Because the internet: MTV launches GIF and meme-inspired visual identity

MTV has launched a brilliantly bonkers new on-air identity today, featuring idents inspired by internet memes, GIFs and emojis, and social media videos posted by viewers. We spoke to the channel’s VP of creative and marketing Sean Saylor about the refresh, and how MTV hopes to reclaim its reputation for discovering new artistic talent.

MTV has launched a brilliantly bonkers new on-air identity today, featuring idents inspired by internet memes, GIFs and emojis, and social media videos posted by viewers. We spoke to the channel’s VP of creative and marketing Sean Saylor about the refresh, and how MTV hopes to reclaim its reputation for discovering new artistic talent.

When MTV launched in 1981, there was nothing like it. A 24-hour music channel was unheard of, and its impact on the entertainment industry was huge. As well as driving innovation in music videos, it helped launch the careers of some of the 80s and 90s biggest artists and filmmakers, and its animated series and reality shows like Beavis and Butthead and the Real World paved the way for new genres of television.

Thirty-four years later, however, MTV is facing tough competition. It’s now broadcast in over 160 countries to half a billion households, but it has to contend with dozens of music and teen channels, as well as online platforms where artists and amateurs can create and share content in an instant. For a channel founded on providing innovative content and discovering the next big thing, keeping pace with the immediacy of the internet is perhaps its biggest challenge.

MTV has invested heavily in online content of late. It has several news sites and YouTube channels, and multiple accounts on Facebook, twitter and Instagram (its US Facebook page alone has over 46 million likes). It has also been experimenting with animated idents created in response to trending topics on social media through its Always On project, led by SVP of visual storytelling Richard Turley and his creative team in New York.

The project was named Best in Book in our annual this year, and provided a brilliant example of how to integrate online content into programming. Idents combined lo-fi graphics with user-generated content, and some weird and wonderful footage from around the web.

Today, MTV launched a new on-air identity with a similar ‘new ugly’ aesthetic, which it hopes will reflect the increasingly visual way its audience communicates. Graphics are a chaotic mix of clashing colours, unicorns, anthropomorphic fruit and badly animated humans, and perfectly capture MTV’s playful tone of voice, as well as the DIY aesthetic of the internet.


Alongside the new idents, the channel will be airing social media videos and content created by viewers in between shows. Working with B-Reel, it has developed a CMS to curate footage uploaded to social platforms using the hashtag MTVBump. Videos will be filtered for topicality, popularity and relevance, and broadcast online within a couple of hours. Next month, it will launch MTV Canvas, which it describes as a ‘digital sticker book’ allowing viewers to create their own branded idents using a suite of images and audio clips.

In an attempt to rekindle its reputation for discovering new creative talent – the channel helped launch the careers of Michel Gondry, Spike Jonez and Doug Aitken, among others – MTV is also reviving its art break programme; and has commissioned short video content from Thomas De Rijk, Katie Torn, Johnny Woods, Device, Eva Papamargariti and The Great Nordic Sword Fights. New videos will be added on a regular basis.

Sean Saylor, VP of creative and marketing at MTV, says the brand refresh is designed to be more in keeping with the visual language of the internet and the emojis, memes and GIFs its viewers use to communicate. “We go through rebrands every couple of years, and want to make sure we’re in line with how our audience is communicating and talking. One of the things we saw was a huge change in the way our audience is consuming and producing content in the last couple of years, and the fact that they have become very visual in the way they communicate. They’re making images to respond to comments, emojis have really blown up, so we wanted to take that and apply it to the brand,” he explains.

Visuals were inspired by popular content posted by its audience online, as well as the look and feel established by Turley’s team in Always On. “The stuff that Richard is doing is amazing. When we saw it, we thought that’s great – now how de we have this playfulness in the brand at a global scale?” he explains.

At a four-day meeting in New York, Saylor, MTV creative director Nacho Gil and the channel’s heads of marketing and social media pitched their concept for the new visual identity. They then met with the channel’s global creative teams in Miami to discuss how the look would work in different regions.

“The majority of the visual direction was already set, but we had a session to work out how it could be managed on a regional scale, and to decide what things worked and what things might look old. Things might be trending in Asia a couple of years before Europe and America,” Saylor explains.

While creating an identity so tied to visual trends is usually a recipe for disaster, Saylor says graphic elements will be udpated regularly in response to its audience’s changing tastes. “One of the interesting things [the team had to think about when rebranding] was ‘how can we make sure that we rebrand the channel, but in a way that we can refresh it constantly, so we’re not stuck to a certain look and feel that will look old in six months?'”

“Instead of sending out traditional elements to be applied across all the different regions, which would take a lot of work to update, we had to look at it completely differently. We have created a structure of elements – there are 300 different backgrounds, hundreds of animations and our own emojis…and regions can mix them up and create their own pieces, but they’ll always feel like they’re coming from the same place.” he says.

MTV Futura is still the channel’s primary typeface, but Saylor says creative teams will be able to use different fonts and imagery for different shows. The extensive visual toolkit and user-generated content will give each region the freedom to create a unique ‘local’ voice, he says, without straying too far from the look and feel of sister channels abroad, and ndividual graphics will be updated on a regular basis to reflect changing visual trends.

The style guide is more of a toolbox, that talks about a philosophy and approach without necessarily specifying where things should be placed. We’ve really made it a lot easier for the regions to play around more with the elements, and at the same time, we’re able to refresh it every few months,” he explains. “The rebrand will last until the end of the year, and at that point, we might say OK, what do we do next year? Our audience moves quickly, and we need to be ahead of that,” he says.

While the channel has kept its iconic logo, which was last updated in 2010, a 3D version has finally been created for idents and video clips. “When we looked at the history of art breaks, a lot of artists were doing 3D versions of the logo, and many of our creative teams are creating communications and branding in 3D, so we wanted to make sure the logo exists in a 3D format that is modelled and can’t be reshaped. Artists can [add a] skin or fill it, but they can’t change the shape, so it’s another way of giving people more options while retaining some consistency,” explains Saylor.

This was more challenging than it sounds, however, as the 3D effect in MTV’s 2D logo is impossible to create in 3D. “It’s a fake perspective, so when you look at it in 3D from the front, you can’t see that same perspective,” he says. The solution was to create a flat M, with a 3D ‘T’ and ‘V’ popping out in front “to add character”.

The art breaks released so far feature some surreal and funny content, and Saylor says he hopes the feature will introduce viewers to exciting new creative talent, helping emerging artists reach a wider audience, and helping restore MTV’s reputation as the place to find innovative content.

“We’re really looking at visual art but in later phases, we want to look at just talent in general – people doing interesting things on Vine or Instagram. They can come to our brand, and we’ll expose them to a larger audience,” he says. “On the visual front, one of the things we did was explore people doing something that feels new, fresh, and different to most things we’ve seen, and that aren’t huge – we don’t just want to go for the people working for multiple brands.”

While MTV has perhaps become more known for its celebrity documentaries and reality shows like Teen Mom, Saylor says the channel is keen to balance this with more experimental content. “We want to find people doing amazing things, and say look at these artists creating amazing stuff,” he adds.

Seven artists have created art breaks so far, but Saylor says the channel will expand the programme to showcase work from creatives around the world – and content will be carefully curated by its creative teams.

“It’s not about just sending an open brief to thousands of artists and seeing who sends stuff in. We want different regions to go through the same curatorial process. When it comes to visual art, it’s really a curation process…we want to be like no other brand out there. There are a lot of platforms that have a tonne of stuff – you can find whatever you want on YouTube – but we want to be the first to bring you new and interesting things,” he says.

To anyone who favours a more minimal visual approach, MTV’s new look will likely prove controversial. But the rebrand is exactly what the channel set out to create: it’s bold, different, and much more in keeping with the kind of content teens are making and sharing online. MTV may not be the cultural phenomenon it once was, but it certainly hasn’t lost its attitude.

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