Like many designers, I am fascinated by logos and their development over time. One in particular appeals to me because of my academic background in classical Japanese literature and culture: the origin and evolution of Canon’s logo, which has, for me, an interesting history. (For the record, I’m also a big fan of Canon products.)
Canon’s current logo is fairly historical in itself. Finalized in 1956, it has remained the same since then. While I wouldn’t consider it an imaginative logo, it does have the benefit of decades of recognition and bespoke typography.
“Can One” Get the Connection?
Most Westerners have no idea of the origin of the Canon name, and I’d wager that many would wonder what the connection could possibly be between the company’s electronic products and …hmmm… an artillery weapon? a religious reference?
In fact, Canon has no relationship to a cannon at all, but if we consider a coincidental connection to the word “canon” meaning scripture, then we are getting closer.
The company’s original name was Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory; when it started to develop Japan’s first-ever 35 mm camera, they called the line Kwanon (in modern transliterations, Kannon.) Kannon (観音) is an enlightened being in Buddhism, or bodhisattva, associated with compassion.
Although originally male, Kannon’s appearance gradually became female over time, although the “canon” (get it?) indicates Kannon as gender-free. The Chinese name for Kannon is Kwan Yin, and is often depicted as a woman in flowing robes.
Other depictions show Kannon with multiple arms to reach out compassionately to more sentient beings. (It reminds me of the Steely Dan song Bodhisattva, where the lyrics “Would you take me by the hand” makes me think that figuring out WHICH hand could be a challenge!)
From Canon’s corporate website:
This title reflected the benevolence of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and embodied the Company’s vision of creating the best cameras in the world.
And so we come to Canon’s original name and logo from the mid 30s: the many-armed Kwannon reaching to the world:
In 1935 someone must have realized that the logo needed a bit more globalization and marketing sophistication, so a text-based logo was created, and the homonym we know now became the trademarked name. From the site:
The word Canon has a number of meanings, including scriptures, criterion and standard. The trademark was therefore worthy of a company involved with precision equipment.
Here is the evolution of the logo we now recognize.
How about another Kannon fun fact?
In the 1600s, in reaction to Christian missionaries, the shogunate closed Japan to foreigners and outlawed Christianity. Some “kakure kirishitan” (“Hidden Christians”) disguised statues of the Virgin Mary as Kannon, sometimes holding a baby.