The changing shape of logo design

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There’s something about logo design that stirs strong emotions in both clients and designers. Everyone in an organisation has an opinion on the logo. Every designer has the urge to spawn a logo into the world and watch proudly as it takes its first steps. Design books, news sites and design blogs worship them.

Maybe it’s because like the origin of the word ‘brand’, a logo is thought of as a permanent mark, something untouchable. In creating a logo, marketers and designers feel the weight of longevity and legacy; something cast in stone.

The fetishisation of the logo is out of date and something we all have to get over. Naomi Klein’s powerful book No Logo came out in 1999 crystallising the idea of the anti-brand, at the same time that Muji took hold in London, and the internet started to really shape our behaviour too. Branding was maturing, while at the same time starting to be challenged.

Since then we’ve seen a huge shift towards the democratisation of, well, everything. The digital revolution and the financial crisis have changed our world. Audiences are more savvy and sceptical of traditional marketing and don’t believe in products just because they are told to or because they have a badge on them. We’re in a new era where centralised, top down and linear models are all under fire and the buzzwords now are agile, iterative and collaborative (and not just in relation to software development).

Design, advertising, and management consulting have merged into the more nebulous discipline of brand consultancy focused on organisational culture, consumer experience, and ideas. It’s not just about the visual, and it’s certainly not limited to crafting a static singular element. There’s been a revolution since the days when the static logo was the all-important symbol for a brand.

Thinking

Leading agencies have taken this on board and sought to make sense of it. Lippincott has declared that the ‘corporate era’ is over and we’re now in the ‘human era’ where ‘consumers crave relationships where businesses view them as individuals — and respond in a much more transparent, personal way than ever before’.

Wolff Olins’ 2015 report Impossible and Now backs this up, highlighting the trend against top-down leadership and control and how leaders are creating the ‘uncorporation’. It reveals that ‘Leaders are learning to be less the visionary, less the sage, less the objective-setter, and more the shaper, the connector, the questioner.’

Fitch argues that ‘experience signatures’ are really the thing. It is these, not the visual wrapping, that will make brands truly defensible. Similarly, numerous agencies argue that it’s through digital user experience that brands can differentiate today.

Agencies have commented on the implications of all of this for visual identity. There are interesting reads by SomeOne, Siegal & Gale and Cohesion. Some ten years ago SomeOne started using the term ‘Brand World’. It’s about a more flexible notion of logo and identity that remains open for interpretation.

Dramatists may have declared the death of the logo but logo design isn’t something that’s going to stop anytime soon. I’m interested in how it’s changing shape to become more adaptive and flexible in form which can be explained through four themes: Fluidity, Simplicity, Systems and Play.

Fluidity

For some brands flexibility is a message in itself, and digital media have provided great opportunities to express this. Moving Brands started innovating back in the 1990s with visual identities that move. Recently we saw the launch of its ‘digital first’ identity for BBC Newsbeat: a moving wordmark that responds rhythmically to user behaviour.

In 2000 the Tate launched innovative new branding designed by Wolff Olins. The soft focus logo appears in various colours: a radical new approach with democratisation at the heart. The whole spirit of it rejects the notion of fixed identity and the historical constraints of print.

MovingBrands_Newsbeat_System1_main_images_708x487Looping
Newsbeat identity by Moving Brands
Tate identity by Wolff Olins
Tate identity by Wolff Olins

Lambie Nairn’s 2002 branding for O2, with its palette of amorphous bubbles, embraced flexibility itself as the theme. The bubble is a quirky interpretation of both the letter O and the oxygen it stands for, a neat concept that wraps up name, logo and visual language, and offers endless possible variations.

O2 identity by Lambie Nairn
O2 identity by Lambie Nairn

Simplicity

It’s interesting that in the fast worlds of fashion or pop, the name is the thing, and graphic devices are frequently renewed, with different versions used across products, ranges or tours, all in the spirit of the brand (or band).

Likewise, other brands too are increasingly questioning whether they need a logo. Perhaps the name alone in plain type, will do. There is a demotion of the logo. The hierarchy has been flipped. It’s decentralised. There’s an acknowledgement that it’s the other stuff, the content or the product, that’s the important bit.

Kew’s new brand identity by Pentagram feels more like a fashion brand: an elegant typographic mark that can be combined with any number of photographic backgrounds. It’s a campaign concept not a marque in the corner of the page. It’s a marque in negative that defers to the imagery.

Kew identity by Pentagram
Kew identity by Pentagram

There’s also been a pragmatic move towards creating logos that lend themselves to use as avatars or icons. They have to work when they’re tiny, so we’re seeing a super simplification of the brand icon. The new Breast Cancer Now identity by The Clearing is neatly devised to include a simple heart shape.

This kind of simplicity enables adaptation. It provide a framework for creative embellishment. Like Breast Cancer Now, Airbnb’s identity by Design Studio uses a symbol that’s so simple, it feels ancient, close to being generic and timeless.

Breast Cancer Now identity by The Clearing
Breast Cancer Now identity by The Clearing

Super simple symbols operate almost like characters in a font. In fact, fonts are the ultimate flexible identity system, providing a brand with its own handwriting.

These kind of identities can’t be judged in isolation and don’t make such neat snapshot case studies for design blogs. It’s more relevant to watch how they’re deployed in the world, over time.

Symbol
Airbnb identity by Design Studio

Systems

All visual identities must be adaptive to some extent to work in their world, in context, across product ranges, across channels, or through time and across the seasons. A visual identity is always a system that must allow for flex and the challenges in flexing are different for different sectors.

A core identity is often adapted to form a brand architecture where individual elements are defined, yet seen to be part of the whole. This was taken to the extreme when MIT rebranded in 2011 introducing a logo with thousands of potential configurations so that each employee could have a unique business card. This spirit of flex was continued by Pentagram in 2014, creating a huge set of monograms for each team and project at MIT. Seen together the symbols have the appearance of an alphabet. This is visual identity conceived as a system or a language.

MIT identity by Pentagram
MIT identity by Pentagram

Johnson Banks is an innovator in adaptive branding. It created an identity system for the Disasters Emergency Fund which can be adapted quickly to focus on the relevant emergency.

Its identity for the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage appears to have moveable parts or layers. An identity like this, planned from the start, can guard against departments and programmes creating their own marques, resulting in the all too common sprawl of unrelated departmental logos.

Pew Center identity by Johnson Banks
Pew Center identity by Johnson Banks

Play

Perhaps the most exciting reason for flex is in encouraging participation by partners and consumers, something that social media and digital platforms play a big part in enabling. There’s huge commercial scope in personalisation, demonstrated by Coke’s named bottles, Nutella’s personalised jars, and numerous other gift lines produced on-demand.

TV has been an obvious place for the flexible identity to emerge. We’ve seen the BBC2, Channel 4 and BBC1 idents each playing with variations-on-a-theme. The numerals work brilliantly as a fixed icon from which to adapt over time, with the seasons or to complement content. But more than that, the BBC 2 idents charm audiences with their unexpected playfulness.

More recently we’ve seen MTV develop its visual identity, which has been described by vice president of creative and marketing as “open source”. Some 300 animated backgrounds were created along with 3D animated elements and brand emojis. The look and feel will constantly evolve in collaboration with the audience and local teams.

BBC2 ident
BBC2 ident
MTV open source identity
MTV open source identity

It’s even more interesting to see identities that flex to enable communities to take ownership and connect around a real cause. Charities are adept at providing tools and symbols for their supporters to (literally in some cases) run with and make their own: dress up and all sorts of interpretations around a given colour or symbol. It was impressive to see the ubiquity of rainbows integrated into logos across digital platforms in support of gay marriage recently.

youtube
Youtube’s rainbow logo

Comic Relief’s red nose was always a strong icon, and it’s been cleverly renewed year on year. Younger audiences expect this kind of regeneration, and can readily cope with layers of branding or theming. These generations operate in a constant state of distraction with several screens on the go and are quite used to processing more than one symbol simultaneously.

red-nose-2015
Comic Relief’s red noses for 2015

Continuous creativity

It’s certainly starting to feel out-moded, conceited even, to think you can plan a brand from the outset and control every application. But here is the point. Visual identity design isn’t about setting something in stone. It’s about creating smart systems that enable users to adapt the core elements as needed.

‘Agile’ might be a hugely over-used term right now and sometimes misunderstood as a licence to go fast, avoid planning and see what happens. In fact, agility and adaptivity – in software development or design – are about acknowledging that the journey is continuous and accepting change along the way.

This isn’t simple or easy. It’s about embracing design more seriously and actively. For clients, this means finding a design partner for the long term, or investing in internal design capabilities so that it’s fully integrated in the business. For identity designers, it’s about being smarter and more strategic, and ensuring that design isn’t just pretty but hard-working too. Done well it will create branding that’s natural, organic, current and effective, not rigid and staid.

All well and good for big brands with significant budgets where economies of scale make this kind of investment in design and strategy possible. But I do believe that whatever the size, every organisation can benefit from embracing design and creativity as a live tool, and becoming more confident in how to use it.