Debranding and Post-Identity Design (draft 09.03.16)
Christopher Hamamoto and Federico Pérez Villoro
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 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 (in particular in its serifs), and the smallest version of that logo was approximately 14,000 bytes; this file size prompted the adoption of a text-based variation as a workaround for very weak Internet connections, a compromise that allowed room for inconsistencies if the proper fonts weren’t available on the user’s end.
Caption: The former Google logo rendered in an incorrect serif typeface due to a hypothetical low-bandwidth connection as illustrated in the new identity announcement.
The simplicity of the redesign wasn’t prompted by the symbolism or historical implications of sans-serif fonts, but by a desire for pixel-perfect efficiency and cross-platform accessibility. The aesthetic considerations for the new identity were prompted in part by the human qualities the brand wanted to communicate, but also to accommodate the literally thousands of possible scenarios created by computers accessing the logo. As users embrace diverse new communication devices, visual consistency has become if not impossible, at least incredibly difficult for brands to maintain. Google’s new 305-byte logo instigated discussions online and motivated skeptical compression specialists and aficionados to research 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 a fascinating narrative. One wonders how small another logo with more anchor points could get. And it is interesting to think about how this logic of design driven by data constraints for mass dissemination transfers to other brands, and to our broader contemporary visual culture.
In the announcement, Google articulated the meticulous approach it took in order to reach “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 refer to Southeast Asia, where Google recently established an engineering team to help improve Internet connectivity in the region. Generally speaking, “accessibility” sounds great, but we cannot forget that Google is a business that grows as the Internet expands. Nor should we forget the fact that Google, like many other technology-based private entities, is a political actor. At what point does “enhancing access” become “imposing standardization”?
This essay is an effort to investigate the changing landscape where visual identity operates. It is an alternative perspective, within and beyond graphic design, on the capital-oriented purposes of branding and the absolutist logic of design itself. We will argue not only that identity design today remains bound to old ideologies that are obsolete in our technologically evolving world, but also that branding as we know it reinforces already-existing economic and political hegemonies. Information platforms are enabling complex shifts in governance, as state and non-state powers embrace surveillance, digital propaganda, and globally distributed data networks as part of their brand strategies. Yet there is room for optimism that these technologies might also enable and empower pluralistic knowledge production systems and decentralized forms of sovereignty.
Caption: Mark Zuckerberg gives Pope Francis a model of a solar-powered drone that Facebook hopes will enhance the Internet in developing countries.
The pursuit of much modern art and design of the twentieth century involved the development of a visual language that could be disseminated universally. Through notions such as simplification, abstraction, consistency, and differentiation, artists and designers aimed to communicate through form making with a degree of disconnection between signs and their contexts. The production and exchange of visuals was based on the ideals of mastering language and conquering inherent meaning. This approach sought to contribute to postwar political order within a nation-based understanding of the world. 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 publishing, design tools became ubiquitous, with the effect of discouraging designers from undertaking experiments in form and content, and refocusing their energies on contextual and relational dimensions. 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
In identity design we see many projects transitioning from static logotypes to systems that react to external parameters. Examples include the celebrated identity for the Whitney Museum by Experimental Jetset, where the logo adjusts to any given format, or the recent identity for Columbia University’s GSAPP, developed by Linked by Air, which, inspired by the angle of the sun’s rays, shifts typographic weights according to the time of day. 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.
Yet while much contemporary design includes some performative, programmatic, and participatory elements, current forms of social organization—whether institutions, corporations, or nations—are vastly 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. At the same time, technology is increasingly dictating how we interact with companies. We mainly engage with services and products through third-party vocabularies, in tweets and hyperlinks. Uber is a Toyota Prius; MoMA’s mark is textable; McDonald’s is filled with Pokemon. Current platforms of communication are highly unstable environments, and if a design is not responsive enough, it will become obsolete as platforms mutate or disappear. Our digital materiality 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.
We live in an era where conventions rapidly evolve and all new trends are condemned to disappear. In “The Weak Universalism” (2010), Boris Groys questions whether it is possible to make artistic atemporal work in the larger context of the rapidity of 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 time is compressing and 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 However, we feel that the act of challenging the status quo as an artistic act has itself become predictable. Therefore, paradoxically, to challenge the status quo could also be not to do so: not to escape constant change, but to embrace it.
Caption: A Toyota Prius with Uber and Lyft labels in the Bay Area.
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 all boundaries, neoliberal 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 essential needs, but in the signs that make them desirable and aspirational to consumers.
Branding is the most profitable service in visual communication. For many small design practices it is a crucial form of solvency. This is troubling, as it indicates that many practitioners wouldn’t take some of the identity projects they do if other aspects of their work were better paid. But more importantly, it configures design as a subject of neoliberal economization. With entrepreneurism increasingly tending toward immaterial labor and attention economies, design becomes a key element to strengthen figurative value. Visual identities are rarely truthful images of entities, but rather manipulations of how these entities want to be perceived by their presumed markets. As the design process now enters in the very early stages of the formulation of an organization, branding and identity design are practices not of representation, but of speculative presentation. They are not about visualizing manifested identities but about codifying subjective predictions in graphic form.
Design is a powerful tool for analysis, but the identity of an organization doesn’t emerge from mood boards, brainstorming sessions, or type explorations. The meaning of logos and cultural signs actually comes a posteriori—after actual exposure to the world. It is only through interaction that people attribute meaning and feel affects toward organizations. 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 may outsource their production and distribution, but they keep tight control over their trademarks, copyright, and patents. But the speed of the networked ecosystem of manufacturing seems to be outpacing the patenting processes of the Western world. Take for instance hoverboards, where a dispute over the product’s intellectual property has 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” generic and descriptive name-in-use emerges from memetic patterns rather than strategic pursuits. As effectiveness takes over and we disconnect our affection toward any particular brand, a video of Justin Bieber riding a knockoff hoverboard goes viral.
Caption: Justin Bieber riding a hoverboard at the Power 106 Studios in Burbank, California.
The premature nature of design that we have been describing imposes a particular read over possible brand manifestations and denies the evolution of an organization and its mutating context. Identity is highly relative, always evolving, and never graspable. To precondition a system to a set of recognizable visuals and attitudes reflects a very narrow understating of such phenomena. Identity design requires approaches that go beyond the corporate logic of business legitimization and that are able to collapse pluralistic representations of experience with experience itself. 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.
Traditionally, branding terms have related to human qualities, a common practice being to identify the core personality traits, values, and overall “voice” of a brand. In the recent past, this specious practice has become both validated and problematized due to the embrace of commercial entities as policy makers, along with the increasing reliance on computer systems within corporations and financial systems.
The dominance of neoliberalism as the governing body of postwar thought has reshaped our conceptions of personal identity. Those living under neoliberal governments have witnessed a shift away from long-standing cultural identifiers, such as traditional ethics, toward transactional ones, with the result being a recalibration of the foundational objectives of branding ideals from universal communication to exclusionary communication. Furthermore, the adoption of neoliberal policies on a national scale has economized our day-to-day lives. All of our pursuits are now viewed through the lens of capital, and are seen as investments upon which to build “value.” The underlying goals of higher education are no longer about artistic and cultural exploration, but about catalyzing financial and social capital. Picture taking has become performative. Exercise routines have become SoulCycle.
Caption: The South Korean app Snow, allegedly a replica of Snapchat, has a camera filter that makes users look like Steve Jobs.
In the financial sector, the adoption of computer-driven trading models in the twentieth century created new modes of economic exchange. Algorithmic processes for trading stocks and other commodities have now surpassed human capacities for such actions, and have literally reshaped the world in which we live. Rather than designing for people, we have begun designing for the needs of computer systems. Internet connectivity and the rapidity at which data transfers can be completed has become the competitive edge in financial systems. Our planet’s topography has been reconfigured in order to lay fiber optic cable along the most efficient routes. Hubs for processing and storing data are being 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. Yet as human behavior becomes economized and the economy dehumanized, branding practices still insist on applying traditional human traits to commercial actors. We are bestowing qualities such as intent on systems that think and act in ways that are fundamentally nonhuman.
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 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 a single instance in a several-decades-long trend in American politics involving impactful expressions of corporate power and citizenship. 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. As the market moves into social regulation, it also impacts our own impressions of citizenship. We see a “growing popular opposition to pensions, security of employment, paid holidays, and other hard-won achievements by public-sector workers in the United States”5 and other deregulations of social systems in favor of free-market solutions. These policies culminated in the 2008 financial collapse—the result of an overreliance on the market and unfettered confidence in trading algorithms—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.
Caption: Stanford University and Virginia Tech autonomous vehicles together at an intersection in the DARPA Urban Challenge — a prize funded by the United States Department of Defense.
As the tactics of branding are ever more widely embraced, even countries have begun to define their identities in marketable terms in order to maintain control over their reputations. 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” annually. The manipulation of reality through persuasion has become a celebrated state practice.
In the context of neoliberal globalization, 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.”6
The rise of cloud computing has problematized this in complex ways. The formulation of a metaphoric space that is accessible worldwide in a distributed network of devices is the threshold of our geopolitical landscape. As the Internet extends lawful jurisdiction through computer servers and data centers, nation states have transitioned from areas defined by physical territory to areas defined by ideology. Distributed online networks surpass geographic boundaries and local regulations, increasing the reach of postcolonial powers. At the same time, 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 the theorist 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 traditional Westphalian state governance.7
Caption: A Pokemon Go “Gym” was claimed inside the Pentagon a couple of days after the game was released in the United States.
The neoliberal agenda, along with these advances in technology, has raised the profiles of non-state actors in resolving questions of statehood. As capital has become 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.”8 While this may take the form of lobbying for tax breaks or the allocation of public resources for private use, we also see more indirect effects and complex quandaries as corporations become authorities. 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 recent 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. And as we become citizens of Facebook, Google, and Apple, corporate actors become politicians. We are seeing the reframing of political leadership as business leadership. Thailand’s prime minister from 2001 and 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra, declared himself “CEO of Thailand Inc.” Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid leveraged his success in private industry—a move that has been massively overshadowed by current presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Part and parcel of the shift toward private corporate actors operating in the public sphere is their adoption of branding and marketing techniques. Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign’s design and outreach strategy won Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year award. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign hired Michael Beirut at Pentagram to design its brand identity: a dynamic “H” that can be visually adapted to promote a variety of messages. Popular responses to political branding are just like those to commercial rebrandings, as for instance when Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s logo was walked back after a negative online reaction. Campaigns are also adopting social media marketing strategies; Trump’s Twitter, for instance, is a prominent channel for publicity and misinformation. To counteract negative Internet trends and bend public opinion, Hillary Clinton’s campaign commissioned a million-dollar “bot army” to engage with anti-Hillary Internet commenters and trolls and leave positive feedback for the candidate. These marketing tactics take on new meaning as misinformation becomes propaganda, influenced by technological platforms that, through curation algorithms, present skewed visions of news and history.
As former colonial powers embrace networks of surveillance and global jurisdiction based on server locations, borderless and distributed organizations arise in protest. Anonymous’s structure is predicated on anonymity—its geographic distribution looks less like an IP address and more like the network itself. The Occupy Movement is explicitly nonhierarchical. ISIS defines itself as borderless, pushing to expand its territory indefinitely and encouraging followers to act worldwide. These opposition groups also leverage corporate marketing tactics to promote their messages. Embracing the meme-like nature of online discourse through gif-making and YouTube uploads has made them more savvy at spreading their messages than established governing bodies. Low visibility allows them to operate with great agility. Though they are branded operations, they act under nuanced senses of identity that are collectively built as their structures grow. It is the network in operation that defines the identity, instead of a preformulated identity system constraining the operation. The brand 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, and also because they adopt and adapt to the technologies they embrace. 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 Doseai was actually a French company). More recently, as Dropbox has adopted end-to-end encryption, it has been adopted by the group. Companies that promise anonymity and end-to-end encryption often sit in precarious positions as 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 sustaining the neoliberal agenda. We believe design should be calibrated toward a systematic redistribution of power and wealth. Its infrastructure and ideologies should be repurposed toward something like the accelerationist politics suggested by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, where the gains of late capitalism are to be maximized beyond capital constraints, value systems, and power logics.9 Instead of denying branding and seeking folk or anarchist utopias, identity design should remain at ease with complexity, globality, and technology.
Caption: The Nike swoosh with a Shutterstock watermark preventing from copyright infringement.
As we’ve stated before, communication platforms are more than ever dictating the behaviors of our society. They enable and determine possible spaces for action. They are the power infrastructures of today. Designers should increase their technical literacy in order to perform concrete changes. In fact, our position stands with Williams and Srnicek’s demands for automation in a variety of industries. Design should mobilize its forces toward a reduction in subjective creativity and private authorship and favor the development of processes and systems toward creative commons. This might lead to degrees of stylistic standardization—as aesthetics will result from behavioral patterns and programmatic logics—but also ultimately to the enhancement of collectively controlled platforms that can function as new forms of governance. 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.”10
The ideas we have argued above should be understood as a framework in manifesto form rather than as a methodological formula, but we do intend for the concepts to be carried out in practical application. Therefore we will conclude by bringing forward lines for analysis and pragmatic investigation. In the process of debranding (understood as the dissolution of traditional brands as intellectual property) and transition to post-identity design projects, we suggest considering “superimposition” 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.
Post-identity design systems can manifest multiple formal, conceptual, and contextual expressions simultaneously. These manifestations might include superimposed states at opposite conceptual poles. Design can reflect the complexity of our world instead of filtering it through distillation strategies. The reductive nature of branding is in part rooted in the limitations of older reproduction modes, for instance their two-dimensionality. Current and forthcoming communication platforms will allow for infinite flexibility of space and time. We are already seeing screens rendering multidimensional layers and expandable windows, for instance, and self-storing features that allow evolving data sets and websites to travel over time.
Designers can work from a position of uncertainty, and their projects can act as ambivalent and indeterminate propositions rather than affirmative statements. Uncertainty can enact force to generate critical work, and an active sense of doubt that always questions yet is never right. Embracing uncertainty might be not only an ethical decision, but a necessary one. As we continue to incorporate algorithms into our knowledge production systems, new forms of cognition are being introduced to our conceptual landscape. Pattern recognition and maps of interrelationships are challenging our capacity for abstraction. Already, complex algorithms have become impossible to examine and evaluate, even for their creators. We might soon be confronted with highly foreign existential scenarios, and be pushed to recognize our incapacity for knowing, understanding, and communicating.
Design can use weak images, not necessarily as reductive formal gestures but as transitional signs that function as empty containers—where meaning is formed by meme-like effects through patterns of interpretation. Images can be simple or complex, but weak in the cultural and historical associations they carry. Rather than atemporality, weakness here aims for immediacy and impermanence.
Post-identity design is less about concern with the generation of form or content and more about the development of automated processes. These should be responsive enough to manifest reality in real time. Identity systems might no longer consist of discrete design components, but of the programmatic visualization of interrelated, ever-changing perspectives. We need to design interfaces that are able to process information and expose difference in nonlinear ways—platforms that are permanently exchanging points of view in participatory, networked spaces, where forms and discourses are built through interaction and direct experience rather than by the construction of figurative value and speculative attributes.
3. Andrew Blauvelt, “Towards Relational Design,” Design Observer, 2008, http://designobserver.com/
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. 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/.
7. Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack,” e-flux, no. 53 (March 2014): http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-black-stack/
8. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos, 42–43.
9. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (New York: Verso, 2015).
10. Benjamin H. Bratton, “The Black Stack.”