Basics

To get you started I wrote an article about the basic ideas of flexible visual systems.


1. What is a Visual Identity?
2. From designing the message to designing the language which formulates the message. 
3. Logo ≠ Visual Identity
4. Why did fvi’s become popular? 
5. Are Flexible Visual Identities really a new thing?

“When you perceive intelligently, you always perceive a function, never an object in the physical sense. Cameras always register objects, but human perception is always the perception of functional roles. The two processes could not be more different.” Stanislaw Ulam

What is a Visual Identity?

As soon as a group of people is formed, and they want to act as a group, they need to agree on key values which define their group. This is the moment they construct their identity as a group, which ultimately also will lead to their Visual Identity (vi) and Visual Communication (vc). 

This group could be an organization, institution or corporation. Let’s say this group makes shoes. If they are the only shoemakers in town, a shoe as a symbol to represent their group might be enough to identify their purpose, and people will buy their shoes, because there is no one else selling shoes. They have a generic vi, but a unique product. 

Now let’s imagine that there are more groups selling shoes. They have to make shoes which are different from the ones their competitors make, and communicate (through their vi and vc) that their product is different. Now not just their product has to be unique, their communication has to be too. The communication has suddenly become more complex. 

Until now I just mentioned the groups’ product and how they communicate (sell) it to their recipients (customers). Let’s have a look at the recipients in the communication process. The group is sending out (visual) messages, and hopes the recipients do what they are told – to buy the shoes. They are using the traditional communication channels, such as ads, commercials, banners, etc. These are pretty much one-way communication tools, because their recipients can’t make an ad, commercial or banner to show their response to the product or communication. 

With the rise of social networks, organisations, institutions, corporations and the audience they want to communicate with are using the same media to communicate. The recipient isn’t only a recipient anymore, but someone that now communicates his own messages. He or she can respond and other persons can see their response. The communication has become even more complex. The shoemakers have to realize that they are communicating with different people, who want different things and need to be addressed in different ways.

Now, if not before, the level of complexity of the communication has exceeded the capability of a logo-based visual identity. A logo, as specific or unspecific as it may be, is a very limited communication tool. It communicates the same message over and over again. It doesn’t change according to context. It isn’t responsive. The only way to respond to the increased complexity in communication is to build visual languages, rather than a visual messages. A visual language can be used by an organisation, institution or corporation to formulate different messages, rather than having to rely on pre-formulated messages. This is why Flexible Visual Identities (fvi) have become more important than ever.

From designing the message to designing the language which formulates the message. 

What we are witnessing is not just a trend, but a shift in how organisations, institutions and corporations are communicating. The vi is changing its functionality. While a logo is the representation of an idea, a single message, the fvi is a visual language, capable of formulating a multitude of different messages. When communication did not need to be as diverse as it is today, the logo was a great solution; but it has clear limitations in its ability to adapt to varying formats, sizes and contexts. A fvi does not. 

We, the designers of vi’s, have to change the way we think. Rather than thinking in concrete solutions, we need to think in problem-solving processes. A vi that is merely the solution of today’s problem won’t solve   future problems. The consequence would be a constant re-design of the vi, which leads to confusing communication. 

The world is changing constantly and so is our profession. This is scary and exciting at the same time. It is scary because we are forced to change the way we think, teach, work and communicate, but it is also exciting because new opportunities are waiting to be explored. 

Logo ≠ Visual Identity 

Many still consider the logo to be the centerpiece of a vi, if not the entire vi. Everything else – which typefaces to use, which colors to pick and how to apply the different design elements to different formats, sizes and contexts – seems to be secondary. This is understandable. It is much easier to design something concrete than something which has to change continually. But slowly our way of thinking is changing. 

One of the reasons is probably the importance that web design has gained in our profession. We are getting used to thinking in all the different viewports at once when we design a website. Instead of designing a fixed layout, we think about how our layout behaves when the browser window is changing its size, when it is viewed on different devices, if this device is held vertically or horizontally and what happens when we move through the site. The logo, as a static, non-changeable form, feels out of place in such a flexible environment and often occupies only a very small part of the available space on the website. Text (typography), image and color occupy a far bigger space on the website. Apart from making the visual identity recognizable, they are efficient and effective communication tools and have the capacity to communicate different messages on different levels, which the logo cannot. It comes as no surprise that since the rise of webfonts in 2009, distinctive typefaces started to play an even bigger role in Visual Identities. We can only imagine how Variable Fonts, announced in September 2016, will change not just typography, but the role typography plays in vi and communication in general. 

Why did fvi’s become popular? 

There has been a fast growing interest in fvi’s in the last ten years, with lots of design studios starting to abandon the idea of the logo as the centerpiece of a vi, instead dedicating their practices to the development of visual systems for fvi’s. A few to mention are Lava, Mind Design and Moving Brands.

Books such as Dynamic Identities in Cultural and Public Contexts by Ulrike Felsing and Dynamic Identities by Irene van Nes started to reflect on this new approach, and projects realised by big agencies for big clients have brought the subject to the attention of a wider audience. The visual identities for Aol., New York City and the Olympic Games London 2012 by Wolff Olins; the City of Melbourne by Landor; and mit Media Lab, Saks Fifths Avenue and MoMA by Pentagram come to mind, but also Casa da Musica by Sagmeister & Walsh; Nordkyn by Neue; Stedelijk Museum by Mevis en van Deursen; and Whitney Museum by Experimental Jetset have shown that the Flexible Visual Identity is a trend that is here to stay.

Nordkyn by Neue

But why now? There are several possible answers to that question and the truth lies probably somewhere in between. There is the technological aspect. When everything had to be printed, the application of a Flexible Visual Identity was more difficult. Producing and displaying a multitude of images required more work from the designer and printer, higher consumption of paper and ink and the necessity to rent more or larger display areas, such as ads or banners, resulting in higher costs for the client. On screen these problems disappeared. 

With the increasing popularity of the cinematic screen, and later the television screen, the original static logo became flexible in order to adapt to the moving media. The logo of mgm comes to mind, which not only represented an evolution from the motionless to the moving logo, but also from the silent to the audible logo. Production processes in television made it even easier to apply movement to logos. One of the best known examples, and probably the most flexible logo in television to date, is the one of mtv. It was designed in 1981 by Manhattan Design, a graphic design collective from New York City formed by Frank Olinsky, Pat Gorman and Patty Rogoff. The only constant aspects of mtv’s logo were the shape and the proportion. Every other aspect was changing constantly. The concept of a flexible logo system is a transition between the static and the flexible vi. It is more flexible than the static vi, which applies always the same logo, but more static than the fvi, which is able to adapt its applications to the format, content and context – “context” referring to the time and space in which the communication takes place and the person that is communicated to with. The aspect ratio of a television doesn’t change, so the proportions of the application of the vi do not need to change either. A flexible logo works just fine.

The rise of the Internet and its varying viewports (desktop, smartphone and tablet) challenged the concept of “logo” again. vi’s suddenly had to adapt seamlessly to many different formats. According to a Google/Sterling/Ipsos research from 2012, 90% of media consumers spread their consumption across multiple screens. “Multi-screen behavior”, the simultaneous use of smartphones, tablets, pcs and televisions is, according to Google, becoming the norm. How do we perceive and design coherent Visual Identities in such an environment? 

There are other explanations for the popularity of fvi. Daniel Neville explores in his Master’s Thesis A Relational Design Process how “changing scientific paradigms have shaped recent design practice, specifically that of logo and identity systems for cultural and public institutions.” Neville uses John Dewey and Arthur Bentley’s three historical levels of organization and presentation – “Self-Action”, “Interaction” and “Transaction” – among other theories, to explain a new kind of design, called “Relational Design”. “Self-Action” describes the concepts which regarded humans, animals, and things as possessing powers of their own which initiated or caused their actions. The level “Interaction” describes concepts such as the third law of motion by Newton which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The third level is “Transaction”. Neville argues, “This Relational ontology posits that the relations between entities are fundamentally more important than the entities themselves; one must look at the dynamic relationship as a whole. One cannot look at entities first and then the interaction; the transaction must be held at the same time.” The third level leads Neville to the concept of “Relational Design”. He analyzes fvi’s such as Twin Cities (2002) by Letterror; Nordkyn (2007) by Neue; Lovebytes (2007) by Matt Pyke and Karsten Schmidt; and the Casa da Música (2010) by Sagmeister & Walsh; and highlights their “relational” character. All of these vi’s use external data to influence their visual outcome and therefore are context-related, according to Neville.

Casa da Música (2010) by Sagmeister & Walsh

Are Flexible Visual Identities really a new thing?

The projects mentioned by Neville were developed between 2002 and 2010, but did fvi’s really not exist before then? 

Even though the application of a fvs might have been harder in the pre-Internet, or even pre-screen era, you can find many examples of fvs in the history of design- and non-design-related disciplines. In order not to go beyond the scope of this article I won’t look at the (highly interesting) visual systems developed in art, architecture, urban planning and product design, but will focus on typography, the oldest and, dare I say, most important component of visual communication design. 

The systemization of forms (or signs) is as old as written language itself. In his book Signs and Symbols: Their Design and Meaning Adrian Frutiger mentions the I Ching, or Classic of Changes, as one of the oldest known sign systems. This divination has its roots in 3000 bc and is based on a hexagram, a figure composed of six stacked horizontal lines. Each line can be either broken or unbroken, which makes a total of 64 possible hexagrams. The grid system in the I Ching is obvious, but even in more complex typographic compositions underlying grids can be found. In the book “Type Spaces” Peter Burnhill analysed the in-house norms in the typography of Aldus Pius Manutius (1449–1515) and discovered an underlying grid system. 

Burnhill, P 2003, Type spaces: in-house norms in the typography of Aldus Manutius © Hyphen Press, London

During my investigation I collected hundreds of examples of systemization in typography. By analysing and categorising them by their functionality I was hoping to enable comparison with contemporary visual systems. The category “Functionality” focuses on how the system works. I defined four sub-categories: the Manual, the Template, the Construction Kit and the Programme. Surprisingly these functionalities still can be found in contemporary fvi’s. 

Functionality: the Manual 

The geometric construction or reconstruction of a typeface allows its accurate reproduction. Design manuals have been created ever since a design needed to be applied by someone other than the original designer. You probably have worked with a contemporary Corporate Design Manual to apply the design rules of a company to a deliverable you had to design. The manual gives strict instructions about the proportions of a design. Often geometric constructions such as grids are used in order to be as precise as possible. 500 years ago, Design Manuals did exactly the same. Albrecht Dürer reconstructed both roman capital letters and gothic minuscle letters in his book Of The Just Shaping Of Letters from 1525. Dürer writes in the dedication to his patron and friend Wilibald Pirckheimer that his work should not just be a guide to painters, but goldsmiths, sculptors, stonecutters and woodcarvers as well – in short, everyone who can use a compass and ruler.

Modular construction of the gothic minuscle letters by Dürer, 1525 

One of the best-documented design manuals is the Romain du Roi developed by a committee of four from 1692 to 1745 for King Louis xiv. As the name indicates, the Romain du Roi is a reconstruction of roman capital letters. 

Romain du Roi: Construction of the letters “A” and “B”, 1692 – 1695

According to Luc Devroy, professor at the School of Computer Science, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, the design of the Romain du Roi is based on a square, which was split into 64 squares. Each of these squares was again divided into 36 smaller squares, creating a grid system of 2304 square modules. The grid helps position the geometric shapes that were used to construct the letters. The definition of the letter forms through a grid of squares and through geometric shapes made Devroy call the Romain du Roi “the first digital font, and at least as the first mathematically defined type”. The manual of the Romain du Roi was used to create an exclusive typeface for King Louis xiv and his printing house, the Imprimerie royale. All the glyphs and their different font sizes were punchcut from this manual, which was supposed to give the typeface and the publications printed with it their formal coherence and exclusivity. In its essence it is nothing less than a vi. 

The typeface was used for the first time in the book “Médailles sur les principaux énvenémens du règne” by Louis-le-Grand from 1702.

Frank Blokland, founder of the Dutch Type Library, assesses, “However, these Renaissance and Baroque pattern-descriptions were absolute, i.e. they were meant to describe and define certain letter forms via outlines created with ruler and compass. The mutually different patterns for basically the same capital letter forms from Feliciano and consorts, and later the ones by Jaugeon’s committee for roman type, did not serve as generic models for describing the underlying structures, but their purpose was to provide specific construction methods for specific letter forms.” Blokland describes here the distinction between a design manual, such as the Romain du Roi, and a programme, which applies generic systems.

It lies in the nature of the manual that it must be easy to understand and use, which often means a simplification of the design. Typeface constructions, such as the constructed sans-serif typefaces created during the 19th and 20th centuries for sign painters, show strong simplification of the letters.

Manual for signpainters by C. E. Fetzer, 1871 – 1872 © Collection Albert-Jan Pool

According to Albert-Jan Pool, teacher, researcher and designer of ff din, such design manuals led to the definition of a normalized alphabet, din 1451. 

Manual of din 1451, Author unknown, 1927 © din

Pool states that din 1451 was released in 1931 by din. In 1936 it became the official typeface for signposts, traffic signs and public signs including street names and the control systems in air-raid shelters. din 1451 is a product of geometric construction with little typographic sophistication. In 1995 Abert-Jan Pool designed a refined version of din 1451, ff din, which was released by FontShop. In contrast to din 1451 it has optical adjustments and more fluid curves, but preserves the constructed character of the original.

According to Pool the use of constructed sans-serif typefaces on the Prussian railroad marked the beginning of a new tendency in public lettering. Information signs were no longer regarded as works of art, but as purely functional sources of information. Pool asserts that any additional ornament was considered an obstacle for legibility. This is how Pool explains the shift from German blackletter to sans-serif typefaces towards the turn of the 20th century. 

Detail of a lettering template of the Prussian Railways, 1897 © Collection Albert-Jan Pool

Functionality: the Template

While a design manual is merely a guide to reconstruct a specific design and contains the possibility of interpretation, a template does not allow any deviation from the master design. A stencil template allows the non-typographer to apply a type design manually. The advantages are formal coherence, quick application, no need for prior education in type design and no individual expression. 

In 1876 Joseph A. David acquired the patent for a system that he had invented for sign-writers, the Plaque Découpée Universelle. With a universal stencil, all uppercase and lowercase letters as well as numbers, punctuation and accents could be drawn from one single stencil template.

Plaque Découpée Universelle by J.A. David, 1876 © Hyphen Press, London

In the first decade of the twentieth century, as described by Pool, Georg Bahr, a teacher at a vocational school in Charlottenburg, Berlin, developed a new lettering device. It had the shape of a ruler and came with a matching pen. The template contains only one set of elementary shapes. The user has to move the ruler to draw complete letterforms using these shapes. It took a while to complete a piece of lettering, but the template was handy and cost-effective. Pool states that Bahr patented his “Kurvenlineal zum Aufzeichnen von Schriftzeichen” (Curved ruler for drawing letters) in 1909. As early as 1910 he sold the patent to two friends, Paul Filler and Oscar Fiebig. Filler and Fiebig founded a company in which the patent accounted for 50% of the company’s capital stock. The new company “Filler & Fiebig” now produced and sold the “Bahr’schen Normograph”. Later on, writing templates with complete alphabets were developed; they were called “Standardgraph”. The company became so successful with this product that it changed its name to Standardgraph Filler & Fiebig GmbH in 1967. To this day, the production of an extensive range of stencils is an essential part of the company’s business. Many stencils contain elements which are used in technical drawings.

Bahr’sche Normograph, lettering ruler from 1909. Image ©1971 by Standardgraph (Collection Albert-Jan Pool)

The functionality of a template can be found in any vi which is based on the permutations of sign systems, as for example the vi proposal for Wikipedia by Moving Brands from 2011 or the TextielMuseum and TextielLab Identity by Raw Color from 2013. 

Textiel Mueseum, Raw Color, 2013

Functionality: the Construction Kit

Limiting the number of elements a design is composed with isn’t just an economical decision. It also simplifies the overall appearance and makes its recognition easier. The following examples work like a construction kit. 

Modern artists such as Josef Albers, and modern architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, were inspired by Friedrich Fröbel’s construction kits. Fröbel (1782–1852), the inventor of kindergarten, developed the educational toys “Fröbels Spielgaben” (Fröbel Toy-Gifts) for children. The original ten toys consisted of mostly wooden pieces of different geometric shapes. The kits with a lower number are for smaller children, the ones with a higher number for older children. The educational goal changed from toy to toy and ranged from rational thinking to mathematics to language, but according to Norman Brosterman, journalist at the New York Times, the foremost goal was “the creation of a sensitive, inquisitive child with an uninhibited curiosity and genuine respect for nature, family and society.”. 

According to Pool, Soennecken, a German office products manufacturer founded in 1875 by Friedrich Soennecken, developed in 1913 a construction kit for uppercase letters for children in primary school. The children had to compose letters with seven different straight and circular metal elements. An underlying grid helped the children to position the elements.

Soenneckens’ lettering system for elementary schools, 1913 © Collection Albert-Jan Pool
Leaflet to promote Josef Albers’ Kombinationsschrift produced by Metallglas Aktiengesellschaft Offenburg-Baden, 1930

Not for children, but nevertheless a construction kit, is the Kombinationsschrift (Combination Typeface) by Josef Albers. In “Sonderdruck: aus Bauhaus, Zeitschrift der Gestaltung, Nr. 1, Januar 1931” he presents the “kombinationsschrift ‘3’”. The typeface’s advantage, according to Albers, is primarily of economic nature. The typeface consists, in comparison to an earlier version which consisted of ten elements, only of three square metal type sorts with three basic geometric shapes: a square, a quarter circle and a circle. With these three forms Albers is able to construct 72 different glyphs. He argues that reducing the number of sorts helps the printers to save space, avoid over- or underused sorts and therefore irregular deterioration. The simplicity of the forms also improves longevity, according to Albers, especially when produced with fragile material as glass or porcelain, but also when used for signs in wood, metal, cardboard, paper or neon. Another advantage mentioned by Albers is the ability to calculate the width of the lines, which was until then (supposedly) only possible with the typewriter. 

Image published in an article by Josef Albers about the Kombinationsschrift, Sonderdruck: aus Bauhaus, Zeitschrift der Gestaltung, 1931

The image above is of especially great interest. It shows the flexibility of the system. The “construction kit” consists of only three elements, square, quarter circle and circle, but Albers is able to create 27 different glyphs, up to four different variations of each letter and 12 different weights. 

The functionality of the construction kit is frequently used in fvs. Mevis + van Deursen used it for the European Capital of Culture 2001 vi, Lava Design used it for the vi of idtv in 2008 and Pentagram nyc used it for the vi of the mit Media Lab in 2011. 

Media Lab, Pentagram, 2011

Functionality: the Programme

The fourth type is named after a term introduced to Graphic Design by Karl Gerstner. Gerstner, who sadly passed away on 1.1.2017, was to my knowledge the first to apply fvs to Corporate Identities. His publication Forms of colors shows his profound knowledge of the history of fvs. Gerstner’s interdisciplinary research of well- and lesser-known systems makes the book a true treasure. In 1964, Gerstner wrote a book called Designing Programmes. While the previous types I mentioned deal with tangible objects, Gerstner’s ideas are intangible at first. Rather than drawing concrete shapes, Gerstner designs programmes which generate forms. Felsing quotes Gerstner as saying, “One day I noticed that it doesnt’t make sense, you make a signet and always add it somewhere. The design itself must take the place of the signet.” fvi’s developed by Gerstner for Boîte à Musique, Blech Electronic Centre and Holzäpfel illustrate this statement: they are easy to recognize even without a logo, and are flexible in their application.

Boîte à Musique, Karl Gerstner, 1959 © 2007 Lars Müller Publishers

Gerstner doesn’t limit this approach to graphic design, but shows examples from literature, architecture, urbanism, typography, photography, art, literature and music. The “programme” is the systemization of the creation process. 

From the book Designing Programmes by Karl Gerstner, illustrating a photographic system. © 2007 Lars Müller Publishers

One of the most interesting examples is a series of photos of a car. The car itself does not change, but through changing perspectives, Gerstner obtains different images. The series is visually coherent, because the different positions of the camera are defined by a system, or as Gerstner would say, a programme. Using the perspective to make something static flexible is a rare approach in graphic design, probably because the tools we use are mostly two-dimensional, but there are a few contemporary fvi’s which come to mind. The fvi’s for the nai by Bruce Mau from 1993 and the ovg Real Estate Identity by Studio Dumbar from 2011 allow infinite variations of the wordmark through changing perspectives. Another interesting example is the fvi by Moving Brands for Swisscom from 2007. A three-dimensional object turns around its own vertical axis, creating a multitude of two-dimensional images. The object is designed to respond to sound, motion, and data such as Internet traffic or customer connectivity.

NAi, Bruce Mau, 1993

Back to Gerstner and back to fvs in typography. In his book Designing Programmes as well as in Compendium for Literates Gerstner plays with Fritz Zwicky’s morphological box to create a variety of wordmarks. Gerstner intends to list all the possible aspects of a wordmark. He divides them into four main parts: “Basis”, “Color”, “Appearance” and “Expression”. Each of the main categories are further divided into subcategories and their respective properties. By picking one property of each of the subcategories, he generates different combinations. Gerstner mentions that the box can be either used to create random solutions or as an overview for the designer to see the possibilities he has.

In 1964, when Gerstner published Designing Programmes, it was exceptional for designers to use computers to program and it was not until 1970 that Gerstner could design a coded programme with the help of Klaus Thomas from ibm Stuttgart, using perforated cards to execute a programme which would generate all the permutations of his system. 

Not as versatile as Gerstner’s vision of programmed design, but easier to apply and maybe therefore more influential has been the Swiss grid-based design, also called Swiss Style or International Typographic Style. To Gerstner the grid, as a regulator of proportions, is the ultimate programme. Gerstner writes in Designing Programmes, “Is the grid a programme? Let me put it more specifically: if the grid is considered as a proportional regulator, a system, it is a programme par excellence.” Gerstner himself developed a highly versatile grid for the finance magazine Capital, allowing him to achieve a harmonious balance between visual coherency and diversity throughout the magazine. The grid was based on a square, which was then sub-divided into 58 rows and columns. The layouts could be of either two, three, four, five or six columns and rows, creating overlapping squares of different sizes. The result is a very flexible grid system. 

One of the most famous representatives of grid systems has been Josef Müller-Brockmann. Müller-Brockmann’s book Grid Systems in Graphic Design explains how to create and use grid systems. The majority of the grid systems Müller-Brockmann shows are two-dimensional and were applied to magazines, brochures, catalogues and books, but Müller-Brockmann also shows three-dimensional grids used in exhibitions, showing the potential of a grid system as an overall design tool. The last chapter in Müller-Brockmann’s book is actually the most interesting. Not just because it shows the use of grids in different disciplines such as architecture, construction, urbanism, painting, sculpture, patterns on facades, sign language, pictograms, wayfinding systems and logos, always comparing an old example with a new one, but because by showing also examples from nature, Müller-Brockmann manifests his almost religious belief in the grid system. Müller-Brockmann writes, “Working with the grid system means submitting to laws of universal validity.” 

Systemic approaches in design can be found as well in Armin Hofmann’s book Graphic Design Manual: Principles and Practice from 1965 in which Hofmann explains the rule-based exercises he did with his students, Wucius Wong’s Principles of Two-Dimensional Design from 1972 and Donis A. Dondis’ A Primer of Visual Literacy from 1972, in which they teach the basics of (systemic) graphic design. Each of these books are highly recommendable for everyone interested in fvi’s, but I prefer to end my historic résumé of fvs with someone who isn’t a typographer nor a graphic designer, but had an equally big influence on me as Karl Gerstner: the cartographer Jacques Bertin.

In 1967 Bertin published Sémiologie Graphique. Les diagrammes, les réseaux, les cartes.. Although Bertin describes a system to design diagrammes and maps, Gerstner would have called them “programmes par exellence”. 

In the 1983 edition Bertin writes, “… this was the era of confrontation between ‘information theory’ and ‘communication theory,’ which inspired most graphic research: How should we draw? What should be printed to facilitate ‘communication,’ that is, to tell others what we know, without a loss of ‘information’? … Ten years of evolution have brought about an entirely different perspective. Fundamental today are the properties of the visual variables and the processes of graphic classing and permutations. We are entering the era of ‘operational graphics.’”

Bertin’s eight visual variables

Bertin’s graphic system has eight visual variables at its disposal, the two planar dimensions (vertical and horizontal), which define the position of the element on the surface it is placed on, the size of the element, the (tonal) value of the element, the texture of the element, the color of the element, the orientation of the element and the shape of the element.

How do contemporary Flexible Visual Identities work?

Although Gerstner’s approach comes pretty close to the functionality of contemporary fvi’s, there is one big difference between the programmed fvi’s of Gerstner and programmed fvi’s of today. Many recent fvi’s use external data to influence the output of the system. One of the most interesting examples for a fvi using external data is the fvi Neue developed for Nordkyn.

Other examples are oi, the sound-reactive fvi developed by Wolff Olins or the also sound-reactive fvi for Swisscom by Moving Brands. I have to admit that Open fvi often seem gimmicky, but the potential is huge. 

In order to offer my students a comprehensive, but concise explanation of how contemporary fvi’s work, I developed a very simple model. 

Flexible Visual Identities, Dr. Martin Lorenz, 2016

The basic idea of the model is that every fvi needs to have a visual system which balances constants (which make the visual identity recognisable), and variables (which allow the visual identity to adapt to different formats, messages and contexts). Each of the components can therefore be either flexible or static. 

The centre of the visual system consists of two different components: 1) the visual elements and their properties and 2) the transformation of the visual elements. The first component is the most common. The designer creates a set of elements which can be used to design the applications. For example a green circle, a red square and a blue triangle. The elements are circle, square and triangle and their properties are their respective colors. The second component, the transformation of these elements, is less common, but does exist. A visual element can be transformed in a specific way and thus establish through its controlled transformation a coherent visual language. Imagine using always the same old copy machine. It doesn’t matter which visual element you copy – graphic, typographic or photographic element – the copy machine will always add its very specific texture and create a recognisable visual language. A transformation of a visual element can be as well achieved through a changing perspective (see Swisscom by Moving Brands), the projection of visual elements onto changing objects and surfaces (see NAi by Bruce Mau or ovg by Studio Dumbar) or even a visual transformation through time (see De Buitenwereld or Z33 by Edhv). 

Both the visual elements and their properties, and the transformation of the visual elements may be self-sufficient or influenced by an external source. A self-sufficient or closed system works with predefined rules and data. An open system allows the influence by an external source, as for example the outside temperature or the wind direction. 

A similar source of flexibility can be the application of the visual system. A flexible visual system can be able react to the format, message and/or context it is applied to. A static visual system usually only scales up or down the same image, but doesn’t adapt form and content. This also means that fvi’s can become static if they are applied wrongly or if the media they are applied to cannot display multiple images.