I’ve just invented responsive branding

blog_responsivebranding_illustration-01Following on from JohnsonBanks’ article (and this Coke music thing from W+K), and now having some terminology I understand, I’ve been thinking about digital branding. That is, how branding behaves on screen and online or how it’s created digitally.

There’s some really fascinating work going on in combining responsive web design thinking, big data and brand strategy/identity execution at the moment, but nothing that’s been acknowledged as ‘a thing’. So I’m going to clamber above my station and offer some ideas on stringing together this ‘thing’ and calling it responsive branding.

Flexible digital identity as it stands

The endless possibilities for flex that digital execution gives us presents an interesting (and growing) separation from traditional (printed/static) graphics. Static graphics have often used flexible systems (like this by Experimental Jetset) to give controlled variation to the identity; to stop it feeling so fixed in print. The executions in this case will be hard-copy real things, so there are an inherent set of limitations and so you can set about defining the other flexible boundaries of the system in order to keep it looking consistent. Eventually the identity is defined by the system’s boundaries which are set by its’ designers; you’re only allowed to use this font or that one, this layout or that one, this colour or that one etc.

With digital identity, the issue is that if there’s an infinite number of possibilities, how do you begin to limit and control the outcomes? As far as I can work out, there currently seems to be two fundamental types of boundary-setting for flexible digital identity: curated or generative.

For curated identity you have things like the MTV idents, Google doodles or the FormFiftyFive header illustrations. They change massively from day to day, but are essentially curated by a person for a specific purpose. While they may exist within seemingly limitless guidelines, their limiting factor is their reliance on a person choosing them/creating them. In this regard, they don’t progress too far beyond traditional mechanisms for creating identity graphics but are wildly more varied in scope.

For generative identities you have things like Coke music by W+K, the BigEyes identity by SomeOne and Field or the GFSmith brochures by SEA and Field (again). These rely on taking an input, processing it through a designer/programmer-defined set of parameters and generating a consistent, relatively predictable outcome (in terms of range, not concept or quality!). The mechanism for generating the idents differs hugely from more traditional branding methods although the outcomes are carefully controlled by the system which allows the same degree of curation you’d have for a more traditional approach (incidentally the BigEyes identity and GFSmith projects are largely for print-based executions).

Getting on for proper responsive branding

Another way in which digital executions are exploited is a kind of real-world imitation (almost skeuomorphic) adaptive identity. Take Alex Trochut’s Binary Prints site, Enso’s site and the Fieldview festival homepage (scroll down). Using a simple CSS switch, the colour palette of the sites are shifted to look like daytime or nighttime in order to variously explain the concept, add a neat little interactive touch or simply provide a playful add-on.

While the environmental changes are not necessarily an in-built component of the identities, they raise an interesting possibility as to how you could use a different category of limitations for the definition of an identity system. Namely, the viewer’s environment.

This has already been tackled rather well by ManVsMachine and 4Creative for the 4seven identity (based around a logo by Magpie Studio). The shades of the background colour change depending on the time of day, but also there’s a feature where the level of activity within the logo correlates with the activity level of discussion on Twitter. Proud Creative and Minivegas also did (way back in 2007) these idents for S4C that respond to the announcers’ voices.

Fantastic though these are, there’s further they could go. Tim Wright has written here about the possibilities for harnessing the device API for mobile browsers to create environment specific design; whether that’s related to battery power, signal strength or (as an extension to the sites above) ambient light readings.

Dragging this back to responsive design for a minute, check out this online publication reformat.no. It’s beautifully designed editorial content that is completely responsive to the window size and context. It’s lovely. Now take a mobile TV app like 4OD or the BBC iPlayer. They’re branded and built for multiple platforms, screen sizes etc. but what if they were designed for, say, different rooms in your house? Many people have an internet-enabled TV in more than one room, or are viewing it on a mobile device and could be anywhere. Once you get to thinking like this, you could have an identity that takes in a huge range of variables like time, ambient light, weather, location, current affairs, associated people, interests, browsing history, likely routine (the list goes on).

That’s even before you get to execution. Layout, colour, type, movement, scale, illustration/photography/film styles. The combinations are still potentially endless (e.g. rainy + bedroom = green bkg, blue type…), but once you set up a system where drawing on big data generates visuals within set parameters, you’re properly in the realm of responsive design. Not just a logo that reacts to inputs, but a whole visual identity system which is generated for the user.

Ben Terrett was talking about a lot of this stuff in 2008 (there are others too, I’m sure), so I’m aware these aren’t completely new thoughts. But things are starting to coalesce, and that is new. It’s turning into a new thing. And like many bastards before me, it’s the first one to plant the flag that wins the acclaim. Except I’m probably not the first. And I’ve no direct involvement in any of the work I’ve been citing. So I’ve not actually invented anything. Do I get points for bandwagon jumping?

I’m interested to hear what other people think, so please leave any comments, no matter how invective or unconstructive (this is a design blog after all, I’d hate to break tradition by only receiving constructive criticism).

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