Tuesday, 02 September 2014
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What happened to identity?

Guest blogger graphic designer Patrick Argent looks at three ‘truly outstanding’ identities and wonders why they were ever replaced.

Considering the various recent branding debates, one notable aspect in recent years is the seemingly incomprehensible abandonment of truly outstanding logos which are then superseded by what can only be described as monumentally dull, utilitarian sticks of type.

What is behind this bizarre affection for the boring, the banal and the sterile?

Prime examples of this have been:

The Royal Armouries Museum Leeds identity by Minale Tattersfield

The Royal Armouries Museum Leeds identity by Minale Tattersfield

The Royal Armouries Museum Leeds identity by Minale Tattersfield.

How was the museum persuaded to ditch the Henry VIII horned helmet marque? Minale’s design not only had power, exuberance, instant memorability, and immediate relevance to the museum’s superlative collection, but it also formed the basis of a highly distinctive signage programme which gave the institution a unique and robust visual presence.

Sadly, the logo has been reduced to something of a casual marketing afterthought (represented now in a rather disparaging way only as a silhouette), leaving the museum’s graphics and signage a visual confusion for the visitor.

National Grid logo by John McConnell, Pentagram Design

National Grid logo by John McConnell, Pentagram Design

The National Grid logo by John McConnell (Pentagram)

John McConnell’s timeless solution possessed all the hallmarks of powerful identity design. It concisely and sharply expressed the very nature of the organisation in a serious, authoritative yet visually dynamic way. It’s contemporary counterpart is only remarkable by its bleak drabness offering little or no level of recognition.

London Transport Museum identity by Minale Tattersfield

London Transport Museum identity by Minale Tattersfield

London Transport Museum identity by Minale Tattersfield.

The former LTM logo was an exceptionally brilliant execution of design thinking. Simple, economic yet loaded with real content and meaning. It succinctly communicated the museum’s very raison d’etre, the telling of the story of the history of transport, in a highly original, engaging and powerful way.  

As with the Royal Armouries, the logo was the foundation of a singular and expressive signage system which had a idiosyncratic visual character perfectly in tune with the development timeline of the museum’s collection. The current ’branding solution’ is nothing more than an anonymous offshoot of the LT roundel.

All of these identities had exactly that - identity.

Is this move towards a bland and standardised uniformity, a reflection of insecurity by the clients or marketing managers? Is it that their previous logo, no matter how compelling, became a helpless victim of the expediency of a transient vogue in design?

Why would any client abandon as an irrelevance its existing world-class logo, then pay for the development of a replacement that is meaningless and wholly inferior, then additionally have to pay for the costs of the implementation of that inferior substitute. It is a self-defeating triple negative.

What so often actually replaces these great logos, possesses virtually no aesthetic, intellectual or expressive ambition, it is a form of deadening, functionalist graphic design produced in a vacuum. The sheer dreariness and mediocrity of many of these branding solutions reflects an approach of how to design in a comprehensively unimaginative and vacuous way. Even a non-designer could achieve that.   

It seems that in graphics, new variations of the emperor’s new clothes never seem to go out of fashion.

Readers' comments (8)

  • You can't miss out the Conservative logo change, all previous variations took ownership of the Union flag there was no dubiety to whom they were, now they have a green tree, must be the most ill advised logo change in UK history.

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  • great article.

    A lot of companies don't want to take any risks and seem to want to look like everyone else in their category, which makes them not stand out in any way, which totally defeats the point of having an identity, it's a strange thing, and I think it is driven by the underlying fact that graphic design generally is not respected, because everyone can have a say in a design for something and think that they can contribute, because they can. But if you employ someone to design something for you then you should trust them and respect them enough to create something which they think will benefit your company, not design 20 different logos until they come up with something you had in mind.

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  • I completely agree that, whilst this post does not show them, the current identities leave a lot to be desired. They are now static logo's with little relevance to the rest of the visual branding.

    I really like the implementation of the Armouries Museum devices and the other two have scope too. I wonder what the reasoning given by the client and designer were for the redesign...

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  • Great blog, I really love these more complex and illustrative logos. I do however also see the argument for simplifying some logos in today's over saturated graphic landscape. The age of having to create designs with 20 x funded by/supported by, complex logos, all in full colour, is doing more damage our industry than good.

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  • This is a great article. In my opnion your are right.
    However, occurs to me that maybe these companies and institutions want their identity to look exactly like that. Just a simple and boring thing. Something that doesn't have a particular character. Like a medicine packaging. Simple, clean lines like they are there since ever. Like something that is part of our daily life. A service not to be noticed. Maybe for different reasons, they want it like that, including just to be trendy. Perhaps this article should be sent, by this publisher, to these companies and institutions and ask them why, and how they decided to change their identity. Give them an opportunity for a repply. It would be fun to read their feed back.

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  • I disagree with most of this article. When designing a logo, one very important thing to consider is it's broader implementation and the extent of this. I think all 3 of the logos sited here would create problems when implementing them across the board. So for example, the TFM logo, might work well on a wall or on a letterhead, but could look awkward on a poster which may be focusing on a particular mode of transport or era.

    The point of modern logo design is to be succinct, adaptable, timeless and truely economic. There is nothing economic about any of the branding sited above. The TFM logo is a 5 colour illustration of rail progress over the years. Economic? Really? The National grid logo, while I'm sure it looked great at the time, is a monstrous tangle of lines and in a Thatcherite kind of way, deeply depressing. And while the RAM illustrations are good, this branding doesn't herald great economy or versatility.

    I'm not arguing that the replacements for these 3 institutions are good or better, but in modern times a logo has to do so much more than it used to, on and within a huge variety of new and old media. Logos these days need to be a blank canvas for a designer, and need to work with any idea that it's thrown up against.

    A truely great logo will have done all this since it's inception and should never need renewal. Take the Nike logo for example, as fresh today as it was when it was born. Not true at all for the 3 sited above.

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  • Hi Peter, I think you may be missing the point Patrick was saying. To see a bit more on the work we did for The London Transport Museum and Royal Armouries, please visit our blog.

    http://minaletattersfield.blogspot.com/2010/12/quick-look-into-our-archives.html

    It would be interesting to hear your thoughts after understanding a bit more context.

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  • Well I don't know about the rest of you but I think the recent decision of letting a 5 year old design the logo for the Queen's Diamond Anniversary was a master stroke. The trouble with Mr Argent is that he thinks that farming out design to schoolkids will put him and his cronies out of business - and he's probably right. And thank heavens for that, considering the ghastliness of the XXX million pound 'logo' for the Olympics! A 12 day old baby could've done better. In fact, I tried it on my neighbour's newborn and her design was right up there with the best of them.
    So bring on the 'people's logo' and let's stop wasting money on cack-handed tripe.

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