The Steiner Series: How the HSBC Logo Was Made

Money is Hong Kong’s lifeblood: the making of money, its exchange and accrual are all inexorably linked to the city’s identity. Some of the most potent symbolism at the heart of Hong Kong’s rich culture is dedicated to the various facets of wealth. Red signifies luck, success and good fortune, gold represents power and wealth, while flowing water reflects income and prosperity. Dragons, water elementals who dispense or withhold rain at will, symbolise power, luck, fortune, and prosperity. Even the humble bat (fuk1 蝠), homophonous with the word for good fortune (fuk1 福), signifies abundance. 

Few other cultures are so straightforwardly preoccupied with money and in this city no graphic symbol, other than the dollar sign itself, is more closely connected to currency than the red and white hexagonal logo of HSBC. Established in 1865, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation was formed to finance growing trade between China, Europe and the United States. The bank’s founder, Thomas Sutherland, was a 31-year-old Scot who had never held a bank account of his own. In a time before any concept of corporate branding, Sutherland’s bank was simply represented by the flag of his homeland, the Saint Andrew’s Cross, also known as a saltire. The Hong Kong Bank, as it was commonly known, also had a heraldic crest similar to Hong Kong’s former colonial arms. Bearing lions, a unicorn and merchants with a pile of cargo backed by a Chinese junk and square rigged ship, the crest was a literal representation of the city and its aspirations as an emerging entrepôt between East and West.

The 20th century brought aggressive expansion and the Hong Kong Bank’s growing might could be felt from Yokohama to Bangkok, Shanghai to Manila, and beyond. The establishment of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation of California and the acquisition of the British Bank of the Middle East and the Mercantile Bank in the 1950s made it a formidable international force, but not an invincible one. 

“In the 1970s, the Bank of China started getting active,” explains Margaret Au-Yeung, who worked in the Group Public Affairs Department and was responsible for the Hong Kong Bank’s graphic design at the time. The Hong Kong Bank included 13 banks and it had recently increased its number of branches to 1,000, but as big as the group was, it did not present itself as a unified entity. 1980 brought the acquisition of a controlling stake in New York’s Marine Midland Bank, signalling an even more urgent need for a cohesive visual identity that could be easily understood by customers and investors alike. And so the bank turned to Henry Steiner.

“I knew of his work” says Au-Yeung, although she didn’t have any direct involvement with the designer. Her boss had been working with him, and he told Au-Yeung to check out one of his courses. Steiner was, at the time, conducting a series of seminars on corporate identity – a novel concept for Hong Kong. Steiner had been working on the Hong Kong Bank’s group magazine since 1968 and had designed its HK$100 banknote in 1972. As the bank entered an era of global expansion, he would be enlisted to create its new visual identity.

Charged with articulating the identity of a multinational behemoth, Steiner’s job would go far beyond creating a mere logo. It would fall to the graphic designer to marshall the manifold competing voices of bank managers across 52 countries. In 1977, Steiner and Au-Yeung sent out a questionnaire to create a single unifying identity. “I did that because I wanted everybody to feel a bit of ownership – like they were participating,” he says. Their survey posed questions like, “What is Hong Kong Bank to you?” and the answers came flooding back. “Wow,” exclaims Au-Yeung, recalling the input. “It was a mess!”

In truth, it had always been unlikely that the insights needed to create an identity would come from the bankers themselves. “It’s not like we were playing a game with the staff, but it was to give them an opening,” says Steiner. “There might have been some suggestions in there that were adopted but the main thing was they could get it off their chest.” With so many opinions, even a name for the group proved elusive. Many of the respondents latched on to lion imagery drawing associations from the bank’s iconic leonine bronzes, Stephen and Stitt. 

The two lion sculptures have a long and storied association with the bank. Originating in Shanghai, two additional sculptures were designed by WW Wagstaff and then cast for the Hong Kong building. Named for two former managers of the bank, Alexander Gordon Stephen and Gordon Holmes Stitt, the lions are instantly recognisable. Steiner himself had featured the lions in his banknote design and the two big cats even inspired an advertising campaign starring a cartoon mascot, Lenny the Lion, who urged Hongkongers to “bank with the lion.” As as a result of this association, the Hong Kong Bank was often called si1 zi2 ngan4 hang4 (獅子銀行, “the Lion Bank”) and so it was suggested that the moniker should be adopted officially.

“It sounds okay in Chinese, but in English, you know, ‘the lyin’ bank,’” chuckles Steiner. “I used to say “lyin’ yesterday, lyin’ tomorrow…’” 

“Yes, you were so naughty!” Au-Yeung rejoins with a giggle.

Despite two years of consultations, Steiner arrived at his final design relatively quickly. The Hong Kong Bank was a British institution founded on “sound Scottish banking principles,” but it had always adopted local beliefs and traditions. The bank’s original location on the Central waterfront was selected because it offered the best feng shui in Hong Kong. Its current Hong Kong headquarters, designed by Norman Foster and occupying roughly the same site, still accounts for feng shui. Steiner drew from the cross-cultural nature of the institution and, in 1983, the bank unveiled a new graphic mark rooted in both Scottish and Hong Kong culture.

“It’s a saltire,” he explains. “It’s the bank’s flag. I adopted that and put more triangles [on either side] to hold the white together so you’ve got that hexagon.” Rather than using the blue of Scotland’s flag, the logo would be a vibrant red. “Hong Kong Bank’s [colour] was always red,” notes Au-Yeung. “The money boxes, the passbooks – red. Red is important to the Chinese.” 

The bank’s affinity for feng shui wasn’t forgotten either. “I remember when you presented the logo [and] its meaning to us,” Au-Yeung says to Steiner as they sit together in the Steiner&Co. office. “We believe in feng shui a lot and actually the logo was originally four directions. The four poles and then eight points (baat3 fong1 八方) [which means] ‘all around.’ Eight points meaning that business will come from all poles and from all directions.”

Accompanying the new mark was a new name that would encompass the group: HSBC. Rounding out the elegant new corporate identity Steiner selected the font, Times Roman.

“The strange thing is, I was finished. They paid me. It was over and everything was fine. Then they started tinkering,” Steiner says with a groan. In 2018, HSBC underwent a rebranding, altering the proportions, arrangements and even the colour of Steiner’s design. The carefully selected Times Roman was substituted with the trendy, sans-serif Univers. “It’s wasteful and confusing,” says Steiner. “You have a system with integrity and then you start messing with it. Changing a little bit of this and that.” 

Au-Yeung chimes in. “[Henry] asked [the brand consultant] why they changed [the font] and they said it was fashionable and that it cost nothing,” she says. “Being a bank person, I said, ‘Costs nothing? Costs you nothing, but everything needs to be changed – signage, letterheads.’ The cost is enormous. It’s such a mess.” Both graphic designers shake their heads in dismay. “This ethos where you change a font and make a buck here and a buck there, it brings the profession [of graphic design] into disrepute,” says Steiner with a sigh. “But it’s like they say: “You’re perfect, you’re beautiful, now change.”

Knowing the decades of work that was put into this project, it is easy to empathise with the graphic designer, but to Steiner, HSBC is far more than a landmark project and a marquee client. Putting aside the work, care, thought and time that this project demanded, it is personal on a far deeper level. 

Leaning forward in his seat, Steiner clears his throat and makes direct eye contact. Lowering his voice to almost a whisper, he gestures with a hand at Au-Yeung. “She took one of my classes” — he smiles — “and I fell in love with her.” 

Margaret Au-Yeung, once responsible for design at the Hong Kong Bank, is now director of Steiner&Co. For Steiner and Au-Yeung, partners in work and in life, graphic design is far more than a job or profession. It is an all consuming labour of love.

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