Are Flexible Visual Identities really a new thing?

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 analyzed 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 analyzing and categorizing 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 minuscule 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 minuscule 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. 

Roman capital letters, detail of Trajan’s column, Rom, 113 BC
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 événements 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 sign painters 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 Albert-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 Museum, 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.”. 

Fröbels Spielgaben
Brosterman’s comparison of toys and Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture

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. 

European Capital of Culture 2001, Mevis + van Deursen
MIT Media Lab, Pentagram New York, 2010

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. 

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 doesn’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
OVG, Studio Dumbar, Rejane Dal Bello, 2011

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, catalogs 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.” 

From Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Josef Müller-Brockmann

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 diagrams 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 Eight Variables, redrawn by Dr. Martin Lorenz, 2016

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?

“From Static to Flexible Visual Identities” Graphisme en France, Nr. 23, 2017, Dr. Martin Lorenz
“From Static to Flexible Visual Identities” Graphisme en France, Nr. 23, 2017, Dr. Martin Lorenz
“From Static to Flexible Visual Identities” Graphisme en France, Nr. 23, 2017, Dr. Martin Lorenz
“From Static to Flexible Visual Identities” Graphisme en France, Nr. 23, 2017, Dr. Martin Lorenz
“From Static to Flexible Visual Identities” Graphisme en France, Nr. 23, 2017, Dr. Martin Lorenz
“From Static to Flexible Visual Identities” Graphisme en France, Nr. 23, 2017, Dr. Martin Lorenz