Back in 2011, Gizmodo reported on MIT Media Lab's cool new logo: a self-generating algorithm that gave each and every team and employee within the organisation their own unique logo. This month, the lab revealed a new identity, doing away with the old version after an extraordinarily short run. And they had a very good reason for it.
Media Lab is 29 years old, an offshoot of MIT's architecture school that was founded in the mid-1980s amid a flurry of interest in robotics within the design world. In the nearly three decades since, it's become a powerhouse of incredible depth and breadth. Its almost two dozen individual work groups cover everything from the Tangible Media group to Cognitive Machines, a group that studies language and learning in relation to machines.
But Media Lab's incredibly diverse research presents a problem for the group in terms of branding — how do you apply a single logo to dozens of independent organisations that fall under it? So in 2011, it introduced a delightful logo that used an algorithm to generate a new, unique logo for every new use. Every employee's business cards were emblazoned with their own logo. Every group had its own; all in all, there were 40,000 unique iterations.
Michael Bierut, the designer behind a new identity unveiled by Media Lab this month and a partner at Pentagram, explained the allure of old logo to me using a perfect comparison: The MTV logo. "The idea of a logo with multiple incarnations just seemed so refreshing", he said about MTV's classic, ever-changing mark. "In those days, could anyone have imagined a logo with 40,000 different variations? It was amazing."
There was just one problem: even though each logo was unique, they all looked pretty much the same. In Bierut's words, "what made it work — that any one of the 40,000 variations could stand for the Media Lab, that they were all equal, in essence – also was biggest challenge."
Luckily, Media Lab has seen its share of failed experiments. In a way, the old logo fit into the group's research perfectly: its a great example of generative design, or using algorithms to generate design decisions. But ultimately, it didn't work very well to introduce Media Lab's 23 distinct groups to the rest of the world. So MIT asked Bierut and his team, led by Aron Fay, to rethink the logo once more.
What they came up with is neither staid nor radical. It's a series of glyphs, or letters, based around the same 7-by-7 grid as the old logo. The glyph for each group contains the contorted letters of its name, arranged around the grid like a game of TI-83 Snake frozen in motion.
Is there any kind of underlying pattern to the logos? No, they were based simply on the parameters Fay and Bierut gave themselves, namely, the 7 by 7 grid and the requirement of including the group name letters. "People keep seeing things in the system of glyphs for the research groups like QR codes and early video games, but I have to admit that designer Aron Fay weren't thinking of stuff like that", Bierut added. "We were just trying to see how many ways we could create two- and three-letter logos based on the same basic underlying structure."
The final product projects the same diversity as the original, except now, that diversity is actually distinguishable to the eye. In the end, it seems that human expertise still trumps algorithms when it comes to design decisions — even at a place like Media Lab.