We’re in bras, lamps and breakfast cereals

Today’s corporation is very different from its predecessors. But the identities devised by designers are failing to mirror those changes.

Illustration by Richard Caldicott.

Corporations have changed. They look and act differently compared to the way they did when mass-production was at its height. The “general” is on the decline and the “specific” has come to the fore, as consumers expect and demand products and services tailored to their individual needs. Now just a not-so-fond memory, the centralized, monolithic, and inflexible corporation has been replaced by an organization that is decentralized, diversified, customer-driven, flexible, and team-oriented. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

The driving force behind this fundamental shift is technology. Computing is just the latest agent of sweeping change; e-mail, portable laptops, networking, and multi-media presentations are some of the growing list of computer-based technologies that are allowing today’s corporation to become that new, flexible organization.

The design world is, of course, affected by, and contributing to these developments. Industrial designers are busy integrating computing and communication functions into all sorts of products (self-diagnostic copiers that call the repair person before they break down, for instance), while office designers are grappling with the challenge of incorporating ever-changing technologies into an already complex workplace. Graphic designers have probably been the most affected by computer technology, as their traditional means of creation and production, and media used to transmit their work, have all been transformed.

Corporate identity consultants — a very important sector within graphic design — have taken computer technology on board with the rest of us. What they have not yet done, though, is respond to the changes affecting large, complex organizations — their traditional patrons. If today’s big corporation is a different animal from its predecessor, why then have we not seen new approaches to identity design that mirror such change?

The traditional approaches to corporate identity, which were developed in the 1950s (the time when mass-production flourished), are, for the most part, still in use today. The most familiar is the institutional strategy, which is used to present a single corporate image for a large organization — this is the approach traditionally favored by corporate identity consultants. At the other end of the scale is the individual approach, which treats business activities separately, with its own “brand” identifier. In between the two extremes are variations of the endorsing approach, which allows for the organization and its various activities to be identified together, in either an equal manner or with one or the other in a dominant position.

These approaches appear to work fine for the majority of average-sized businesses, which are similar to most organizations of the past in that they deal with a relatively small number of related audiences. The same cannot be said for the big corporations of the 1990s, which use new technologies to provide products and services for a variety of audiences, some quite unrelated to others. It’s when traditional approaches to corporate identity collide with this new type of organization that the trouble begins.

Two examples from the 1980s illustrate this point. Beatrice and Allegis, two Chicago-based organizations, attempted to present themselves as businesses offering a variety of products and services. Beatrice, for instance, tried to apply a single corporate identifier to products as diverse as bras, lamps and breakfast cereal — Allegis tried to endorse three well-known travel-related organizations under its logotype. Both attempts ended in failure and were ultimately scrapped.

The Beatrice and Allegis business strategies raised important questions concerning the identity of unrelated business activities within a single corporation. Large and complex organizations have been around for many tears — General Electric and General Motors are two obvious examples — but their various activities have tended to be related. Attempts to group today’s more diverse activities under a single umbrella suggest that there is a limit to what audiences will accept.

There are, moreover, other changes happening in today’s technological landscape that will affect corporate identity design. “Networking” organizations now exist in which the production of goods and/or delivery of services may be contracted to outsiders. Freed from the constraints of traditional organizational structures, these ventures can switch quickly from one activity to another. There is therefore a very real possibility of businesses routinely redefining their activities — one day they do this, the next day they do that. How can corporate identity systems keep up with such a rate of change?

One response has been to use largely meaningless corporate names, to which any type of activity can be attached (Allegis is one example). This achieves the required flexibility, but it also presents a faceless, inhuman image which runs counter to the personal, customer-driven identity that a corporation may require. It also fails to provide that corporation’s different business activities with specific, well-defined images in their separate markets. It appears, then, that both specificity and adaptability are important functions to build into the identity of today’s complex breed of organization.

So what does this new situation mean for the traditional approaches to corporate identity design within large, complex organizations? Essentially, it means even greater complexity. Traditional approaches can be compared to taming a multi-armed beast, keeping all the arms in line to present a unified image — an already difficult task. But now each arm has grown a head, and each head is talking to a variety of customers. Taming this beast is an even greater challenge, requiring a broader set of strategies to allow for the necessary flexibility and specificity.

Also clouding the waters are audience perceptions of a business’ activities — something that is often influenced by traditional views that have little to do with current realities. The US corporation Singer, for instance, is involved in a wide range of business activities, but in people’s minds will probably always be associated with its long history of manufacturing sewing machines (and if Singer were to start making computers, it is doubtful that its traditional image would be well received in this new context). It is exactly this type of issue that identity consultants must now address.

Because the post-industrial organization has become diverse, it is appropriate that new identification strategies allow for and enhance that diversity. If a single corporate identity is no longer adequate, then a strategy that allows many related but personalized identities must be developed. One can envision a complex organization that employs a hybrid strategy consisting of all the traditional identity strategies, but tailoring them to its particular needs. Those activities that are perceived as related to the organization’s traditional image would be identified as part of the central institution, while other activities, less directly related, would be strongly or subtly endorsed; still others could be left to stand alone with their own unique identities.

What is needed is a new understanding of the term “consistency,” which has been the hallmark of corporate identity as we know it. Consistency can no longer be viewed in simplistic terms — that is, applying a single corporate identification strategy to a diverse organization. It’s meaning must be expanded to allow for the complexity we now see.

Critical to the successful introduction of a hybrid identification system are the methods for determining how to link activities to the central organization. These must be based on hard measurements of audience perceptions: myth will simply not do in this case. Many large corporate identification firms already have the resources in place to perform this type of work; all that is needed is to recognize and properly deal with the correct issues.

In an article that appeared in a recent issue of Eye (no. 14, vol. 4), Julia Thrift suggests that much current identity design suffers from a blandness that is perpetrated by the large, less- than-creative design firms. She also suggests that small, risk-taking design teams might be better placed to create unique and effective identities. This does not go far enough: it is more than inventive form-making that is at issue here (though that too would help). What is needed is the courage to move beyond old models of corporate identity practice to create new ones that are appropriate to the realities of our diverse and ever-changing clients.

Originally published in the “Agenda” section of
Eye, no. 17, vol. 5, 1995, pp. 4–5. Rick Poynor, editor.

Design educator + Professor @ The Ohio State University

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