Course Description

This seminar critically investigates the claims of visual identity as a particular generic design project in the light of its relation to recent political theorizations of gender, class, race, and colonialism. 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 corporations 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 has taken a cultural turn and become increasingly concerned with the production of concepts and affects. We will trace the history of these two design regimes (modern and postmodern) 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 1950s 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 identity in postcolonial, racialized, gendered, and classed political modalities. 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?
+ Are there alternative identities we could conceptualize to address new identitarian formations and processes?
+ Why do we need identities at all? What would happen if we got rid of them?


Each seminar participant will research and present to the 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. Aim to structure your presentation around approximately twenty images that document and elucidate the identity.

Final Project

As a final project, students will work alone or in teams to develop a 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 prospective document can take is up to the students, but let’s say, if it’s print, that it’s a bound set of at least 20 letter-sized sheets.

This document should include sketches for the sets of marks and forms that compose the identity, and texts for the syntax of their imagined iteration. As a proposal, it is a provisional work: it should assemble preliminary forms as instructions for an identity to come. You might imagine this document as a sketch or a blueprint that others will take forward and execute in the world (which in fact is how visual identities are typically propagated.) Consider including critical texts — from our readings or elsewhere — that give the identity context and scope and significance. This is identity in the expanded field.

The identity document you assemble might also reflect the historically conventional forms of the visual identity guide or graphic standards manual. Examples of these, particularly those from classic corporate modernism, abound. These conventions can be played with. Or you might consider alternative marketing genres like the trend report. Or literary genres, like the epistolary novel. In any case, consider the reader: to whom — to what reader/user/agent/subject —  is the document addressed?