When I was growing up, JCPenney was the go-to retailer of my dear grandmother. The arrival of their tome-like seasonal catalogs tended to get her rather, shall we say, worked up. And the Christmas catalog—well, its appearance always caused a stir amongst the entire household, especially the younger members, as we pored over its pages, each individual dog-earing, initialing, and notating items of particular interest, confidently hoping to stake out our claim on a small-but-generous share of the unfathomable bounty displayed therein.
But alas, that was decades ago. Never in a zillion years would I have expected to be even mildly excited again about a JCPenny catalog. But when I saw the newly redesigned look sported by their February “book” on my parents’ coffee table this weekend, it was the Death Star, and I was the Millennium Falcon.
While not quite the debacle that Gap hurled itself into back in 2010, when they made an abortive attempt at re-branding via a logo redesign that relied heavily on crowdsourcing, JCP drew corresponding ire from the design community last year for using similar methods which yielded, if not quite so ghastly, undeniably mediocre results. But rather than slinking off, tail between legs, back to the familiar same-old-same-old (as its aforementioned competitor has done, for the most part) JCP clearly managed to regroup and press forward (not backward) with much better results, no doubt owing to much sounder methods (i.e. hiring some real designers to tackle the problem with proven craftsmanship).
The new logo is certainly very smartly iconic: the company’s initials, placed within an arrangement of red, (white), and blue squares, which unmistakably but not too heavy handedly evokes the U.S. flag. That’s clever enough, but what really impresses me is the comprehensive re-brand considered as a total package. Of course, the classic motif of the logo-derived square weaves itself into the overall design readily enough. But beyond that, I really enjoy the way this design pulls off the clean, uncluttered, sans-serif-dominated look without the cold, uninviting, and antiseptic blah! that contemporary devotion to that particular canon so often engenders. The strategic interspersing of ample white space with splashes of bright color, the inventive but radically economical use of a single typeface (Gotham!) in contrasting weights and sizes, and the thoughtfully balanced implementation of models, clipped-out objects, and product beauty shots, all combine to create an atmosphere that is both sharply clean and warmly inviting, reassuring in its lack of complexity and yet alluringly playful. And there’s just the right amount of friskiness, where it seems called for, without the crass, voyeuristic enticements that other major brands have aspired (or rather, de-spired) to.
A comparison of the print catalog and the website leads me to believe that the former was definitely driving the latter and received more attention. That’s not just a print vs. web sideswipe (though I am admittedly somewhat biased): I think the translation onto the web could have been better (rather too much white, and rather too caged-in, it seems to me), and there’s no reason why it couldn’t have worked in the other direction with equal success. We’ll see, maybe that angle will improve.
Apparently we don’t yet know who to credit for this handsome effort, but one thing is clear: as some companies continue to experiment with the notion of placing their brand’s direction in the hands of technology-spawned fads such as crowdsourcing and other on-the-cheap gimmicks, the results produced by an individual designer, or team of individual designers, with eyes trained carefully on the bigger picture as well as the details, continues to stand out, even amidst a consumer culture that all too often seems to have lost whatever ability it may have once had to distinguish between a thoughtfully executed master design and a hacked-up mish-mash. And they always will.