Autumn 1994

Why a nifty logo is no longer enough

Corporate identity’s success may also be its undoing. The fear of making mistakes has led to a bland sameness in corporate design

Now that the economic recession seems to be coming to an end in the US and parts of Europe, corporate identity consultants report that business is booming. The excesses of the 1980s – strategic blunders, directors who turned out to be crooks, environmental disasters and workforce redundancies – have made some company names synonymous with bad news in the minds of the public. In such cases, an improvement of image is a matter of priority. Others are finding that the identity system they bought a few years ago is now too complex for their recession-ravaged structure. ‘Identity is moving back on the boardroom agenda,’ confirms David Allen, managing director of Sampson Tyrrell, a London-based identity specialist.

No one believes that we are about to witness a rerun of the corporate identity boom of the late 1980s, when companies constantly buying each other up would regularly revise their identities and had money to spend on doing so. In the 1990s, value-for-money is a priority and businesses are being urged to function in very different ways. Today, the emphasis is on flexibility, adaptability, surviving in markets which are in a constant state of flux. Companies are encouraged to be less hierarchical, to devolve responsibility, to encourage teamwork and co-operation rather than internal competition.

Such changes have far-reaching implications for identity consultants. How does the new philosophy of openness and flexibility fit with the old textbook corporate identity programmes, with their emphasis on quasi-militaristic hierarchies and their heavy, dogmatic manuals? What, indeed, is the role of the manual in an age of Macintosh-based design and multimedia communications?

Advertising agencies and their clients have realised that people who have been exposed to advertising from an early age are better able to see through it: younger audiences know the rules of the game and want something that acknowledges this, something that entertains them by breaking the rules or by making them ridiculously overt. That this phenomenon has a parallel among younger graphic designers can be seen in the work of teams such as the UK’s The Designers Republic, whose delight in sampling, re-inventing and subverting corporate imagery has won them a cult following. T-shirt graphics and flyers for clubs, in which famous logos are ‘adapted’ to create lewd or absurd images, show a similar trend, as do the identities created by London-based designers Nice for clients such as ad agency Simons Palmer Denton. Here a pastiche sunburst redolent of the logos done by 1960s Modernists for powerful multinationals was used for an agency that at the time was small and almost unknown. Such jokes are evidence of a growing design-literate audience which sees the pompous, ‘don’t mess with our logo’ attitude of large companies as ripe for subversion. Corporate design is everywhere, it is part of the fabric of modern life, and as such is public property and open to parody.

As The Designer’s Republic’s Ian Anderson puts it: ‘I’ve never known a time when corporate identity wasn’t strong. But today it’s something to be played with, whereas Paul Rand couldn’t have done that, he was working to establish it.’ It is an attitude which suggests that it is time for big league corporate designers to reassess their approach and make their work as semantically sophisticated as their audience. Today a company no longer stands out from the crowd simply by virtue of a well-thought-out, carefully designed and implemented identity. Surrounded by oceans of bland corporate design, only the most naïve creations, the most creative or the most ubiquitous are memorable. Too many rely on a limited range of visual clichés: a globe with latitude and longitude lines to indicate ‘international’; arrows zooming off at odd angles to show that the organisation is ‘dynamic’; elements of loosely drawn illustration for anything deemed ‘caring’.

One reason for the blandness of so much corporate design has been the growing awareness of its importance. Now that every career-conscious executive believes that identity design could add – or remove – millions from the balance sheet, no one wants to risk implementing an identity which has not been rigorously researched and refined. The days when visionaries such as Peter Behrens or Roger Excoffon could devise an identity with nothing but their own belief in what they were doing to back them up are long past.

As well as sending a signal to the outside world, specialist identity companies today emphasise that corporate design is also a powerful internal management tool, a way of making staff take note that the company is changing and that they are required to change with it. It is easy to conclude that in large companies, design comes a poor second to corporate strategy work: if signalling change is your priority, a mediocre design will fulfil the role as effectively as a more radical visual interpretation of the organisation.

Identity designers are also keenly aware of the philosophy of adapting to constant change and devolving power that many of their clients are trying to introduce. This, argues Richard Ford, creative director of Landor Associates in London, is where a long term, ongoing relationship with the client – ideally reinforced by a computer link – is essential. ‘In many cases we are not only at board level, making strategic decisions, we are at shop-floor level discussing how products are made and things are printed. It’s a complex relationship. You need time and depth, and the computer has helped us to cope with that complexity.’ For an increasing number of clients, the way of dealing with identities is through a process of constant re-adjustment rather than a once-a-decade onslaught, with staff at all levels trained to implement and even develop different parts of the identity on their computer screens. The designer’s role is to keep it all in check and to ensure continuity as staff come and go.

In some cases, where companies have already established their identities, designers are starting to bend what were once inflexible rules. Sampson Tyrrell’s work with Castrol encourages local implementation of the identity, within limits. Defining the boundaries is more a matter of case-by-case judgment than something which can be encapsulated within a manual. Whether this is a more sensitive application of old principles or an exciting new departure is open to question.

Dave Allen of Sampson Tyrrell believes that the increased use of the law to protect identities will probably shackle those who want greater flexibility. ‘The law wouldn’t be able to keep up with it,’ he says. ‘Another problem is that a lot of the identities done in the 1980s are not very protectable because they are not very distinctive. That is going to create a challenge for identity specialists because companies are going to want to be able to protect their identities before the law.’ If this is the case, then corporate design specialists may have to move their focus away from management consultancy and back to creative design. Otherwise, smaller, more innovative design practices could start to seem an attractive option to medium-sized organisations with a strategic need for a strong identity and directors increasingly confident about their ability to commission designers.

The increase in screen-based design and communications may also initiate a trend towards a more subtle look. The need for identities to stand up to printing, photocopying and faxing has meant that in the past designers have had to keep logos simple. Now, as Landor’s Richard Ford points out, less strident elements can be introduced. ‘It’s very easy nowadays to have retouched pictures and distorted elements, and to bring in things that are not simply outline drawings in a flat colour, but include gradations. More visually sophisticated elements can be put into identities because they are managed by computer.’ Perhaps more textured, lighter images will become widespread to the point of undermining the hegemony of the logo – which developed, after all, because only bold, easy-to-read images could be accurately reproduced.

There is clearly a perceived need for a more imaginative, flexible approach to corporate identity design which many of the large identity specialists are trying to meet. But whether the big league can deliver the creativity the buyers of identities want is another matter. Perhaps the time has come for a new version of the visionary corporate identity designer – in the form of a small, creative team hired by companies who realise that a bland identity may be more of a risk than an imaginative one.  

First published in Eye no. 14 vol. 4 1994

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