Brand designs: the NHS logo

First published in Health Service Journal, 19 February 2004

Draw a rectangle 2.4 times as wide as it is high and fill it with a colour known as Pantone Blue 300. Then, using the Frutiger Bold Italic font, fill it with the three capital initial letters of Europe’s biggest employer. Voila: a logo found on signs, stationery, vehicles, identity cards and uniforms across the country – and reproduced 144 times in a recent copy of this magazine.

The NHS logo, also known as ‘the blue lozenge’, was ordered for use by the now-defunct NHS management executive in March 1990. It was one among dozens of logos used by health service organisations, as they competed in the internal market. But in April 1999, with the internal market dead, the Department of Health told all NHS organisations to replace these with the single NHS logo within two years. They did not need instructions: indeed, according to the guidelines, redrawing is forbidden. Every organisation has its logotype – the logo, plus the namestyle of the individual body – generated by the DoH. The only bit of latitude is that ‘NHS blue’ can be replaced by black.

The move was pushed by then health secretary Frank Dobson. One source tells a story of how St Thomas’ hospital, within view of DoH’s headquarters, placed its refreshed logo on a big new sign without the NHS logo: “They were tartly reminded about it.”

The hoardings around all the private finance initiative hospital building projects also included the single logo – suggesting things were indeed getting better under New Labour. But away from spin, it created the potential for bulk purchases of branded goods, such as uniforms. And it stopped newly-created organisations, including hundreds of primary care trusts, commissioning brand identities at public expense, while providing a sense of continuity during the reorganisation.

“The NHS branding made it very clear it was the NHS, regardless of the organisation,” says Nick Samuels, director of communications at Barnet and Chase Farm Hospitals trust. “The NHS is the reassuring and the confirmatory factor.”

The single logo arrived in time to be used by new nationally available services, such as NHS Direct. Last July, a DoH paper suggested it may be extended to pharmacies.

Nottingham University lecturer in pharmacy practice Dr Nicola Gray has conducted research on how 11-19 year olds find health information online. Whereas those in the US searched for media brands such as TV channel Discovery Health or Encyclopaedia Britannica, many in the UK looked for the NHS.

Dr Gray thinks this may well have more to do with her subjects knowing members of NHS staff than any branding. But one teenager claimed: “With health, if it has a logo, you know that you can trust it.” Having said that, he also believed that calls to NHS Direct costs £1 a minute.

How good is the logo? Saffron Brand Consultants chair Wally Olins is lukewarm: “I don’t think much of it, but I don’t think it’s that important. Even if it was a good piece of work, it wouldn’t make any difference. It’s not a bad piece of work, it’s mediocre.”

Mr Olins believes that rebranding must be accompanied by actual changes. “It makes sense to rebrand when you know things are getting better, and then a rebrand can help them get better still,” he says. “When I worked on the rebrand of BT [in the 1980s], the service was improving. It had the impact that people felt BT was trying, and changing.”

But the NHS rebranded too early. “The overwhelming issue is not what the symbol looks like, but what the reality looks like,” says Mr Olins.

Design Council research and knowledge manager Andrea Cooper believes that rebranding can prompt change. “The NHS logo is a fresh new symbol of the organisation as a whole,” she says. “As design can be a catalyst for change, a new identity can simply be the first step towards ensuring consistently high standards in NHS buildings, furniture, signage – and ultimately service quality.”

Group deputy chair of brand consultancy Interbrand Tom Blackett describes the blue lozenge as “a good, solid, middle-of-the-road mark”. But he sees more significance in a single logo replacing many. “The move from 1,001 to one implies a focus and determination to develop a consistent service,” he says.

Mr Blackett says branding is crucial in attracting staff to organisations requiring a large number of highly trained staff. Interbrand worked on the merger of accountancy firms Price Waterhouse and Coopers and Lybrand, which resulted in the name PricewaterhouseCoopers. The new firm saw its popularity in surveys of job-seeking graduates rise from the mid-20s for each separate firms, to eighth when combined. “Attracting talent to the NHS will improve what you provide to your constituency of sick people,” says Mr Blackett.

English health service organisations are sticking tightly to the rules. Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children trust has used its famous teardrop baby logo for charity/fund-raising work. However, it is not the trust’s logo itself and makes only a small appearance on the trust’s website.

Whittington Hospital trust in north-east London is one of very few to retain some visual individuality. It uses the standard NHS logo and namestyle, but its job advertisements and website also feature Dick Whittington’s cat, which served as the trust’s logo until the DoH imposed the blue lozenge.

“Local people know what the black cat means,” says trust chair Michael Abrams. “It stirs folk memories, and people like that. They tell us, whatever you do, don’t drop it.” It also helps distinguish the trust’s job ads, he says.
Should other trusts introduce, or reintroduce, distinguishing badges? “I think there are arguments both ways,” Mr Abrams says. “If you want to a make it clear that it’s one big NHS, it’s good to have one logo. But if you are looking to develop your own personality, you don’t want to be the same as everyone else. I think it’s a straight choice.”

But things are different in Wales and Scotland. Both retain the NHS name, despite having local control of health, but both have introduced entirely different logos.

To further muddy things, Wales provides an NHS Direct service using the same 0845 4647 phone number as England – and the same logotype, including the blue lozenge. For good measure, it has a Welsh language version (, with “IECHYD” replacing “NHS” in a rather wider-than-usual rectangle.

“From a brand point of view, it’s bad practice,” says Interbrand’s Tom Blackett. “People know what to expect of Coca-Cola, whether its in London or Nanking. If there are different versions, you might recognise the name, but you wonder if you will get the same service if you pitch up in Cardiff or Edinburgh. If it operates in the same way, a brand consultant would say, make it look the same.”

Copyright SA Mathieson 2004