A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 77: amperbrand

Ampersand tattoo photo by David Hoogland
Hoefler Text ampersands, as modelled by a big ampersand fan. (Image courtesy of David Hoogland on Flickr.)

The ampersand is one of those shady characters that has taken on a life of its own, thriving happily beyond its home in writing and typography. In particular, it exerts an irresistible power over designers, advertisers and others in the business of creating and promoting commercial brands. Fortnum & Mason, for example, recently published a blog post1 explaining “the little-known story of the important symbol sat between our two famous names”.* Crate & Barrel, the American homeware store, once built an advertising campaign around their ampersand;2 AT&T did the same earlier this year.3 As John Brownlee of Fast Co. Design puts it in “Why Designers Love The Ampersand”,

It’s the typographical equivalent of a wedding ring, used to mark permanent partnerships, like Marks & Spencer, Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, and Ben & Jerry’s.4

An ampersand, in other words, packs considerable significance into its designer-friendly shape. It’s only natural, then, that Washington DC’s &pizza chain of restaurants would appropriate the ampersand for its name and emblem. &pizza, though, have taken their investment in the ampersand a little further than most. Specifically, the company pays for its staff to get ampersand tattoos. As reported by the Washington Post’s Abha Bhattarai 5, more than fifty &pizza employees now have ampersands tattooed somewhere on their bodies, all done courtesy of the chain’s co-founder, Michael Lastoria. As Lastoria explained:

We’re not doing this because we want [employees] to swear their allegiance to us like we’re some insane dictator […] We’re doing it because we listen to our people. They love the symbol, they love the look of it and they love what it stands for.

As I looked into the story a little more, I found that &pizza have since extended their offer of a tattoo to their customers. What I can only hope they call their amperbrand programme began like a loyalty scheme: any customer who spent $1,500 in &pizza restaurants was given the honorary title of “Maverick” and gifted an ampersand tattoo at a Washington tattoo parlour, along with an &pizza- branded jacket and a free photo shoot. (The company later relaxed their not-at-all-insane-or-dictatorial requirement for an ampersand design and let customers choose their own tattoos.)6

Since then, things have evolved yet further. Upon opening a new restaurant in Federal Hill, Baltimore, the first five customers in line were given a free ampersand tattoo and a year’s worth of free pizza.7 Christiana Amarachi Mbakwe of The Baltimore Sun talked to Michael Holt, to one of the fortunate five, to get the inside scoop:

“I wasn’t going to get another tattoo until I heard there was free pizza,” said Holt, a Baltimore native who works in Washington, D.C. and regularly visits &pizza’s branch there. “I thought I was done [with tattoos] forever.”

If the ampersand is the typographical equivalent of a wedding ring, however, &pizza boss Michael Lastoria remains unwilling to put a ring on it. The man who launched a thousand ampersand tattoos (I approximate for dramatic effect) has not joined his customers or employees in getting himself inked. Lastoria has set himself a “secret goal”, he says, after which he promises he will get an ampersand tattoo. What on earth could it be?















FYI, Fortnum’s “little-known story” is that the company was once known as Fortnum, Mason & Co. Who knew‽ I am shocked, shocked by this revelation. 

8 comments on “Miscellany № 77: amperbrand

  1. Comment posted by Dick Margulis on

    In the late 1960s, when I was an advertising copywriter in New York, I subscribed to Advertising Age. It seemed that every week there was an announcement of four people taking leave of their old-line, stuffed-shirt agencies like Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (and perhaps of their senses, as well) to form a new boutique agency, invariably named (with names substituted as appropriate) Smith / Johnson / Jones & Doe. I decided that if I ever started my own, it would be Word / Smith / Ampers & Virgule (and, indeed, four decades later, I named my blog Words / Myth / Ampers & Virgule).

    And Herb Lubalin’s U&lc magazine started around 1971, I think.

    Featuring the ampersand is a not-recent trend, perhaps.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Dick — very true! I’d forgotten about U&lc. The ampersand is clearly as much a typographic affectation as it ever was.

  2. Comment posted by Michael Anthony Scott on

    Ampersand is my favorite character of all time. I use as much as I can, incorporating it in production memos, contracts, product designs, and emails. We went through a period when we did logo design. We designed a logo for one customer with a HUGE ampersand in the name. Years later he still calls me and tells me people stop everywhere he goes to tell him how cool his logo is. He loves it, and I love the ampersand.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Michael — thanks for the comment! It’s an evergreen character, isn’t it? Can I ask which company it is you designed the logo for?

  3. Comment posted by Andrew Areoff on

    Thanks for a wonderful article and the revelation about Fortnum and Mason! One of the cleverest uses of the ampersand and one I always remember is of Jim Sutherland’s Studio Sutherl& – see what he’s done there? It’s brilliant isn’t it? Alas, as Fortnum & Mason explained on their page you link to, the ampersand is not present in their domain, and the same is true for Studio Sutherl& – because this wonderful symbol is a programming code (I’m not sure of the correct term) so can’t be used. Shame that. Thanks again.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Andrew — I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The ampersand is widely used in programming environments as a reserved character (meaning it triggers some special behaviour) and the web, unfortunately, is one of those environments. It seems trivial, but an ampersand completely changes the meaning of a URL.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Comment posted by Dave Williams on

    …and in 2010 the Society of Typographic Aficionados did one of their occasional “Font Aid” charity projects, getting designers from all over the world to contribute various ampersands to a sort of compilation font).

    That Internet Archive link I shared of old Typophile battles should also enable access to one where we were asked to design alternative ampersands for well-known fonts. :-)

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      I remember that! There were some terrific ampersands in there. Thanks for the link!

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