Visual identity

We live at a time when the eye is challenging all other sensory input. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan (1964) argues that the media forms we use are the most important things that fashion our very being – not so much because of the information they carry but because they force us to comprehend the world in a particular way. Oral society values memory above all because it is, in oral society, the chief form of information storage and record. Print replaced the value of memory with the written or typeset word as the chief form of retention. Digital and electronic media replace the word with less permanent sorts of recording more likely to be aural and visual than text-based.

If McLuhan can divide up history according to media types, then it is obvious that our different senses have been in a state of flux – even in our own lifetimes. Martin Jay (1993) has written his outstanding critique Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought on the way a major body of influential literature has chosen to undervalue the visual compared with the textual in terms of its credibility and legitimacy. Jay is responding to a general paucity of modern theory that regards the visual as having conceptual legitimacy compared to other ways of recording evidence, such as the word, whose descriptions are much more likely to form the basis of ideas formed through the amassing of descriptive evidence.

Nevertheless, we exist in an age dominated by new visual media and our eyes are being called on increasingly to make sense of a world not written but visual in terms of its primary presentation of phenomena. Just as often, these images are not static but moving and transitory and therefore exist over time; an increasingly ephemeral phenomenon that no doubt further downgrades its legitimacy as material evidence. Often the design of text is ignored in exactly the same way – as not really being part of the content. This is why that whole ‘designer as author’ debate (touched on in the previous unit) is so relevant. Design is important for lots of reasons, the most significant of which is to give visual identity. Visual identity however must be understood to exist on many levels. Sometimes identity is gained through difference or opposition, often because it creates unity, and often it is most powerful because of its absence.

Visual language and the elements of graphic design

When we use the word language, then we are always implying structure. These issues were more fully developed in GRAP2087, but it is necessary to reiterate here that a language always implies a shared and structured set of signs and symbols which, when exchanged between senders and receivers, transmit meaning. And so we spoke about grammar that relates to the meaning of the written word and is concerned with ‘correct’ or ‘best’ usage in order to create particular meaning.

Visual language can be understood as working in exactly the same way. However, to talk of a visual ’grammar’ is not so easy, because no such precise structure as a set of rules exists in the visual realm. However, as designers, many of you will know that you have been taught ‘how’ to do certain things through being shown the ‘best’ way to operate – that a certain amount of space should always exist on a page; never to write in all capital script fonts; not to run text too close to the trim etc. etc. All of these things are grammatical, but can you go to a book of grammar? Yes, and no! All those ‘how to’ design books are in fact ‘books of grammar’; they are teaching us what works best (in someone or other’s point of view) in a particular form of communication. Do they regard the audience as being sufficiently important? Probably not. Do they teach you about the appropriateness of a particular application to a particular piece of design? No. Do they teach you anything about the visual language of design? Yes, probably all those coded bits – that in graphic design much of what we do follows traditions and generally conforms to expectations that leave only details to the imagination and creativity of the designer.

It should be expected by you, now, that you need some theoretical devices in order to talk about, analyze and develop visual language in a systematic way. As a starting point I recommend that you adopt semiotic analysis in order to understand the visual language of graphic design. (Again, these ideas are dealt with more fully in GRAP2087) Semiotics sees language (or visual communication) as a relationship of signs, which in juxtaposition create particular sorts of meaning that ultimately depend upon the reader for deciphering. (Read Barthes' Myth Today and some relevant chapters of Chandler's Semiotics for Beginners for an introduction to semiotic analysis.) Each type of communication, however, puts combinations of signs together in different formation. For this reason, when I was analyzing graphic design in my PhD thesis, I developed five (I would now expand that to six) graphic design elements, each of which are a sign, which, in combination with the other elements, create meaning. The five elements are space, typography, image, colour and materials of presentation. The sixth element I would add, in order to cope with animation and movement in digital design, is time.

Each of the design elements brings with it its own history and tradition and so contains different kinds of signification. Readings exploring the characteristics and meaning of each of the design elements are part of Module 2 (which should mean that I don’t need to go into any further elaboration here), but it is important to remember these when you think of visual language, because they clearly point to particular formations of elements that will be most appropriate if particular meanings are intended. The following might work as a summary:


Learning Activity 2.1

Visual language journal

Start to assemble a visual journal of design elements, taking care to cover every inflection of meaning that might be present in those design elements. Try and differentiate between meanings that might be contained in sign-elements in their own right, and those that are only ascribed through juxtaposition.

Assemble the visual signs on the conference area of the WebBoard, using the design elements as categories; annotate each one briefly, followed by your initials. Feel free to make comment or expand on others' contribution. Start with your initials when you do that.


Pictographic and other symbols

Strictly speaking, graphic designers deal only with signs and symbols. Every aspect of the design elements gives a particular type of meaning to the signs we make and use in relationship, one sign with another/others, so new meanings are formed through juxtaposition. It is this ‘interaction of meaning’ that forms through juxtaposition that Judith Williamson calls ‘a currency of signs’ (Williamson, J. 1978). Changing the colour of text, for instance, can alter its meaning and emphasis. Putting it over a photograph can give it a different meaning altogether. Somehow the graphic designer becomes a master of these complexities and we probably do so just as we and writers learn to write by speaking and practising the use of language in our everyday life.

There are three main categories of signs in semiotics – symbols/symbolic signs, icons/iconic signs and index/indexical signs. (Read about these in Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners, pp8-12) Notice how some signs are a lot more specific and inflexible in meaning than others. Some have to be learned. Others are made purely through association but still might be strictly (as in a portrait) or only loosely (as in a footprint) applied.


Learning Activity 2.2

Visual language journal

You have started the assembly of a visual journal of design elements, and now I want you to find the best examples of symbolic, iconic and indexical signs. Again, try and differentiate between meanings that might be contained in signs in their own right, and those that are ascribed through juxtaposition. Try and hunt out some signs that might be national in the sense that they might only relate to your national culture or language.

Assemble the visual signs on the conference area of the WebBoard, using the three sign types as categories. Annotate each one briefly, followed by your initials. Feel free to make comment or expand on others’ contribution. Start with your initials when you do that.


Commercial and social functions

Graphic designers might produce signs for any number of reasons. In image making (and I am thinking particularly of illustration here, the way it is used in publication design) the signs we use, invent and juxtapose might very likely belong to the whole culture and language of which we are a part. In most cases, however, formally trained graphic designers work in commercial studios where our main function is to become the voice of commercial business. Creating corporate identity is not much different from giving identity to anything else except that it must communicate to as wide a public as possible, not go out of date and seem sufficiently credible and serious to represent an entity of permanence and integrity, even if it is selling toilet brushes.

The logo has become a dirty word of late – through Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2001). Naomi Klein describes, in the logo, a phenomenon far more powerful than the product it is attached to. This is why the logo has become the ubiquitous T-shirt symbol. The logo’s powerful presence is enough to signify wealth, ownership and prestige regardless of what it is attached to. By claiming this, Klein is turning on its head the claim by Marc English in Designing Identity that -

‘A logo derives its meaning from the quality of the thing it symbolizes, not the other way around.

A logo is less important than the product it signifies; what it means is more important than what it looks like.’ (English 1998:11)

Not all logos are of course of the corporate kind with a global reach. But in a sense, we can learn from the global brands some truths about logo design generally. The Nike ‘swoosh’, for instance, is figurative yet abstract. Probably it would be recognized by a huge majority of the world’s population and in itself it doesn’t mean anything except that it signifies an idea that is Nike. Beyond that it might signify success (probably sporting success), ‘just do it’, maybe specific items e.g. track shoes, and maybe sporting celebrities and young healthy bodies. Not a bad referent system for one sign!

Certainly, after looking at some of the famous brands, simplicity has to be understood as a virtue. An eye-catching simplicity seems to work as a memory prompt more efficiently than something altogether too complex. One of the greatest of American designers, Paul Rand, attributed the following virtues to an effective logo:

While it is difficult to design these values into a logo design, it is certainly worth considering this list of qualities when trying to judge our success in logo design. Towards these commercial ends, the graphic designer uses usually at least two of the following three formal types of sign formation:

  1. Logos
  2. Logos are visual symbols that are often abstracted forms based on geometric or more fully abstract shapes that may have their origin in geometry, art or nature. Logos initially depend upon the inspiration of the motivating product and/or organization that initiates its design. In many ways it is a modern equivalent of a flag or heraldic sign, and as such is generally meant to inspire the viewer with admiration, respect and even power. So logos can have their origin in figurative symbols such as badges or heraldic devices. Stone masons’ marks were some of the earliest forms of logos – although they were sometimes derivative of letterforms. Many organizations, institutions or businesses may have used heraldic devices that were originally family coats of arms. As these entities grew or developed over many years, the heraldic devices were sometimes modernized or changed, but they continued to be purely symbolic or abstract in content – they were symbols and had no figurative reference.

    Many modern organizations, whether they be commercial, government or institutional, make use of abstract shapes or forms as their logo. The purely abstract logo form has grown with the development of more sophisticated company structures and global business functions; indeed many corporations favour logos in this abstract form because it is hard to symbolize the diverse nature of some organizations’ activities. For the same sort of reasons logos of this type are conceived for banks and financial institutions.

    Recognition of these abstracted logo styles sometimes rests on a sophisticated corporate identity plan which ensures consistency of use across numerous applications from print to signage and from uniforms to products.

    Many logos or symbols have gained strong meaning through association and universal usage. Logos such as the swastika is forever associated with the Nazis, although not originally; the Red Cross, Star of David and Mercedes logos also fall into this category. Nike is an excellent example of global identity marketing. The VW logo is almost a mark that has lost its significance as letterforms – it bridges the divide between logo and logotype. National flags could be interpreted as logos in that they represent the identity of a country and most are completely abstract.

    In postmodern times it would also seem to be advantageous that a logo work across cultural realms that connect with national cultures and dialects. But there are exceptions. With logos like Coca-Cola you could argue the opposite case and claim that a dominant culture has every right and opportunity to use its logo as a symbol of imperialist advancement. But generally speaking, abstract geometry and nature provide the most universal iconography for logo development. Logos should provide some universal and rich semiotic connotations that inspire confidence and dependability, especially if their invention is for a commercial or institutional application. Donis A. Dondis writes about logos as particular sorts of symbols:

    ‘A symbol (logo) must capture and display the spirit of the company, activity, or group to which it refers. The basic design of the symbol is where that character is established. If the structure underlying the design is in perfect balance, then it would be fair to assume the organization it represents is solid, dependable, steady. Such an effect is appropriate for a bank.’ (Dondis 1981:82-83)

    Logos are usually composed of two major parts: the logo mark which should connote the organization name or identity through association with its owning organization over time, and a logotype, which is a typographic form usually of a special, or at least specified typeface. These two parts are usually juxtaposed in a specified spatial relation though this might not be essential or at least be minor in comparison to the identity created by the two physical entities.

  3. Logo mark
  4. A logo mark is pictographic (either figurative or non-figurative), generally having a strong connection to a natural, cultural or national symbol usually rendered stylistically.

    The logo mark generally represents the organization’s activities through the use of a recognizable figurative motive that ‘says’ what the organization makes or the services it provides – the ‘wool mark’ is an example. The vast majority of figurative logo marks are signs that represent the ‘idea of the company’ through its products or services, but they do not have direct significance to those products or services.

    The Shell symbol is unmistakably a symbol for petrol but has nothing to do with petrol per say, and the Apple logo is recognized universally for what it represents. The London underground logo, the flying red horse of Mobil … all communicate the company identity without being directly about the organization’s activities.

    Many figurative logo marks work as ‘metaphorical signs’. In other words, they represent an idea that the organization wants to convey. Many insurance companies have used an umbrella as a logo mark representing protection, alternatively it may be an open hand. In a similar fashion the image of barbed wire around the burning candle is recognizable by many as the logo mark for Amnesty International, the metaphor for imprisonment and hope.

    Many logo marks are a continuance of an historical meaning – the sword and serpent representing doctors, for instance. Most people know what the logo means, but not its origins. The symbol of the crown is used in many countries with constitutional monarchies to represent government.

  5. Logotype
  6. Logotype is usually distinctively typographic in form and origin. Often a logotype will utilize a specially designed or modified typeface.

    The vast majority of marks fall into this category. Many express the name of the organization in a distinctive typographic style. Some use only initials and sometimes logotypes are used in conjunction with a symbol or logo. Typical of logotypes that work on their own as distinctive letterforms are Coca-Cola, Ford, Perrier, Ikea, Pirrelli, Canon and more. These are also brands as well as company logos, so they serve a double purpose, the most important in the retail marketplace.

    It is worth remembering that the style and design of logotypes carry an important message in communicating the personality of the organization. This is conveyed mainly in the design of the letterforms, e.g. bold and modern like 3M, Texaco or Mobil for high tech or industrial know-now. Friendly and foody is the style for Nestle, Pizza Hut and Red Rooster. Fashionable and stylish in Yves Saint Laurent and Cartier.

    Many logo marks are acronyms or initials – shortened company names that in many cases most have forgotten … BMW, VW, IBM, 3M … nonetheless the company identity is unambiguous.

    Some logotypes are fixed closely to a symbol – McDonalds, HMV, Lacoste, for instance. In most cases both can stand alone and not lose their meaning but generally they are used together: name and logo working as a powerful identity. On the other hand, the Nike ‘swoosh’ no longer needs its brand name to make its powerful message obvious, as it has advanced to a position of complete image penetration.

    Many logotypes are based on historic originals. This is true in industries where a tradition of quality is important. Guiness Beer and Carlsberg Beer, Cartier, Harrods, Rolls Royce, for instance. Many wine and beer makers create a strong connection to heraldic origins in their logotypes.

Identity systems in marketing and communications

The logo, logo mark and logotype are codes that can be deciphered as an idea or message. This code can be specific to a small audience or a large audience but the meaning of the code should always be consistent.

Logos can form part of an identity system; this system can be large or small, simple or complex, local or international, and can be part of a communication and marketing plan.

This plan may be directed to a specific targeted audience or to a mass audience.

The logo for a small business may appear only on a letterhead and business card, but the importance of the logo in conveying the personality and style of that business is just as vital to the operator of that business as a logo for a global corporation may be to its chief executive.

The difference is scale – a large company will need to control how its logo or identity is used in order to ensure its effectiveness. Consistency of use is the key to effective corporate identity. Most large organizations have a codified plan of how the logo or identity is applied across the organization – in print, in marketing and advertising, as signage on its buildings and vehicles, on its workers’ uniforms … the list can go on.

Logos can become imbued with real financial value – this is true of brands as well, and many companies put a value on their identity as an asset on their balance sheet. The quality of a company’s products, its reputation with customers and suppliers – how well they are treated –and the consistency of these qualities are all major components of reputation.

Reputation resides in the visual representation of a company or organization, just as much as it does with products and services, the staff and the executives. The customers and ultimately the public at large have a mental impression of an organization the moment they see the logo; there is no other additional visual or verbal message required.

Brand identity

A brand is by its very nature a visual identity. A brand can exist as a name but the mention of a name will immediately trigger a visual recognition. To say Shell, McDonalds or Ford will cause the listener to see in their mind’s eye the brand image. This is obviously most true of mass-market brands.

Logos or logo marks can represent the identity of a company or organization or they can be a brand and very often both. Coca-Cola or Nike spring to mind as company identities as well as brands.

It is most often the case that brands are logotypes and one only has to look around an office or a kitchen, let alone a supermarket, to recognize this fact. There are some brands that have acquired almost total recognition and do not need to be logotypes but only logos, once again Nike is obvious but so too is Mercedes and Diners Club, although this group is very small.

‘ … a brand is the intangible sum of a product’s attributes, its name, packaging and price, its history, reputation and the way it is advertised. A brand is also defined by the consumer’s impressions of the people who use it, as well as their own experience.’ David Ogilvy (requoted in Superbrands. Superbrands Pty Ltd 1999:11)

The reputation of a brand rests on the attributes David Ogilvy sets out, and in particular the management of the communication or marketing of that brand to its audience. Here the designer or art director is positioning the brand within a designed environment of a marketing campaign. Style and substance have to be compatible with the brand image.

Marketing design for a sports drink won’t fit with Mercedes; Nike won’t fit with Cartier.

The health of a brand, made up of its success against competitor brands, maintenance of its reputation (quality and after-sales service if applicable) and financial viability of the company behind the brand is an ongoing task and few brands can rest on their laurels.

Markets change and consumer attitudes alter; some brands appear and then disappear. The strong performing brands continue as long as they fill a consumer need, maintain a price competitive position or are so entrenched with a market that they become what can be termed ‘household names’. They can of course fill a niche that is highly specialized such as expensive car brands, fashion labels, or products that are used by a small select market … specialized technical products for instance.

Many brands originate out of a market trend. These are quite often consumable items directed to a youth market and include things like sport drinks and fashion items. The designer is working here in a design environment that can be termed cutting edge with images and typography that are unconventional or ‘out there’.


Learning Activity 2.3

Visual language journal

Add to your visual language journal by collecting a wide range of global and other logos and by arranging them in the logo/logo mark/logotype categories. Add your ideas about the qualities and strengths and weaknesses of the logos presented and feel free to comment on the logos others have collected.


Next it is worth remembering that logos do not exist in isolation and it is here that all of the other graphic design elements come in. Most products, for instance, are part of a range of products that more than likely will share the same brand logo and yet must also be labelled and be an identifiable member of the range. Usually the graphic designer will do this by varying some elements (most likely typography) and by holding others constant (like space and colour). (If possible, it would be good for author to include an example here - I will source some visuals next - KR)

Identity systems in marketing and communications

Nothing should be considered accidental in the production of identity systems. Every design element involved should be controlled for precision of expression, value and meaning. This should then be very thoroughly documented and systematically described so that the identity system can be duplicated, reproduced or worked within the spirit of.

Usually this documentation is in the form of a style manual that normally would present standardized line work for all of the corporate presentations of identity. Logos and standard typography for company or organizational identity, layouts and standards for stationery sets and related applications, colour swatches and controlled combinations, even standardized layout for regular publications, brochures, annual reports etc. etc.

Identity systems incorporate logo design with the rest of the broader graphic design applications necessary to the maintenance of strong and consistent corporate identity. An identity system should therefore consider the use and relationship of each of the design elements.

Brand identity

A brand is a visual identity specifically applied to a commercial product or service. It should aim to provide a strongly individuated identity showing some structural links to other products of the same brand, but accentuating difference to its competition. Logo development has already been discussed, but in relation to brand, the product must be remarkably consistent in terms of its design and presentation. International brands are invariably proving that the value of brand can be much greater than the product itself. Any product that carries a brand takes on a particular value and meaning. The designer’s task is to make sure it is a positive one.

A realization of the last twenty years is that a brand can carry much more meaning and value than the individual products it is attached to. This is particularly evident in the big global brands like Nike, Sony or Heinz. It has also been realized as a chance for diversification and expanding the market. Australia has seen many recent examples of brand expansion / diversification in some of its major brands. Yakka, who used to make tough men’s work clothes, diversified into becoming a fashion label and footwear wholesaler. Redheads were the best known brand of Australian matches. Now they make barbecue accessories, firelighters and general house cleaning products. The power of the brand, if well established, seems to be only limited by the imagination of industry.

Visual identity

To give and reinforce visual identity is one of the main sign functions of the graphic designer. Any worthwhile product must be acknowledged as having a staying power in a particular society or culture and, as such, must be recognizable through its appearance, its branding, signage and copy in such a way that its identity becomes part of the social milieu in which it is used or consumed. So once established, to a company, a visual identity is a precious thing and it needs to be maintained as an enduring, consistent entity.

A visual identity is much more than a brand or a logo however. It reaches across the whole range of production and output that a brand might encompass. Visual identity moreover is also social and governs and encompasses general taste and lifestyle that might reflect class, ethnicity, gender, special interests etc. Sometimes it is necessary to invent different identities for the same product because this social divergence is too great. Many food items fall into this category.

In a branded marketplace, however, difference in identity is important just to make your product distinguishable from the competition. This would probably be the main reason for the development of a particular product identity and it is certainly one of the main reasons for motivating change in the form of product renewal, revision and restyling.

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