There has been a growing interest in flexible visual identities in the last ten years, with lots of design studios starting to abandon the idea of the logo as the centrepiece of a visual identity, instead dedicating their practices to the development of visual systems. Books have started to reflect on this new approach and projects realised for big clients have brought the subject to the attention of a wider audience. The visual identities for Aol.
, the Olympic Games London 2012
, the City of Melbourne
and New York
come to mind, but also the MIT Media Lab
, Casa da Musica
, Stedelijk Museum
and Walker Art Center have shown that the flexible visual identity is a trend that is here to stay.
Some call them ‘dynamic identities’, some ‘liquid’ or ‘fluid’ identities (referring to Zygmunt Bauman’s term ‘liquid modernity’). Further, ‘generative’, ‘responsive’, ‘evolutive’ or ‘living’ are all terms used to describe flexible visual identities. What all these terms have in common is an attempt to describe flexible visual identity as the opposite of the static visual identity, based on a static logo design.
There is no real consensus about what flexible visual identities are and do, and therefore how to name them. I have deduced that there might be another reason for the multiplicity of terms: there might be different types of flexible visual identities. In an attempt to bring light into this field, which still is at an experimental state, I started in 2007, an investigation at the University of Barcelona, which resulted in a doctoral dissertation, defended this January, 2016.
To start my investigation, I went back in history, and guess what, flexible visual identities aren’t new. In 1964 Karl Gerstner published the book Programme entwerfen
and described exactly this trend— a visual identity that doesn’t need a logo anymore, a visual identity that is entirely based on a visual system, or as Gerstner calls it a “programme”. This book sketched out ideas for a future in graphic design we haven’t even reached yet.
Systemisation of images is as old as visual language itself. Whenever a visually coherent language was needed, systemisation took place. In his book Signs and Symbols (1981) Adrian Frutiger
mentioned the drawings of ancient cultures. He suggested that an underlying grid established visual coherence in between the different signs. In his book Type Spaces (2004) Peter Burnhill
analysed the in-house norms in the typography of Aldus Manutius and discovered the underlying grid system. Frank Blokland stated in excerpts of his not-yet-published doctoral thesis that the constructed nature of the calligraphic typeface Textura offered Gutenberg the perfect starting point for his movable type system, allowing him to easily calculate the length of lines in order to build the best possible justification of text.
But visual systems are also to be found in other fields of visual culture. Karl Gerstner analysed in his book Die Formen der Farben
(1986) various visual systems, from early geometry, to arabic pattern to modern constructive painting and sculpting. Josef Müller-Brockmann found old and new grids in his book Grid systems
(1986) in type design, art, architecture, urban planning and product design. Not surprisingly, Semiologie Grafique
(1967), a book by a non-graphic designer – the cartographer Jacques Bertin – was the biggest source of inspiration when developing my own diagram to describe flexible visual identities.