A Brief History of Logo Design – An interview with Steven Heller

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The Logo Design Idea Book is the latest inspirational book from Steven Heller, which shares the story behind 50 successful logos. In this episode Ian interviews Steven to discuss the new book, which leads down a path to discover the origins of logo design.

Steven Heller is the author, co-author, and/or editor of over 100 books on design and popular culture. For 33 years of his career he was art director at the New York Times, and among many other successes, is a recipient of the AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement.


An interview with Steven Heller

Books & Resources Mentioned



Steven Heller Interview Transcription


Ian Paget: You recently released a new book, the Logo Design Idea Book with Gail Anderson, and I’d love to spend the time I have with you talking about your new book, and also your thoughts around logo design. To kick off the discussion, can you share with us an overview of what the book is about?


Steven Heller: Well, the book is part of a series. In fact, it’s the last volume in the series. These idea books started with Graphic Design Idea Book, then Typography Idea Book, Illustration Idea Book and then Logo Idea Book, which I do with one of my collaborators Gail Anderson, who is the chair at SVA for BFA design.

Gail and I have done about 15 books together, and this was just an opportunity to take a semi deep dive, it’s not a full dive, into different aspects of logo design. Since the focus is on an idea, we had to extract, whether from the creator or from ourselves, what idea they’re trying to use to get across whatever message it is that their logo was embodying. So the book is partly anecdotal, partly an overview of the process, and partly a critique.


The Logo Design Idea Book by Steven Heller

The Logo Design Idea Book by Steven Heller. (Image source: Logo Design Love)


Ian Paget: It’s a really great book and I’m really enjoying it so far, so I hope listeners will go and check it out for themselves. I wasn’t aware that it was part of a series so I’ll be sure to go back and check out the other books in the set. I really do love the concept of the book because I’ve always been really fascinated as to where logo design ideas actually come from and I’m curious to hear from you, working through the logos in the book, did you notice any kind of pattern as to where ideas usually come from?


Steven Heller: Well, it really depends on the kind of logo it is. Is it a logo mark? Is it a letterform or letters? is it pictorial? Is it abstract? These are all issues that either begin with a discussion with the client, or start the designer having had a broad view of what that logo is supposed to accomplish. Logos include trade characters and they include wordmarks. So sometimes the trade character and the word mark are put together, so where they come from, depends on what they’re trying to do.


Ian Paget: That’s generally the conclusion that I’ve come to as well, that ideas really come from goals.

Based on the research done for the book, was there an example that particularly stood out for you? And could you share with us the story behind that?


Steven Heller: Well, since there are 50 short case studies, we looked through probably 150 to get to the 50, and part of our mandate was to show old and new. Some things that are very familiar like FedEx or Lego and other things that are not familiar at all, and some things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect, like the ACDC logo – being a rock band logo it doesn’t usually find its way into the so-called high end logo design.

The first one that I thought of for the book was the AEG, the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft, Peter Behrens logo for the German Electrical Company in the early part of the 20th century. It was really the trigger for corporate identity, and the trigger for a lot of things happening in the identity world in the early part of the century, and his mark was three letters, AEG. Usually corporations or businesses/industries would use their full name, and their full name would be either something very pedestrian like Acme so, and so, or it would be the name of the family, Schlitz Brothers & Son.

The AEG was a different breed of animal. He created a honeycomb design in which the letters fit into each of the honeycombs, A on the left hand lower, E on the top middle, and G on the right lower, with an empty space in the middle, and that became the guideline for which the entire company was built in terms of its identity.


Ian Paget:  It’s not a logo I’ve seen prior to reading the book, and whilst it’s a very simple design it’s really fascinating to hear that it’s one design that really made such an impact on identity design at the time, so I appreciate you highlighting that.

You mentioned then that you studied both old and new designs, with the old being designed prior to the introduction of computers. Studying the logos in the way that you did, did you notice anything about them that differed from the old to the new?


Steven Heller: I think that the style of design, the graphic style, changes from generation to generation in part because fashion’s change, in part because technology allows for variations on a theme. But I would say that short of adding overlapping colours or being a little more abstract than usual, there aren’t really that many changes.

A logo really is supposed to have a timeless quality to it, and the ones that don’t work very well are those that are just linked to a particular moment in place in time. That isn’t to say they’re all like that, I mean Coca-Cola is a Victorian lettering issue that was adapted and improved on over the years with it’s own typeface that Neville Brody designed for it most recently, but still the main Coca-Cola word comes from the 19th century and we see it as something that has no time, it just has the product as it’s a focal point. So there are times when logos just transcend all the stylistic fluctuations and are the product itself.


Ian Paget: I know I’ve personally always been drawn to older logo design gallery books for inspiration because you can see what characteristics do remain current today, and what makes something timeless. It’s the same with information and processes. For example I’ve always felt that I’ve learned more from older books from individuals like Paul Rand who I feel really established what works well, and I know a lot of designers today still reference those same principles.


Steven Heller: I did a biography of Paul Rand, and I have a Paul Rand book coming out this fall with Princeton Architectural Press, Mole Skin. He was building his logos on earlier German logos. He was very fond of a designer named Wilhelm Deffke and HW Haddank. One was quite modern in his approach and streamlined and simplified everything. And the other was a little more classical and ornate. So I think those things were in the back of Rand’s mind when he was doing his own logos, and he was articulate enough to be able to explain why he did a logo, and intelligent enough to know that when he did a logo that was a revision of some existing logo, that it was a refinement rather than a reinvention. But I see many designers today speaking “logo speak” or what you might call “brand speak”, and whether they’re taking it from Paul Rand or from Lester Beall, or from Saul Bass, probably it enters into their thinking.

But I think it’s just there are certain ways of doing something, even if you go back to the heroic traditions, there were ways of making a heraldic shield that were common throughout that part of history. Heraldic shields have gone out of style in terms of corporations, but not in terms of certain branding elements like on beers or liquors, so I would say as an answer to your question that there’s probably an element of the design process that looks at precedent, and then there’s the element of the design process that builds on what’s in front of you and what you have available, and what comes out of your own imagination.


Ian Paget: I’ve always been fascinated in the history of logo design, and whilst I’ve read a lot of books on the topic, in terms of names my knowledge only really goes back as far as the likes of Paul Rand and Saul Bass. You just mentioned a number of names that I’ve not yet come across. As I know you have an incredibly extensive knowledge of graphic design history, for people that are interested to dig farther, are there any people or references that you would recommend to look into so that we can see who people like Paul Rand would have been inspired by?


Steven Heller:  Well, the people that I mentioned like Deffke and Haddank are just two of many. There was Karl Shulpig, many of them were German. In fact, one of the first books I ever wrote an introduction for was on German trademarks of the turn of the century, and it was edited by a young designer named Leslie Carbaga. And he bought into a collection of logos that had been collected by a man named Clarence Hornung, who was also a logo designer, but a collector as well.

There have been many vintage books of logo designs, or even, getting into the Exlibris tradition because Exlibris in a way are logos. So, I would say just keep your eye out for vintage histories of design, and if you can find, because it’s out of print, there were two additions of German Trademark Design.

There are trademark registries that go back to the 19th century, and they’re in most countries throughout the world, where the logo maker or the business that it was done for registers, or copyrights their mark.

When I was doing a series of books on art deco, graphic design for chronicle years ago with my wife, Louise Fili, we would always include a section on logos, and the source for those logos were these trademark volumes. Although it didn’t tell me necessarily why somebody used what they used, you could posit certain reasons because the symbol related to the product or the lettering was ornate and gave off a sense of heritage for the company. But I didn’t mention, Deffke a moment ago and his was a company called Wilhelm Work. I’ve done a few books on the Swastika, which is probably the most well known logo of any logo in the world that Deffke had done his own version of the Swastika or the Hakenkreuz, the hooked cross.

His assistant wrote Paul Rand a letter long after Deffke had passed on saying that the Nazis had taken his version and use that, which is apocryphal and can’t be really proven. But he did a small number of portfolio books in which he would show the various logos that he did, and about five years ago an independent publisher did a huge book on Deffkes logo and poster designs. So if you were able to find that it was called Wilhelm Deffke, you would see a lot of the material that influenced Paul Rand in his work.


Ian Paget: I’d absolutely love to see that, so after this interview I’m going to have a look online and see if I can find anything, even if it was a couple of scans. Graphic design books have become collectible in some cases, and I know some of the older ones I have, because they become a print they become quite valuable. But I’d definitely love to keep an eye out for those.

I’ve got a couple of friends, sometimes when we’re in London we’ll go into the old bookshops where they have vintage books, and if one of us find something with logos we tend to snatch it and buy it, so I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for those, so thank you for those recommendations.


Steven Heller: Well the Deffke book was a limited edition, but a very good one. But what you find certainly in France, England, Germany and Italy – Italy had a number of terrific poster artists who also did the trademarks for the companies they worked for, like Seneca for Buitoni, and Fortunato Depero for Campari.

So it doesn’t even have to be a specific logo designer the way Landor in the United States was known for logos when it began, and then it expanded into corporate identity and now it’s totally into branding, I mean, that’s how the evolution has worked. But there’s an awful lot to be found. The Japanese publishers were very enthusiastic about showing off logos, in part because their visual culture was based on these pictograms that were indeed logos.


Ian Paget: This is really fascinating. We’re slowly diving into the history of logo design and it’s got me thinking about the early origins of logo design. I know you’re probably the most knowledgeable on this topic, so since I have the opportunity to ask, can you share some of your thoughts on the origins of logo design?


Steven Heller: Well, I just wrote something about the origins of the brand, and at least one of the origins of the brand, and that’s livestock branding, and by extension property branding, and by extension branding of slaves. And these were called stigmas, from the term Stigmata, which is what Jesus Christ had on his hands from having those nails hammered in on the crucifix, the crucifix itself being a logo.

So it’s hard to say what the origin of the logo is, it’s probably easier to say what the origin of the modern logo is, but if you want to go back in time, The Swastika is one place to go, and that was written about 1896 or so by a man named Thomas Wilson for the Smithsonian Institution, and he traces that mark, that symbol, back into pre history. So it represented various things, but it can be defined as a logo, and ultimately it became a logo of the Nazi party in a slightly different form than what it is for, say, the Buddhists or the Hindus.

The idea of creating a logo was to protect property and deter thievery. So the brand that you would see a cattle driver take out of a burning fire and then, fixed to the back hindquarter of a cow or sheep, that’s really the origin of branding. And then, I have another theory and that is, some of the branding that we know of today originated from stencils, stencilling across say burlap bags or wooden boxes, product names, and descriptions of those products were used when there were no mass produced individual products to be bought in stores. You bought them in bulk, and it came from a particular producer or factory.


Ian Paget: That’s a really fascinating theory, especially when you consider how logos are used today. It really makes a lot of sense.


Steven Heller: I have a book out called a Stencil Type that I did with Louise Fili for Thames and Hudson, and I have some stencils in there that are well over a hundred years old for coffee, tea, tobacco, and these were essentially brands. They weren’t logo in the sense that a logo is either… Paul Rand once told me a logo is either three letters or less, or a picture, or a picture made of those three letters. Why he picked three, I don’t know, I just took it on faith, but a monogram is a logo and monograms go back a long way.

A Tattoo is, depending on how it’s rendered, is a logo that brands you, and it also tells a story and many logos tell stories. They tell the stories that the company or the advertising agency wants to be told. But they represent the product, they represent the legacy of that product or the history of that product, and they represent in certain cases the future of that product. And so you and I get very attached to a particular brand.

I was talking to somebody recently about how the Gap, when it changed its logo typeface, it’s just a word mark, it says Gap. But they changed it from a sans-serif to a serif or vice versa, and people were up in arms about it because they invest so much in their particular brand.


Ian Paget: With that Gap example, do you think that they did the right thing going back to what they had originally? I know here today, whenever a company rebrands there’s always an uproar – it’s predictable. But you wait a certain length of time and people get used to it.

I’ve always described it like… If someone came into your home and changed your sofa, even if it was a better sofa, you’d be annoyed, and that’s how I always feel the reaction is. I know F1 in particular, that rebrand, I’ve not seen an uproar like that since I’ve been using social media to share information about this.


Steven Heller: You asked me whether it was a good idea to listen to the mob, and I can’t say it was good or bad. I think it was interesting that they felt insecure enough that they wanted to sure up their image by listening to the people, and then they went a little overboard and did a crowdsourcing exercise. I think corporations like people get worried about their image.

You’re right about the couch. I’ve had that very experience where in my country, I went upstairs for a few minutes and while I was upstairs, the guests rearrange the furniture and I went crazy, and it was an irrational crazy, but what I was used to was altered, and subconsciously what does that mean? Does it mean the product is altered as well?

When Coke changed its recipe to the New Coke, they had to go back to Classic Coke. So that had something to do not only with the logo, but with the quality of the product, the taste of the product. So a lot of things get built in, embedded in a particular brand, and the logo is the more obvious of the elements, so if you see that change you get a little worried, or maybe not, maybe you don’t get worried. Maybe you say, oh, it’s about time.

But I know for example, General Electric, GE hasn’t changed its logo since its art nouveau roots, and everybody is quite happy with it and would not change it for anything in the world.

Paul Rand used to call logos rabbits feet, that they brought you luck, and that you wouldn’t then cut the rabbit’s foot in half. He was once asked to change the logo for American Express. And he did a lovely job retaining the fundamental elements of American Express, but streamlining it. And if you’re looking for a streamlined version of something, he couldn’t have done it any better.

But that’s not what people want. They want that history. They want that classic look. Same with Ford Motors, there’s that script forward in an oval. Paul Rand was asked to change it, and he did some exercises where he changed it to a sans serif typeface, a future like typeface, maybe Akzidenz-Grotesk, and it was ultimately turned down.


Ian Paget: Yeah, I’ve seen that, and it’s weird looking back here today because it looks incredibly futuristic. I think that Ford made the right choice to stick with what they have. I find it interesting with brands like Ford and Coca-Cola, even though I can see that those scripts and design elements are very old, I’ve grown so familiar with them that I don’t even see them as old when I see them immediately. I don’t know if that makes sense?


Steven Heller: Yeah, it’s part of the vernacular. It’s like, you look at your face in the mirror and if you’re looking at it every day, you don’t see the changes that occur. And then one day you wake up and you look and you say, gee whiz, I’ve got all these wrinkles now, and my teeth are in a different position. That’s an extreme example of radical change of an identity. With coke, there are changes.

With the New York Times, I had this experience, I was art director of the Book Review for 30 years, and I had asked the cartoonist Chris Ware to do a cover for the Book Review for our special summer issue. I told him he could do anything he wanted with the cover and he could do anything he wanted inside the magazine.

And so he decided to change our masthead from, I think then it was a Bookman typeface, to something that was totally of his invention, which was fine and wonderful to see that change. But he also changed the New York Times nameplate, which I didn’t even recognise as a change. The design director said to me, you can’t do that, and I said, what? You just changed the New York Times logo. Then I looked at them side by side, and one was definitely older than the other, that Chris had gone back to the 1928 version and replaced the 1998 version. So sometimes the changes are imperceptible to the naked eye, but not to the designer’s eye.


Ian Paget:  I’m often surprised to see brands that make incredibly minor tweak to their logo, especially considering the high costs and time that go into things like the registration and trademark process. One example that comes to mind is the recent Ikea logo update. It was such a minor change that the average person wouldn’t even notice the difference from the old to the new. It was so subtle, in fact, that if I didn’t read about it on any of the graphic design blogs online, I don’t think I would have noticed.


Steven Heller: Yeah. But, they’re obviously doing it on a subconscious level. They’re doing it because some creative director or other person high up in the company said, there’s a chink in our amor and let’s fill it up with putty. So that incremental change doesn’t alter the popular perception, but it helps the corporate one.

Going back to Rand again, he used to say the hardest thing to, and the most common thing to do with logos is to refine them. He would do a logo while he was talking to a potential client on the phone, many of which were never used, many of which he didn’t even get the job. But he would just play around to see what he might do, and even if he got the solution within the first 10 minutes, it would take him six months to do the refinement.


Ian Paget: Wow. Six months…


Steven Heller: Or longer.


Ian Paget: I do know he was doing it by hand, but it’s a very long time.


Steven Heller:  It’s a long time. But you go back and forth with, do you put a period at the end? Do you put a little swash? I mean there are all sorts of things that you might do to make a logo just that much more perfect, because the logo is going to stay with you for 10, 20, 30, 40, a hundred, 200 years.


Ian Paget: Yeah. I think here today, because the speed that you can make changes with tools like illustrator, it does sound like an incredibly long time. But I do understand that really tiny incremental changes can really change how something looks. So it’s interesting to hear that Paul did put that level of time into really fine tuning something.


Steven Heller: Well, he wasn’t alive when this occurred, but there are different approaches for the different platforms you’re on. So something that would look good in print may need a slight adjustment for a mobile phone, which might need a slight adjustment for a website or, any other kind of device. So I think that people are aware that the media controls a certain amount of what you do. And then, one other thing is the sub-brands. I mean, this is not a new phenomenon, there have always been some brands for companies, but getting those right is a very time consuming proposition.


Ian Paget: Very true. I want to go back to something that you mentioned in the introduction of your new book. You said the an awkwardly composed device could just as easily become memorable and impactful as an elegantly produced one. I know there will be some people in the audience that might be surprised to hear that. So can I ask for you to elaborate on that please? Since aesthetics is not that important, what is it that you feel that would make a logo successful?


Steven Heller: Well, aesthetics is important. And when you’re a designer working on a logo, if aesthetics is not one of your key concerns, you shouldn’t be doing the job. But a lot of logos are given to non-designers. They’re given to architects for restaurants. Or for building logos they’re giving given to people who may work in branding, but have never been typographers.

Walk down the street and just see for yourself how many things as a designer you would change. There are many, many, many, and how many things of course have been changed? Simple things like RB’s roast beef fast food restaurant. I remember when they changed that it wasn’t a radical change, but it was a change enough to know that somebody else was brought in to do the branding.

But I do think that logos grow on you. If the gap had stuck with its alteration, people would have gotten used to it. They wouldn’t have lost customers. It’s ultimately about their product, not about the logo. There are people who get exorcised about the logo, and I think of them a very small percentage would actually stop using the product.

Look at NASA, the original NASA logo, which they called the meatball, has a globe and a kind of swoosh around it and really looks like 1950s science as opposed to the worm, which just said NASA, and was elegant and much more contemporary, but they went back to the meatball, and that says they wanted to go back to tradition, but what signal does it give off? It gives off the signal that they’re going back to tradition, but does it mean that they’re progressed as a laboratory for the future? The meatball is aesthetically less pleasing than the worm in many people’s opinion, but at the same time it’s more appealing because it has that old fashioned heritage look.


Ian Paget: I’m quite into space travel exploration. NASA released a number of coins that are based on the patches that were made for the Apollo missions and I’ve got that collection. I’ve always thought that particular meatball, whilst it’s not the most elegantly designed logo, it’s got an aesthetic to it that immediately makes you think of government associations, or some kind of important body. I’ve always found that type of thing really interesting, that there is look for large organisations like that. And if you was to take the meatball and try and redesign it in some way, I feel like it would lose that vibe.


Steven Heller: Yeah. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Like when Bell telephone in the United States, its original logo was a couple of concentric circles with words around it, and a very engraved looking bell. Then Saul Bass took it over and he refined it and simplified it and streamlined it so it was just the bell, and it worked. It said Bell Telephone is coming out of the age of the cranked up phone in the party line, and going into a whole other realm of technology.

I don’t think anybody would really want to go back to the original bell. You can see it in its old form in the movie 2001. And it always amuses me when I watched that movie, which is really showing the future in timeless way. I mean the space ships are still viable, they look like advanced versions of the enterprise. But then you know, you see the old Pan-Am logo as well. But when you see the Bell Tel logo, it’s like an anachronism. So sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t and I think it’s also based on our individual perceptions.


Ian Paget: Talking about the Bell logo, on Youtube you can actually find Saul Bass’ original pitch video for the Bell logo. Whilst it’s quite an old example, and how logos and brands are used has change quite a lot since then, I still think that video pretty much holds up today as an incredible way to present logo design work, so I’ll be sure to link to that in the show notes for this episode (see below).



Steven Heller:  Cool. There have been a number of reprints of standards manuals. Unit Editions produced two volumes of standard manuals. Standard Manuals, the group, did the New York subway system, they did the NASA standards manual. I wrote an introduction for a French publisher that did the IBM standards manual. When you look at those standards manuals and you see everything in the alignment, and the way they’re supposed to be, it’s like the world comes together harmoniously. So what they’re creating is their own ecosystem using the logo as the Sun God, and then everything emanating from that.


Ian Paget: I have those manuals that Unit Editions released and they’re, they’re amazing. I’ve got the IBM one as well. They’re really good. Things have moved on since a lot of those guidelines were put together, but it’s still an absolutely fascinating resource look through and what Unit Editions (and Standards Manual) have done is incredible.


Steven Heller: Yes. I have a few of Paul Rand’s original, loose leaf binder standards manuals, including one that he used for cutting up and pasting things together in other ways. And, the idea of a loose leaf binder to me is a little old fashioned, but they’re still used. Otherwise, just about everything in that standards manual has a timeless quality. Whereas I look at old type books and you know, they’re old.


Ian Paget: Yeah, very true. I’m really fascinated by what you mentioned about these Paul Rand manuals. I’ve only ever been to New York once, but luckily when I was there it’s when they had a Paul Rand exhibit, and they had a number of his items on show. It was about three or four years ago.


Steven Heller: Yeah. A lot of my stuff was in that exhibit. It was at the City of New York Museum. Design is Everywhere.


Ian Paget: Yeah, that’s the one. So was that a lot of your stuff in there?


Steven Heller: Yeah, there was about a third of my stuff in there.


Ian Paget: Wow. So you must have a one serious collection. What do you normally do with them? Do you just keep them in storage somewhere? or have them on display?


Steven Heller: Well, this is a sore point at the moment because as I’m getting older, I’m trying to divest put them into collections and give to archives, then there are those things that you just don’t want to let go of. I have a whole bunch of sketches that Rand had done and I’ll probably be giving them to the school of visual arts archive in another year. But it keeps you in touch with the designer, even if it’s only in a spiritual way.


Ian Paget: Yeah. I understand. I’d absolutely love to see these Paul Rand sketches. I don’t know if you’ve already put them in one of your books, or if you’re planning to put them into the new one that you mentioned?


Steven Heller: The new book is a lot of his doodles, and some of it is already online. I think I did one called modern monkey modern, on design observer.


Ian Paget: Okay. I’d love to see that. So after this I’ll be searching for that and I’ll make sure to link to that in the show notes as well. Now we are nearly at the hour point, so I’m going to ask you one more question to close off the interview. It’s potentially a big question, but as someone who studied the theory of graphic design at an extended level, what do you feel are some of the most essential things that graphic designers of today should be aware of?


Steven Heller: Well, it is a big question. I have a book that just came out called, Teaching Graphic Design History, and it goes through a number of essays by people who teach graphic design, history, typographic history, information, graphics history. I think what designers should know is the past, so that they don’t reinvent the wheel, although reinventing the wheel is a way of learning how the wheel works. But I’d say, in a semi self serving way that the thing most designers should do is read. And that means they should read about their field, they should read about other fields, and they should read about art, and see where the intersections lie.


Ian Paget: I know myself, growing up, I was never a big reader. I always liked drawing and I wanted to get into graphic design, but it’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that I’ve actually been interested in reading, and I would say I’ve actually learned more about putting artwork together, and doing good physical graphic design work from actually reading. I do think it’s because you’re able to learn from people that have dedicated their entire life to graphic design, the likes of Paul Rand, and you can just learn everything that they ever picked up in their life within the space of a couple of days.


Steven Heller: Well, it’s true, but I also think that more and more literature, the library of graphic design practice and thought, has expanded exponentially in the last 10 to 20 years, so that there’s a lot of stuff to read, and I wouldn’t get totally wrapped up into reading only about graphic design, although it’s tempting sometimes.

I think just the process of reading and of being worldly and of being knowledgeable is what a graphic designer should be. Because ultimately when you’re young, you want to make those beautiful things. You see Stefan Sagmeister doing X, Y, and Z, and you want to do that exact same thing, but you need to know why that thing is being done and how you can improve upon it, or how you can build upon it, and we constantly have to educate ourselves. I know a number of graphic designers who have gone into other fields, but graphic design is their foundational field.


Ian Paget: I think that’s an incredible way to end the interview. So, Steven, thank you so much for your time. It has been a real honour to speak with you.


Steven Heller: My pleasure. Thanks for doing it.

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