Star Wars logos: the evolution of a film icon

Star Wars is deeply embedded in our culture. Even if you haven’t seen The Empire Strikes Back, (seriously, who are you?) you know what “Luke, I am your father” means. The trailer for the latest film, The Last Jedi, has reached over 100 million views. It’s safe to say Star Wars isn’t going away anytime soon. And neither are the Star Wars logos. 

All logos and posters via Lucasfilm

The Star Wars film saga has been around for over four decades, and naturally, it has evolved to keep with the times. What worked in Star Wars logos of the 70s was never going to work in the 21st century.

So grab some popcorn, feel the Force flowing through you, and let’s take a closer look at how these ubiquitous Star Wars logos have evolved over the years. We’ve all been staring at these for a long time, but there’s still a lot to learn.

The original trilogy logos

Star Wars (NOT A New Hope!)

If you aren’t old enough to remember the late 70s, you may not realize that the original title for the first Star Wars film is just Star WarsNo “Episode IV,” no “A New Hope.”

In fact, the very oldest logo used the title The Star Wars while the film was still in pre-production.

As the film moved into production, concept artist Ralph McQuarrie’s team developed several different logos until they commissioned one by typographer Dan Perri. 

The yellow font is bold and striking. It’s not particularly “sci-fi,” which is reasonable for a series that’s really more fantasy than hard science fiction, anyway. That’s probably why they went with the star overlay in the poster itself.

The tapered top evokes the film’s famous opening crawl, which the audiences of 1977 would be entirely unfamiliar with. Perri found his inspiration in the opening credits of the 1939 film Union Pacific.

“The main titles were looking down the tracks and these titles rolled towards you along the tracks, as if there was a train. But I got an idea. I saw this motion of the titles rolling away from you into space towards a horizon line.” —Dan Perri

His design evokes that “pulpy” feel and it’s very eye-catching. This version wound up on the film’s first poster, but it never made it to the final film.

The first Star Wars poster

The actual title logo that appears in the film was design by Suzy Rice (with some slight modifications from Joe Johnston).

George Lucas requested that his new logo look “fascist,” and coincidentally Rice had just been studying German signage of the 1930s. She used those design techniques—a bold standardized font, harsh lines and severe graphics—to produce what is now one of the world’s most ubiquitous logos.

But this only scratches the surface of this iconic design. Rice has compiled her own extensive account of all of the design decisions that went into the original Star Wars logo.

The Empire Strikes Back

While Star Wars was a film nobody wanted to make, The Empire Strikes Back was one of the most anticipated sequels in cinema history.

Like all artistic endeavors, the film evolved. Darth Vader (37-year-old spoiler alert!) wasn’t even Luke’s father in the first draft.

And, of course, the title changed.

“We were going to call it STAR WARS: EPISODE II — THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, but we ran into some problems. We have three more stories that we eventually want to film that actually occur before the point where the first Star Wars begins. Can you imagine how complicated it would get?” — George Lucas

While the final film’s opening crawl used the subtitle “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” the studio marketing department decided to avoid the numbering in the poster and logo itself.

Departing from the original Star Wars, the logo for Empire Strikes Back doesn’t take on a forceful, fascist style. The angled text gives it a feel of speed and adventure, while the sharp angles and chunky letters match the sci-fi style of the time. The word “Empire” has the most space, ensuring that you know what the movie is about.

This might be regarded as the first true Star Wars logo. It incorporates Suzy Rice’s innovative design from the first film in this logo’s border. The swashes extend out to wrap the logo in a nice, neat package.

Return (Revenge?) of the Jedi

Like Empire before it, Return of the Jedi went through many changes in its development. Originally, Han Solo died, and the heroes visited a planet of Wookiees instead of Ewoks. Get it? Wook-ee… Ee-wok…

Even the title changed.

Originally, the film title was Revenge of the Jedi, but studio executives thought it was too similar to another upcoming sci-fi action film, Star Trek II: Vengeance of Khan.

To be honest, the logo looks like something you could whip up in Microsoft Word in about five minutes. The font (Times New Roman?!) evokes nothing. At least the designers changed the color—from yellow to white to red—which evokes an ominous feeling. That’s pretty ironic since Empire is the dark, foreboding film of the trilogy, while Jedi ends with a teddy bear fight.

The “Star Wars” text didn’t get incorporated into the border, either, unlike Empire. It just sits there, with the final S floating off into space, unmoored. The whole affair is a sad way of ending the trilogy after two amazing logos.

The prequel trilogy logos

When the original Star Wars went into production, the filmmakers had no clear idea if they would be making three films, or six, or nine, or even just the one.

But by the time the prequel trilogy launched in the late 90s, Star Wars was an established brand. This was an entirely new set of films, and these Star Wars logos reflect that cohesiveness.

One thing to note about the original trilogy’s logos: they all put the emphasis on the title of the movie. Generally, this is the focus of any film’s logo. After all, you want your audience to remember the name of the film when they walk up to the box office to buy a ticket.

The prequel trilogy had one big problem: explaining just what the heck a prequel is. The Phantom Menace certainly wasn’t the first prequel in storytelling history, but modern audiences weren’t too familiar with the concept. To educate them, these Star Wars logos place their emphasis on the episode number, for the first time.

The huge “EPISODE I” text fills the largest portion of the logo, while “Star Wars” is placed prominently in the upper left where most English readers will find it. The actual title is the last piece of the hierarchy, hiding in small type across the bottom. To this day, the general public calls “Episode I” than “The Phantom Menace.”

Unlike the original trilogy, the logo design is consistent throughout the prequels. The font, color and lock-up are identical, which creates a visual unity that solidifies in the audience’s mind that these films are all part of a whole.

The sequel trilogy logos

Of course, many people didn’t like the new direction the prequels took for the series. When Disney bought Lucasfilm (for over $4 billion!), they knew a change had to take place.

The challenge for the next generation of filmmakers was to remind audiences why they liked Star Wars in the first place. Thus, the sequel trilogy logo puts a greater emphasis on the original logo. Like the prequel trilogy, the title is deemphasized; unlike the prequels, the numbering isn’t even mentioned.

They deviate from the prequels in another important aspect: color. Green means  goodness and the light side of the Force; red is just the opposite.

The Force Awakens launched a new generation of heroes, while The Last Jedi will (presumably) have a darker, more sinister tone. While the layout is consistent (as were the prequels’ logos), the color gives you a sense of what kind of movie you’re about to watch.

The Star Wars Stories logos

The Star Wars anthology films (known officially as “Star Wars Stories”) are relatively new, but we can already see that there is no cohesive vision for their logos.

The Rogue One logo’s box shape is reminiscent of Return of the Jedi, which is the least inspiring of the original Star Wars logos. That skinny, serif font looks more like corporate letterhead than an exciting space adventure. At least they managed to incorporate “A Star Wars Story” in a way that feels cohesive with the whole.

It seemed that this would be the Star Wars Story branding, much like the prequels’ logo template, and we’d be stuck with it for the foreseeable future. But then Lucasfilm released the new logo for Solo, and took things in a totally… old direction.

The new logo didn’t come entirely out of nowhere. The bright yellow matches the original Star Wars film, while the sharp slant harkens back to Empire Strikes Back, which features the most Han Solo to date. (Spoiler alert: He doesn’t appear in the first 20 minutes of either A New Hope or Return of the Jedi, or the last 20 minutes of The Force Awakens.

While some might see it as a retread, I think it’s a good way of looking back at what works. Combining elements of the logos from A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back tells you that the film will do the same.

Need a logo?

Try our free Logomaker and bring your brand to life today!

Author: Matthew Price