There’s something quite Big Brother-ish about corporate identity. It’s hard to escape the mind control aspect of identity guidelines, for example. It can’t be too long before in-house designers at a major multinational are told in their brand books, “This is our font. Thinking of other fonts is thoughtcrime. Thoughtcrime is death.”
But the real parallel is with identity change itself – the idea that you can reinvent yourself, and draw a line under, or through, your past. It’s a kind of rewriting or overwriting of history, a game of leaving visible what you want to be seen, and covering up what you don’t.
In our information age, themes of censorship, concealment, redaction and revelation pervade our perceptions of politics, big business and the media. It’s no surprise to find others picking up on them, too, in their own relations with the world.
We can see them in Jonathan Barnbrook’s controversial cover art for the latest David Bowie LP: a flat white square placed over the iconic Heroes album cover image. The partial visual eclipse, simultaneously referencing and negating Bowie’s Berlin period, has drawn wrath, ridicule and praise from fans. And it’s a similarly mixed story for designers who block out, strike through and censor text in the service of branding.
North’s joint identity for G&B Printers and its sister company 130 Litho, which drew on the aesthetic of censored official documents, was widely admired a few years ago. The shared letterhead featured the addresses of both companies, deleted in a disjointed block of black; the contact details of G&B were then printed over the top for its stationery, and vice versa for 130. Experiments combining the same graphic language with almost every print technique imaginable made for a series of sumptuous promotional materials.
The use of solid bars of black and colour to dramatically embed, highlight and conceal text brings to mind the work of Swiss designer Wolfgang Weingart, as well as followers such as 8vo and, later, the Swiss partnership Müller & Hess.
Sharing a similar spirit is the identity system by Re in Sydney for Flux, an Australian environmental design and engineering consultancy. Strikethroughs and text blackouts reveal the company name within the alphabet (fortunately the letters occur in alphabetical order) and within lengthy passages of text, the idea being to suggest a process of reduction and simplification that echoes the firm’s sustainable design processes.
But the act of leaving in the superfluous goes against most designers’ instincts. To some eyes it also creates a feeling of excess rather than minimisation. “We wrestled with this contradiction,” says Re’s Jason Little, “yet when our client passionately embraced the work because it communicated a clear story, we felt sure that they could pull it off with confidence. It’s rare to see clients embrace daring work so easily.”
You could add Privacy International to that group of clients. Its wordmark, developed by Paul Belford and his team before they left This is Real Art, is PI’s name in upper case, struck through with a thick black line. PI campaigns on privacy issues and fights unlawful surveillance across the world. “Privacy is the right to choose what information you share, not the desire to hide everything,” says PI’s former head of communications, Emma Draper. The words’ legibility, despite their concealment, “serves as a subtle reminder that people are very good at joining the dots and filling in the blanks – even if you share small amounts of what you believe to be inconsequential information”.
It wasn’t an instant ‘yes’ from the client. But, according to Belford, who has retained the PI account, “Logos gain acceptance through usage. And now everyone in the organisation is used to it, it doesn’t seem at all controversial to them.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” adds Draper, “it’s not universally liked. But I think it grew on people a huge amount. Let’s just say we’re now at the point where the right people love it and the right people hate it.” Draper is also aware of possible associations with censorship. “But surveillance and censorship are two sides of the same coin now, and it’s important to make people aware of that fact.”
Ambiguity is said to be dangerous in designing corporate marks; logos, we’re told, should be either one thing or the other. In this instance, the enigma is appropriately provocative and interesting. But the cases of PI and Flux are confirmation that when brands play with the graphic language of Big Brother, they are likely to court confusion, contradiction and controversy, as well as sharply divided opinion. 1
Michael Evamy is the author of Logotype, published by Laurence King. evamy.co.uk