Identity flexes its muscles

About six years ago a crucial presentation was looming for a new client. The proposed solution wasn’t your average ‘stick-it-in-the-corner’ type of identity. It flexed. It changed. It mutated, ever so slightly.

In order to push the point home, we began to collect many examples, from the noughties and before, to both show precedent and illustrate that finally, identity design was starting to loosen it shackles. Logos were coming loose from their ‘moorings’ in the corner of ads, brochures and websites. Schemes were being proposed where entire design ‘toolkits’ were in almost total and constant flux.

It seemed clear to us: the old rules of static, immovable logos were looking long in the tooth and flexibility finally seemed genuinely possible.

WGBH design by Chermayeff & Geismar plus in house 1975

But it wasn’t always like this. Print designers had long envied the ability of TV designers (such as this famous scheme for WGBH) to create endlessly changing interpretations of their logos.

Holland Festival identity by Studio Dumbar 1987

Whilst the innovations of Studio Dumbar in their ‘staged photography’ period in the 80s were dramatic and ahead of their time, persuading a non-Dutch, non-arts organisation to do anything as remotely groundbreaking seemed way, way off. Schemes such as the original Parc de La Villette solution by Grapus seemed powerful in their original state, but then weren’t carried through across the constituent parts of the organisation.

NAI identity, Bruce Mau design 1993

Then there were two breakthroughs – firstly a radical scheme for the NAI (Netherlands Architecture Institute) by Bruce Mau suggested not one but many distorted, out of focus logos as a solution that allowed for flexibility and experimentation.

Various Google doodles 1998-2012

And then later in the nineties a newly popular search engine would regularly distort, morph and radically rejig its logo to celebrate birthdays and special occasions, happily flying in the face of the convention that logos must never change shape or position or any of that stuff.

Soon after the Tate’s museum network would take the NAI’s lead and suggest an ever-changing logo for its ever-changing displays, and two more schemes would establish the geometric basis for much of the rest of the decade.

Rotterdam scheme by Mavis en Van Deursen 2001

Walker Art Center ID by Chad Kloepfer and Andrew Blauvelt 2005

The Rotterdam city of culture scheme led with an ever changing palette of geometric shapes, and the Walker Center developed an extensive toolkit of bars, stripes and chevrons to identify itself with.

TV Asahi idents by Tomato 2002

Not to be outdone, TV design took the notion of the ‘static logo that changes’ even further with the suggestion of geometry in constant motion, such as the schemes for TV Asahi and More Four.

Priba ID by AID 1973

Another constant trend has been the ‘logo as container’ device, one we can trace back as far as the Priba identity in the 1970s.

Natural History museum logo by Hat Trick, 2004

But it took container schemes such as the National History Museum and NYC to really popularize the approach – an idea that continues to be regularly recycled half a decade later.

Aol identity by Wolff Olins 2009

Eventually the Aol scheme of 2009 took this to its inevitable conclusion and turned this inside out with an ‘invisible’ logo made visible only by a huge palette of images that appearing behind it.

The New School, Siegel and Gale 2005

In parallel, more complex organisations began to realise that their multi-part, multi-functional roots didn’t need to be submerged under monolithic identity systems. This influential scheme for The New School in New York allowed the various colleges to retain their verbal independence whilst establishing a cohesive whole.

Pew Center identity, johnson banks 2008

Other schemes used simple shapes or even 3d. In Philadelphia the Pew Center used multiple overlapping squares for their whole and 7 parts to shape-shift between states for the centre’s different audiences and needs.

Toledo Museum of Art, Steff Geissbühler 2000

Ringling College by Samatamason 2007

Another trend has been the use of frames, and framing devices. Steff Geissbühler used one for Toledo Museum of Art in 2000, but the scheme for Ringling College that frames multiple states of different collages really seemed to get the bandwagon rolling. Several years later, OCAD University began using a series of open black squares, through which we see the work of the students.

OCAD University by Bruce Mau design, 2011

As recently as 2011, the black framing device has re-appeared, now for the Al Riwaq exhibition space in Doha.

Al Riwaq logo by Landor Dubai 2012

The quest for something ever-changing now seems relentless.

Brooklyn Museum logos by 2x4, 2004

Brooklyn Museum introduced a modulating series of B’s, the MIT unveiled ever-shifting cubes of light. A scheme for Nordkyn produced a new logo for every application with data based on the feed from the Norwegian Meteorological Office.

V&A Decode logo Karsten Schmidt 2009

Throw in the possibilities of on-line and digital and the solutions do seem legitimately endless, most notably shown by Karsten Schmidt’s design for the Decode exhibition at the V&A, that was then made open source on a website for other digital artists to take, interpret and re-upload.

Whitney Museum by Experimental Jetset 2013

As recently as last month the quest for complete flexibility was demonstrated again in the new scheme for the Whitney museum that utilises a ‘dynamic’ W that can change its form to meet the requirements of any size or shape of space.

Where flexible identity goes from here is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the likes of Decode and Aol are actually the end of the line – when the mutations have reached an infinite level, where else can you go? Perhaps identity design will revert to where it started: simple monochrome logos anchored back into corners. Perhaps. Now this flexible genie is out of the bottle, it’s going to take a while to cork it again…

By Michael Johnson

This theme is examined in more detail in a new chapter of the recently published second edition of Problem Solved, Phaidon Press 2012

This piece also appears on the CR blog here

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