Federico Pérez Villoro is a New York–based artist and designer interested in the influence of networked technologies on human behavior, economics, and politics. He is currently teaching at Rhode Island School of Design and doing work on the relationship between language and identity.
Christopher Hamamoto is a designer. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts, is working on design tools at Figma, and maintains an independent graphic design practice. He is interested in how automation and algorithms effect social relationships and aesthetics.
The pair wrote the following essay as research for “Debranding and Post-Identity Design,” an MFA studio course they designed and taught together at California College of the Arts in Fall 2016.
In September 2015 Google redesigned its visual identity. As part of the new system Google’s engineers created an automatic process that could generate thousands of different vector-based iterations of the logo. This action was taken to satisfy potential viewing scenarios based on, for instance, screen size, or the background against which the logo is displayed. Within these variations they made a tiny version that only comprises 305 bytes of data. The older logo was formally more complex and its smallest version was approximately 14,000 bytes; this relatively larger file size prompted the adoption of a text-based variation as a workaround for weak Internet connections, a compromise that allowed room for inconsistencies if the proper fonts weren’t available on the user’s end.1
The relative simplicity of the new logo, then, was about more than just the formal, aesthetic qualities of the mark. A major part of it was about the desire for pixel-perfect efficiency and cross-platform accessibility—the need to accommodate the thousands of possible scenarios triggered by computers accessing the logo. As users embrace diverse communication devices, visual consistency has become very difficult for brands to maintain. Google’s new 305-byte logo instigated discussions online and motivated skeptical compression specialists and aficionados to research different ways to generate the graphic while maintaining its extremely small size. The process of re-creating the logo outlined on blogs—explaining its elemental geometry, with its few circles and lines—is an interesting narrative. One wonders how small another logo with more anchor points could get. And how this logic of design for mass dissemination driven by data constraints could transfer to other brands, and to our broader contemporary visual culture.
In the new identity announcement, Google articulated the need to have such a small logo for “broader distribution,” explaining that “consistency has a tremendous impact when you consider our goal of making Google more accessible and useful to users around the world, including the next billion.”2 By “the next billion” they meant Southeast Asia, where Google recently established an engineering team to help improve online connectivity in the region. Internet access is certainly beneficial, but we cannot forget that Google is a business that grows as the Internet expands. Furthermore, we need to analyze these actions beyond the corporate sphere and within a political perspective, since developments in technology are blurring distinctions between private and public entities and driving complex shifts in notions of agency and power.
This essay is an effort to investigate the changing landscape where visual identity operates. It explores an alternative perspective, within and beyond graphic design, to the capital-oriented purposes of branding and the absolutist logic of design itself. Not only does identity design remain bound to old ideologies that have become obsolete in our technologically evolving world, but it also reinforces the economic hegemonies that have led to the political instabilities we see today. Information platforms are altering traditional forms of governance, as state and non-state powers embrace surveillance, digital propaganda, and globally distributed data networks as their own brand strategies. Yet there is room for optimism that these technologies might also enable pluralistic information systems and decentralized forms of power.
The principles of much twentieth-century modern art and design involved the development of a universal visual language. Through notions such as simplification, abstraction, consistency, and differentiation, artists and designers aimed to communicate through form-making regardless of the connection between signs and their contexts. After World War II, many artistic movements aimed to develop a sort of graphic grammar charged with inherent meaning. Looking for clarity and objectivity in visuals, these approaches sought to contribute to postwar order and to improve international relationships. The transition to a neoliberal society, however, brought new complexity to industries, and accelerated technology in remarkable ways. With the rise of the Internet and desktop computing, design tools became ubiquitous, opening up the study of the contextual and relational dimensions of the discipline. As Andrew Blauvelt writes, design today “explores its effects on users, its pragmatic and programmatic constraints, its rhetorical impact, and its ability to facilitate social interactions.”3
Within the last decade, identity design shifted focus from enclosed systems to systems that react to external parameters. Dynamic identities have become not only a stylistic expectation, but also a technical necessity. Yet while much contemporary design does include performative, programmatic, and participatory elements, current forms of social organization—whether institutions, corporations, or nations—are more interdependent, unpredictable, and indeterminate than ever. And contemporary visual systems are proving incapable of communicating such levels of intricacy, persisting in their unrealistic usage of restricted sets of visual forms. We tend to think about new approaches in design as expansions of the field, but we could also understand them as recalibrations following a loss of control over the continuum from form, to content, to context.
We mainly engage with services and products through third-party vocabularies, in tweets and hyperlinks. Uber is Lyft and a Toyota Prius; MoMA’s mark is textable; McDonald’s is filled with Pokemon. Corporations are nesting within one another. Platforms like Apple News or AMP aggregate information from diverse sources yet distill their graphics to present feeds within their own template logics. This presents a whole new set of relationships toward information and among companies, as platforms subsume and dictate other brands’ signifiers. Furthermore, technology companies become parasitical—able to embed themselves within other entities’ visual systems. Using the New York Times website as an example, Facebook and Twitter are featured more prominently and with more repetition than the New York Times itself.
Technology is increasingly dictating how we interact with companies. Yet current platforms of communication are highly unstable environments, and designs easily become obsolete as platforms mutate or disappear. Contemporary visual culture is subject to unpredictable variables, ranging from screen resolution to color calibration, browser settings, software updates, file formats, programming languages, distortions caused by malware, and malfunctions and misuses in computing. The haze manifests itself in (and is determined by) the peculiar and the global, from the struggle of customizing an email signature or the typesetting limitations of iOS, to cultural idiosyncrasies and technological accessibility across entire countries.
In “The Weak Universalism” (2010), Boris Groys questions whether it is possible to make artistic atemporal work in the context of rapid technological progress. He explains that the historical avant-garde operated by producing “weak images” with low visibility in order to transcend time and space. As opposed to rich images, which are filled with empirical meaning, weak images represent the knowledge that the world is in a permanently transitory state. Groys argues that the status quo of our time is change, and that since the goal of art is to counter the status quo, art should escape change.4 Yet the act of challenging the status quo as an artistic action has itself become predictable. Therefore, paradoxically, to challenge the status quo could also be not to do so: not to escape change, but to embrace it.
The reductive nature of branding is in part rooted in the limitations of older reproduction technologies. Yet current communication platforms are becoming more flexible. Screens and interfaces are multidimensional as layers, windows, and storing features that allow users to travel data sets over time. Identity design systems can incorporate such plasticity and manifest multiple formal, conceptual, and contextual expressions simultaneously. Design has the potential to reflect the complexity of the world, instead of filtering it through distillation strategies. While doing so designers can embrace weakness, not necessarily as reductive formal gestures but by using signs whose meaning is in constant flux. Images can be visually simple or complex, but weak in the cultural and historical associations they carry. Rather than atemporality, weakness within design can aim for immediacy and impermanence.
Identity design principles were founded on the notion of a universal language, but within a neoliberal framework, inequality becomes normative. If the goal of modern design was to communicate across boundaries, corporate design is by nature exclusionary. Brands now are the visual articulation of intellectual property as a form of currency. Given the networked conditions of economies of scale, the origins of products have blurred, and copies have multiplied. As objects and services increase in similarity, the more valuable it is to be perceived as unique. Thus the need for companies to develop and manage identifiers that distinguish them from competitors. The value of commodities lies not on their tangible dimension and potential to satisfy actual needs, but in the signifiers that make them desirable to consumers.
Branding is one of the most profitable service in visual communication. For many small design practices it is a crucial form of solvency. With entrepreneurism increasingly tending toward immaterial labor and attention economies, design becomes key in strengthening figurative value. Visual identities are rarely accurate images of entities, but rather manipulations of how these entities want to be perceived by their presumed markets. Identity design is not a practice of representation, but of speculation—it is not about visualizing manifested identities but about codifying subjective predictions, and aspirations, in graphic form.
Design is a powerful tool for analysis, but the perceived identity of an organization doesn’t emerge from mood boards, brainstorming sessions, or type explorations. The meaning of logos and cultural signs comes a posteriori—after actual exposure to the world. It is only through interaction that people develop affection toward organizations. And new graphics will only hold meaning in relation to other, existing ones. Paradoxically, in the desire to be unique, the only strategy to express identity seems to be by association: by deliberately differentiating the organization from those it wants to be different from and imitating those it wants to be like.
The value of brands is such that many companies keep tight control over their trademarks, copyrights, and patents even as they outsource production and distribution. However, the speed of the networked ecosystem of manufacturing seems to be outpacing traditional patenting processes. Take for instance hoverboards, where a dispute over the product’s intellectual property allowed small companies around the world to quickly work with white-label manufacturers in China to import and sell almost-identical products under their own names. The off-brand vehicle embodies the dissolution of identity design. Opposite to the genericized trademark effect of products such as Aspirin or Kleenex, the “hoverboard” descriptive name-in-use emerges from memetic patterns rather than strategic pursuits. As consumers disconnect from particular brands, a video of Justin Bieber riding a knockoff hoverboard goes viral.
The premature nature of design that we have been describing imposes limited reads over multiple possible brand manifestations and forgets the evolution of organizations and their contexts. We need to think about identity in terms of flexibility and avoid preconditioning entities to fixed visual attributes. Identity design requires approaches that go beyond the logic of corporate legitimization, and that are able to recognize and cast nuanced experiences in relation to the organization they represent. In doing so, designers can more actively address their involvement within capitalism and, if interested in claiming spaces for change, engage in reshaping such relationships.
Design can operate from a position of uncertainty, and projects can act as indeterminate propositions rather than affirmative statements. Uncertainty can be used to generate critical work, and an ongoing sense of doubt that constantly questions the project’s outcomes. Embracing uncertainty might be not only an ethical decision, but a necessary one. As we continue to incorporate technologies into our knowledge production systems, new forms of cognition are being introduced to our conceptual landscape. Complex algorithms and pattern recognition are challenging our capacity for abstraction. We need to reevaluate our capacity for knowing, understanding, representing, and communicating.
Traditionally, branding metaphors have related to human qualities, a common practice being to identify the core personality traits, values, and overall “voice” of a company. In the recent past, this tendency has become simultaneously validated and challenged prominently in three scenarios: the capitalization of individuals’ identities by business and advertising, the dehumanization of economic models through the adoption of computer systems, and political actions that grant corporations human rights.
The free flow of capital in the second half of the twentieth century reshaped conceptions of personal identity. We saw a shift away from long-standing cultural identifiers, which emphasized family, community, and nationalism, toward transactional ones, which privilege social, cultural, and monetary capital. The dynamics of the modern economy permeate our day-to-day lives. As global goods and services become private, people are rendered as market actors. And it can be argued that people measure one another with economic principles in mind—evaluating the potential value of relationships based on forms of capital. Wealth is not determined by productive and tangible assets, but by hypothetical financial value. In this scenario, individuals are literally “worth” money based on speculative qualities. All our activities, even those seemingly unrelated to profit seeking, are seen as investments and opportunities to catalyze social capital. Picture taking has become PR. Exercise routines have become SoulCycle. As Wendy Brown writes: “Whether through social media ‘followers,’ ‘likes,’ and ‘retweets,’ or through rankings and ratings for every activity and domain, or through more directly monetized practices, the pursuit of education, training, leisure, reproduction, consumption, and more are increasingly configured as strategic decisions and practices related to enhancing the self’s future value.”5
In the financial sector, the adoption of computer-driven trading systems created new modes of economic exchange. Computer trading that uses algorithmic processes for stock exchanges and other commodities has now surpassed the human capacity for such actions. Internet connectivity and the rapidity at which data transfers can be completed has become the competitive edge in finance. Our planet’s topography has been reconfigured in order to lay fiber optic cable along the most efficient routes. An example of this is the 580-mile trench dug between Chicago and New York to speed up stock trading across the country. And while large swaths of land get appropriated for data hubs, the ocean and the sky become the next frontiers for cloud storage. These infrastructures are constructed in ways that are isolating to humans but beneficial to machines, for instance eschewing windows to reduce server cooling costs, or reducing the height of floors to fit the maximum number of servers within a building. As humans become economized and the economy dehumanized, branding practices insist on applying human traits to commercial actors that are fundamentally nonhuman… while it may not be seen by many humans, Google color-codes its data centers hardware with their brand colors.
Our capacity to articulate social norms cannot keep up with the speed of advancement within computing. In our contemporary era, policy making is more damage control than planned progress. Within American politics, the passage of the controversial Citizens United bill in 2008 confirmed the legal status of corporations as people, granting them certain rights that had previously been regarded as the exclusive province of human beings. Most significant was the establishment of spending as a form of speech. This has resulted in a stilted political landscape where super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money on a campaign’s behalf, extending and deepening the influence of money in politics. And Citizens United is just one instance in a several-decades-long trend involving impactful expressions of corporate power within citizenship. President Bill Clinton’s “welfare to work” initiatives (ending welfare as an entitlement) and the increasing reliance on free-market agents that followed has entrenched financial systems as powerful actors in worldwide politics. This has caused a backlash against government workers and pensions, and resulted in the deregulation of social systems in favor of free-market solutions. An emboldened financial sector and accelerated technological reliance culminated in the 2008 financial collapse—the result of unfettered confidence in trading algorithms and little government oversight—after which the federal government “bailed out” the banking system by paying off its debts. The computer-economic machine has become too big to fail.
As the tactics of branding are widely embraced for corporations, and increasingly individuals as well, even countries have begun to define their identities in marketable terms. Nation branding has become a fertile field for design and advertising agencies around the world. It is common to see symposiums on the topic, and industry experts such as FutureBrand rank the “world’s leading country brands.” The manipulation of reality through persuasion has become a celebrated state practice. For instance, South Korea’s brand was developed by the Presidential Council on Nation Branding Korea, a governmental authority established by an executive order by Park Geun-hye, the now-impeached president. A study developed in 2012 by the council and Samsung ranked the country above the OECD average.6 The report backed its findings with parameters that included numbers of clicks and likes online: it went as far as mentioning Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video as being the world’s most watched on YouTube. Such a simplistic representation of South Korea’s complex social systems raises questions of credibility and enforces cultural stereotypes. In some ways it is not far from North Korea’s poorly Photoshopped propaganda images that circulate online.
Building credibility as a country involves not only soft-power strategies, but also developing strong relationships with other nations and corporations. Networks equal power. As Metahaven asserts: “Networks become social structures that tie parts of the world together, independent of sovereign borders and even independent of ‘international relations.’ While indeed, sovereign coercion may have become a thing of the past in this new situation, there may be structural coercion involved through the standards which networks adopt.”7
The rise of cloud computing demonstrates the complexity of power dynamics within a networked society. The formulation of a metaphoric space that is accessible worldwide as a distributed network of devices has reshaped our geopolitical landscape. As the Internet extends lawful jurisdiction through computer servers and data centers, the power of nation-states has transcended areas defined by physical territory to areas defined by the potential reach of a nation’s messages. Distributed online networks surpass geographic boundaries and local regulations, increasing the influence of postcolonial powers. In this context, technology companies are assuming new political roles as they dictate social and diplomatic norms within such infrastructures. The complexity of these overlapping forms of power has led theorists such as Benjamin Bratton to suggest a reformulation of our understanding of political geography itself—one where computational technologies are forming a sovereign “megastructure” that finds itself superimposed onto territorial state governance.8 These frictions present political spaces within the order of data and mathematics—algorithmic topologies. “A new collective geography opens for colonization,” writes Matteo Pasquinelli.9
This condition has raised the involvement of non-state actors in resolving questions of statehood and public policy. As capital becomes political power, corporate interests “facilitate the increasing power of large corporations to fashion law and policy for their own ends, not simply crowding out, but overtly demoting the public interest.”10 While this may take the form of lobbying for tax breaks or the allocation of public resources for private use, there are other, indirect effects and complex quandaries. Two recent paradigmatic examples would certainly include the Costa Rica–Nicaragua San Juan River border dispute, which arose due to maps displayed on Google Earth, and the 2016 terror attack in San Bernardino and ensuing legal fight between the US government and Apple to unlock the shooter’s phone in order to access his personal data. With these examples in mind, it is evident that we are experiencing shifts in power away from nation-states and toward private interests.
As we become citizens of Facebook, Google, and Apple, corporate actors become politicians. Political leadership is being reframed as business leadership. Thailand’s former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was fond of calling himself “CEO of Thailand Inc.” and made billions selling his shares of Shin Corp, his family media company, while in office. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi—one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country—has served four times as prime minister and consistently appears in Forbes’s list of the World’s Most Powerful People. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s press conferences blurred the line between informational and infomercial as they prominently featured Trump Steaks and his other consumer products. Now that he is in office the conflation between private and public in the White House is at a new high. Consider for instance Melania Trump’s $150 million lawsuit against the Daily Mail for tainting her brand and tarnishing her “once-in-a-lifetime” business opportunities as First Lady, or Ivanka Trump’s feud with Nordstrom, which prompted Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, to break the Office of Government Ethics law and endorse Ivanka’s products in an interview on Fox News. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, Mark Zuckerberg is currently on a tour of the United States followed by a camera crew and “status” updates that meditate on the nature of America.
Part and parcel of the shift toward private corporate actors operating in the public sphere is the adoption of branding techniques by politicians. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign’s design and outreach strategy was voted Marketer of the Year by Advertising Age magazine. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign hired Michael Beirut at Pentagram to design its brand identity: a dynamic “H” that aimed to be visually adaptable but failed to connect with voters. Popular responses to political branding are just like those to commercial rebrandings; for instance Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s logo was walked back after a negative online reaction. Political parties have made media manipulation a top priority; White House policy is now being disseminated through Twitter posts rather than press briefings, Steve Bannon of Breitbart News Network is Donald Trump’s chief strategist and sits on the National Security Council, and Trump has labeled the mainstream media his top opponent and purveyors of “fake news.” These marketing tactics take on new meaning as misinformation becomes propaganda, influenced by technological platforms that, through bot armies and curation algorithms, present skewed visions of news and history.
As postcolonial powers embrace networks of surveillance and global jurisdiction based on server locations, distributed organizations arise in protest. From liberal activists to radical extremists, anti-establishment groups expand their reach and express their nuanced sense of identity through the same network structures. Anonymous is predicated on anonymity. The Occupy Movement was explicitly nonhierarchical. ISIS defines itself as borderless. Low visibility allows these entities to act with agility. Though they are branded operations, their identities are collectively built. It is the network in operation that defines them, instead of a pre-formulated visual system constraining the operation. The Swedish anti-copyright organization Pirate Bay has a logo embedded within a logo within another logo. When the Swedish government seized their .se domain, they relaunched a series of new domains and updated their image to include a Hydra, which in Greek mythology stands for immortality and exponential growth: for each head you cut, it grows two more. The identity system formulates itself as it comes to action. In part this is possible due to their use of generic, non-original identifiers as supposed to custom-tailored signs. During the Euromaidan demonstrations in the Ukraine, protesters adopted matching clothing and improvised helmets not only for physical protection but as identifiers of the revolution. More recently during the women’s marches after Trump’s inauguration the Pussy Power Hat demonstrated the powerful effects of what Michael Rock calls “open-source branding.”
While these groups derive their structures and strategies from the network structure, their relationships with specific technologies further complicate matters. For a time ISIS fighters used Doseai, a Turkish file transfer service, to transmit encrypted messages because of its perceived freedom from Western government regulations (it turned out that Doseai was actually a French company). More recently, as Dropbox has incorporated end-to-end encryption, it has been adopted by the group. The promise of anonymity with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and browsers like the heavily encrypted Tor led to new online marketplaces such as Silk Road. While meant to be a platform for non-destructive commercial exchanges that are outside of the law, Silk Road was shuttered when its founder was apprehended for contracting murders on his staff and vendors via that platform. These examples highlight how companies that promise anonymity and end-to-end encryption often sit in precarious positions as both defenders of free speech and enablers of destructive acts, calling into question the utopian ideal of technology as unbiased.
The current capitalist hegemony is leading toward increased precarity and geopolitical chaos. If design can contribute to the construction of a different reality, it must first question its own mechanisms that sustain the neoliberal agenda, legitimize traditional brands’ power, and enable the flow of misinformation. Design can be calibrated toward a systematic redistribution of power and wealth, while remaining at ease with globality and technology. As suggested by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, the gains of late capitalism are not to be fully dismissed but repurposed beyond their capital constraints, value systems, and power logics.11
Design can mobilize its forces toward a reduction in subjective creativity and private authorship and favor the development of systems toward cultural commons. In the future, identity systems might no longer consist of fixed design components, but of the programmatic interpretation of interrelated, ever-changing experiences. In this process we suggest considering “complexity” as a condition of status, “uncertainty” as an ethical stance, “weakness” as a degree of load and impact, “impermanence” as a time-based factor, and “automation” as a generative process.
We need to design software and interfaces that can process information and visualize difference in nonlinear ways, and networked spaces where points of view are permanently being exchanged—where meaning is built through interaction and direct experience rather than by the construction of figurative value and speculative attributes. This could lead to degrees of stylistic standardization but also to the enhancement of collectively controlled technologies able to modulate and extrapolate diverse perspectives. Communication platforms are the power infrastructures of today: they both dictate the behaviors of society and enable spaces for change. As Bratton suggests, platforms “centralize (like states), scaffolding the terms of participation according to rigid but universal protocols, even as they decentralize (like markets), coordinating economies not through the superimposition of fixed plans but through interoperable and emergent interaction.”12
3 Andrew Blauvelt, “Towards Relational Design,” Design Observer, November 3, 2008, http://designobserver.com/feature/towards-relational-design/7557/.
4 Boris Groys, “The Weak Universalism,” e-flux, no. 15 (April 2010): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-weak-universalism/.
5 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015), 38.
6 OECD stands for Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
7 Metahaven, “Brand States: Postmodern Power, Democratic Pluralism, and Design,” e-flux, no. 1 (December 2008): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/brand-states-postmodern-power-democratic-pluralism-and-design/.
9 Matteo Pasquinelli, “The Spike: On the Growth and Form of Pattern Police,” in Nervous Systems, ed. Stephanie Hankey, Marek Tuszynski and Anselm Franke (Berlin: HKW/Spector books, 2016), 250.
10 Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, 42–43.
11 Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work (New York: Verso, 2015).
12 Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack.”