Flexible identity systems: all played out?

Once, identity systems were fixed, consistent and rigidly policed. So-called ‘flexible’ identities have changed all that, as Michael Johnson documents here. But, he asks, have they too now reached the end of the line?

Once, identity systems were fixed, consistent and rigidly policed. So-called ‘flexible’ identities have changed all that, as Michael Johnson documents here. But, he asks, have they too now reached the end of the line?

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.

But it wasn’t always like this. Print designers had long envied the ability of TV designers (such as this famous Chermayeff and Geismar scheme for WGBH from 1973) to create endlessly changing interpretations of their logos.


Holland Fest identity, 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, 1982, 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.


Then there were two breakthroughs – firstly a radical scheme for the NAI (Netherlands Architecture Institute) by Bruce Mau in 1993 suggested not one but many distorted, out of focus logos as a solution that allowed for flexibility and experimentation.


And then later in the 90s 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.

And let’s not forget Tomato’s Connected Identity for Sony from 2000 (above) where, using an interactive kiosk (remember them?) users could input a word into a graphic system which would then produce a 1.5 second animation inserted into the end of current Sony TV ads in Japan.

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


The 2001 Rotterdam city of culture scheme by Mevis en Van Deursen (above) led with an ever-changing palette of geometric shapes, and the Walker Art Center developed an extensive toolkit of bars, stripes and chevrons to identify itself with.

Walker Art Center identity, Andrew Blauvelt and Chad Kloepfer, 2005

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 Tomato’s scheme for TV Asahi and More Four by Spin.


Another constant trend has been the ‘logo as container’ device, one we can trace back as far as Allied International Designers’ Priba identity in 1973 (above). [And (as Josh points out in the comments below) an idea taken up with gusto by MTV in 1981 (see our post here and a  history of the logo by one of its designers here)]

But it took container schemes such as the National History Museum (by Hat-Trick, 2004) and Wolff Olins’ NYC to really popularize the approach – an idea that continues to be regularly recycled half a decade later.


Eventually the Aol scheme of 2009 (also by Wolff Olins) 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.

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 2005 scheme for The New School in New York by Siegel + Gale allowed the various colleges to retain their verbal independence whilst establishing a cohesive whole.


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


Another trend has been the use of frames, and framing devices. Steff Geissbühler used one for Toledo Museum of Art in 2000, but this 2007 scheme for Ringling College by SamataMason 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, courtesy of Bruce Mau Design.


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

The quest for something ever-changing now seems relentless. In 2004 Brooklyn Museum introduced a modulating series of Bs (from 2×4), and in 2011 the MIT Media Lab unveiled ever-shifting cubes of light, created in collaboration between E Roon Kang and TheGreenEyl.




A 2010 scheme for Nordkyn from Oslo’s Neue Design Studio produced a new logo for every application with data based on the feed from the Norwegian Meteorological Office.



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.



As recently as last month the quest for complete flexibility was demonstrated again in Experimental Jetset’s 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 (read CR’s piece on it here).

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…

Michael Johnson, creative director, johnson banks

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


UPDATE: We’d like to add one more flexible identity to Michael’s list – Precedent’s work for the Leeds College of Music which was launched in June this year. The studio worked with Karsten Schmidt (see above) to create a tool which would visualise music for use in graphic applications. The system allows staff and students to create their own visual identity by inputting their music. See here


Buy the current print issue of CR, or subscribe, here

The July issue of Creative Review is a type special, with features on the Hamilton Wood Type Museum, the new Whitney identity and the resurgence of type-only design. Plus the Logo Lounge Trend Report, how Ideas Foundation is encouraging diversity in advertising and more

  • Josh

    How does MTV not appear here?! The King of flexible identity systems!

    Great article though.

  • PatrickBurgoyne

    @ Josh

    Yes, good point. I will add a mention. Also, see our story here http://www.creativereview.co.uk/cr-blog/2010/february/mtv-refreshes-logo

  • One could argue this article is referencing identities with flexible logos/icons/brandmarks. Not flexible identities.

    The examples here can become old very quickly because they flex but flex with constraint. Fixed elements that change slightly. Whether it be More4’s lozenges, Pew Center’s squares or Whitney’s W. It’s iterations of the same thing so it’s boring over time.

    Flexible identities are more like O2 or Compare the Market in my opinion. They can adopt new things and adapt. That’s flexible. Not this lot.

  • Another striking example with COP15 Identity:

    Each output is not strikingly different, there is subtlety to it, which is what I like.

  • Angel Butterworth

    Interesting article. Also interesting that someone from SomeOne (Lee Davis) finds no value in 35 years of ground breaking identity design, but merrily suggests two projects that SomeOne have partly worked on in their place. Subtle Lee, really subtle.

  • G

    Absolutely top drawer point, Lee Davies. ‘Nail on the head’ and all that. With most so-called ‘fixed’ identity systems, actually what they’re doing is offering up a framework within which flexibility can inhabit.

    In most, if not all the above cases, the logo itself becomes the identity system and overtakes/overpowers anything else it is trying to say.

    And yes, even though these things ‘move’, they aren’t necessarily ‘flexible’. All they are doing is allowing the logo to look different each time, and possibly, for the logo not to have to sit in the same place each time.

  • Ed

    Lee makes an interesting point.

    If these are flexible logos(etc) rather than identities, think of someone like Nike who have one of the classic ‘monolithic’ logos. The very fact that their logo is the only thing that’s fixed allows them to be arguably more adaptable than many of the identities in the article.

    Is there a case, then, for fixed logos and adaptable identities?

  • Ocky Murray

    I was always impressed by Ninja Tune’s approach in the 1990s, where their ninja logo rendered in different styles for different artists (most notably Mr Scruff’s child-like scribble, with circles for hands). It showed humour and a lack of pomposity on the part of the label.

  • Kasper Kiefte

    Bronze Lion-winning ITV rebrand?

  • Geoff

    Thanks for the interesting article Michael.
    It’s a little unsettling to see the MTV logo with a strange reference to ‘Josh’, and then later a comment from ‘Josh’ that MTV hasn’t been included. But that’s the advantage of internet I suppose. Get something wrong, or forget to mention someone, and you can just correct it. Solved!
    Ah! The bad old days of print where oversights were forever…

  • Interesting summery of the evolution of identities. I also compiled a book on this topic going by the name of ‘Dynamic Identities, How to create a living brand’ You should definately look into that! here’s a link

    And I keep a live blog with up-to-date examples


  • There’s a fine line to be struck here between creating a flexible identity to actually fulfill a need for an ever-changing logo and simply making one for the sake of wowing a client. It’s all very well saying a logo can do all this whizzy stuff in a pitch, but two years down the line if the client isn’t using this magic identity to its full potential then what was the point?

    I think however where this flexibility comes into the positive is the ability for the public to get onboard and actually shape an identity for themselves. London 2012 tried it early on with its infill emblem that was intended to be populated with images, albeit ditched by the time of the Games. The Eurovision 2013 Malmö butterfly theme, itself adaptable with animated flag infills was taken by the city and its locals and used to dress shop windows as well as kids face painting. It’s only really when people have the power to implement their own versions do they sit up and notice, and I think that’s where this flexible logo, or theme art, will become more prolific in the future, rather than simply a clever ‘toy’ for designers and marketing departments to play around with for five minutes before slapping their dynamic logo in (obviously pre-determined) corner of a letterhead.

  • Interesting summery of the evolution of identities. I also compiled a book on this topic going by the name of ‘Dynamic Identities, How to create a living brand’ You should definately look into that! here’s a link

    And I keep a live blog with up-to-date examples


  • Interesting article, I’m not sure some people have understood the meaning of ‘flexible’ correctly:


    Flexibility implies movement with defined parameters, move outside those parameters and the thing breaks. I think what some people are advocating is anarchy, which very few clients will agree to.

    Anyway… disappointed Sagmeister’s identity generator for Casa da Musica in Portugal didn’t get a mention here:


  • Julie

    Walker Arts Center /// Southbank Centre /// Walker Center /// Southbank centre

  • Angel,

    I wasn’t trying to dismiss the article. The brands featured are fantastic and have broken ground, as you say, over the past 35 years. I agree with the article. They quickly tire because they are flexible but in a fixed way (if that makes sense)

    More important as mentioned by G, and Ed. Keep the logo but add something that can adapt to new things. O2 has done this well. But their logo has remained the same. But see some neon type with bubbles on a blue background and I immediately know its an O2 add. Even without a logo. I can’t say the same about many other brands. I think you’ll agree.

    But as Barry has pointed out flexible has constraints. I think Sky has the most visually alluring flexible brand, but there are only so many things they can do with their logo. But they still manage to tread new ground with their work over the past years with the logo interacting with the image.

  • All the identities in this article are dreadful for two reasons: they are unappealing and they have failed to build recognition or value.

    By 2000 I had done my fair share of thinking about the idea of flexibility in identity, and concluded that all flexibility fails. The permanent/static elements of these identities are occasionally successful, but the elements that change are superfluous.

    They are the easiest way for an agency to avoid their real job: to provide the client with a valuable, recognizable and protectable asset that has broad appeal.

  • Success Maake

    Really enjoyed reading this :)

  • Remember EXPO 2000? For me it was the first ‘flexible’ identity that caught my eye.

  • Lauren

    Wolff Olins also did a flexible system for The New Museum