Lesson 1:
What is an identity?

Let’s start with the biggest question of all. What is an identity? Everyone speaks about identities and everyone seems to have a different definition of what an identity is, how we gain it, and if we gain it at all or are born with it. I want to start this course with five controversial statements.

Identities are illusions

Left: Pexels Lisa Fotios — Right: Martin Lorenz, 2024

“The self is not the source of the thought, but the thought is the source of self,” said the quantum physicist David Bohm, talking about the teachings of Krishnamurti. In other words, identity is an illusion, the result of the isolation of our embodied thinking, and the wish/need to relate to others. The illusion stands against the reality, that everything in this world is connected and nothing can be separated from another. In this dialectical relationship, identities will never be static but adapt flexibly in interaction with their environment.

Identities are stories instrumental to society-building

Left: The New York Public Library Unsplash — Right: Martin Lorenz, 2024

The moment individuals come together to form a group they need to agree on something they will identify with, a reason why they would form a group. They need to believe in a story, as Yuval Harari would say. The stories of money, science, religions, philosophies, cultures, countries, political systems, emotional states, physical features, etc. … anything solving a societal problem and simple enough to be told to others, can become a story. It is important to understand identities as stories because not everything is a story. Stories are made by us. Stories can change. Money, for example, is a very successful story, because we all believe in it. We assign real value to this story, represented by paper, metal discs, and numbers on a screen. We can exchange goods and services that otherwise would not be traded. Understanding that money is a made-up story, allows us to understand that we could live without money or that it could evolve into something else. Other things, like air or water, are not a story. We can not live without air or water. Not being able to see what is a story and what is not a story alienates us from what is real. The dissonance between story and reality harms everything around us and ultimately ourselves.

Identities live beyond the individuals

Left: Pexels Franz Herrmann — Right: Martin Lorenz, 2024

Harari uses the car company Peugeot as an example of the power of a story. The story of Peugeot grew so strong that the technology, the factories, the workers, and even the founders could change, without losing that power. The company’s identity became more important than the individual’s identity. As with money, the story would not have been successful if it had not been easy to understand, remembered, and passed on to others. The name had to be easy to pronounce, with which values it has been associated had to be easy to tell to others, and, since we increasingly communicate through visual media, the visual representation of it had to be easily remembered, to a degree it could be even reproduced by anyone. A successful story can live beyond its inventors.

Identity is a process between attraction and repulsion

Left: F.E. Austin, 1916 — Right: Martin Lorenz, 2024

We need embodied thought to be able to see. Niklas Luhmann, the sociologist, defined identity as the foreground that is different from the background and therefore becomes visible. An identity that is not different from its environment is invisible and therefore not existent. The need to become visible creates automatically an ongoing process of attraction and repulsion. You want to belong to certain markets or communities, but also be distinct from your competitors or fellow organizations. You may collaborate, but you would not give up your identity if you do not want to be absorbed by it. There is no co-existence of similar identities. Being absorbed is not necessarily a bad thing. In a discussion, two opposite ideas may be absorbed by a new, evolved and stronger idea, that was born out of this discussion. But if the ideas would not have been formulated, manifested in something perceivable they could not have been discussed in the first place.

You can not have no identity

Left: Pexels Ahmad Qime — Right: Martin Lorenz, 2024

You can not have no identity if you want to exist for someone else and the perception of someone else of you is not your perception of yourself. The last point brings us to the distinction between Identity and Image. The identity is our proposal to the world, but the image is how it is perceived by the world. If we depend on a customer, consumer, voter, audience, etc. we constantly compare identity with image and try to achieve the highest possible overlap between the both. An ambition that Luhmann would have called quite unlikely to achieve, but necessary to attempt. It is our goal as designers to make this attempt as likely as possible. If you can not have no identity, it better be the one you identify with.

Lesson 1: What is an Identity?
Lesson 2: Identity Vs Image
Lesson 3: What is a Visual Identity?
Lesson 4: What is a Visual System?
Lesson 5: Change of Approach
Lesson 6: How do FVS work?
Lesson 7: The FVS Model
Lesson 8: The FVS Manifesto explained