On August 1, 1981, one minute after midnight, Americans watched the Apollo 11 launch into space. This wasn’t the first time they had seen the maiden moon voyage, but this time, when an astronaut appeared, planting a flag on the rocky surface of the moon, it was their first look at the now-iconic combination of letters “M,” “T,” and “V,” flickering triumphantly in place of stars and stripes—and signaling the launch of a radical new television network. This spot would kick off nearly four decades of MTV’s impact on youth culture, much of which has been successful thanks to its ever-changing visual identity.
Before its launch, MTV had little budget for creative. The logo was originally conceptualized by three young graphic designers—Pat Gorman, Frank Olinsky, and Patti Rogoff—who had set up shop in a tiny room in New York City’s Greenwich Village under the moniker Manhattan Design. Olinsky, who received the brief from his friend, the first MTV creative director Fred Seibert, was tasked with designing a logo for a 24/7 music video channel at a time when a “music video” was a foreign concept. The winning design was a blocky “M” with a freeform “T” and “V,” with “Music Television” printed underneath.
The logo remained unchanged for nearly three decades because of its fluidity. It could be any color or texture—as well as animated—adapting, like music, to the vicissitudes of pop culture. Over the years, a seemingly infinite number of versions were produced by various agencies to embody the spirit of MTV.
“MTV was the first real attitude channel; before that, people watched shows on TV, but the networks had no identity,” said MTV co-founder and Bob Pittman, who oversaw the network until 1987. The idea was to give MTV such a strong identity, that viewers would tune in because of the network itself, he explained. “We needed something that said, ‘We’re not like TV’....[It] set the mood of the irreverence of youth, but the seriousness and reverence for music.” (Full disclosure: Pittman sits on Artsy’s board)