The Daily Heller:
Let’s Get Flexible
by Steven Heller
Not all design systems should be strictly formulated; systems have served as the foundation on which graphic design formats for business, editorial and advertising are locked. Today the letterpress term “lock-up” is a finished file. But lock-up is also another word for prison, and prisons encourage breakouts; in the creative arts, why not start with breaking out and progress from there?
Teacher and design veteran Martin Lorenz’s Flexible Visual Systems is the result of 10 years of research at the University of Barcelona, 20 years of developing systems at TwoPoints.net and 18 years of teaching systems at over 10 design universities throughout Europe. (That’s a lot of numbers.) The book that he’s produced (published by Slanted, with the aid of a successful Kickstarter campaign) features 320 freedom-inspired options. He is currently working on a website, online workshops, courses and tutorials, because each media has its own educational benefits to communicate how much creative freedom we (could) have with system design. The works by his students on Instagram, for example, are joyfully experimental.
Owing to COVID confinement, I recently saw the book for the first time and jumped at the opportunity of a distanced interview with Lorenz. Here he talks about the definition and application of this welcome flexibility.
What exactly are “Flexible Visual Systems”?
Flexible visual systems are opposed to rigid visual systems. I started using this term in the beginning of the 2000s to describe visual identities that were not based on a logo, but on a system. A logo can be part of a system too, but a very rigid one. At the end it’s a symbol with a fixed visual message and often with fixed dimensions, too. The only way to deal with a logo is to stick it on your deliverables, to brand them. A system can react flexibly to formally and semantically changing contexts. It can change its form and message adequately. Although the real paradigm shift from static to flexible came with the internet, Karl Gerstner already recognized in the 1960s that the layout itself is enough to make an identity identifiable, that the logo in the bottom-right corner was unnecessary, as he mentioned in an interview with Ulrike Felsing. Today this approach has become the only effective way to deal with the multitude of different communication media available to us.
How long have you been working on this project, and what triggered the book?
Already 20 years ago I had the plan to make this book. Making books is an opportunity for me to learn more about a subject, and I knew that I had to learn more about flexible systems for visual identities. At that time visual identity design was in the middle of a shift from something static to something flexible. Along with many new experimental approaches, new terms popped up, like dynamic-, fluid-, liquid-, generative-, evolutive- and living identities, which was very confusing to me. I wanted to understand if these terms described different types of visual identities, why we needed them and how the design systems worked. But instead of making the book straight away, my partner in life and at TwoPoints.net, Lupi, suggested I should enroll in a doctoral degree in a design research program at the University of Barcelona and do both a Ph.D. and a book. It took me 10 years to finish the dissertation and almost no one read it, I guess. No wonder—it’s 700 pages long and written in Spanish. So I sat down in 2017 with the premise to make a comprehensive but pragmatic book about flexible systems. The book has been out since October 2021 and the response is overwhelming. After a couple of weeks it had sold out and we had to reprint. Something that surprised me was that not just visual designers seemed to appreciate the book, but also creative coders. It somehow seems to build a bridge between classic graphic design and coded design systems.
There is a delightful, almost carnival-esque quality to the patterns, shapes and forms. This is not like a Swiss design systems book from the midcentury days. How do you expect the practitioner to use this?
I am very glad you are making this comparison between mid-20th-century Swiss design and the systems I designed for this book, because this allows me to talk about perceptions and identity. Design systems can take on any aesthetics. They can be minimal, when using few forms and simple grids, or complex, when using many forms and detailed grids. I could have chosen to design much more minimal examples for this book, but I chose not to because identity design is about distinctiveness. How many visual identities have you seen that use big circles, triangles and squares? Hundreds, right? This is a problem similar to the Helvetica crisis in the 20th century or the Blanding crisis from a couple of years ago. Minimal identities become easily indistinctive, ergo invisible. Today we have to go a step further. We have to be more brave about being different. In terms of design systems, this does not necessarily mean to design patterns, although one might get this impression when flipping through my book. In the chapter after the form-based systems, I write about transformation-based systems, which use processes that change photography, graphics or typography. In this second type of flexible systems a transformation becomes the recognizable feature of an identity, not a form. I might want to make this chapter bigger in future editions, so I won’t be pigeonholed as the “pattern” designer. Haha!
Back to your question: How I want practitioners using the form-based approach. I want them to trust their empathy with what the visual language has to feel like and then decide how detailed they want their system to become. Even though the method to develop the visual system stays the same, the perception of the system will change by making it less or more detailed. I also recommend playing with the variable “form.” I used geometric forms, because they are easy to handle with the programs we use, but you could easily use organic forms instead, which will change the aesthetics completely. The system might not even look like a system anymore, which is a good thing, because we still design for humans, not machines.
Are systems ultimately best for design, or is there a downside that you are trying to rectify?
If you only design one single item, you do not need a system. Systems come in handy when you have to design a multitude of deliverables, like in identity design. The application process is much faster (if not even automated) because all the rules on how to design are already defined within the system. Systems also open up the design process to more than one person, because defining a system means making objective rules everyone can comprehend and apply. Systems can have a downside when they are not flexible. They can become harmful if they are not able to evolve and adapt. This starts already in the design of the design process. If your target audience is diverse, your design team needs to be diverse too. System design is not limited to components, grids or assets, but expands to the understanding of how systems influence the result of our actions.
What would you point to as the chief benefit for the designer who uses this book?
From what I can see, read and hear, people seem to feel inspired to implement the processes proposed in this book in their own work, which is huge for me. It means the book was useful to them. Another recurring feedback is that they are impressed with the amount of information in this book. I boiled down 10 years of research and 20 years of experience to 320 pages packed with insights and inspiration. The book is divided into three parts: The first part is a richly illustrated theoretic introduction explaining the past, present and future of flexible systems. It describes how they were used in the past, how they are used today and why they should not just organize formal solutions, but the way we work. The second part is a hands-on, almost purely visual description of how to design flexible systems based on form, starting with a circle, triangle, square, pentagon and hexagon. The third part explains how transformation processes can become flexible systems for visual identities.
I see a lot of playfulness—did you play around while producing this idea?
Playing around is an important part of my process. Without play there is no innovation (or fun). Systems are necessary to make the design work, but without the purely intuitive creative phases in which you forget about rational decisions for a moment, your design will become boring. I always try to design my process like a sandwich, the two slices of bread being the rational parts of the process and the middle being the deliciously intuitive part. In the beginning of the process you need to be rational to understand the communication problem you need to solve, but then you should let intuition take over and let it flow. Intuition is often much quicker and smarter than we tend to think. At the end of the design process you need to be rational again and ask if what you did solves your communication problem and how it will be applied. The slices of bread might seem boring, but they hold the whole thing together.
What would make your your flexible system successful?
A successful design system solves a human communication problem. It should become a visual language we fluently speak. It should allow us to communicate eloquently and adequately. It should be able to evolve as culture evolves. A successful system might not even look like a system.
What is the benefit of a flexible system?
Logos are inarticulate and inflexible. Apart from their formal problems, they also lack the ability to react to changing semantic contexts. That’s why we went from designing a symbol with one message to designing a visual language that can express many messages. Having said that, at the moment we still need the logo as a “home” button and a profile picture on social media.
Is a system able to evolve?
When visual identities will be made evolvable (open systems vs. redesigns), either systems need to become more open or identity designers need to become lifelong companions of their clients (interbrands brand cycle). System design also questions ownership, because any one part of the system influences the system. The recipient becomes the sender and vice versa. If ownership is questioned, to whom belongs the visual language?
How do you follow up on this?
Complementary to the book I am working on a website, online workshops, courses and tutorials, because each media has its own educational benefits and I see I need to use them all to communicate how much creative freedom we (could) have with system design. The works by my students at the KABK, for example, are very experimental.
Steven Heller has written for Print since the 1980s. He is co-chair of SVA MFA Designer as Entrepreneur. The author, co-author and editor of over 200 books on design and popular culture, he is the recipient of the Smithsonian Institution National Design Award for “Design Mind,” the AIGA Medal for Lifetime Achievement and other honors. He was a senior art director at the New York Times for 33 years and a writer of obituaries and book review columnist for the Times. His memoir, Growing Up Underground (Princeton Architectural Press) will be published in 2022.