Where next for flexible branding?

Branding styles and trends are ever changing – from the hand painted calligraphic signs of the forgotten age to neon, ever-moving brands of today.

Every few years a new style comes into fashion (or more often, back into fashion). 

Flexible identities is the trend that’s been developing in the last four to five years. Every few months you’ll see an article labelling it as the future of branding. But is it really?

Let’s find out.

Let’s look at flexible identities from the past, the present, and looking forward to where this trend might go in the future. Some brands have certainly been more successful than others but did any actually fare better than a static alternative?

The Past

Historically, the only place where flexible branding was a possibility was in the realms of TV and film.

In the title cards of most blockbuster movies, for example, the production company’s logo takes on elements of the themes of the film in question. There’s plenty of supercuts on YouTube to see this use of flexible branding, such as Ryan Garnett’s compilation for Warner Bros.

the most prevalent use of flexible design over the years is the idea of making the logo a window in which imagery can be explored

This continues to be a great way for title cards to not disrupt the style and feel of the films.

Going back to 1973 Chermayeff and Geismar used the medium of TV to create ever changing logos for the channel WGBH. Paving the way for the likes of Channel 4 and the BBC, who have achieved critical acclaim for their channel idents, most recently in collaboration with DBLG in 2015.

One of the earliest static executions of the flexible identity approach that we know of was NAi (Netherlands Architecture Institute designed by Bruce Mau Design.

The result is a myriad of treatments to the same logotype allowing diversity without compromising consistency, paving the way for future designers by showing a flexible brand was possible without the need for moving imagery. 

The most prevalent use of flexible design over the years is the idea of making the logo a window in which imagery can be explored. I would run out of fingers in the Zeal office counting all the brands that have chosen this route, but AOL certainly took it to it’s limits in 2009 (by Wolff Olins) – by flipping the idea on its head by using “Aol.” as a transparent logo cut into imagery.

The Present

The prevalence of smart phones and digital advertising in the modern age has allowed brand designers to take flexible identities to a new level – beyond static logos that have a tweak here and a new image there. 

companies are exploring different ways to bring a brand to life

With technology ever advancing, companies are exploring different ways to bring a brand to life. Take the Göteborgsoperan, for example, who created difference in the Opera market by using the audiovisual cues of performers to generate a fluid O.

It can be shown in motion or statically in infinite executions, all while keeping the core consistency that is required for any brand.

As typefaces are now created in the digital realm and no longer require metal casts for printing presses, designers are realising the opportunities presented for type only routes.

In contrast to AOL where the type of the logo is static and embellished with different imagery, the identity for The New School uses a fluid typeface with different weights that can change based on the type setting data in software.

This technique allows the progressive university to append the various departments of the university to the core logo without running into problems due to the length of names etc.

Closer to home, here at Zeal we’re always looking to push what a brand can and should achieve. Our rebrand for Motus, a video production company in Leeds, involved flexible branding from a colour perspective. Keeping the core logo the same, we brought life to the brand by utilising the HSB (Hue, Saturation, Brightness) colour space.

By only changing the hue value we enabled Motus to have 360 different brand colours that all have identical saturation and brightness values – thus creating a flexible brand without modifying the wordmark.

In practice, this works brilliantly for a company that need to add their brand to a myriad of moving images, because the most appropriate colour can be used without diluting the brand consistency.

The Future

The possibilities for flexible branding keep growing as technology advances.

We have already seen brands that have pushed this to extremes and utilised cutting edge tech to create a brand that is organic between executions without hampering the values of the brand.

it’s not beyond imagination we will see augmented flexible identities adorning billboards

I have no doubt that this trend will continue to be pushed further into algorithmic based design. And with the developments in Virtual & Augmented Reality, it’s not beyond imagination we will see augmented flexible identities adorning billboards, virtual space and even our dinner tables on the high streets of tomorrow.

One of the main constraints facing designers wanting to experiment with flexible identities is that you need a client who is set up to run with your idea. Otherwise, what started out as a flexible identity quickly becomes static, because the people managing the everyday fall back on the same execution and don’t feel comfortable or don’t have the necessary tools to fully utilise the approach.

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