This case study will look at the logo for the Casa de Musica, particularly how it uses the immediate context in which it is displayed as a means of altering the colour of the logo. The form of the building, and the context in which it is situated informed the final visual and contextual syntax of the identity system. By focusing on the system used to alter aspects of the logo, I will illuminate the contingent and contextual nature of the logo in response to the designed environment in which it exists. I will respond to some of the criticisms that have been made about the logo, and illustrate how these are nothing more than ignorance about new methods of creating identity systems. In viewing the logo and system as a form of language, I will compare it to the Pragmatist method of ascertaining truth. This logo and the contextual system that defines its variability illustrates that it is aware of and highlights the network of relationships that it is embedded in.
The logo system for the Casa de Musica, a Portuguese music hall situated in the city of Porto uses a representation of the architectural form of the building to act as a vessel for representing the myriad contingencies needed by the organisation. The identity system designed by New York based design studio Sagmeister Inc is a dynamic and varied identity system that represents the various uses and meanings of the building and its activities. The head architect of the building was internationally renowned architect and theorist Rem Koolhas, from the architecture studio OMA in 2005.
After hearing Koolhas describe the building as a “conglomeration of various layers of meaning”, Stefan Sagmeister realised that such a definition could be transferred from the concepts used in architectural discourse to one of graphic design, branding and logo design.1 The creation of an identity system needs to convey different aspects of an organisation into one conceptual whole, to group together disparate parts into a unifying and distinct entity. By using the same language and justification as Koolhas, Sagmeister realised that the built form would be able to inform the visual identity; by using the memorable shape of the building itself as the logo.
The building has a towering presence, comprised of an angular faceted exterior with the concert hall situated as a hollow space in the centre; surrounding the hall are smaller concert halls devoted to more intimate musical styles as well as various administrative areas. This layout was a response to the ‘shoe box’ typology: the need to create a rectangular room that respects the acoustic needs of the music played in concert halls. The allowances for these other rooms to be situated around the concert hall is what gives the building it’s recognisable shape.
The building faces open civic and green space, surrounded on three sides by residential buildings. The shape of the building responds to the roofs of the surrounding houses, the tiles and terraces reminiscent of the angular facade of the building and incorporates a vernacular use of colour. For an architectural theorist noted for his disdain of context it is noteworthy that he is responding to the immediate environment by mimicking various attributes of the surrounding buildings that are part of the visual history of the city of Porto.
Sagmeister believes that “sameness is so incredibly overrated, the idea that everything needs to be the same works for a few brands and companies and not for everyone else.”2 This notion informed his approach to the Casa de Musica logo by turning the building into a series of six shapes used as the set of basic logos. After reproducing a model of the building as a three dimensional form, it was then converted into six different logo marks comprising the top, bottom, north, south, east and west views of the building. Each of these marks act as a flat representation of the building, a series of simple yet irregular forms. Coupled with the round and geometric typeface, the Casa de Musica logo is a clean and modern example of contemporary design. The rounded forms of the typeface provide a welcome contrast to the angular shape of the building. By providing six different variations of the logo, visual flexibility is already incorporated into the identity system. This allows for an identity system that respects the iconic shape and the name of the building – Casa De Musica – House of Music.
These primary elements of the form of the identity system are not meant to be viewed in isolation, but instead act as a device to illustrate various meanings contingent on their context. This provides a seemingly infinite amount of chromatic variation based on the immediate context in which the logos are viewed.
The customised software program The Casa de Musica Logo Generator is used in the process of providing the colour system to be used when designing posters from the music hall that creates a harmonious relationship between logo and image. Once the image for the poster is complete – whether through illustration or photography – the program selects seventeen points on the image, recording the colour values of each point in the image. Each of these different colour points are then transferred onto the 17 facets of the three dimensional device. This provides the colours to be used on the logo, reflecting those same colours used in the poster. These logos can then be exported using a variety of industry standard files to be used in design programs when creating the final poster.
As can be see with the image of Beethoven, the majority of the painting is one of dark muted colours: framed by darkness with a strong focus of deep reds, bright whites and skin tones running through the centre. The 17 reference points cover most of the available space of the image, ensuring that an average of the image is captured. These colours are then transferred onto the surface of the logo, creating a chromatic representation of the painting as a semantic layer on top of the object. The same contextual colouring system can be seen in the logo generator, the interplay between skin tones and shadows informing the facets seen in the bottom of the application.
A criticism of this system could argue that the program did not capture the white collar, which acts to focus the eye onto Beethoven's face. By creating an average of the colours within the circles, the program also fails to capture the granularity needed to truly portray this, or any other image. Whether through missing out on key features of an image such as this, or by generalising the chosen colours by taking an average within the circle, important elements are ignored.* In needing to generalise for the sake of expediency, systems like this miss out on the richness of visual experience. However, in other examples such as those below, these omissions are not as visible.
By using the Logo Generator, the role of the designer is compromised, giving more power to the illustrator or photographer in creating the variable colour values on the logo device. While art direction informs the overall aesthetic and style of the image used in pre and post–production, the final choice of colours is taken out of the hand of the designer and placed in control of the algorithm. This need not be a negative aspect of the final design: whether Lou Reed, Phillip Glass or the Chemical Brothers are performing, the relationship between logo and image will never pose a problem. The decision to use a specific side of the building gives the designer some freedom in choosing to create contrast or a more harmonious and coordinated relationship between the two elements.
A similar programmatic mechanism is used for the corporate stationary in creating the colour values for the business card. The logo for each business card takes the colour values from photographs of the person the card is meant for. This creates a card that is an individual portrait for each card holder, as well as reinforcing and working within the spacious confines of the identity system. This system differs from the music posters by not including the original reference point in which to glean the context for the colours.
This mechanism was used to similar effect for another identity system designed by Sagmeister Inc. The client, the Seed Media Group and Magazine, is a science based media organisation with a magazine, website, and which holds various conferences and talks. The tag line for the organisation is ‘Science is Culture’, the clients wanted an identity that would illuminate the ubiquity of science as a cultural force. The resulting logo is designed around the from of the phylotaxis. The phylotaxis is a shape, structure and mathematical equation recurring throughout nature: the horns of a gazelle, the patterns of sunflower seeds, the dimensions of classic greek architecture or the flowers of wild carrots.
The portrait of the card holder is seen through the circles in the logo. The Casa de Musica business cards show a highly abstracted portrait: the seed cards show a figurative abstraction of the individual due to the higher granularity of the logo. Instead of taking coloured reference points from the portrait, the Seed logo takes an approximation of colour values from the image.
In describing the process of creating the logo, Sagmeister said they were “looking for something open ended and flexible, a vessel we could fill with new meanings as they developed.”3 This desire to fill the logo with new meanings is the opposite of how Blauvelt describes the Postmodern need for variable interpretations. The meanings are created by the designer, not by the readers. Meaning is not read, but created through the flexibility of the device and its relationship to – in the example of the business cards – who the card is made for. Both Casa de Musica and Seed illustrate that Sagmeister Inc are intent on ignoring the restraints of static logo creation, towards a methodology that is open to new methods of thinking and working.
The Casa de Musica Logo Generator is the most relevant example theoretically for this thesis. However there are a few other examples in which the flexible nature of the logo has been used as a vessel. The posters advertising various events put on by the music hall have a playful relationship to the logo. These treat the flat logo as an simple shape or pattern, as decorative blocks of colour or as a three dimensional object. By removing it from the original representation of a building, this gives the designers greater freedom to to use the device as an abstract object. By making a cardboard model of the object it is used to semantically display musical workshops. The use of chalk to display the headline further enhances this message. The poster advertising a disco uses the form of the building as growths under the skin, highlighting the unusual shape of the building. All of these examples show that not only is the Casa de Musica a logo capable of reflecting and being informed by its immediate context, but can be treated as a vessel in which a more theoretical and semantic context can be displayed.
The reception of this flexible and open ended identity created a large discussion on Brand New. In presenting the system for the Casa de Musica, the discussion revolved around two competing arguments on the merits of the Casa de Musica logo and system. The negative comments were mostly directed at the form of the logo and the results of the system while the positive comments were in support of a brave and novel method in the creation and extrapolation of the identity system. I will not be responding to the comments about the formal properties of the logo, this is merely a matter of personal preference or style, something this thesis is determined not to discuss, but instead I will try and focus on opinions regarding the relational qualities of the logo generator and the use of context.
Some of the commenters did not understand or approve of a flexible system: “besides the question [of] what the “official” logo version is”.4 This is merely a desire to view a logo as a simple reductionist mark, a hallmark of rigid Modernism. In the case of the Casa de Musica, as with many other dynamic and flexible identities, there is not an ‘official’ logo, but merely a system of formalised ideas that change based on various factors or parameters. These factors can change the form of the logo, its placement in responce to its context, or in this example, it’s colour. There is no official logo in as much as there is no official way in which to view the building. There is no single viewpoint in which to view the logo, there are six.
Most of the negativity stems from a misunderstanding about the system, and how it works as a cohesive whole, especially in regard to the programatic logic of the relationship between the colours of the logos and the posters. Because real names have not been provided in most cases, I am using the name that they have used on Brand New. Tactful Cactus sees the problem with the system because he/she cannot see the logo as existing outside of the context:
What I do have a problem with is when process trumps end product. The colors were chosen from a set grid placed over meaningful photos. Once those colors are taken from the meaning of their context, they’re just random colors. 5
The six basic black and white brandmarks are never meant to be viewed on their own, but act as the framework and structure in which to respond to various stimuli. Another user, 5000, responded to this misunderstanding by replying that “the colors are derived from the context that the logo is used in. They’re never taken out of context.”6
This system doesn’t work mean to work in a void, like the sample at the top of the post (figure/ground, in an endless white canvas). It is meant to be applied to something. I know it looks ugly on its own, but then it seems to me that one isn’t really supposed to view it in its contextless condition. After you see it applied in various ways, you learn its language, and its beauty becomes palpable (not an aesthetic beauty, but a beauty that happens when systems work.8
This figure/ground that Alfonso mentions is a hallmark of Modernist presentation techniques. Alfred H. Barr Jr, inaugural Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was one of the first to use a neutral background in which to display artworks. Previously, artworks had been displayed close together and skied, creating a cacophony of competing artworks, as was the style of the Pre–Modernist period. This was in part due to the realism of the picture plane, which created a window into another world, with clearly defined boundaries. With the modernist tradition, the aim was for a truth to materials, which resulted in a search for abstract visual language of infinite forms, by treating the canvas as a flat representational plane. These artworks needed to be viewed in isolation, free of distraction: “Whereby the language of display articulates a modernist, seemingly autonomous aestheticism”.9 This autonomous aestheticism is no longer apparent for the Casa de Musica logo. The logos are not meant to be viewed in a void, in a “white, ideal space”, but in relation to the poster image.10 It does not exist in a vacuum of autonomy, but only becomes apparent when viewed in the contingent relationship it has with the surrounding image. It is not used until it is in contact with another design element.
Through this relationship we should refer back to Pragmatism and its notion of a living language, that truth can be gained through lived experience. As James contends: “In the reality of a living language, the utterance has no meaning except in the concept of the situation.”11 Ideas only become true when used in context. The Casa de Musica logo, does not exist in ‘true’ form as a black logo on a white background, it only becomes true when used as a lived language. This identity system, and most others, can be seen as a language, a vocabulary of elements. The noumenal version of the logo – six black logos against a white background – have no use value as a language. It is only when they are used that their truth factor as a component of the Casa de Musica visual language becomes useful. They have not become practical until they are in use. While the Casa de Musica is not a spoken language, it is a living language, constantly adapting, changing and responding to the situation.
The Casa de Musica logo is a device that is aware of its position within a dynamic network of relations and seeks to highlight those relations by operating as a vessel in which various externalities can be made visible. These externalities range from the semantic qualities of the events it is advertising, or they can be the make up of chromatic values contained within those posters. It operates as an abstract portrait on business cards, presenting the identity of the card holder through the logo. By using a customised software program it is able to represent the Casa de Musica building and organisation in a novel and interesting manner that emphasises the identity of the organisation as existing within a specific environment. Within this specific environment are various semantic elements, that do not inform the shape of the logo, but are merely applied to it’s surface. By designing a logo that is a visual representation of the building, Sagmeister has created an identity that is able to portray many layers of meaning at the same time. These layers go beyond the typical and static devices used by traditional means. Instead of visualising the relationship the logo has to various other design elements through traditional means, it is able to incorporate a wider range of meanings, without watering down the visual and symbolic elements of the design.
Through contingent means, the representation of the Casa de Musica building enhances the capabilities of this design device. In highlighting the contextual attributes of the logo it is an example of ignoring the reductionist approach to logo design. It is a simple device, but it allows the causality to move back up the system. This causality gives the logo the ability to be affected by various externalities, all of which heighten the importance of the brand as it exists within it’s environment. It traverses different scales, from the more immediate space of the printed poster, to the people that occupy and represent the building and outward to the activities the organisation conduct as a means of interacting with the wider public. Without all of these elements interacting with the brand mark, it would not have the same distinctive qualities that make it so interesting.
1. Sagmeister, Stefan. The Power of Time off, TED
4. The 17 Sides of a Cultural Identity Brand New
9. Stanisweski, Mary Anne. The Power of Display: a History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art, Cambridge MMass. MIT Press 1998
11. James, William. What Pragmatism Means. (Penguin Books. Camberwell. 1907) p68
*Unknown to me at the time, the logo generator is far more fluid in it's ability to gather colour points than I previously thought. The Sagmeister website went through a massive refresh after I completed the thesis and there is far more information regarding the project than was previously known. The grid of circles are not limited to a concrete positioning overlaid across all images, it is possible to move the sampling circles around to create a more relevant colour scheme for the logos.
On one hand this makes the logo generator more capable of responding to the immediate designed context (the image) and makes the designer's job much easier and relevant. On the other, it takes away some of the theoretical strength of the project, by having the system not so dependent on the initial starting points (and thus the relational qualities) of the image.
This kinda stuff would have been pretty useful a few months ago.