We’ve been talking a lot recently about the flexibility of design systems in the context of ubiquitous access to image manipulation software and social media—it’s a reality potentially filled with potent toxins for rigid brand systems.

Even flexible brand systems—say JetBlue’s variable livery designs, or 2×4’s logotype for the Brooklyn Museum—require skill and finesse to develop and manage. They’re flexible, but not accessible…so they don’t really confront our new reality.

One aspect of that reality is that the logo—as sacrosanct standard bearer of the brand message—is growing ever more vulnerable to misinterpretation and reinterpretation (not to mention recontextualization). While mega-brands like Google and Coca-Cola might be able to withstand, or even thrive upon, occasional hijinks and folk interpretations, not many identities possess the ubiquity for such feats of stamina; they’d emerge from the experiment diluted or destroyed.

People are tech-savvy these days, even if they’re not visually savvy. They may not intend harm, but they will—with the best of intentions—cut’n’paste, scale, color, crop, and even redraw logos as they see fit. There’s not much to be done about that…unless we can start designing logos—or, perhaps more aptly phrased, “visual grammars”—that embrace the vulnerability that technology has foisted upon them.

Can we come up with visual systems that busy, tech-savvy (or not) people without the time or inclination to read a brand standards guide can intuitively understand, recreate, embrace, and promulgate?

One possibility is a flexible, rules-based system that doesn’t rely on proprietary software, images, or even colors; but instead presents a formula that embraces variety while delimiting possibility.

The rules would have to be simple enough for anybody to follow, and require no special technology (or, for that matter, any digital technology at all). But, they’d have to produce an outcome that, upon repeated applications of the rules, was always recognizable while being almost always unique (Sol Lewitt comes to mind as a parallel in the art world).

On the spur of the moment, here’s a quick test of the idea. A set of rules for my monogram (ASB); let’s see if it works…

  1. “a” and “b” should be in lower case; “s” in upper case.
  2. all three letters should be white and contained within a red shape.

Can I break it? Here goes!

monogram

Did I break it? Can you?