Mistaken identities

Perfection is wearing thin, even in the practise of corporate identity, where many brands are turning up messy and unkempt

The high-definition, light-speed flawlessness with which information and imagery reaches us has made us hungry again for the dirty, the distressed, the messy, the home-made. The imperfect and un-showy seems to embody honesty, and with honesty in apparently short supply in finance, business, politics, the media and just about everywhere else, it’s no wonder advertisers, marketers and publishers are answering the appetite for the handmade and authentic.

In branding, authentic has usually meant handwritten. The once-spindly signatures of Kellogg’s, Campbell’s and Coca-Cola created a connection with the companies’ founding fathers and reassured shoppers that, although they might not know how or where the stuff was made, it was the real thing. And sanitised, computer-refined cursive script continues to be popular. The looping lower-case logotype with which Little Chef was rebranded last year by VentureThree taps into the same vein, conferring the suggestion of an artisan, cooked-just-for-you authenticity on the chain’s sausages and beans.

What’s emerged in the last few years, though, is a new level of messiness, randomness, immediacy and scrawl in logo design. The aesthetic is rooted in anti-establishment movements of the 1970s, traceable back to the work of Grapus and the protest movement, with the marker-pen monograms of Greenpeace and Solidarity, for example. Punk’s kitchen-table spontaneity seeped into the mainstream via the Virgin logo, adopted opportunistically when the label signed the Sex Pistols. MTV’s spraypainted-in-the-hallway
identity followed.

These and the identities that drew on hand-drawn font sets in the 1990s were a rebellion against the perfectly impenetrable, impersonal concept of corporate identity that still dominates big business. Today, asymmetry, unmediated scribble and mess are creating memorable marks for more mainstream entities.

Music’s recent lopsided, hand-drawn identity for Chester Zoo is one example, building a brand “around the antithesis of a conventional corporate logo or mark”. Moderna Museet, Sweden’s foremost museum of contemporary art, has a signature straight from the pen of Robert Rauschenberg. For the international engineering practice of Werner Sobek, Büro Uebele recently introduced the founder’s barely legible signature.

Sharing similar aims are marks for small-scale brands that leave in deliberate but subtle ‘mistakes’, typographic or otherwise. Dan Alexander & Co’s identity for the cookery book publisher à point books is lightly stained, like a recipe page; Moving Brands’ wordmark for Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons mimicked the shop’s antique signage, even down to the ‘S’ that had been unintentionally put back upside-down after a second world war bombing raid.

The tricky issue for any designer trying to capture the endearing, human qualities of roughness or error, is that of where to stop – and making sure that it’s somewhere well short of the forced, self-conscious gesture that can quickly date. Giorgio Baravalle’s New York State-based studio, de.MO, has branded a number of arts, educational and human rights causes with rough, ‘unfinished’ marks. Of these, Baravalle says: “They are not about novelty or being cool but instead emerge from a deeply rooted concept or idea. Raw and spontaneous, they capture human emotion, and therefore are universal, timeless and engaging.”

There is a fine line between a “human touch” and a “forced roughness”, says Stefan Claudius of Claudius Design and Cape Arcona type foundry, creator of hand-drawn fonts and rough-around-the-edges identities. “One is made by somebody, the other exaggerates the impression of having been made by somebody.”
It remains to be seen how far up the branding food chain the rough-hewn aesthetic can travel without looking totally insincere. A pharmaceutical or oil company, for example, that adopts a wonky letter or stain may encounter problems.

For the time being, imperfections in major brand marks appear to be completely unintentional.

Michael Evamy is the author of LOGO, published by Laurence King. evamy.co.uk

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