Brand design is not only the art of giving image and personality to corporations and products, but also the art of knowing how to reach people and embed these brands in everybody's mind. Because it is so intimately connected with advertising and thus communication, cognitive science, popular culture and technology, in the past decade brand design has followed the explosion of social networking and multimedia storytelling. It has done so by—unknowingly at times—reaching into its past for inspiration and it has moved away from the mid-century rationalist idea of a centralised design concept—the logo and all its permutations, carefully pre-examined in manuals akin to biology textbooks, think Lufthansa—with precise rules for application and repetition. We will therefore neither talk here about the Brand Hall of Fame— no Coca-Cola, IBM, McDonald's, Playboy, Shell, Apple or UPS, to name just a few—nor will we take on the usual pet peeves, such as Starbucks, or the brands that have imploded because they have not been able to keep control—such as Chanel or Burberry—or those that have created either memorable or diluted alliances with the world of art and illustration—such as Braniff or Absolut. Successful contemporary brands belong in a narrative environment and are thus either fully scripted and idiosyncratic, or abstract, incisive and adaptable enough as to straddle platforms, to perform while always staying in character, and to be recognisable.
The "great brand reform" did not happen peacefully, however. In the 20th century, brands used to be centres of gravity, reliable and permanent presences in people's lives, an influence based on repetition and precise rules. Many forces antithetical to big business have contributed to the change of course, galvanised by scandals and other corporate faux pas such as the almost fatal backlash against a previously wildly successful logo, Nike's swoosh, after the sweatshop scandal of 1997.
Successful contemporary brands belong in a narrative environment and are thus either fully scripted and idiosyncratic, or abstract, incisive and adaptable enough as to straddle platforms, to perform while always staying in character, and to be recognisable.
The logo that crystallised the new era of brand design was, however, that of MTV. MTV, a completely new concept for a television channel devoted exclusively to pop and rock music videos, was boldly launched on 1 August 1981. Creative director Fred Seibert had hired Frank Olinsky from Manhattan Design, who concocted a logo in which at first only the M was open to interpretation—of pattern and colour mostly—and then the whole acronym. The opening on-air moments of the channel featured a memorable adaptation of a video of the first moon landing, in which the flag carried the MTV logo. After that, maintaining some general shape and proportions constant, it was all left to artists' creativity. MTV branding history is filled with other memorable moments, the famous "I Want My MTV!" campaign of 1982, for instance, and even though its most roaring decade was the 1980s, it still stands as a testament to the power of zeitgeist.
Paola Antonelli, architect and critic