Co.Design

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.

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12 Comments

  • YacoRoca

    Great work, I hadn't seen the on-air implementation, really shows how an animated logo can work for a media company.

    Also, quite amused by their choice of playing Rage Against the Machine during the first few seconds... certainly doesn't help the  "not anarchic" statement.

  • Mark Duran

    Wow! I finally found out who 'designed' the Current TV logo. So, now I'm to give you some background and  a little political perspective. Back in 1990 my partner, a friend and I started a direct action political group called Queer Nation. I designed the logo and all their 'marketing collateral'. We xeroxed it on fluorescent stickers that made their way around the world. It was a rally flag for queer people everywhere, translated into dozens of languages and used as graffiti by third world queers. 
    The form of two bars above and below heavy bold type (I used Antique Olive Nord) worked to contain the messages about queer liberation we wanted the world to read. Messages that said that Queers Bash Back, Fight Homophobia, Fight Heterosexual Supremacy, Equality.  The 1000s of members of the group are who defined the logo  personally by wearing the stickers on their bodies and clothes--using it as a caption for their lives. No more closety pink triangles or rainbow buttons, these stickers said what we did and did what we said. It forced people to read our bodies and understand our own personal oppression and our political demands. It was an act of courage to wear a fluorescent sticker proclaiming your personal liberation on the bus or at work. The personal actually was political when you captioned yourself like this. 

    Over the years I've noticed this design form being co-opted first by local San Francisco lefty-political groups at rallies and protests. It made it's way into TV first with the forgettable Northern Lights series and groups like RUN DMC. From the time of it's humble xerographic beginnings the logo became a sign signifying radicalism. It's no wonder that, with its importance to Bay Area politics that Current TV decided to use it's form to define themselves. 

    If you want more info about the logo and Queer Nation, you can visit the archives of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in San Francisco. (http://www.glbthistory.org)

    Thanks,
    Mark Duran

  • mc

    Current's original concept was in large part YouTube before YouTube existed.

    Video cameras were commonplace, but nobody had worked out how to make online video storage cheap.

    Current was primarily an ideological venture, not a commercial one, so appealing to advertisers was always less important than appealing to viewers. Short form video is a popular form - just ask YouTube, MTV or Sesame Street. Or, for that matter, most TV news programs (or channels).

  • Son Dao

    I wholly disagree. I think the Current logo is horrible. Its readability is poor. The animation is not memorable. It reads like a poor execution or mistake in production. Just because it has a Olins behind its design doesn't make it automatically a good design.

    The more I read articles from FastCompany, the more I feel that the writers aren't being analytical about design but are just kissing up and trying to make design a celebrity. It oversimplifies design and degrades the efforts of hard working designers. It is not a popularity contest. FastCompany shouldn't try to be the People magazine of the design business. There are already plenty of rags like that out there already.

  • Vlad Anghene

    I absolutely love the new brand id, it feels organic and active, almose alive :)
    well done

  • Chris Casey

    I've been waiting for the Current rebrand to get a shout out on here.  I think its great. Unfortunately, Wolf Olins was not involved in the set/production design and camera work which is inexcusable atrocious (exposed brick on a news set?  please!  blue curtains on a news set? what is this cable access in the 90s?)  The channel had (has?) so much potential but it seems like no one over there know's what they're doing.  

    The should pick up the phone and call the designers at Clickspring.  Get their studios/news room in order.  ASAP.

  • Leban

    I guess my first comment got pitched by the moderator because it had a link in it :-(

    So I'll be more direct—Can you please provide the "before" image of the prior Current logo? It is mentioned in the article, but no image has been provided for the readers to compare the two. Would seem appropriate for a re-branding ;-)

    Thanks!

  • gaby

    Since last week i am lot allowed to watch the images from the articles of co.create (i can see he icons of the images, but can`t access to the image) who can help me?