Flexible Visual Systems
Interview by Jarrett Fuller, Scratching the Surface Podcast

Your new book, Flexible Visual Systems, is described as a ‘design manual for contemporary visual identities’. It’s part history, part theory, part practical application. Who is this book for and what do you hope readers get out of it?

Very good question! My intention was to make a book for designers who need to design visual identities for corporations, organizations, institutions, but also events and products. But as soon as the book was out designers from all disciplines became enthusiastic about it. Especially creative coders. Which in retrospect makes a lot of sense because everything in this book could have been coded. It lies in the nature of flexible visual systems that they can be designed with code and that their output can be automated. 

Having said that, I always intended to be open about the use the people make of my approach. In my courses at KABK and ELISAVA, as well as in my book I don’t tell anyone which design tools to use. Design tools come and go, but the design approach I am teaching is here to stay, at least for a while. I strongly encourage the ones who work mostly digital to work analog, and the other way around. Somewhere in between is a huge source of unique design solutions. What makes this approach contemporary is not the technique, but the holistic approach to think and work in systems, rather than in static images. 

You write in the intro that you spent two decades researching and writing this book. The nature of branding in general, and especially the use of flexible systems, has changed dramatically over that time. How are flexible visual systems different now than they were when you started? How did you keep up with the changes in the midst of your research?

You are right. A lot has happened in the last 20 years. You can see that as well in the terminology we use to describe flexible systems. When I started researching nobody was talking about flexible systems for visual identities. They were talking about dynamic, fluid, liquid, evolutive, living and generative identities. Which was very confusing to me and one of the reasons I enrolled in the PhD program. I wanted to know if these were different types of identities and how flexible visual identities work. An important part of my doctoral dissertation was to find the adequate terminology. Terms that make sense and are understood by as many as possible. The rise of user interface design also helped me to find some of the terms I use today.

There was also a time in the beginning of the 2000s when designers developed responsive logos. I refer to this time as a transitional period in between logo-centered identities and flexible visual identities. Designers were told their whole life that a good logo was the centerpiece of a good visual identity. If your design process is “logo first” it is hard to make your identity flexible. People had to rewire their brains to start from a more holistic perspective. But fortunately things have changed drastically. In the last two decades I had a really hard time convincing universities, designers and clients of flexible visual systems and today I just have to bring up the advantages (and possibilities) of responsive web design as an example and everyone gets it. 

Where do you see flexible visual systems going in the future? In branding classes I’ve taught, we’ve speculated how much longer the static logo mark will endure. Do you think we’ll get to a place where all branding is based upon flexible systems you write about?

I think we are already there and if we are not, it’s because we do not embrace the possibilities digital media gives us. I am not saying we need to destroy all logos. I am saying that a system that thinks in all deliverables is more agile in communication. The logo (or symbol) is something that should be generated from the system as anything else and not be its starting point. It is one generated image of many, in most cases the smallest, the profile picture on your social media accounts. I also stopped using the term “branding”. Branding sounds like branding livestock with a hot metal shape, a symbol to identify the owner. That’s not eloquent visual communication. That’s claiming ownership, a real conversation stopper. 

What’s next for you? This book was a big part of your life for two decades. Is there more to explore in this research do are you itching to turn to a new topic?

My next step is offering online courses and webinars on flexiblevisualsystems.info. My teaching has been limited for the last 18 years to Europe, but not everyone has the time and/or money to move to Barcelona or The Hague. I hear this a lot and I never know what to answer them other than: yes, you are right, it is not fair. 

The pandemia opened my eyes that online teaching can be a real opportunity. Since then I have been testing different online teaching methods. I am really comfortable teaching live now, but recording myself for online courses is something that does not come natural to me. In the end I am an introvert and always will be. 

Book recommendations:

After someone reads your book, what book should they read next?

If you haven’t, read all the books of Karl Gerstner who is the giant on whose shoulders I stand. 

What’s a book that’s influenced your research and/or how you thought about your book?

Too many to mention them all, but if I need to pick one, I would pick Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics. 

What fiction book has influenced how you think about design?

I am a huge fan of comics. Just look at the Spirit of Will Eisner. He plays with the reader’s eye by breaking up the order of panels. He understood that a comic (or design) has the power to tell multidimensional stories. You can read from panel to panel, but at the same time read the whole page as one image. A comic is not just a sequence of panels, but a interrelational system of images.

What book are you looking forward to reading next?

The Art of Society by Niklas Luhmann