An adaptive brand identity—basically, a design system that has the flexibility to change depending on context— isn’t entirely new. But Luke Powell and Jody Hudson-Powell of Pentagram’s London office have taken the concept a step further, with an adaptive brand that can be manipulated (within certain parameters) via an app, on the fly, based on what the client needs at any one time.
The partners and their team created this adaptive identity for Berkeley-based company Covariant, which developed a piece of AI software called the Covariant Brain to teach robots new skills in the logistics space. The “how” of this AI learning process starts to get a little in the weeds, but basically, it relies on what the company calls “decision boundaries.”
It’s a term you might not be familiar with unless you’re in the field of neuroscience or artificial intelligence, but it essentially describes the inner decision-making process of an artificial neural network (the “robot brain”), and it changes based on external data. According to the company, this particular AI software is unique because it’s “universal,” so that robots can learn in many different settings, whether it’s manufacturing, shipping, or a similar logistics industry.
The Pentagram team ran with the concept and took the idea of decision boundaries as a source for design inspiration to develop a dreamy, rather abstract identity grounded in a contrasting pastel-pink-and-blue color palette. It represents the boundaries of that learning process and is carried throughout the brand system. The color palette was extended with whimsical animations by illustrator Geoffroy de Crécy, depicting Covariant robots being used in real-life scenarios.
The team took the give-and-take of decision boundaries one step further and developed the Covariant Flow app, so that Covariant could make some design decisions of their own and create a variety of static and moving image assets within the overall parameters of the brand identity that Powell and Hudson-Powell developed. The form, speed, and balance of color between pink and blue can all be manually manipulated depending on its end use.
There are two modes, advanced and basic, says Powell. The basic mode restricts the parameters a user can change to the composition’s form (i.e., simple versus complex) and motion (i.e., slow versus active); this mode can produce assets for a range of typical day-to-day brand applications. Say the client wants a more complex animation for the opening slide of a keynote speech, suggests Powell, or a more simplified, slow-looped animation underlaid below text on an Instagram post. This tool allows the client to find the creative boundary for either purpose and just about any in between. If the client should want to take it up a notch, the advanced mode has controls for “each and every variable affecting the way the decision boundary behaves.”
The team also referenced the “curves, twists, and flow” of the decision boundary concept in the Covariant logo itself: a thin white C that, in its digital application, shape-shifts in a continuous looped animation, like the blurry white space between the various shades of pink behind it. (See a static application in the image above.) The wordmark itself is a “high-contrast geometric grotesque” that draws the eye in a friendly, approachable way, minimizing the association with the whole “AI-enabled robots will take over our lives” kind of thing—a good strategic move for an AI robotics company, I’d say.
Of course, developing an adaptive brand identity as compared to a static set of assets and guidelines à la the standard manuals of days past presents its own unique challenges. “The aim when creating adaptive brands is to make what would have otherwise been a complex solution into a simple and useable one,” says Powell. For Powell, the challenge is that the team has to address a client’s current design needs, skill sets, and workflows—and any future ones. It’s that key understanding that determines the success of an adaptive brand. It can be hard for anyone to predict the future, but it’s safe to say that the field of artificial intelligence is near the forefront of predictive modeling. In its own way, Pentagram is keeping pace.