The future is flexible

February 20th, 2010

A few thoughts on the evolution of brand identity.  

Karl Gerstner wrote in his Designing Programmes: 

 “Instead of solutions for problems, programmes for solutions — the subtitle can also be understood in these terms: for no problem (so to speak) is there an absolute solution. Reason: the possibilities cannot be delimited absolutely. There is always a group of solutions, one of which is the best under certain conditions.” 

 The above paragraph was published in 1964, at the peak of the modernist crusade. The same decade Neuburg introduced his contructivist, functionally minded Neue Grafik at ICOGRADA in Zurich, and Paul Rand was working for IBM. 

 The 60s set the bar in corporate identity design. Modernist, focused on the ‘consistency, consistency, consistency’ mantra, helvetica and simplicity. At the same time, the concept of brand has been evolving fundamentally. Brand as product, organization, person and symbol — all those notions became a part of the brand identity systems. 

Yet, the visual identity remained more or less a slightly stretched result of the constructivist paradigm. As Paula Scher states: “Generally, there’s a paradigm of what things look like in any arena. What you want to be able to do is find a new way to stretch that paradigm forward, to break its own mold.” 

 For years logo was treated as a base of an identity system, augmented with graphic means only essential to make it visually coherent in multi-channel environment. Used as a stamp or badge, such identities culminated in Umberto Eco’s “closed texts” — visual systems with unequivocal, static meaning, recurrent structure & disciplined sequence. Eco juxtaposes “closed texts” with “opera aperta” (open work): open, internally dynamic “opere in movimento”, in which the the artist (or designer) deliberately leaves the arrangement of their compontents either to public or to chance, giving them a multiplicity of possible arrangements. By definition such works are simply much more engaging to the user. 

 Digital media have vastly reshaped brand landscape and thus allowed to stretch the paradigm a bit further. Technical restraints that limited design for half a century are gone. Together with rising consumer awareness (cogent brand conversations, no logo movement etc.), they gave the means to think of identity as a vessel for expressing personality rather than consistency. 

 The recent AOL rebranding is one example of a series that shift from the “logo as a badge” strategy to the identity as a visual language flexible enough to convey a number of ideas. Others include: the controversial London 2012 Olympic, Natural History Museum, Walker Arts Center, City of Melbourne, Casa da Música, and, undoubtedly most known: MTV, changing countless times throught the last 26 years and Google.

All these identities (named “flexible identities”) have in common:

  1. endless permutations of the logo itself (often designed through customized software); 
  2. versatile and distinct visual language (colors, typography, imagery, etc.) allowing adaptation to different environments, executions and contexts; 
  3. the concept behind is a system rather than a particular design, giving the designer almost unlimited freedom (though within some contraints); they empower the organization with almost complete visual and verbal laguage, open to virtually any message it may need to convey; 
  4. the visual differentation does not spoil the fundamental, thought-through brand personality & identity that stands as a benchmark; a signifier may (and does) fluctuate but the meaning stays fundamentally the same; 
Although the flexible identity solves most of today’s brand identity problems and seems a logical development, the static brand probably is not coming to an end. A dynamic branding model obviously has some constraints, but I think that it is an evolution phase rather than a trend. Of course, like any other idea it might enter a stage of an overused fad, quickly making the static brands trendy again. 

Evolution by definition is a gradual process. Maybe we’ll reach a moment, in which a simple, straightforwad and “classic” logo and identity system will seem refreshing. Gerstner’s “boîte à musique” identity designed in 1954 in all likelihood was the first example of flexible identity, a “programme for solution”. Unless the possibilities will be delimited absolutely, the flexible identity looks like a reliable strategy.

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