Course Description

This seminar critically investigates the claims of visual identity as a particular generic design project in the light of its relation to both its economic context as well as to recent theorizations of subaltern cultural identity. The goal of the seminar is to understand the project of visual identity, its formal features and its social functions, as something intimately conditioned by both ideology and economy.

Visual identity, in its origin as a mark used to distinguish products and producers in the emerging commodity world of industrial capitalism, is inextricably linked to the economic articulation of private property. As it finds itself increasingly conditioned by late capitalist tendencies toward dematerialization, the “dynamic” visual identity project takes a cultural turn and becomes increasingly concerned with the production of concepts and affects. We will trace the history of these two design regimes and their modes of production, as high modernist corporate “closed” identity systems give way to the recent and contemporary vogue for “open,” flexible, and more explicitly culturally-oriented visual identities.

First, we will study classic corporate graphic design identity projects, the composition of their marks and the construction of their systems, as well as how they are theorized by their leading practitioners. We will think critically about the economic and organizational context of this particular historical design project as we try to understand how identity is formulated as a design problem for the advanced corporation of the 50 and 60s. As a sidelight to these corporate sign systems, we will visit some classic texts on structuralism and semiotics, a roughly contemporaneous theoretical project which appears to address many of the same formal and organizational problems as its corporate counterpart.

Next, we will examine the recent and contemporary proliferation of so-called dynamic visual identities. We will look carefully at the variety of forms that have characterized these projects. We will attempt to summarize and synthesize the ideology and concepts of both individual subjects and (dis)organizational composition that are explicitly mobilized to justify these projects. We will also look at how these dynamic and mutable graphic forms might reflect or respond to real economic structures.

We will then leave the design world behind for a moment to look at recent discussions regarding postcolonial, race, gender, and sexual identity. We will look at some classic texts as well as contemporary ones (Afro-Futurism and Xeno-Feminism) as we try to think through the politics and subjective modalities of contemporary cultural identity. We will bring these considerations back to bear on the project of contemporary design identity to ask the questions:
+ Whose interests does a visual identity serve?
+ For whom does a visual identity purport to speak, in whose voice and from what position? What relations of power do the visual systems of a designed identity inscribe around its constituents?
+ Why do we need identities at all? Couldn’t we just get rid of them? What would happen?
+ Are there alternative identities we could conceptualize that might address these new conceptions of cultural identity?


Each seminar participant will research and present to class one particular visual identity as a case study with which to test the concepts developed in our readings and discussions. The presentation should be an approximately 10-15 minute long slide-based lecture in which the visual identity is demonstrated as a formal system and in its full scope of application. The presentation should additionally attempt to critically position the identity within its political and economic context. What forms of individual and collective subjectivity are implied or constructed by the identity? In what sense is the identity an ideological project?

Gather as much source material as possible for the identity, including any texts you can find which discuss it. In addition to presenting the identity to the class, each student will prepare a dossier of letter-sized pages which assemble the research materials.

Final Project

As a final project, students will work in teams to develop an initial prospectus for an experimental visual identity which addresses, from the position of the subject of the identity or from elsewhere, critical senses of a particular cultural, political, or social identity. The form this prospectus can take is up to the students. As a proposal, it can include texts and sketches for sets of marks and forms, and for the syntax of their iteration. It should assemble preliminary forms and texts for an identity to come. We will compile these sketches into a book.

The topic of this project should be identified by the middle of the semester.