The future is flexible

Karl Gerstner wrote in his book 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 height of the modernist crusade. In the same decade, Neuburg presented his Constructivist, functionally minded Neue Grafik at ICOGRADA in Zurich, and Paul Rand was working for IBM.

The 1960s set the bar for corporate identity design. Modernist, focused on the mantra of ‘consistency, consistency, consistency’, Helvetica and simplicity. At the same time, the concept of brand fundamentally evolved. Brand as product, organization, person and symbol – all these concepts became part of the brand identity systems.

Nevertheless, visual identity remained more or less a slightly stretched result of the constructivist paradigm. As Paula Scher says,

“Generally, there 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, the logo was seen as the basis of an identity system, augmented with graphic assets needed only to make it visually coherent in a multi-channel environment. Used as stamps or badges, such identities culminated in Umberto Eco’s “closed texts” – visual systems with unambiguous, static meaning, recurring structure, and disciplined sequence. Eco contrasts the “closed texts” with the “opera aperta” (open work): open, internally dynamic “opere in movimento” in which the artist (or designer) deliberately leaves the arrangement of their components either to the audience or to chance, giving them a multiplicity of possible arrangements. By definition, such works are simply much more appealing to the user.

Digital media has fundamentally reshaped the brand landscape, creating the opportunity to stretch the paradigm a bit further. The technical constraints that limited design for half a century have disappeared. Along with growing consumer awareness (compelling brand conversations, no logo movement, etc.), they have created the opportunity to think of identity as a vessel that expresses personality, not consistency.

AOL’s recent rebranding is an example of a number of brands that have evolved from a “logo as badge” strategy to an identity as a visual language flexible enough to convey a range of ideas. Other examples include: the controversial 2012 London Olympics, the Natural History Museum, the Walker Arts Center, the city of Melbourne, Casa da Música, and, undoubtedly most famously, MTV: MTV, which has changed countless times over the past 26 years, and Google.

All of these identities (called “flexible identities”) have something in common:

Although flexible identity solves most of the problems of brand identity today and seems to be a logical evolution, the static brand is not likely to end. A dynamic brand model has some limitations, of course, but I think it is more of an evolutionary phase than a trend. Of course, like any other idea, it could enter a stage of overused fad and quickly bring the static brands back into vogue.

Evolution, by definition, is a gradual process. Perhaps we will reach a moment when a simple, no-frills, “classic” logo and identity system will be refreshing. Gerstner’s “boîte à musique” identity, designed in 1954, was most likely the first example of a flexible identity, a “program for solutions.” As long as the possibilities are not absolutely limited, the flexible identity seems to be a reliable strategy.