On my morning rounds I noticed this item, at The Atlantic, called Tesla’s Letterhead Is So Much Better Than Edison’s and I can’t help but ask just what “better” means?
The difference between the two letterheads is like night and day. Edison’s letterhead, except for the use of the florid, copperplate script of the time, has no ornamentation. It’s simple and straightforward, as if it’s meant to say, “You know who I am. Why don’t we get down to business?” It’s quiet, but confident. Tesla’s, while no one could call it simple, is also straightforward. It seems meant to say, “Here are my inventions. Don’t you want to see them in action?” It’s interesting and exciting. Which is better? Who’s to say? It’s a matter of taste.
When someone uses the words “Victorian” or “Edwardian”, we conjure up images of frills, feathers and furbelows. That’s accurate, to an extent, when talking about art, architecture, and clothing design. When talking about the business world, though, it’s not all that simple. A Victorian businessman might go home to a house inspired by a Renaissance palazzo, put on a velvet dressing gown, and sit down to unwind on an authentic Louis Quatorze chair, but that didn’t make him any less the stereotypical hard-nosed businessman. It was a dog-eat-dog world and in that world valued directness, plain talk, and confidence. Edison’s letterhead recognizes that and reflects the cultural image of the successful businessman/inventor. That’s probably because that’s exactly what Edison was. He was as much a genius at marketing as he was at inventing. His letterhead would have been intended for communication with colleagues and co-workers. They knew who he was so there was no need for pretense.
Tesla, however, was in a different position. He was a great inventor. There’s no doubt about that. He was deservedly proud of his inventions. Maybe that’s why he included them all in his letterhead. Looks fantastic through the filter of our own time. But how would someone from his time have reacted? My guess would be that, without the sort of explanation that would be impossible in a letterhead, they’d have ignored the four mechanical contraptions. Ignoring the big electrical thingummy in the middle wouldn’t have been as easy. That thing’s alarming to me, so I suspect all that wild, uncontrolled electricity would have made a good impression on many of the hard-nosed financiers of the time. Ah, there’s the main point. Tesla’s letterhead would have been fine for selling fun gizmos to enthusiasts, but that’s not who he needed to reach. More than anything, he needed to find, and to reassure, serious investors and to market his inventions. Maybe unexplained gadgets and an unleashed force of nature weren’t the best design elements to use.
Always know your target audience and try to make sure your marketing materials will appeal to them. Study the matter carefully and never assume everyone will think something is cool just because you do. But, above all, consider the possibility that sometimes simple and straightforward might be a better way to go stunning and flashy.