All change

It’s official. The age of the static brand is coming to an end. Organisations, companies, institutions, even charities are realizing that having identity schemes that ‘˜flex’ and adapt to circumstances are more appropriate in the multi-channel, multi-lingual world that brands now inhabit.

Over-controlled brands are starting to look stiff and old-fashioned, but not all clients (and certainly not all design companies) have yet woken up to this latest shift.

It’s not as though we didn’t have any warning. As long ago as the 70s, this fantastic scheme for Boston’s WGBH TV was developed, where the channel’s numeral keeps modulating for different stings.

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The germ of this identity was developed in the USA when MTV launched with many adaptations of their channel bumpers and was developed again in the UK with the schemes for Channel 4 and BBC2. More recently TV Asahi in Japan has taken some of these ideas even further.

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For what seemed like centuries clients, even when shown these fantastic examples of precedent, would say ‘˜well it’s easier on TV’ and retreat into their monolithic logo bunkers. Truly flexible corporates remained unseen in the printed domain until the rise of the web showed that identities could bend and twinkle with low-calorie versions of their older, broader brand-width cousins.

Designers have been producing ever-changing fonts such as Beowolf which, thanks to some canny randomisation programming kept changing as you used it, but it wasn’t until worldwide brands like Google started to regularly mess with its own logo that the dam was breached and the gate well and truly opened.

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Slowly cultural institutions have caught the bug – the venerable V&A experimented with these posters in the nineties before committing more recently to a house-style that allows far more flexibility than before.

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London’s dusty old Natural History Museum now allows their designers to fill their new ‘˜N’ with pretty much whatever takes their fancy, and a couple of years ago the Walker Arts Centre in the US laid the groundwork for the new Southbank scheme with a truly innovative system that allowed the designer almost unlimited freedom, and a system of background checks, patterns and stripes.

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Old retail brands are joining in and making merry – Saks recently unveiled a 21st century rubiks cube remix of their 70s logo which allows for endless permutations of their logo, cut up into little squares then merrily shuffled around by their designers. Even Target has loosened up.

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As advertising agencies lose their grip on the communications channels, the logos are starting to come out of the corner. Once pushed as far over to the bottom right as possible, they’re becoming central to communication, no longer content to just be the the full-stop at the end of a piece of branded communication. The old ‘˜exclusion area’ rules are being regularly broken, logos are now part of headlines, even part of straplines.

Sony Ericsson were prepared to let their agency, BBH, go in order to keep this communications idea, which had been proposed by their designers.

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After a slow start, Christian Aid’s agencies in the UK have finally realised that 17.5 million envelopes and a logo based upon it is a brand idea to be built on, not shoved into the gutter on the edge of an ad.

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Some logos now come in many forms, and many colours. Some, like the scheme for the BFI, come at whatever angle suits the designer’s layout the best. The straightjacket that was once ‘˜the brand manual’ is now more likely to be shorter, encouraging and have a lightness of touch rather than nine ring binders gathering dust on the shelf (the way they used to be).

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More rules are being gently unraveled, as brands like MORE TH>N allow what was once a treasonable offence, pulling the logo apart and incorporating it into headlines (made easier, admittedly, in MORE TH>N’s case, by the fact that the logo arrived as part of a typeface, making incorporation that much easier). Shelter’s nmenonic device isn’t locked up in a safe, it can be used in any word the designers like (as long as it contains an h, of course).

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In some cases, such as the YWCA in the USA and Macmillan in the UK, the strapline has almost become the identity itself. For the AA, an old logo has neatly become part of a new strapline.

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Over time, even names are being dropped.

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Some are even experimenting with identities that never settle on a single form, like this Urban Outfitters blog-style website.

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How static identity schemes will react remains to be seen. It’s true that whilst nearly all of the above ideas reflect well on the organizations that have adopted them, they almost all need constant monitoring and amendments. It’s become quite common to wait months, sometimes years, to issue a brand’s manual whilst all the possible permutations are worked out, sometimes in public.

But the benefits of developing fluid, flexible systems to encompass everything from fonts, to colours, to words, to images, to logos are enormous – with a bit of hard work and a good idea an organization stops being about just a logo and gains a complete visual and verbal language.

Can we see a return to locked, static brands? Well, yes, eventually – if flexibility becomes the new norm then of course inflexibility may become attractive again. And it’s interesting to see that the older, less nimble blue-chips are still slow to pick up on the idea of flexibility. Maybe they’re content to stay mono-message and hide behind a veneer of corporate consistency?

We’re willing to bet it won’t be long before one of them sees the light.