No limits?

Flexible branding may be an old concept, but multiple platforms and user-generation are adding new possibilities for easily configurable customisation – all it needs to work properly is adequate oversight and management. John Stones reports

Branding is moving with the times, quite literally in many cases. The cookie-cutter approach of the static, immutable logo is increasingly moving over for a more fluid and flexible approach to branding. As Melbourne-based Andrew Ashton of Studio Pip says, ’Why can’t it be a shape, a variety of symbols, a colour, a smell, a process or a sound?’

It’s customary to point to Frank Olinksy’s 1981 MTV logo as the instigator of the genre of the flexible brand. And it’s certainly media and communications companies that have been most keen to adopt the strategy, including, recently, BBC Two and AOL. A particularly nice example is the work by Ian Lytham for Tokyo production company M31 – its branding is a kit of parts, like a box of Smarties, that can be configured at will.

Creative institutions are another category which have exploited the flexible logo. Take, for instance, Krea, the Basque institute branded by Madrid studio Erretres, or the generative identity by Stefan Sagmeister for the Casa da Musica in Porto. And what about Experimental Jetset’s subtle identity for 104 (the creative business centre in which Philippe Starck has his studio), which simply plays with a variety of weights?

There is, however, a much older tradition of flexible, free branding – look at Vogue magazine. Today it might have one of the most rigidly policed logos, but in the early years of the 20th century, its masthead was redrawn each issue to fit with the cover image. In analogous fashion, the logo for the now-defunct PR agency Koan, devised by Adam Rix while at Love Creative, allowed every employee to doodle their own.
Flexible systems are no doubt enabled by a greatly increased public understanding of branding. Marketing strategies are no longer conducted behind the scenes, but widely dissected and analysed – sit on a bus and you will hear teenagers analyse a brand strategy with considerable sophistication.

In this magazine, Simon Manchipp of Someone recently argued the logo should be a thing of the past and be replaced with ’brand worlds’ (Insight, DW 1 April). O2, which Manchipp sees as exemplary, also points to a problem – a certain vagueness and the ability to be hijacked. Witness the proliferation of intellectual property disputes over who ’owns’ a certain colour or word (a current instance of this is Absolut vodka and Absolute Radio).

Flexible logos can require a high level of design oversight and management if they’re not to degenerate into a slush – Landor Associates’ beautiful, multi-faceted branding for the city of Melbourne quickly lost its sparkle after being implemented by the client’s in-house team. All the more reason, suggests Karsten Schmidt (see box, right), to create identity systems controlled by software, so ’user error’ cannot creep in.

Whether a passing fad or not (and recent events show that branding is as susceptible to the fashion cycle as anything else), these flexible branding schemes are a chance to savour some design virtuosity. The question is whether mainstream consumer brands from other sectors will start adopting flexible branding, too.

’We called it an identity because it was used for all the assets, but you can’t compare it to a corporate identity because there are no guidelines,’ says Schmidt. ’However, if people only play within certain set parameters, they can’t break out of a preset law and then the parameters become brand guidelines.’ It’s an approach branding consultancies have woken up to, and Schmidt is working on confidential projects with Wolff Olins and former employer Moving Brands to introduce generative and interactive identity schemes.

’The questions are – how can a brand live in the real world, and how is it a behaviour?’ says Schmidt. ’It doesn’t make sense any more to specify a particular colour or font size – it will look different on a mobile phone, for instance, and even vary from one phone to another. Print is no longer so important, the touchpoints are now digital.’

Case study
Decode: Digital Design Sensations by Karsten Schmidt

For the Victoria & Albert Museum’s recent show Decode: Digital Design Sensations, Karsten Schmidt was commissioned to devise a particularly adventurous identity that was open source and, in its primary form, animated. The identity (pictured below) appeared on screens not only at the museum, but also on the Tube, and the public could generate their own versions. A few brave souls could also download and play with its code.

’We called it an identity because it was used for all the assets, but you can’t compare it to a corporate identity because there are no guidelines,’ says Schmidt. ’However, if people only play within certain set parameters, they can’t break out of a preset law and then the parameters become brand guidelines.’

It’s an approach branding consultancies have woken up to, and Schmidt is working on confidential projects with Wolff Olins and former employer Moving Brands to introduce generative and interactive identity schemes. ’The questions are – how can a brand live in the real world, and how is it a behaviour?’ says Schmidt.

’It doesn’t make sense any more to specify a particular colour or font size – it will look different on a mobile phone, for instance, and even vary from one phone to another. Print is no longer so important, the touchpoints are now digital.’

Latest articles