Mutability in Design

State-of-the-art style means less static and more flex

Perfection is immutable. But for things imperfect, change is the way to perfect them. —Owen Feltham

Ongoing innovations emerging from the tech revolution empower researchers to continually discover and advance life sciences. The new Fluidigm logo is part of a revolution, too—a graphic arts movement that arose in the early 1980s when MTV arrived with an equally edgy sibling: mutable design.

Being mutable involves alterability. In computer science, a mutable object is one that can be actively modified. In design, mutability is more about adjustment than change: it's about improving on what's already there. The path from traditional static brand icon to variable logo design is rooted in communication dating back to the earliest human expression. Glyphs were powerful symbols for conveying information nonverbally.

While we have communicated with symbols for eons, the modern logo came into formal use only in the 20th century. During the Industrial Revolution, businesses realized company names alone no longer distinguished them in a crowded marketplace. They incorporated company symbols into a comprehensive design system to create a fully formed identity—and branding was born.

Bass Brewery was the first to adopt an abstract logo that, in 1876, was also the first to be trademarked. It became a recognizable symbol that transcended language around the world. Fast-forward to the 1950s, when three pioneering logo design firms emerged to craft many enduring logos over the next three decades: Chermayeff & Geismar for Mobil Oil, PBS and NBC; Paul Rand for IBM, UPS and ABC; and Saul Bass for Continental Airlines and AT&T.

What happened next was a logo revolution, and it was televised. The advent of music video television in the 1980s created a new demographic that wanted its MTV. With it came a reimagined sense of corporate identity. In 1996, The New York Times reflected on this shift: "The move of information from the printed page to other media changed the nature of graphic identity. The MTV logo, which emerges from an unexpected metamorphosis, is probably the ultimate in animated identity." The logo, like the network, went against everything that had been done by exploiting the moving image. Both made history in the process.

According to one of its designers, Frank Olinsky, the decision to deviate from a static logo came when the firm was asked to define "corporate colors" for the logo. The choice not to have any—to give anyone who incorporated the logo permission to use any color, any material—mirrored rock and roll itself. Rock music is always changing, so the designers wanted the logo to actually be rock and roll.

During its heyday, the MTV logo was more than a corporate symbol; it was an icon of cool. MTV adapted the logo to the medium of television, proving that logos could evolve along with shifting graphic identities and shed their static stigma. In a word, logos could be mutable.

Less than a decade later, Bruce Mau designed a changing series of shapes that became the logo for San Francisco design firm Void. The symbol was different on every piece of collateral and was dubbed one of the first anti-logos because it was "an intentionally mutable brand," The New York Times noted in 1998.

One of the founding members of Void, renowned Swiss designer and Fluidigm design partner Yves Béhar, dubbed the firm "virtual," as it called on project-based specialists. The logo was likewise "pliable [to] reflect an organization adaptable to change,'' Béhar told The New York Times.

The new branding era prized accessibility and mutability, and next-generation tech companies have continued that trend. The logo became an opportunity to inject fun into brands, a movement that continues today as companies strive to be dynamic and constantly reinvent themselves.

A true pioneer of mutable logo design as a brand strategy, Béhar and his current firm fuseproject are the defining force behind the new Fluidigm logo. Leveraging mutability as a strategy for the ever-changing world of biology is both a natural fit and a way to embody where life science has been and where it is headed.