Modern Mythology: Visual Identity

If you know you know.

Dom Rottman

28 March 2022

Insofar as a social function can be predicated for artworks, it is their functionlessness.

–Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

While we often consider “art” to occupy a particular space, it would not be an outlandish premise, I think, to say that anything aesthetic–which includes even the most banal and simple designs, such as fonts–is created with “artistic intent.” Put bluntly, designers want to make things look pretty.

For an organization, when a “rebranding” occurs, when designs change rather abruptly on a large scale, it is frequently followed by a great rabble; dissatisfaction is aired for weeks on end to no avail. We might remember the release of Apple’s flat “Fisher Price OS” with iOS 7, the gradual shift of Google’s icons to slight variations of four-colored squares, and the increasing minimalism of Firefox’s logo to the point of comical absurdity.

Organizations, of course, know dissatisfaction is inevitable. But they at least get the first punch, so they try to get ahead of the game by releasing their rebranding with justification, littered with phrases such as “forward-thinking” and “unified vision,” or “shared purpose,” peppered with beloved marketing buzz words such as “signification” or “inspiration” or “expression.” In a bid to assure the community that this was not actually a decision made by a shadowy cabal of trustees, they go on further by discussing all of the focus groups and surveys and consultations that have happened over years of apparently arduous struggle, and praise the qualifications of the designers by listing their entire CV in the press release. Yet despite the tremendous labor of love undergone by these mysterious productive forces, the event of rebranding is a surprise to the community at large as the virtual curtain, with a PR flourish, is yanked off of the new images, which are coined–in order to belie the cold calculus of capital on one hand, and relinquish aesthetic responsibility on the other–a visual identity! But every word of this impassioned, clinical defense digs the hole one foot deeper. Not a bit of it is believed.

There is nothing inherently wrong with change of course. When a coffee shop changes its signs, it is announced with no more fanfare than a social media post and is followed by modest remarks on its beauty (“hm, that’s nice!”), detractors notwithstanding (“wow that’s ugly”). Why can’t other organizations do the same? Is it simply a matter of scale? Is it manufactured outrage? There is, however deserved, a sort of knee-jerk skepticism (or worse) at whatever moves corporations or large organizations make, however innocuous. Scale, though, seems to play a significant part: as production scales up, costs must come down; the rise of minimalism in today’s “visual identities” makes this quite literally apparent. It is not difficult to imagine that simple shapes are more easy and ultimately less expensive to propagate than intricate symbols or words; “beauty in simplicity" governs design up until beauty is simplicity. Yet this argument only explains the obviously vertical, ’lean and mean’ rebrandings, rather than those that are horizontal or merely different. Furthermore, the beauty-simplicity equivalence has arguably already been reached in the world of business, right, wrong (it’s wrong), or indifferent. What’s wrong, then, with a face lift?

Let’s look at the problem differently: would it be better if there was no press release, no justification for a rebranding? It would make it less nauseating. But one gets the sense that an answer of “we like it better,” isn’t going to cut it. In truth, rebranding puts an organization in a bind. It has to come up with some rationale for an aesthetic change. But in trying to do so, it comes up with half-reasons and empty jargon to cobble together some notion of “newness”–whether that means renewal, a fresh start, a look to the future, etc etc. In other words, for lack of being able to attach any sort of function, the “new” is chosen for the sake of newness itself.

This is a debasement of an aesthetic. The nature of aesthetic things, from great works of art to coffee shop signs, are such that they are not to be “renewed”. They can be replaced, on a matter of preference. They can be fixed, on an account of error or bad judgement. They can, and want to be, novel, to bring forth the yet unseen. But a change of an aesthetic made simply for the sake of (re)newing it, generating it again, cheapens it, because it suggests that any given aesthetic can, and likely will, be renewed again at any time, as if there was never a strong preference for any aesthetic value in the first place.

It is perhaps no accident, then, that in the world of business especially, where instrumentality reigns supreme, there is no attempt to claim logos, fonts, or designs as aesthetic, opting instead to collate them as a “visual identity;” identity, of course, being an instrumental space serving the (profit) motive. But yet there is no reason why, after certain parameters are met, a unique and particular “visual identity” should serve better than another. Even if it is reduced to a minimal point and then ultimately forsaken, in a visual identity aesthetic value remains, but is given an artificial expiration date, if unspecified even to its creators.

If the argument then is that the “expiration” of a visual identity’s aesthetic is no less arbitrary than a replacement or change thereof as a matter of preference, the difference is not one of mere result, but one of functionalization: that the aesthetic of a visual identity is “primed” to vanish at the outset by being a part thereof is to remove that aesthetic from its proper space–one governed by taste, judgement, preference, or what have you–and place it in an improper space, the functional space of the visual identity, where it cannot function (because it does not function) except in the state of its implied impermanence, and thus can be said, with respect to verbs, to at least decay, or, better yet, with reference to “newness,” wear out. The icing on the cake is that since the aesthetic is removed from aesthetic space into a functional one, it can no longer can be judged aesthetically. A visual identity can be as ugly as sin–but that is no longer the point. If you can sell it to the board–rather, if you can sell it full stop–the content is beyond judgement.

Why go through all of this, then? It would certainly save alot of effort for the PR departments. Remember, though, it was never about an aesthetic choice at all; it’s about business, or at least has to be. In principle there’s no reason why, say, the large banks can’t all change the colors of their signs and logos overnight. But the next day the public–or at least the shareholders–would demand an explanation. And the very second one is given, they cannot go back and say “because we like it,” as it would then be a lie. If an organization was to come right out and say that– yes, it really is because we think it’s prettier–mass confusion follows, from avaricious shareholders to the public at large, who would believe this no more than the empty sophistry of a press release. Again, it’s a bind–because, in case this was not already clear, the aesthetic world is antinomious to the business world; they are oil and water. At a certain scale choices which are not functional or instrumental cannot be suffered to be humored by a calculating board of trustees. Thus preference as a form of difference has to be transposed into newness which is committed to progress–the PR stops at that point–which is committed to, of course, growth and profits.

Therefore, when rebranding occurs, accompanied with some trumped up notions of “newness” or “onward, forward vision” or progress or any similar sophistry, the exact opposite is signified: relegated to be an empty functionary of an organization’s (profit) motive, the new visual identity serves to recapitulate the eternally same. It’s actually rather pitiful. Given a function, it cannot defend it’s own aesthetic, and on account of being aesthetic, it cannot be said to serve its functions particularly well if at all. Even a cynical argument that the rebranding was all done to stimulate an uptick in sales of apparel or merchandise speaks nothing to an aesthetic value as not only can it only be supported by correlation, such a correlation really only points to the phenomenon of rebranding itself–there is no reason to suppose that any other design would correlate any worse, aside from the outlandishly garish. And even then, in a consumer society so rich with irony and sardonicism, that cannot be presupposed either.

If one is concerned, as I am, that today’s corporations and otherwise monolithic organizations are getting too large for their own good, then the discord between these entities and the aesthetic provides us, if only in rough plasticity, standards with which to judge these and any institutions, insofar as we appreciate art. In other words, if something is willing to–or worse, forced to–debase or (falsely) claim immunity to aesthetic considerations, there is sufficient reason to be at least suspicious of it.