An Ingenious, Radical Branding Campaign, Lost In Current TV's Woes

Designed by Wolff Olins, Current TV’s dynamic logo is every bit as revolutionary as the network should’ve been.

Current TV’s struggles could be called legion, if not for the awkward fact that you might not know it exists. A progressive network co-founded by Al Gore seven years ago, it should’ve been to television what The Nation or Mother Jones is to magazines. Instead, Current has made a string of terrible decisions: Most recently, it sacked its brightest star, mouthy liberal pundit Keith Olbermann (though you might say the bigger mistake was hiring him in the first place). But here’s one thing it got right: its animated logo, by branding giant Wolff Olins.

The logo frames "CURRENT" in a black flag that waves gently in the wind. This is brilliant imagery for two reasons. First, there’s the obvious historical association with radical politics. Black flags have symbolized revolution and defiance (black being the antithesis to the familiar white flag of surrender) since the early days of modern anarchism. (Wolff Olins, for the record, denies any overt reference to anarchy, which we find hard to believe. More on that later.) Second, it tackles a common challenge in logo design today: Logos have to look good and stand out on multiple media platforms, from web to TV to print. A fluttering flag solves that problem by representing 3-D motion in a simple 2-D silhouette. The logo literally pops—but not so much that it obscures the brand. No matter how the flag waves, you can always tell it says "Current."

The flag is far cry from Current TV’s old logo. A crowd-sourced design, it was crudely pixelated with a blinking green cursor that screamed dot-matrix backwardness from the mainframe era. Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt started Current TV in 2005 as a progressive antidote to the shrill cynicism of existing cable news networks. But the chosen format—short, crowd-sourced videos designed to highlight global politics in a democratic way—didn’t exactly enrapture viewers, and it left advertisers scratching their heads. In a weird way, the old logo was the perfect representation of the cloudy logic on which the network was founded.

In 2010, Current TV hired Wolff Olins to rethink its visual identity. The rebranding plans coincided with a leadership change—Hyatt was replaced by Mark Rosenthal, a former MTV COO—and a shift from the short-video format to traditional TV-programming blocks. Wolff Olins began the rebranding conversation around the name itself. "We’re lucky we had such a great word, ‘current’ to work with. It means so many things," Wolff Olins creative director Jordan Crane tells Co.Design. "Current can be electrical, it’s water, it’s a wave, it’s what’s now."

Then, Wolff Olins started thinking about how it could visualize the network’s brand values. They are "raw editorial, non-designed, honest, relevant, eye-to-eye journalism," according to Crane. "Everything we did should communicate that aspect of current-ness: showing movement, provoking a response, a feeling of electricity … There’s nothing more symbolically powerful than a flag flying—and when you apply the word ’current’ to a flag, it feels immediately opinionated."

He demurs at any association with iconoclastic imagery. The monochrome color palette is "more about journalism—being clear, putting the focus on the editorial, letting the [channel’s] content be the color," he says. It’s a plausible, but thin explanation, given the historical significance of black flags. We suspect Current—which declined to be interviewed for this story—wants to distance itself from anything overtly radical, and for one obvious reason: advertising. Imagine Nike and Pepsi throwing dollars at a network that openly admits its logo was inspired by the traditional symbol of anarchy.

Why animate the flag? "This is a television channel, first and foremost," says Crane. In theorizing an identity "you always have the opportunity for movement. With a name like Current, if we can represent that visually, then we’re doing our job." The Wolff Olins team took the unusual step of animating the logo in 3-D first, then extracting a 2-D static version from that moving image. After printing the logo on actual bed sheets and flying those, the team eventually worked with a digitally flying flag whose flutter they could control. "Readability was definitely an issue," says Crane. "Some iterations were too obvious, others not readable enough."

What they ended up with is branding at its aspirational finest: a clever visualization of what the product should have been and of a media niche that still badly needs to be filled. It’s hard to imagine Olbermann’s abrupt departure boding well for Current. (Olbermann is now threatening to sue the network for false claims.) But you never know. Maybe Current will rise again—its smart, archly anarchic flag leading the way.