Brand New Worlds: Corporate Makeovers and Dead Logos
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The Gradient

Brand New Worlds: Corporate Makeovers and Dead Logos

Christophe Szpajdel, logo for the band Pyre, 2009

“Products are made in the factory, but brands are made in the mind.” -—Walter Landor

Don Draper, the lead television character of the acclaimed series Mad Men, makes an impressive pitch to two Kodak executives who are searching for a firm to market their new slide projector. Fixated on the machine’s most distinguishing feature, they ask if he has found a way to sell the wheel-like mechanism–the oldest of technologies–as something new. “Nostalgia, it’s delicate, but potent,” Draper tells them, methodically clicking through slides documenting the happier moments of his otherwise troubled domestic life. “It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called a carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” In typically masterful fashion, Draper schools the postwar business execs in the new ways of connecting consumers to the things they love. Product features and pricing are fine as rational appeals, newness has buzz, but the most direct and lasting route is emotional, an arrow straight to the heart. Welcome to the new world of branding: a place where you don’t sell projectors, you sell memories.

In the 1990s, branding subsumed what graphic designers used to call corporate identity. During this time, it was not uncommon to attend a design lecture where the term would be raised only to be accompanied by a Wild West image of a cowboy wrestling a steer to the ground and the requisite (nervous) laughter from the assembled crowd. Although the word has its roots in this etymology, the point was largely missed. True, brands were markers of ownership, used to tell one cow from the other, just as brands in the marketplace must assert their own difference in the cattle call of daily consumption. However, the real impact to design was the devaluation of the mark itself, from a prized talisman to a requisite deliverable. Reduced to playing a bit part, the logo has been eclipsed by a cavalcade of brand expertise and its concepts: brand equity, brand loyalty, brand extensions, brand dilution, brand promise, brand audit, rebranding, brand management, brand experiences, etc. All of this brand activity is fairly self-perpetuating, instigated by brand managers eager to prove their worth to higher-ups with a constant stream of refresh and renewal campaigns, not to mention the era of mergers and acquisitions and the turnstile CEO, who signals new leadership change the same way Buckingham Palace announces 
the arrival of the queen–by running it up the flagpole.

The concept of corporate identity, and the logo at the heart of it, sought to embody and reflect the organization–a mirror turned onto the corporate self. Such an approach parallels the evolving logic and expanding status of “corporate personhood,” at least as it is understood in the United States. This personification of the corporation–giving it the same basic rights of assembly, movement, privacy, and speech as individual citizens–is in many ways the expansion of the personification of the brands those same companies sell. In contrast to corporate identity, branding is both a projection and reflection of the consumer. Distilled to an essence, even if it looked rather meaningless and abstract, the logo was an embodied marker. Corporate identity was the culmination of the rational, managerial, and bureaucratic functions of businesses that were becoming, in the postwar period, increasingly transnational in their reach. Aspiring to qualities such as efficiency, simplification, and consistency, the lynchpin of corporate identity was the logo or mark. Painstakingly crafted and monolithically imagined, the logo was the quintessential expression of graphic communication, the ultimate reduction of a complex entity to a simple and easily absorbed cipher.

Today, of the many thousands of new logos produced each year, most are design disasters. Why? The reasons are undoubtedly varied, but here are a few that are likely. First, companies today turn to branding consultants, whose principal work is not the creation of a graphic mark but in better-paid and time-consuming adventures such as research, analysis, strategy, and positioning. Because of one-stop shopping, consultancies often create the visuals, too, and employ a range of choices so predictable that one brand guru, who shall remain nameless, refers to these bags of tricks as the “3D Swirlee,” a reference to the rendering software effects used to puff up letterforms–replete with reflective surface highlights and shadows, the “look and feel” of Web 2.0. Second, many schools and programs don’t teach logo design in the same way or in the same depth anymore. Hours of drawing and focus on issues such as gestalt, flow, and scalability have been replaced by the need to create things like mood boards and to simulate the research process of consultancies. Third, the application context of marks today is ruled not by the limitations of one or two colors, which forced a kind of simplified rigor, but the glorious and often gaudy rainbow of ubiquitous full-color printing and the luminescent glow of RGB. Fourth, the shelf life of most corporate identities has diminished greatly during each of the past few decades. This constant churn reduces concern for any kind of longevity. Identity, like fashion, is updatable, replaceable, and consequently, disposable.

The criticism of logos, however, is not limited to the design critic anymore. The event-driven nature of the branding exercise means that statements of intent must be drafted by design firms and branding consultants and that the corporate press release must be crafted and circulated. Picking up on this activity is the website Brand New, operated by Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio, which is a leading forum for presenting and critiquing the brand makeover. Offering an impressive array of before and after comparisons, Brand New surveys a large field of activity, from cultural and corporate identity programs, sports teams, and mascots to branded tourism. Here, logo designs and redesigns are treated as a spectator sport, with armchair quarterbacking and color commentary from bloggers and behind-the-scenes reporting on the process and history of the marks by the hosts.

All of this activity, while earnest, seems almost tranquil compared to the rough, open waters of social media. The ability to provide instant feedback, particularly through ubiquitous social networking channels, means that brand redesigns have more potential for greater volatility. Take, for instance, the nearly universal and instant hatred of the proposed London 2012 Olympic Games logo created by Wolff Olins, a leading brand consultancy. Its retro ’80s, new wave–style graphic sports the numerals 2012 in a chunky font on contrasting color palettes. Despite its
numerical focus, the mark has been seen as anything from a Nazi SS emblem to a Rorschach test image of the cartoon character Lisa Simpson performing fellatio 
to spelling the words Zion, which precipitated a threatened boycott of the Games 
by Iran.  Faring no better was the recent redesign, recall, and reinstatement by Gap, 
the legendary clothing retailer, of its twenty-year-old logo. The proposed redesign included the word Gap in the ubiquitous typeface Helvetica overlapping a small, blue gradient square. This uninspired, inoffensive yet somehow offending design generated enough negative commentary on Twitter to cause the company to take to its Facebook site to proclaim, “We know this logo created a lot of buzz and we’re thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding! So much so we’re asking you to share your designs. We love our version, but we’d like to see other ideas. Stay tuned for details in the next few days on this crowd sourcing [sic] project.” Apparently, the committee formed to create this design wasn’t large enough! Or as Alissa Walker put it in her own mock commentary on Gapgate: “This is what dumb dumbs in our marketing department call a pivot.”  While London stayed calm and carried on as if nothing had happened, the Gap thankfully capitulated to the angry mob and eventually fired the firm that created the mark and the executive in charge of the project (although that was most likely for lackluster sales results).

In the wake of the diminished logo and its replacement by a glut of bloated glyphs, we have a nearly nostalgic view of what could be called “the golden age of logos.” These are the classic marks of a bygone era: Jan Tschichold’s redesign of Penguin books (1948); William Golden’s CBS “eye” (1951); Paul Rand’s striped IBM (1956); Lester Beall’s International Paper “tree” (1960); Chermayeff & Geismar Associates’ Chase Manhattan Bank (1960); Saul Bass’ Bell telephone (1969); Nike’s “swoosh” (1971); Siegal and Gale’s 3M (1978); Saul Bass’ AT&T “globe” (1984); Steff Geissbuhler’s “eye/ear” for Time Warner (1990); and Landor Associates’ FedEx “arrow” (1994). Taking a page from the historic preservationist movement in architecture, we have the first signs of attempting to document the cultural history of these designs.

The Stone Twins, Declan and Garech, were among the first to document and publish their project, Logo R.I.P., (2003). This little black book dutifully notes the history and fate of major icons of the twentieth century, while its companion website serves as an electronic repository of condolences. This graveyard of commerce is a fascinating study in the types of changes that can befall a corporate behemoth or one of the titans of logo design. Witness the scandalous collapse of Enron–its logo dubbed the “crooked E” and designed by Paul Rand (1997)–or the sad fate of Rand’s UPS “package” logo (1961), replaced by what was derisively dubbed “the golden comb-over,” (FutureBrand, 2003). In reaction, designer Scott Stowell penned “The First Report of the (Unofficial) Graphic Design Landmarks Preservation Commission,”  advocating for the preservation of logos such as Bell, CBS, and UPS, which like great buildings have become an integral part of the landscape and our lives and thus deserve to be maintained, even if freed from their former service. As Rob Giampietro has noted, this proposal taps into our affection for those things that come to form our everyday experience. He writes: “We are the nodes on these companies’ networks, so invariably we feel a sense of ownership over their identities. In allowing them to move through us, we have, even temporarily, made their identities our own, witnessing television signals, phone calls, and packages as they spread from one person to the next, all over the globe.”  Paradoxically, could the desire we feel to preserve these icons be the result of the same love engendered through the mechanisms of branding, which in turn feeds the destruction of these logos in the first place? In a different yet similar vein, designer Ji Lee has been documenting the vestiges of New York’s Twin Towers, whose iconic forms on the skyline made them an indispensable component of so many of the city’s logos and graphics. In a reversal of fortune in this case, the architecture cannot be preserved, so what remains is its ghostly presence and absence, the memory of what was once there.

In the aftermath of its golden age, corporate identity became, well, corporate: rigid, cold, sterile, and imperious. How to make a proper corporate logo became increasingly formulaic, built on the back of whatever was successful before. Formal solutions could be easily categorized as a taxonomy of visual effects: vertical striping, globes, stars, arrows, ligatures, optical illusions, and so on. On August 1, 1981, at 12:01 am, our understanding of the potential of identity to express its ‘orate side debuted on a few thousand television sets in northern New Jersey. MTV was born. Its identity–a bold, blocklike “M” with the sprayed-painted letters “TV” on top–was created by a trio of graphic designers working as Manhattan Design. Their early sketches for the mark “seemed too normal-looking. Frank [Olinsky] suggested that the logo needed to be less corporate somehow, de-faced or graffitied.”  Eschewing the typically fixed corporate color palette, the most important effect
of this mark was its ever-changing set of patterns, images, and colors that filled
the blocky mass of its “M.” The age of dynamic identity was born.

Today this feature has migrated to more traditional bastions of corporate culture, as witnessed by the recent redesign of AOL as “Aol.” (Wolff Olins, 2009), which offers seemingly endless possibilities of background image choices. Perhaps the most familiar dynamic identity today is that of Google, whose ever-changing logos, called Doodles, are viewed by many millions of users each day. The complexity of these offerings has varied, from the first modified Google logo (a stick figure behind one of the “o”s, an homage to the Burning Man symbol) designed in the late ’90s to more complicated interactive offerings, such as the guitar-shaped, playable, and recordable Doodle created to celebrate Les Paul’s ninety-sixth birthday (2011).

Today, innovations in the world of identity programs are happening not so much in the corporate world but rather in the cultural arena. Sure, the stakes aren’t as high so the ground is more fertile for exploration, and much of the more adventuresome work is for the most visually attuned institutions, but we should remember that the prevailing atmosphere in such places is fundamentally conservative, as in the conservation of objects, reputations, and endowments, and tying to history as much as possible. As James Twitchell notes in his book Branded Nation, the museum became a site of intense focus around issues of branding just as the number of museums and like destinations and their audiences grew dramatically, particularly in the museum boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was no longer enough to book the latest blockbuster shows, stock its gift shops with the newest offerings, or create destination restaurants as part of its experience: the museum’s projection of its own personality must now follow suit. Twitchell’s thesis is simple: where there’s a surplus of anything, we find branding.  The art world is not immune to the same laws of supply and demand and competition.

The Walker Art Center, where I work, was among the very first museums to enter into this terrain of mutable identities when design director Laurie Haycock Makela commissioned legendary typographer Matthew Carter to create an innovative font called, appropriately, Walker (1994–1995). This font allowed designers to add and subtract serifs and to add underlines and overlines to a bold, uppercase base titling face. Carter’s prescient solution was a piece of software, a tool to create design. It worked insofar as the Walker’s in-house design studio is staffed by typographically trained designers and produces all of its own materials. Walker Expanded is an identity developed for the institution following its building expansion in 2005. Like its predecessor, it is a piece of software. It operates and loads like a font but instead of individual characters it contains words and customizable patterns that can be merged together on the same line. The tool approach to identity creation can be seen in Stefan Sagmeister’s identity for Casa da Música (2007). His software, called Color Picker, isolates, identifies, and creates a color palette based on a selected image, which is used to fill the sides of the logo, its shape derived from a rotating view of the music house’s unusually shaped building. Jonathan Puckey, working with an identity created by Mevis & Van Deursen for the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (SMBA), designed the museum’s website, which includes a dynamic “dictionary” of terms parsed from staff entries to the site’s content management system.

Perhaps the most extreme example of such variable and flexible identities is one for Marres, a contemporary cultural center in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Created by Maureen Mooren, the identity is essentially an uppercase “M” but of seemingly any font, its full name rendered in multiple typefaces. It is an identity built from every other identity. Project Projects’ recent identity program for SALT, a contemporary cultural center in Istanbul, offers a custom-designed typeface, Kraliçe (Timo Gaessner, 2011), as its core identity. However, there is no fixed logo configuration; rather, the letterforms “S,” “A,” “L,” and “T” are specially treated like alternate characters in the font and make their appearance in the various messages issued by the institution. In a new twist, this distributed identity program, like the organization itself, becomes the site of a changing program of activity as Project Projects invites a new typographer to reimagine its quattro ensemble of letterforms every four months.

Branding arose to inject a little personality into the abstraction of corporate identity. After all, a logo is just a name, while a brand is an experience. Branding today is a narrative-driven enterprise. A logo was a mark of ownership, while a brand is a 
story, which is the most compelling form of communication and the most personal. Corporate identity sought to make a name recognizable and memorable, while branding is about bonding consumers to companies with ties so strong that in the words of Saatchi & Saatchi, there is “loyalty beyond reason.” To say we live in a branded world is to state the obvious. The concept of branding moved relatively quickly and intensely from the confines of the corporate boardroom to the assembly halls of cities and national governments. London of the 1990s and the early days of Tony Blair’s New Labour government saw the emergence of “Cool Britannia,” an attempt to capture the allure of a happening urban scene to rebrand an entire country. Shortly into the new millennium, architect Rem Koolhaas was tasked with imagining a logo for the new European Union flag. His firm’s solution of thin vertical stripes representing the colors of each participating country’s flag was a novel concept that allowed for infinite expansion (or subtraction). The resulting multicolor design was the seemingly perfect expression of neoliberal inclusive democratic principles (“everyone is equal”) under the ubiquitous sign of late-capitalist consumption, the barcode.

One of the more interesting explorations of branding the nation-state was the research project undertaken by Metahaven at the Jan van Eyck Academie, a postgraduate school for art, design, and theory located in Maastricht, the site where the treaty creating the European Union was drafted. Metahaven did not take the EU as its subject but rather the obscure micronation, the Principality of Sealand. Not an island in the traditional sense, it is a World War II–era military fortress just off the coast of England in the North Sea. Occupied since 1967 by British Major Paddy Roy Bates and his family and associates, this elevated concrete platform has asserted its sovereignty ever since, although no sovereign states recognize its existence. Sealand’s principle activities have evolved from hosting a data haven (HavenCo, 2000–2008), a safe harbor from the regulation and restriction of information, to current attempts to establish online gambling operations. In this rare instance, a single structure represents an entire country: the map is the territory. Perhaps not surprisingly, the resulting designs replicate the Sealand platform: two verticals and a horizontal on top. With this simplified system and formal gestalt, a wide variety of marks are possible. I prefer an image of two Dixie cups and, appropriately, a paperback copy of Antonio Nigri and Michael Hardt’s Empire, the now-classic text on the new political order of globalization.

For this exhibition, Metahaven tackles the emerging dominance of social media empire Facebook (and others like it). With more than 750 million users, Facebook would be the third largest country behind only China and India. Appropriately named Facestate, this project examines the two sides of this Janus-faced world of centrally owned, privately held information. Social media platforms such as Facebook allow individuals to plug into an existing system, and in contrast to its failed predecessor, Myspace, offers only a limited ability to customize one’s look and feel. As Metahaven notes, Facebook represents a new type of organizational entity, one formed in, by, and through networks and driven by standards, templates, and protocols, not brand promises (Mark “privacy is no longer a ‘social norm'” Zuckerberg).  More powerful than its logo, Facebook’s “like” function permeates the web, and its automated sign-in protocol on other sites makes nearly all such occurrences already a cobranded experience. Social networks are harbingers of the evolution of the value of capital in our society, from the direct product of labor in the days of Karl Marx to the effects of education and knowledge, dubbed cultural capital, and finally to an era of social capital, where affiliations, relations, communities, and networks of mutual recognition operate.

The impulse to identify oneself to others is particularly powerful, a nearly ancient impulse. Among the earliest forms of branding, heraldry began to flourish in Europe in the twelfth century. Concerned with granting, creating, recording, and displaying various coats of arms and badges, heraldry is a graphic language used to identify groups of people such as states, armies, or families. The system of heraldry is described in textual terms as a blazon, a set of instructions or descriptions for the creation of a particular mark. To emblazon is to create a mark, which requires some degree of interpretation. Dexter Sinister, which took its name from heraldic terminology for right and left, created a heraldic mark for a proposed experimental art school project as part of Manifesta 6, a biennial of contemporary art. Their blazon reads “(party) per bend sinister.” The shield is divided with a line (“(party)”) that begins in the upper corner (the viewer’s right but since the orientation in heraldry is from the user’s position, this would be the left, or “sinister”) and bisects the field diagonally (“bend”).  The resulting form is independent of any material and thus can be embodied in many different ways. For example, Dexter Sinister has rendered its blazon as a lapel pin or a neon sign.

Given heraldry’s roots in the identification of army units since at least the Middle Ages, we should not be surprised to learn that the Pentagon maintains an Institute of Heraldry. Its responsibilities include “the coordination and approval of coats of arms and other insignia for Army organizations.” An offshoot of the Heraldic Program Office created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919, the institute’s purview was expanded in 1957 by Public Law 85-263 to furnish services to essentially all branches of the federal government, covering all manner of objects: flags, streamers, coats of arms, emblems, seals, and badges. Trevor Paglen, an artist, writer, and experimental geographer, has been collecting numerous examples of “black world” military badges. These emblems identify various entities engaged in secret military and covert intelligence operations. Pointing to the inherent paradox of these badges, Paglen asks: “If the symbols and patches contained in this book refer to classified military programs, the existence of which is often a state secret, why do these patches exist in the first place? Why jeopardize the secrecy of these projects by attaching images to them at all–no matter how obscure or indirect those images might be?”  By way of explanation, Paglen suggests that esprit de corps plays a key role: “Insignias became a way to show the rest of the world who one was affiliated with–something similar to a sports fan wearing the colors of their home team. To wear insignia is to tell the world that one is part of something much larger than oneself.”  Indeed, forms of identity are most powerful among those who share it. The code is best or only understood within the community it is intended to serve. The scale and scope of black world insignia is unknowable, although one could easily speculate that it has increased, just as the budgets for such operations have grown since the events of September 11, 2001.

The realm of the subcultural–just like the black world of the government–exists separate from yet part of the larger culture–its codes, styles, and argot serve as markers of distinction from mainstream culture and its social norms. The world of black metal provides one such segment of subcultural identity that has remained largely resistant to the kind of commodification and absorption into the mainstream that befell other movements such as punk and hardcore. Christophe Szpajdel has created more than 7,000 logos for mostly black metal bands since the mid-1990s, although he has been drawing since childhood. The spiky letterforms and intricate visual complexity of these marks are often unreadable to outsiders but nevertheless provide a powerful attraction and resonance within their community. In these instances, illegibility becomes a hallmark trait, an inscrutable communicative act specifically designed to resist outsider interpretation. The black world of the military and the world of black metal music, besides sharing an affinity for the symbolic absence of light, converged at Gitmo when so-called Satanic strains of such music were played at deafening volumes as an instrument of torture used by interrogators on their pious Muslim captives.

The classic analysis of the concept of subcultures arose from the work of cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, who in his book Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) focused on the British punk scene of the 1970s. This youth culture movement, 
the remnants of which can still be found today, provided fertile ground upon 
which to observe the recontextualization of ordinary objects such as safety pins or the subversion of mainstream signifiers such as a school uniform or the Union Jack. The fluidity and flexibility of meaning that such strategies laid bare provided plenty of evidence of what semiologists refer to as a floating signifier. Glen Cummings and Adam Michaels in their book X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X-X (2009) explore this iconic letterform of varied meanings across various cultural landscapes, particularly in punk and hardcore music scenes, but also in pornography, the military, and corporate trade names, among many others. As the authors note, the “X” signifies presence (“X marks the spot”), unknown absence (“brand X”), and potency (“XXX rated”). In the naming of new products and services, X reigns supreme: Xerox, Kleenex, Memorex, X-ray, X-Factor, X-Files, X-Box, X-Men, X Games, Timex, Playtex, FedEx, Exxon, Xanax. These fanciful constructions are the lingua franca of the branded world. Their names elide their artificiality, a linguistic vessel or placeholder waiting to be filled with new meanings, associations, promises, and experiences. Cummings and Michaels relate the appeal of the “X” to that of the “O,” finding the former more useful in naming circumstances. Undoubtedly, the formal symmetry of each letterform is appealing. While the “X” suggests the intersection or crossing of two things, the “O” connotes continuity and wholeness: no beginning and no end. Like the Kodak Carousel, and branding itself, its action is perpetual. Such is the power of the floating signifier. All that remains is a story to anchor its meaning.

From the catalogue, Graphic Design: Now in Production, Walker Art Center, 2011

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