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.
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?"
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."
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."