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


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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

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