ styling:


Now that we have a much more robust letterset, it’s time to reintroduce the roundel in a new form (see further down for the sketchbook exploration on this):

  • The roundel still appears as a nod to the brand’s heritage, but now the acronym is given the real estate it deserves
  • The distractions of imperfect typography are resolved
  • Balanced, refined, in line with modern design best practices