Recently, IDEO kicked off an initiative to overhaul its identity system.

The effort, Brand New IDEO, started with day-long make-a-thons at each of the firm’s ten offices around the globe.

What’s more is that they did it in public--posting all of the brainstormed ideas on a Tumblr for all to see.

But the firm’s designers weren’t just told to think about new frontiers for IDEO. The plan was to push the envelope for identity systems altogether.

Or, as Michael Hendrix, the director of IDEO’s Boston studio and the designer spearheading the effort puts it, it’s a search for an identity system that might not just communicate presence but intent, too.

Co.Design

To Create The Future Of Brand Identity, Ideo Looks Inward

The trailblazing firm is knee deep in a massive, all-hands project to rebrand itself—and it’s doing it in public.

On March 25, the designers at each of Ideo’s 11 international offices put their other projects aside and spent the day thinking about Ideo. The aim was to brainstorm a new identity system—the second time it’s been overhauled since the firm was founded in 1991—and the ideas, which can be viewed on a Tumblr dedicated to the project, took many forms. There were experimental business cards and animated GIFs, handmade crafts and polished mini-movies. One designer envisioned a "biannual cosmic event," in which an "optical obelisk" would project a massive Ideo logo on a nearby building on the days of the vernal and autumnal equinox.

All of the proposals have something to do with Ideo—they reflect its outlook, its ethos, its employees, or its services—but at the same time, they’re all reaching towards something greater, too. And that was the point. The brief the designers received that morning didn’t just ask them to come up with a new identity system for Ideo. It asked them to come up with a new way of thinking about corporate identity altogether.

INTENT, NOT JUST PRESENCE

Traditionally, identity systems have had the straightforward but crucial role of communicating presence. They mark territory. The goal of Brand New Ideo, as the initiative is called, is to think about what else they might be able to do as we move into the future. Or, as Michael Hendrix, the director of Ideo’s Boston studio and the designer spearheading the effort puts it, it’s a search for an identity system that might not just communicate presence but intent, too.

Hendrix put the challenge to me metaphorically, with the firm represented by a person with a wardrobe full of outfits. "There’s you, the person, and you have your full identity in yourself," he says. "But you know contextually when to wear certain things. You might wear one thing to a funeral, you might wear one thing for a Saturday night. You understand those contexts. And those never change your identity, so to speak, but they do start to communicate some kind of intent. And that’s what we’re trying to figure out right now. How do you create some kind of contextual mirror to create intent."

In more concrete terms, Hendrix is searching for an identity that can help convey what mode Ideo is in, so to speak, in a given situation—whether it’s being fun or serious, curious or authoritative; whether it’s asking you a question or offering you a solution. That means coming up with an identity that’s flexible and adaptable and expressive—something that might be more aptly described as a platform than a system.

For a company as varied as Ideo, that type of flexibility makes sense. "We’ve become far more diverse in personalities, and disciplines, and capabilities, and geography," Hendrix explains. "And having a monolithic face doesn’t feel appropriate anymore."

But it’s an important pursuit in a broader sense, simply because of how much our conception of brands has changed in the last 10 or 20 years—and how much our technology has changed over that same period. "Monolithic solutions are a necessity of yesterday, because of the permanence and cost of communication," Hendrix wrote in his opening remarks for the project. "Now we’re in an ephemeral and affordable age, and mass distribution at low cost is possible thanks to the digital revolution."

Complex, dynamic logo marks have been one way of pushing back against that monolithic tradition—Ideo’s current mark, with its infinitely configurable blocks, was an early example—but Hendrix thinks there’s a more substantive direction to take. "The digital revolution let us make more complex identity systems, but what’s the point?," he says. "At some point, you start asking, 'why do I need 10,000 configurations of a mark? What’s it really saying to me?"

A PROCESS THAT REFLECTS THE OUTCOME

This all might sound dangerously abstract—and, right now, it is. Which is in part why Ideo enlisted not just one group of designers but every employee on its staff to lend a hand in finding the way forward. Ultimately, the firm decided it was important the process reflect the outcome they hoped for: inclusive, flexible, and transparent.

But in this case, where the aim was particularly nebulous, that initial 24-hour Make-a-Thon sprint was invaluable simply as a way to get the ball rolling.

"That’s been the greatest part about this whole process to me, the speed at which we’re going through it," Hendrix says. "It forces us to follow our instinct, it forces us to communicate quickly with one another. [Because] you can overthink it. And going at a fast past, and doing it with so many people, you can get to a pretty good idea quickly, without getting yourself caught in some kind of cyclical puzzle."

The next step will involve a smaller team, drawing from the pool of ideas that emerged in the brainstorming sessions. But the process will remain an open one, with milestones reported to the public along the way. And they plan to keep up the pace in the next phase; the team hopes to have settled on a rough idea for the new platform in about a month’s time.

Hendrix says they’re still not sure how things will shake out, but there were some patterns among the brainstormed ideas that seemed promising. The signature Ideo blocks turned out to be a surprisingly expressive medium, and they’ll likely remain the visual basis for the identity. The novelty might come in what’s inside of them.

"The concepts that stood out to us were the ones that provided some kind of contextual mirror or window," Hendrix says. "So sometimes you can see the world through the blocks; sometimes they’re a stamp in the world." Depending on where they’re being deployed, they could show you a certain color palette that’s regionally significant, say, or traffic patterns based on your city.

Another promising trend that emerged was the abundance of animations and short videos. "We didn’t really anticipate that," Hendrix says, "That’s got us pretty excited as well … What I would hope is that we get simpler in projecting the meaning of something. That may not be visually simpler. It actually might be more complex than we’ve seen."

A HINT OF WHAT’S NEXT

Imagine it’s 15 years in the future, and you’re wearing Google Glass 3.0. The spectacles have matured far beyond their awkward picture-in-picture beginnings, now offering something much closer to true augmented reality. It’s a strange new hybrid world. You glance at a subway station and see an overlay of how long until the next train arrives. You look at a dog, wonder what type it is, and a voice in your ear identifies it as a Thai Ridgeback. Of course, commerce has kept apace. A window display at Macy’s comes to life when you look in its direction; a virtual billboard on top of the Starbucks facade rotates through a half dozen drink specials.

This future, or one like it, isn’t hard to fathom. But here’s something that’s a bit harder to pin down: What does the logo on that Starbucks look like?

That’s one of the things Hendrix hopes this project will get his designers to start considering. "We haven’t had to think about responsive identities," he says. "We haven’t had to think about time or space. And I think those will all become more important dimensions."

"The complexity of this conversation to this point has been: 'Do we animate or do we not animate?'" he continues. But augmented reality—or really any interactive digital space in which a brand tries to do something more than simply announce its presence—poses all sorts of challenges. "How do you express [a mark] physically and digitally? What kind of life does it have? How is it born in that moment, and how does it go away? How does it tell you why it’s there? Those are all really interesting questions."

But to see it as simply a matter of whiz-bang animated logos is too shortsighted. What Ideo’s really searching for is a better way of communicating in general—an identity system flexible enough to work in countless new situations, across myriad channels. "It’s a complex idea, but I think it’s actually a more human idea," Hendrix says. "And that’s what we’re trying to work towards; a more human way of expressing identity."

See more work from the Brand New Ideo brainstorms here.

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11 Comments

  • edbe

    all great and inspiring i think for the people internally but it also was/is a bet for ideo itself - without knowing what comes out of it but still going public with it. because it's still way to timid in forward thinking i truly hope that this will not diminish potential client's hope to find great stuff at ideo...

    id 15 years from now can indeed still be rather classic (we humans are classic beasts that need steadiness somewhere), but it can also be something that is just not visible anymore - brands merge into people lives so much that little-by-little the visual side of brands disappear, evolving into part of each person's identity. meet-a-person, know-her-brands-kind of thinking... if we humans would have embraced the e.g. nike 'just do it' message, then we would have seen people 'just doing it', while (we) thinking: "s/he's a true nike person"... no need for logos, labels or emblems.

    now THAT might be an idea IDEO can hang their coats on !

  • Neno

    we ran even more interesting social media driven identity development project in the middlefinger east. unfortunately it's way too confidential to talk about at this stage.
    all I... pardon, we... can say it involves martians, spring break and frozen yoghurt. but it's interesting. trust me. no, really... it is.

  • ORE Agency

    We ran a very interesting social media driven identity development project in the middle east, but unfortunately the project is too confidential to talk about at this stage.

  • OJTien

    Isn't their new logo very similar to the "Mad Men" Sterling Cooper Draper Price Logo?

  • Uomo Dirinascita

    While it's impressive that IDEO is finding a way to engage their whole community in this effort I'd suggest it is not the best use the collective firms time and energy. If IDEO is training the entire organization on this as a "big" problem there are certainly other problems in my mind more pressing in a realm of human concern than the IDEO logo.

    I believe this article should also have included the opinions of non-IDEO experts in identity design to "round out" several of the (in my mind passe) assumptions and proclamations made. Many of the concepts described actually entered mainstream design years ago and are not in fact as new or experimental as they are made to sound here. 

    A well executed brand identity system is by it's very nature be flexible and adaptable. Corporate storefronts on historic streets and neighborhoods come to mind, where all the signage is homogenized within a visual historic standard. Even in these adaptive or "responsive" situations the identities that tend to perform best are so simple and iconic out of the gate. They adapt with ease, whether they are chiseled into an "old school" sign or shown on a high-end digital display and yet still do the simple job they are tasked with: identifying the organization and accepting meaning over time.

    It's no wonder Paul Rand (who designed the original IDEO logo, along with the ABC and IBM logos) and other pioneers where actually inspired by the simple, timeless quality of Shaker design. In that way, broadly characterizing such efforts as "monolithic" seems a bit abrupt to say the least. I would actually describe them as "elegant" as they attempt to take on all the complexities of accepting meaning with a simple, flexible solution that can flex as the organization changes. Learning from the success of such efforts graphic designers and brand identity experts have been consistently shifting from identities from "projecting meaning", to "accept meaning" for years. Those who took this approach have been obviously been very well served thus I'm not even sure if identity which is dynamic would have many advantages at all.

    IDEO's efforts seem a bit over intellectualized here. I'll reserve judgement until the effort is completed but I can't help but feeling that IDEO might have been better served by assigning this to their best in-house identity design experts. That may not have gotten them write ups but it seems more prudent given the initial goals, strategy and intent described.

  • Koel Das

    This is like Deja Vu. I looked up the IDEO brand logo yesterday for inspiration. Was happy to see that it was simple but wasn't inspired. In fact at one point it seemed to be lacking in effort.
    Today I get to read this and I am like Wow! Also loved to know the process details for getting to discover their identity.