During the research phase of a recent identity project, we spent some time revisiting numerous examples of what we like to call “fluid identities” — logo systems that use multiple iterations of a mark (or series of marks) to communicate a particular aspect of a brand. These might take the form of a logo that changes with each viewing, or a singular mark that gets impregnated with different imagery, depending on the context. At one point, these types of projects were few and far between, but now these isolated examples have grown into a full-blown trend. The days of the static logo are certainly not extinct, but this persistent way of thinking about malleable identities seems like a portend of things to come.
A logo system comprised of many moving parts and contextual styles is clearly not right for every project, and this approach shouldn’t be used carelessly or without deep consideration for the brand connection. Instead, this way of thinking about a fluid identity is another (powerful) tool in the designer’s “bag of tricks.” Like any other design approach (whether it’s a grid style or a Photoshop filter) this is not a gimmick — it’s a way to solve the client’s identity design issues. The examples we’ve collected probably do the best job in explaining the needs and rationales for such a project, so you’ll find them below. We’ve grouped them into categories based on how their mechanics and fluid natures are utilized. We hope this article will serve as a useful resource, so feel free to leave examples we haven’t unearthed in the comments below.
Identities based on the brand’s DNA
Even though they are different, each of the following examples uses some concrete part of their brand’s DNA to populate the fluid nature of the identity.
Client: MML Mobile Media Lab
Designers: Etienne Bourque-Viens (Pixel Circus), Raphaël Daudelin (FEED), Michael Longford (York University), Anouk Pennel (FEED)
Description: Echoing the client’s multimedia approach, the identity “is constantly changing and will mutate over time.”
Designers: Wolff Olins
Description: People use AOL ostensibly as a search engine, to find all sorts of things, so this identity leverages that multiplicity with a wide variety of supporting images.
Description:“The final identity conveys a continuing flow; the logo literally moves and fluctuates, echoing the constant change of SECCA’s galleries and community programs.”
Client: New Museum
Designers: Wolff Olins, Omnivore, Droga 5
Description: The unique shape serves as a containing window to emphasize or deemphasize different graphic elements to great effect. The logo is fluid, with New and Museum serving as ‘bookends’ to frame whatever message is needed between the words.
Client: MIT Media Lab
Designers: Richard The, E Roon Kang
Description: “The logo is based on an algorithm that produces a unique logo for each person. A custom web interface was developed to allow each person at the Media Lab to choose and claim their own individual logo for his/her business card, as well as a custom animation software which allows people to create unique animations for any video content the lab produces.”
Identities that morph to fit their design applications
Description: “The logo can be seen as just a flat artwork, but can also be seen as a cube felt with colors. The multicolored supporting graphic illustrates the logo folded out, and comes in a number of different versions. This communicates both the adaptability of the system, and life taking different directions. Appearing different on every surface, the visual expression is a representation of life, freedom and possibilities.”
Designers: Tom Corey, Scott Nash, Alan Goodman
Description: This whimsical identity was designed with TV screen use in mind, and helped transform the flagging kids’ network, from 1984-2009.
Description: The famous Knopf Borzoi logo changes with nearly each book jacket design, depending on the needs and whims of the jacket designer.
Logos that change based on external variables
Designers: Neue Design Studio
Description: “The visual identity is based on two main ingredients; our newly developed payoff, ‘Where nature rules,’ and weather statistics from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. A feed of weather statistics affects the logo to change when the direction of the wind or the temperature changes. On the website, the logo updates every five minutes.”
Logo enclosures that house value-adding content
Designers: MTV In-House Design Team
Description: “We really wanted to see the logo featured in a new way, and this was really meant being able to house all the great things that are happening at MTV at any given time.”
Client: NYC Inc Company
Designers: Wolff Olins
Description: The city’s identity mutates with a grid-like structure and a variety of “fillings,” using color and photo elements to remix the logo in an endless variety of ways.
Client: Museum of Arts and Design
Description: “We wanted a way of writing the name that could embody the values of the Museum, something that seemed inventive and surprising, and that could appear in different ways on different occasions. The Museum, after all, is dedicated to artists who take typical forms—say, vessels, or chairs—and transform them over and over again. We hope that the simple forms of the new logo will permit just that kind of transformation.”
Additional factors to consider before undertaking a fluid identity project:
The pieces need to equal the whole.
Many audiences will never see more than one iteration of the logo system. So, if any individual variant is weaker than a singular logo would be, the overall identity will suffer. Showing 100 variations of a mark might look great in a design case study, but the multiplicity probably won’t matter to your audience — most of them will assume the logo they see is the primary graphical face of the organization. So, all the qualities of a great identity must be present in each and every variation of your mark, which is admittedly a tall order.
Does it fit the brand?
As identity designers, we are always of conscious of helping our clients’ brands stand out. The idea of doing something new or different isn’t insignificant, since our media maelstrom forces brands to do increasingly more to gain visibility. Designing a fluid identity can help bring that needed awareness to an organization, but it shouldn’t be a gimmick at heart. This way of thinking about identity design only works when it’s an outgrowth of the brand’s distinctive DNA – some essential characteristic of the company or organization, whether it’s the nature of change, the style of a building, or illustrating the whimsy needed to play in a specific industry. Some brands might need to show diversity of service or product, while others see flexibility as a crucial competitive advantage, and other organizations have evolution written into their foundations.
Is the system/usage built to support a modularity?
A fluid identity works especially well for Nickelodeon and Knopf, because of the structure the logos exist in. Both companies have flexibility to play with the makeup or look of their logo, but this additional freedom only works because the logos live within rigorous support systems — the Knopf Borzoi always appears on the spine of a book it’s tied to, its size is relatively consistent, and it always shows up in that familiar paperback/hardcover environment. The regular use of media and placement adds a consistency that a pocket folder or Times Square billboard could not. Nick’s identity worked because viewers were guaranteed to see many permutations of the logo per hour on their television screen, preventing any confusion or weakness that the single viewing of one version might cause.
What do normal logos do well? (Maybe you don’t need a fluid logo)
It might be enticing to consider a variable or fluid identity for your client, but before you decide that a changing logo is the ticket, consider making your current mark work harder. Maybe it just needs to be more flexible across applications to have the visceral impact that’s needed. A well-designed, thoughtfully-considered mark can be ready to make the jump from the printed page, to a web version, to an animated intro on the latest iGadget. Good designers have those end requirements in mind before putting pencil to paper, and they stay at the forefront throughout the project duration.
Correction: Additional information about the New Museum identity has been added with help from that project’s director, Suzie Ivelich.