The more logos change, the more they stay the same

The trend for logos filled with ever-changing images may be hot now, but we’ve been down this road before, and it could be a dead end…

The MTV logo has had a ‘refresh’ – designer code for a change not big enough to warrant the label ‘redesign’ but big enough, usually, to warrant a large bill and a jargon-packed press release. For MTV this is something of an event as it is the first time that the logo has been changed since Manhattan Design created the original in 1981.

The words ‘Music Television’, perhaps as a reflection of the changed nature of the network’s content, have been dropped. More importantly, the new logo is the perfect shape to act as a reservoir for widescreen TV images. MTV has joined the ranks of the logo-as-receptacle-for-imagery trend.

Blame Wolff Olins
It’s a trend that appears to be gaining more and more traction with identity designers and their clients but possibly the earliest incarnation was in a system developed for Belgian supermarket chain, Priba, by Allied International Designers way back in 1973. Images of the products available in-store filled out the logo’s letters. More recently, Wolff Olins has led the way, with identity projects for the London Olympics, New York’s tourism and marketing body, NYC & Company and AOL (sorry, Aol.) all involving outline marks waiting to be filled with imagery – although, in Aol’s case, the mark sits on top. But we have also seen it used by Pentagram for the Museum of Art and Design in New York and given a graphic, rather than photographic, application by Landor Sydney for the City of Melbourne.

The marriage of a logo with a bank of ‘corporate’ imagery has been a weapon in the identity designer’s armoury for many years – I remember a Newell and Sorrell presentation for Barclays in the late 90s in which a group of photojournalists had been commissioned to shoot a suite of images to be used in literature and bank interiors, for example. But with receptacle logos the link is much more explicit. The method achieves the flexibility that has become a fashionable prerequisite while retaining control. It is endlessly adaptable and ‘campaignable’.

But for some designers, the receptacle logo is a form of cheating. A logo, they maintain, should be an inviolable synthesis of everything an organisation is about. It must stand alone, an island in a sea of communications noise held at bay by the non-negotiable ‘exclusion zones’ that are a fixture in brand guide­lines books. If your logo relies on imagery to make it work, the argument goes, it’s not a very good logo.

Others take a more extreme and contrary view. Someone’s Simon Manchipp was recently quoted on the D&AD blog claiming that “logos are dead”. It’s hard to claim that any logo can ever properly explain what a company has to offer, he argues. “There is no desire for them from the public anymore,” he says, claiming they are an old-fashioned approach to differentiating products and services. Instead, he suggests we look at what Brandia Central has done for the 2012 UEFA European football championships, using an array of patterns and images based on a form of papercutting popular in the host nations of Poland and Ukraine. There is a logo but, Manchipp says, “These illustrations are so interesting, culturally relevant and wildly original that if they were a little braver, they could do away with the ‘logo bit’ altogether and be left with a brilliant, exciting, ownable and authentic visual identity.” In this way, he says, designers can create richer, more interesting ‘brand worlds’ which “excite and offer flexibility. They are a campaign; useful and engaging,” he claims. “They are everything a logo is not. Which is why, the logo is dead.”

Fur, ice, blood and paint
MTV, however, can claim to have championed the whole ‘flexible identity’ thing long ago, creating a ‘brand world’ of its own in the process. Manhattan Design’s original mark came with no corporate colour guidelines. Instead (as one of the designers Frank Olinsky explains on his site, frankolinsky.com) both the colour and the materials in which the logo was rendered would be changed with each application, making it as eclectic as the music played on the channel.

As a result, the MTV logo appeared in a myriad of forms – everything from fur to ice, dripping paint to dripping blood. In addition, MTV invited young animators to have fun with it. Under the creative directorship of Peter Doherty in London this resulted in an array of witty and irreverent stings for the channel, clearly articulating its challenger status and creating, yes, a ‘brand world’.

The difference today, reflecting the new realities of the channel, is that the space in the new logo will be used more to push its programming and its endless procession of reality TV micro-celebrities than as a canvas for artists and animators as it once was. I may not be the target audience, but MTV’s brand world is not one I would wish to spend much time in.

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