On Identity for Desktop
Sailing - Between the devil and the deep blue sea.
As graphic designers, we like to look, think and talk at, on or about identity quite a lot. Often we create them as well. We buy books filled with thousands of logos, or case studies on large, successful identities for education and inspiration. Thousands of blogs post news, reviews and announcements of the latest, biggest and best identities from every corner of the globe. When we say ‘identity’, ‘brand identity’, corporate identity’, ‘visual identity’, invariably we’re talking about the logo, design systems and visual language, name and other symbols of a product, organisation, service or entity. For all this focus, the way designers consider identity seems to me quite a bit different to how other fields think about it.
Undoubtedly, identity design is where the best and brightest designers of our industry ply their trade. It’s a place where bag loads of ingenuity, creativity, chutzpah and plain old hustle are required to push any piece of work through tricky approval processes and risk averse decision making. It’s easy to understand why many are drawn to identity; the rewards are big. It’s how we get into the boardroom, speak to people with Director or Chairman on their job title. Successfully completing large corporate or brand identity projects is when our work is certain to be seen by the greatest number of people possible – fame and fortune! What’s not to like?
Yet there’s an uncomfortable impotence at the core of how graphic designers create identities, mainly to do with the breadth and depth we’re allowed to explore by our education, skill sets and client briefs — it’s somewhat appealing to label it an ‘identity crisis’. I can’t help thinking this disconnect leaves the entire exercise feeling hollow, and has me wondering if we aren’t just deluding ourselves. Deluded into thinking our work has much greater impact than just a surface level exercise in shuffling deck chairs, puffed up for the benefit of egos and glorified in slick case studies for our commercial needs. At the end of the process and after all the expensive production outputs, that product, organization or service we’ve worked with is still the same thing as when we started, no matter how massive, or incremental, the ‘identity’ change. We may have replaced every piece of wood in this ship, but Theseus is still a total jerk.
Humans have been considering notions of ‘identity’ since we first started considering things – perhaps even earlier. In his series of biographies, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch noted the paradox of whether, after every piece of wood in it had been replaced, the ship of Theseus was still the same ship. The paradox has remained popular conundrum for philosophers and thinkers, even after all these centuries — variations of the paradox include ‘Grandfathers Axe’ and ‘Triggers Broom’. Ancient considerations of identity, as captured by Theseus’ ship or Heraclitus’ musing “No man ever steps in the same river twice”, were concerned more with defining how a thing bears a relationship to itself, if the identity of a thing changes over time, and how two identical things can remain logically separate; the distinctions between qualitative and numerical identity.
“we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations…. It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts,but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle”
Some extend the Theseus Ship paradox to our own body, with the oft quoted (yet apocryphal) claim that every cell in the human body is replaced over a seven year period. An appealing piece of trivia that gives rise to the question; what component of an individual’s identity is permanent, as opposed to transient? Around the turn of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud’s development of a structural model of the psyche names the component of our psyche present from birth, and unchanged right up until death, as the id (not eye-dee, just ‘id’, rhymes with lid).
In Freud’s model, the id is the base instincts of a psyche, concerned with ‘needs’ and ‘forces’. It’s where our libido resides, and a bundle of unresolved, contradictory life and death instincts. The ‘life instincts, a creative drive for pleasurable survival, and ‘death instincts’, a destructive drive towards ourselves and other living organisms. Emerging from the id and reaching out into the real world is the ego – which seeks to please the id in ways beneficial over the long term; it can be seen as the reasonable, common sense partner to the unbridled, instinctive self interest of the id. These two are quadrants forming one half of the model, and on the other side is the ‘super ego‘, which acts like a conscience, regulating our behaviour through notions of morality, and is affected by our environment and those that have influence on us as we grow up – teachers, parents, friends. According to Freud, the ego and super ego can develop and change over time, whereas the id stays permanent, unchanged from birth until death, even in old age, a swirling mass of chaos and excitations.
Death, destruction and self inflicted chaos figure prominently in the world and works of Australian artist Ben Quilty. In his earliest and most well known paintings, rendered in a heavy impasto style and depicting cars, skulls and hamburgers, Quilty was exploring symbols of male identity in Australia. From the muscle cars of our ‘Ford vs Holden’ culture, and alluding to back to the destructive nature of colonialism and invasion. His 2007 exhibition, ‘Pride and Patriotism’, featured portraits of James Cook, John Howard, friends of the artist, his own 6 month old son Joe, as well as self portraits of the artist himself. Quilty and friends were all painted from photographs taken on nights ‘wetting their heads’ – drunken and debaucherous, risking life and liver for no good reason other than observing the ritual of ‘a boys night’.
For an artist who made his name painting Toranas and glistening milk bar burgers with big dollops of lickable paint, the turn towards more directly critical depictions of Australian male identity marked a change of course, and it was hard to ignore. Now, the skulls that had graced the fronts of cars in his earlier works took on new, more troubling meanings. No longer just cool-ass expressions of street tough bad-assery, the visages had became portentous warnings of the self destructive risks inherent within expressions of male identity and power. In the case of Australia, a nation founded on the deaths and near destruction of indigenous cultures (the oldest living cultures in the world), Quilty seemed worried that our sense of identity, our pride and patriotism was also the seed of our own destruction at the bottom of a bottle, and the end of a lonely road.
Quilty’s art follows on from the broad trend amongst recent explorations and considerations of identity, which have focused mainly on personal identity; nominal identity, religious identity, sexual identity, gender identity and ethnic identity. One could (boldly) say suffrage, the sexual revolution and the civil rights movements of the previous two centuries were simply hitherto overlooked sections of western society affirming their right to define their own identity (rather than leaving it to the privileged, older, white men who had all the guns). Once defined, the struggle became to compel society to let go of it’s prejudices, accept equality with, and tolerate the empowerment of, these new, different and thus threatening, identities.
“Mugatu is so hot right now he could take a crap, wrap it in tinfoil, put a couple fish hooks on it and sell it to Queen Elizabeth as earrings” Maury Ballstein in Zoolander
Ballstein is a fictional character, but the insight he unearths while remarking on the ‘hotness’ of the similarly fictional fashion designer Mugatu, is uncomfortably true of how identity is considered in our contemporary society. Warhol’s endlessly repeated (and perhaps equally misunderstood) quote “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” was one part rallying cry for the casting aside of traditional notions of importance in artistic representation; a Prince, Duke or a King can have their portraits become acknowledged as masterpieces of art; but why not a can of soup or a Hollywood starlet? But I also see it as a lamentation from someone notoriously obsessed with fame – primarily his own – who was simultaneously crippled by self esteem issues. In Warhol’s day, he had to work hard to achieve what he imagined every person might be entitled to, in the future.
Warhol’s vision might be coming true; social media’s rapid rise in ubiquity, and it’s integration with every aspect of our lives has created an identity fuck–fest; an orgy of liking, following and friending with strangers, colleagues, friends and family alike. Now, everyone’s a celebrity, for little or no good reason, and people can be ‘famous for being famous’. Today we curate, grow our audience and cultivate a ‘personal brand‘ – everyone’s in the identity business. Real estate agents, life coaches, hairdressers, stock brokers, doctors and politicians — there they all are, online, toiling away building their ‘brand’ with the same sense of purpose and professionalism you’d see in a PR agency, marketing department or advertising agency. Perhaps more.
The superficiality of social media uncomfortably parallels with how the average graphic designer is allowed to consider identity, a limited scope neatly encapsulated by the commonplace identity guidelines document. These documents record colour selections, photography styles, typeface choices, graphic devices, design systems and of course the ubiquitous logo, it’s clear space, acceptable usage and other considerations. Perhaps an explanation of a brand strategy, a snappy two or three word brand essence, values, attributes, a tone of voice and maybe even some sort of narrative that describes the brand’s uniqueness and relevance.
But all of these are progressively outlying layers of the onion, with an emphasis on the visual. Which isn’t too hard to make sense of, we’re graphic designers creating visual identities after all, for the time being anyway. We’re allowed no access to influencing the inner core, the heart – perhaps we could call it the id – of our clients. Thus, without changing that inner core, without re-sequencing the DNA, we’re simply replacing the old pieces of wood on the ship with shinier, new ones. A perfectly acceptable way to derive a living, but is it really deserving of the label ‘identity‘, even the diluted label of ‘visual identity’?
It’s perhaps unsurprising that many in our industry are questioning our own identity; a 2012 AGDA event ‘How to tell your parents you’re a graphic designer” asked whether ‘graphic designer’ still works as a label for the work we do. It’s a time where one half of our industry seems to be holding on to a craft based tradition of ‘making’, clinging to printed books and letter-pressed business cards. On the other hand, are designers re- positioning their studios as brand agencies, primarily in the business of selling ‘design thinking’ and seeking to participate with their clients in high level discussions of marketing, product innovation and business strategy.
Unfortunately for us, whether we stay true to our tradition as craftspeople, or become fast talking powerpoint jockeys, we’re still sailing into the wind of thousands of years of thinkers, philosophers, artists and psychologists who’ve been saying all along that identity is anything but visual. We’re between the devil and the deep blue sea; dearly wishing for more scope, more billings, more significance and influence. Yet we’re confronted with the uncomfortable reality that our clients only wish us to deal in the outer layers of identity, manipulating and modifying external markers and symbols of recognition, and allowed little to no influence on the true components of identity. Now, I’m off to get some wood.
My first issue of AGENDA for AGDA is nearly done
And it’s going to be great. Promise. I hope. Nope, definitely going to rock. Almost certain. It will be about Credibility which is a nice thing to ponder and think about.
Here’s the list of contributors, in case you’re wondering;
Oh, and me
It’s a good list, right? I thought so too.
Great Advice from Bill Drenttel
Focusing on making a partnership work is more profitable than focusing on making money.
Love your employees more than you love your clients.
The best new business is your current business.
Price projects by asking yourself what the client’s lawyer would charge. It’s better to be hired for your work than for your price.
When it comes to getting paid, the first of the month is better than the thirtieth.
Making money off mechanicals, printing and computers turns your business into a commodity.
The books in your library are more important than the numbers on your balance sheet.
In order to love your work, take vacations.
Power, in business, comes from sharing money and valuing love.
An incomprehensible tragedy.
I’m going to Moon
Short story; I’m going over to join the team at Moon as a Creative Director.
I’ve been working with the fine folks at THERE for nearly 4 years, during that time we’ve done some amazing things. I’ve gotten my head around branded environments and signage (kind of), I’ve worked with some amazing people and clients. I’ve had the chance to write brand strategies and lead clients through their rebrands, then take them through full implementation. A few occasions I got stuck into deploying design, strategy and thinking to make business not just look, but be better - tremendously rewarding. Lastly I’ve rediscovered my love of digital, and most recently we helped bring Stylecraft into the digital age with their great new website. I’m a bit proud of that one.
Thanks Paul, Simon, Jon, Tegan, Sophie, Cloud, Celia, Cameron, Teresa, Joel, Louis, Christina, Bronwyn, Gordon and all the others I’ve had the pleasure of calling my colleagues. Thanks all the great clients I’ve been learning from, challenged by and shared successes with. It was particularly great in 2012 when the THERE team were honoured with a big 8 award haul from AGDA. Good times.
But things can’t stand still forever, and it’s with excitement tinged with regret, or as Shakespeare said ‘sweet sorrow’ that I part ways with THERE, and move on to a role at Moon Communications Group. It was the only other company in Australia I wanted to go to, really. Thanks to a certain tailor friend of mine for making it happen. I’m following in the footsteps of Linda Jukic, Anthony Donovan, one of those Moffitts, Simon Hong and Carby Tuckwell. To say that’s an intimidating list is a massive understatement.
To me, Moon and THERE are similar companies in many ways. Both companies work on communicating, and making brands. Both have a heart for design and a head for brands. Both have a lot of smart, cool, good looking people that make me feel insecure in a myriad ways.
I love thinking about, and tinkering with brands. But I don’t agree that brand design should exist in a silo. Brands today, and the marketeers who are tasked with looking after them, face an incredibly complicated communications landscape. Every year another channel, technology or platform is trumpeted as being the new big thing that’s changing everything. Whilst I roll my eyes at the predictability of the hype machine, I must admit it’s not entirely untrue.
I’ve always liked the Alan Kay quote made famous thanks to the Steve Jobs iPhone intro keynote;
People who are serious about software should make their own hardware
I feel the same is true of brand and comms. I’d suggest a twist on Alan Kay’s quote for the brand and advertising world
Agencies who are serious about making brands should do comms
Agencies who are serious about comms should be making brands
Moon’s a great place for doing both, very well, at a big scale. Thanks to the relentless march of change in the communications and advertising world, now more than ever, this is the type of agency that brands need. Everywhere else in our clients business we see simplification, consolidation and streamlining. Why have 5 agencies on your comms needs - why not just one.
No where else in Australia (and far too rare around the world) has design cred paired with comms chops and brand smarts, at the scale of execution that Moon can claim. Rebranding nations, celebrating diversity, launching airlines, making hotels sexy, or teaching the world how to shop.
That’s an exciting toy to play with, and when I join Moon I can’t wait to unwrap that new chemistry set and lose an eyebrow or two. Fun times.
I’m editing AGENDA
After contributing an article to the most recent issue, a conversation was struck up, which resulted in me getting myself appointed to be the editor for AGDA’s quarterly journal, AGENDA.
It’s an honour and a privilege to be taking up this role. Not only can I make a positive contribution to AGDA without being ‘in’ AGDA, I can also continue this adventure in writing. From the beginning when I naively began parading opinions on Brand New, I never really knew what this writing lark was all about. It certainly seemed many didn’t see it as a serious endeavour, and perhaps it wasn’t, certainly I’ve been flippant, careless and stupid with it at times - and yet the longer I preserver, the more important it becomes to me, and seriously i take it (within reason).
I love writing - probably more than design some times - there’s an undeniable purity and minimalist simplicity to the craft. Words, arranged in sentences, forming thoughts. Just the keyboard and a flashing cursor. AGENDA is a chance to push my writing to a new level of seriousness, to be challenged by the weight of every deadline, and the quality and quantity of who pick it up and read it.
Anywhere you go for advice on writing, they say write what you know, what you love. Well, that’s design. To me, all the world’s problems are design problems. Inequity, intolerance and poverty can all be solved through the processes of design, of collaborative problem solving. But somehow we, as a discipline, fumble the ball and get lost in diversions - we’re not part of the big conversations.
Brands are incredibly powerful tools of mass communication, persuasion and influence - but they’re not the only game in design. But of course there’s more to the conversation than that. I’m excited by the chance to spark conversation, dialogue and debate. For me, AGENDA can be a place where big ideas are formed, issues identified and effect positive change. It can be about what’s new and next for graphic design. Bye bye newsletter, hello thoughtful journal. That’s the plan at least.
if you have an idea for AGENDA, want to be featured, or contribute an article I’d love to hear from you.
Accreditation for graphic designers! It’s coming, soonish it seems.
It’s big news from the Australian Graphic Design Association, the first of a few in the coming weeks. Desktop have coverage of the news here.
The AIS rebrand was too expensive? Really?
"Five squiggly lines have cost the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) $500,000 to roll out across the country."
The largely government-funded sport agency defended the price tag on its new logo at Monday’s unveiling, saying it would generate more commercial investment in the long term.
So begins the media coverage of the AIS rebrand undertaken by the Sydney office of Landor. A well intentioned and seemingly competent rebrand, when considered in the context of the real organisational change that appears to be happening with the AIS. The rebrand is even more admirable aesthetically, when considered amongst some of these disasters that abound in the sports branding category.
The Australian Institute of Sport has defended the half a million price tag for its new logo, insisting the re-branding will help develop more funding for athletes, not take money from their pockets.
This approach to reporting major rebrands has become so consistent and formulaic it would be comical were it not so damaging to the design industry, and the organisations whose rebrand are under the spotlight. I can’t imagine any change, no matter how insignificant, within a large organisation being much cheaper - where’s the scrutiny and price tag mockery when an organisation refurbishes an office, upgrades IT systems or launches a new product?
These are (rightly) seen as value creating, improving operations, efficiencies or opening new opportunities for growth. But not a rebrand - nope, it’s just 5 squiggly lines, nothing important or substantial, and certainly not worth the $500,000 price tag. $500,000!!! That’s half a MILLION dollars!
It leads me to wonder - what price would have been acceptable in the minds of the journalist writing the above copy - would $400,000 be acceptable? Perhaps $300,000 is a more palatable level. Of course this is an absurd exercise — it costs what it costs, because rebranding things is hard and time consuming, mainly due to a client’s own complexities and challenges, certainly not due to a greedy design agency.
Thank you to The Australian, for painting a more balanced picture;
Projected revenue for the current 2013-14 financial year is $14.4 million. Sponsorship revenue for the period is $2m. That was before rebranding. Projections for the 2014-2015 year should be far higher.
Bingo. The new brand is new vigour, energy and ambition. A well orchestrated commercial partnership operation, touting the rebrand to open conversations about new opportunities, could easily recoup the cost of the rebrand.
Real difficulty is created for the organisation, criticised so much in the fallout of ‘poor performance’ at the London Olympics. The focus on cost and price tags drowns out the real and seemingly impressive changes the AIS are undertaking, with the rebrand an important tool for signalling and reinforcing that change.
But the real damage is on our industry, impugned as a flippant waste of money, mocked as childish and easy to undertake, dismissed as a lipstick exercise with no chance of effecting any real change.
Which it isn’t, right?
Very much enjoyed this 100 Years of Design site from AIGA. Lots of very articulate, intelligent, eminent designers sharing thoughts on what design is, how it works and why it matters. Great site too.
Talking with Bonnie about 2013 (One of those obligatory lists everyone makes at the end of a year)
I’d almost forgotten about this Desktop piece when it came out in print last year, and now the kind Desktop peeps have posted to their website. Was fun making this list over a 2 hour conversation (I spilled my glass of red wine all over an artwork and the wool carpet I was having such fun) - I also liked reading it, coming to it almost fresh, thanks time and distance (and alcohol) from the source.
Quick excerpt of the key take outs is below, but do click on the list and read it in full as the conversation is quite nice. I do quite like ‘in conversation’ pieces.
Tech Taking The Lead
Apple’s iOS7, Microsoft and Google shed the frills and embraced flat, sharp typography and graphics to match. Expect to see more as tech leads a change in visual culture and encourages its broad audience to engage with rigorous design processes.
Hipster Graphics Run Their Course?
With the whitegoods store across the road now looking the same as the espresso bar on the corner, the gothics, slabs and needless flourishes of hipster branding are now the new norm. This can only mean their end.
Local Stars Shine in 2013
The quality of work done by small studios has rocked the design award ceremonies. Sydney’sNaughty Fish and End of Work, and Melbourne’s Friend of Mine produced work that set off that special, aspirational yearn to be a better designer.
Melbourne Graduate Beats Agencies At Create Awards
The ‘Project of The Year’ winner at the Create Awards 2013 was Andrew Robertson, a graduate of Swinburne. Andrew won the Emerging Talent Category, but then went on to win the overall prize, beating award-winning agencies and studios.
More Graphic Design Archives In The Shelves
Australia’s own Re:Collection was this year relaunched bigger and better. The Alan Fletcher archives went online, along with the launch of the Herb Lubalin Study Centre. Smaller, but no less important archives like MoMA’s print invitations went online too, in Please Come To The Show.
Flinders Street Station Redevelopment Competition
Everyone got involved and had a say. Even if you are not interested in architecture, the amount of social engagement around this project encouraged some awareness of urban planning and public space.
The Feed: Bloggers Blow Up
The very recent, phenomenal power of the blogger is epitomised in Australian interiors and design blog, The Design Files. Run by Lucy Feagins out of her home in Melbourne, The Design Files is now the most widely read design blog in Australia, crashing servers with a single recommendation.
Digit Art’s First Major Auction
Paddles ON!, in collaboration with Tumblr, staged a first-time event at major auction house, Phillips. Seventeen digital artists sold pieces of work – including websites, animated GIFs and YouTube videos – that were already free and accessible to the public, for a total of $90,000. This makes this form of art-making tradable, but is ownership the point?
Australian Design’s First Social Media Controversy
Sydney Design Festival organised a poster competition in aid of promotion for the 2013 program. Open to everyone, the move offended the Australian design community, which argued that in previous years the tender had been offered to professional studios. Building to full controversy, designers logged onto the competition page and posted satirical entries with the message that a design festival should support the design community, instead of crowdsourcing work on the cheap. The competition was closed.
AGDA Invites Change With Vote
Suffering some heavy criticism, AGDA this year offered members the chance to have their say in its structure. The vote invited wide participation, but the results have not yet been publically shared. Perhaps 2014 holds the scoop on this one…