So, Channel 4 have changed their idents.

See here: http://www.designweek.co.uk/channel-4-deconstructs-iconic-logo-in-major-rebrand/

They’ve literally been iconoclastic and smashed their logo to pieces and then placed echoes of it in an art house movie.

There’s been a bit of a furore on social media. It seems to be shades of the 2012 Olympic logo. Brave decision to break with the visual codes of a category, misunderstood. Therefore a sense amongst observers that expectations have been flouted. Here are just a few observations about the new idents from the semiotic perspective. Semiotics looks at creativity from the perspective of meaning and how it is built through association and connotation. In a nutshell, I think the idents are brave but it remains to be seen whether they will also prove to be a tad reckless.

I see the creative logic in splitting it into its 9 constituent blocks. It’s brave and a departure from traditional TV branding. As Chris Bovill of 4 Creative said, these new idents are certainly true to the Channel 4 “remit; to be irreverent, innovative, alternative and challenging.” But my argument is not with the creative endeavour.

I concede there are also good anthropological and psychological reasons for doing so. From linguistics we have the Zipf hypothesis or, in other words, the principle of least effort. This states that all meaning units, over time, tend towards abbreviation and that economy of form (fewer letters or syllables), makes a word more frequently used. In terms of Gestalt psychology we recognise echoes of archetypal shapes. From Gestalt psychology we have the principle of Reification. As Dave Trott writes in a recent piece: “Reification is an aspect of perception in which the object as perceived contains more spatial information than what is actually present.” For the full piece see here: http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2014/03/design-principles-visual-perception-and-the-principles-of-gestalt/ Viewers fill in the gaps of experience with what they do know, held in the mind’s eye. So they would presumably associate the blocks as parts of a whole C4? In neuro-aesthetics the notion of ‘peak shift’ where supernormal stimuli (i.e. an exaggerated version of a shape, as exploited by caricaturists) is more eye catching and distinctive as stimulus than the original artefact. On this principle, the blocks are more extreme than the original. And, of course, in a fast moving, distracted, Attention Economy, we are constantly told that, to coin M&C Saatchi, Brutal Simplicity of Thought is the maxim. And who can argue with the success of emoticons, Vine or Twitter, if they fit shrinking attention spans?

However, I would argue that for the above to work in your favour, a simple premise must be satisfied: the original visual symbol needs to be sufficiently well known to be amenable to abbreviation or mutilation. Coca-Cola’s ribbon and bottle silhouette became instantly recognisable visual equities. The McDonald’s M, Nike swoosh too.

But they only did so after millions, possibly billions dollars worth of ad investment.

For instance, the Nike logo now represents winning, sporting glory and athletic prowess. When it first released, it was just a tick which vaguely hinted at movement. It has been accumulated uniqueness over time and through positive reinforcement.

In my Brands and Meaning masters course at Warwick University I do an exercise where I scatter cards featuring fragments of brand livery (a British Airways tail fin, the face of Virgin Atlantic air hostess, the gun metal grey of a BMW fascia). The task is simple. Students have 10 minutes to match the 40 brand figments to the 40 brand monikers. I am always stunned at how quickly they perform this matching task. The most edifying thing for me though is the ones that get matched first: always the brands with the strongest equity. David Aaker, one of the world authority’s on brand equity, suggested that the more equity a brand has, the stronger its pull on consumers. Burberry’s check is a banker. Paul Smith multi-colour pinstripe is a similarly easy peasy, particularly for East Asian students. O2 blue and the laser line Orange typeface are also swiftly matched. It tends to be the less well known brands that are less easy to match. So far, so obvious, you might say. But the point of this exercise is that these student’s young minds had osmosed the essence of brand properties, so they became instantly recognisable, bereft of explicit brand cues. An excerpt from the C4 logo, might have been known, but not a collection of shards.

In an interesting experiment, psychologist Rafal Ohme, in a phenomenon he termed the logo substitution effect proved that the slightly mangled gestalts of a Carrefour and McDonalds logo is implicitly registered and will persuade more strongly than their more vivid and explicitly rendered counterparts. But once again, we are talking bigger brands not Channel 4, as respected a broadcaster as it is. We’ve all seen those T-shirts that parody brands in their proprietary typeface, Hermes for example. But again, they rely for their effect on massive prior recognition. This in turn relies upon accumulated symbolic investment over time, via advertising and promotions.

It may be that the 9 blocks, particularly when concealed in unfamiliar contexts, may be too generic a set of visual signifiers to connote ‘Channel4ness’ when fragmented.

Of course, this is an ident, rather than a logo, but the bigger question beyond this for me is whether the anew ident has actually abstracted the correct attribute of the original logo. Of course on first glance, the most distinctive aspect of the Channel 4 logo is its blockiness. It is a modular logo. But semiotics, aside from scrutinising every element of a brand and interrogating the overall meaning quotient, also helps brands by working out (in major re-positioning or brand extension projects) what the heart of a brand is, its key story. This helps creative agency understand what needs to be retained, or developed and what can be readily discarded, when taking the brand forward. One common element of idents, particularly in the news space, is that motion graphics take the logo through a satisfying suite of moves that neatly resolves itself. It is the stock in trade of production companies, in film trailers and in news channel opening credits, the pleasing de-construction and reconstruction of a logo. For my money, that was one major (if not THE major) part of the Channel 4 logo. Not just the blockiness, but rather, the skillful use of a panning camera to show blocks coming together to assemble the logo and then to disassemble it, with pleasing ingenuity and charm, within the context of an urban, or rural landscape. This was the uniqueness of Channel 4 idents not just the blockiness of the four digit.

Attempts to de-materialise logos need to be extremely well thought out. I like the MIT Media Lab logo where blockiness was extended to individual sub logos.


What Channel 4 have done is far from unprecedented. If brand owners are the new idolators Channel 4 can be seen as having just entered a period of late abstraction. Moving from figurative to abstract art worked for Picasso, Klee, Kandinsky, and Miro. So why not Channel 4?

Semantic technologies, digital avatars and nanobots may make de-materialisation the future of visual identity. Until then the winning logic in branding design is condensation, not fragmentation of meaning. If it’s motion graphics, and you take something apart, you need to put it back together again. Otherwise, if it’s a logo, it doesn’t look avant garde, so much as diffuse and elliptical. If the rumours of the imminent privatisation of Channel 4 are to be believed, perhaps the symbolic break up is a signal prelude to a more commercial distending of the channel. I hope not.

There are aspects of the new ident I like for sure. The fact that it is allusive and subtle, not overpowering. The fact that they hint at something telluric, and fundamental to all forms of life. This is something very arty and interesting about this. The film reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey 2001. But there is different between art and design. To paraphrase Umberto Eco, art tends to promote the open text but design requires more of a closed text or at least to narrow the potential interpretations. Surely the point about idents is concision of meaning, and comms effectiveness – so they needs to be tightly scripted red threads of meaning.

Of course an ident, in and of itself is not going to get anyone to watch a programme or switch watching content. They are more affirmative and supplementary than causative and fundamental. However, I do think they strengthen channel identity and replenish channel brands. For instance, a great episode of C4’s Black Mirror might make me think ‘that was a great show by Charlie Brooker’. If, however, it is followed by an ident, I attribute it to Channel 4 and I think: “that was a great show and it’s typical of Channel 4’s pioneering, alternative philosophy and their grasp on pop culture.” I’m not sure that the new idents will have quite that galvanising effect.

I may have been hard on these, because I loved the Lambie-Nairn logo and previous idents. But I don’t want these idents to go the way of other iconic campaigns that overreach themselves, then lose their way. Like London 2012, it’s not that I don’t like it exactly. It is a conceptually interesting idea but I think it plays fast and loose and with the Channel 4 visual equity and falls far short of the genius of previous idents.

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