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“Logos are dead! Long live icons and avatars!” Marty Neumeier wrote those words in The Brand Gap way back in 2003. His prime example at the time was Cingular’s “Jack.” (Does anyone even remember Cingular?)

The argument in support of the proclamation was this:

“Logos as we know them — logotypes, monograms, abstract symbols and other two-dimensional trademarks — are products of the printing press as mass communication. They evolved as a way to identify brands rather than to differentiate them. Today marketers realize that branding is not about stamping a trademark on anything that moves. It’s about managing relationships between the company and its constituents, conducting a conversation among many people over many channels.

Icons and avatars respond to this new reality by jumping off the printed page and interacting with people wherever they are.

When conceived well, an icon is a repository of meaning. It contains the DNA of the brand, the basic material for creating a total personality distinct from the competition.

An avatar goes even further by becoming the symbolic actor in a continuing brand story.”

Think back to Jack. It was essentially an emoticon — a flat graphic that would bounce and spin in an attempt to show some personification.

But we’ve come a long way in terms of our understanding of how people feel about brands since 2003. We’ve come a long way in terms of the technology connecting brand to constituent. And we’re finally seeing brand marks that embody that connection — avatars that become central to conveying the continuing and evolving brand story.

Check out the following examples… Jack was downright diminutive by comparison.

PWC (the accounting firm formerly known as PriceWaterhouseCoopers) is now using shifting panes of colors that can change shape and size to work well in nearly any format, yet keep a similar identity.

MIT’s Media Lab is taking a similar tact, with a new system that is both designed on a rigid grid, yet allows for 40,000+ permutations that are all both different and recognizably related.

Bruce Mau’s exploration for OCAD University goes a step farther by actively encouraging customization of the brand icon system. That makes perfect sense for art and design school — allowing the students to show their creativity in relation to the school.

And as cool as those look, they almost seem diminutive in comparison to the algorithmic programs behind Neue Design Studio’s Visit Nordkyn avatar and Joshua Davis’ work for the face of Watson — the IBM supercomputer that competed successfully on Jeopardy!

The Visit Nordkyn visual identity includes, literally, millions of different permutations based on the specific geography and weather patterns — down to the minute — of particular tourist sites.

And even though the face of IBM Watson is based on the Smarter Planet icon, how Davis approached changing it on the fly to indicate the confidence the system has in regard to a question was both simple and genius.

I think we’ll see an exponential increase in brands adopting visual identities like this over the next few years — “marks” that are at once constantly evolving but also indelibly tied to a company and the emotions the brand evokes. Do you?


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