Autumn 2000

The language is the logo

Corporate identity design should look more at the underlying structures of the project, rather than merely roll out acronyms and symbols: systems are stronger than signs

Some conventions outlive their natural life. Solutions that work in certain specialised contexts are all too easily turned into universal models before their enduring usefulness has been properly established.

And sometimes rules seem irreversible simply because we have forgotten to question them, because nobody imagines there can be any alternative. But all of a sudden, a small crack appears – a doubt. Then, another, a counter-proposition and soon the whole system starts to crumble. Past certainties seem barely imaginable, either because contexts have changed or because the new propositions (or the underlying problems they reveal) have taken hold. Such a process is now taking place in a significant area of graphic design. Until recently, when thinking of ‘visual identification systems’ or ‘corporate design’, it was hard to escape from the dominant model that for decades has been viewed as an immutable law. The accepted model is that in order to be recognised by a chosen audience, it is necessary to formulate a graphic style based on a certain number of constants, the central element of which is an acronym or logo, which must be reproduced in an identical manner every time any information is communicated. Taken to extremes, this approach produces monolithic systems in which every last element is thought out and which leave little room for interpretation or freedom. Any possibility of adapting to context or evolving with time is ruled out. Everything is mastered, boxed in and organised so that it can be reproduced identically and infinitely in an industrialised process, whatever the context, whoever the particular graphic worker, or whichever computer system is involved. Nothing escapes the initial grand ‘master plan’.

The origins of this culture of repeated identifying signs predate the industrial age and its associated design. The heraldic systems of ancient armies and territories with their emblems, pennants and uniforms constituted visual languages that were often more complex and rich than today’s typical systems. Yet the principle has rarely been questioned, and up until now has been adopted by a long list of disparate clients: multinationals wishing to spread their products for mass consumption; political dictatorships; democratic political systems; cultural institutions; cities and other communities; small service-sector companies; stockholding companies; cultural and political events programmes; international organisations; local associations; virtual universities and e-commerce start-ups.

Yet it is amusing to note that in order to distinguish itself from the others, each one uses the very same system. For decades, much creative energy has been channelled into perfecting this repetitive system in order to gain complete mastery of signs and apply them in an identical fashion whatever the context. A prime example of this is BMW, which issues charts giving precise instructions down to the positioning of vehicles in showrooms or plans for use by garage managers on how to decorate their offices – everything is controlled and made uniform with no consideration for local context.

Kick against the slick systems
This monolithic culture of identification, orientation and information systems has only rarely been called into question. But one of the best-known counter-examples is the Dutch postal service’s visual identity programme, based on a variable acronym, that leaves a large margin for freedom and inventiveness to the various designers involved. Other, more modest ventures by service companies or cultural institutions are offering themselves as alternatives to the slick repetitive systems of the multinationals.

In recent years, genuine changes have been taking place indirectly, when designers are confronted by the problems, possibilities and aesthetic limits of digital communication technologies. The interrogation of accepted systems is becoming an area for study in its own right. The fact that leading graphic designers have no choice but to collaborate with IT experts is forcing the former to discover the underlying creative potential of many new fields.

So the relationship between the different visual manifestations of the solutions is becoming as fertile a subject for study as the image itself. Parallel to the development of technological possibilities, notions such as modularity, development potential, flexibility, transformation, individualisation, complexity and simultaneity have become important, both for designers and for everyday viewers, whose visual perception is now highly evolved.

Several attempts – in commerce and in cultural institutions – are now being made to develop systems that allow for maximum variability while enabling recognition. Increasingly, the designer has to find ‘visual identifying languages’. This perhaps instinctive parallel with verbal expression leads us into the hotly debated realm of linguistics.

Verbal expression systems
A child’s grasp of language starts with endlessly repeated tones. Gradually, words are formed, then several linked words, then imitated sentences and after that, constructed sentences. Parallel to the expansion of the child’s vocabulary its grammar improves, the system becomes more complex and yet the child is able to manipulate it with increasing ease. Later on we move from merely oral to written language and this great complex structure of different tones is reduced to a new sub-system consisting of 26 letters, which may or may not be accompanied by accents, numbers and punctuation signs. This is an often difficult apprenticeship, prolonged by the discovery that these same tools can be used to form a completely different language with its own vocabulary and grammar, and that other equivalent tools exist with other linking systems between the sign and its phonetic and semantic expression. Each of these languages is used by millions of people who, while respecting their grammatical rules, speak and write each in their own way on the most diverse range of subjects with different accents and formulations (not to mention poets who manipulate the system to its very limits). Despite the almost infinite possibilities, and developments that arise as a result of new needs, each language can always be easily identified. Often just a few words suffice to communicate whether a person is speaking English, French, Dutch or Spanish, whether their accent is strong or mild and whether their language is refined or coarse.

Contrary to the majority of today’s languages, pictogram systems constitute primary forms of visual language by dint of the fact they are non-syntactical: each sign corresponds to an expression, word or idea. By linking them linearly it is possible to develop a limited communication structure which is even simpler than the hieroglyphic systems of the Egyptians or Native Americans. This direct link between sign and signifier necessitates the almost systematic creation of new representations for each new element. The ancient Egyptians used more than 700 different signs. A comparable although more abstract system, still used today in China, employs several thousand signs. From these examples one can see the extent to which a construction based on a system of simple characters and sounds, independent of the signifier, offers the potential for an almost infinite development based on a number of signs that is actually quite limited.

To infinity … and beyond
Surely the ideal we should strive for in a visual identification system is the possibility of infinite expressions based upon a simple matrix in which each element is identifiable as part of the whole. Yet this model, which opens up enormous potential for future experimentation, must not be taken too literally. An image, for example, differs fundamentally from a verbal construction because it functions in a non-linear manner. The question remains whether syntactical systems equivalent to linguistic ones can be constructed from existing tools to form an identifying structure in a particular way for visual expression. To my knowledge, research and experiments in this area remain embryonic. However, there have been some interesting propositions in recent years on the question of visual identity that show that the seemingly irrevocable rules of corporate design are being challenged. A path has been cleared towards a fundamental shift in thinking.

Translation: Deborah Burnstone

Ruedi Baur, director, Integral, Paris

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000

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