Bias exists everywhere in design, from the Eurocentric standards of what we label “good design” to the oft-prejudiced code hiding just beneath the surface of a website.
But is it even possible to design something without bias? That’s the exact question with which Talia Cotton wrestles in the new brand identity she built for Guilty by Association (GBA)—an arts organization created to promote underrepresented artists and “empower the creative unseen.” Her new logo is not one logo, but code that generates a limitless number of permutations, mirroring the limitless variety of artists supported by GBA.
It began as a series of sketches, which Cotton then codified into software. “It’s a hand-drawn logo, but it’s infinite,” Cotton says. “It represents all hand drawings ever.”
Cotton, who teaches interaction design at Parsons School of Design in New York City and leads data-driven and algorithmic brand identities at Pentagram, completed the work as part of her own practice. And you can make your own version of the logo by playing with GBA’s public tool. One moment, it’s a pencil-thin “GBA” as if drawn by a New Yorker cartoonist. The next, it almost drips like graffiti sprayed onto the side of the train. The next, it glows with the strokes of a highlighter. The next, it’s drawn and redrawn 30 times on top of itself with an ink pen—and for whatever reason, my mind drifts to Basquiat.
What Cotton has created differs from other algorithmic design used in branding. One of the hottest trends of the 2010s, algorithmic design uses code to automate much of the work done by designers, allowing them to generate many variations on a theme. Brands have used algorithmic design to generate abstract identities with countless permutations. But Cotton’s GBA logo is a more traditional spin on the idea: It’s still a recognizable wordmark no matter how many times you refresh it.
“[We] know this from the wave of generative logos a few years ago: The most successful brands aren’t generative. They have a stamp they can use on everything, and it’s easy,” Cotton says, pointing to the fact that the most important part of any successful brand is mere repetition. “What I’m personally astonished by is that even though the variation of this logo is so vast and different, it still fits in that realm of recognizable.”
To create the logo, Cotton drew out the letters GBA 10 times. “Every time I drew them,” she says, “I tried to make [the letters] as different as possible . . . to stretch to the most dramatic changes but still make the logo legible.” Then she began to deconstruct her own work, identifying the digital Bezier curves and anchor points hiding within her analog logic. “I had to manually almost understand the rules in which these letterforms are written by a human so I could define it in the algorithm, and have the computer follow that algorithm,” Cotton says.
Despite this algorithmic variety, many components of the logo stay philosophically intact. For instance, the GBA logo’s hook “spur” on the G always resembles an arrow. Thick, thin, messily drawn, or clean, you always can read that arrow. Similarly, the crossbar of the capital A (the horizontal line) always spills out of the letterform’s triangle. No matter how many times you adjust the design, it’ll never fit inside. Why? It’s because Cotton drew her original letters in this way.
While that’s good for making the logo recognizable, it also falls short of her original goal. Despite trying to create a bias-free design, her own viewpoint is still thoroughly baked into each letter. “That’s the flaw,” Cotton says. “At the end of the day, I was the one who drew this. I was trying to stretch it as far as I could, but ultimately I decided the initial stencil from which all of these [permutations] are being written.”
The asterisk attached to the project demonstrates just how biased design really is. Even when controlling for so many factors, a designer’s viewpoint is inherently at the heart of their work. Otherwise, there is no work.
However, Cotton isn’t giving up on her lofty goal just yet. Working with GBA, she’s creating what she dubs a “version 2.0” of the logo generator. Basically, she’ll have someone else draw the initial letters, then she’ll apply her deeper algorithmic logic regarding letter spacing, positioning, and stylizing to offer variations on someone else’s theme. Technically speaking, there’s no limit to how many people could sketch a new GBA logo in this way, and it will allow the organization to continue to evolve its inclusive brand identity.
Inviting more hands to draw the logo is almost a solution, but of course Cotton’s viewpoint will still be lurking in the code. The difference will be that her decisions around letter positioning and treatment will be applied to other people’s handwriting rather than her own. You could call these decisions “bias,” or you could call them the studied determinations of a professional designer. Both labels can fit with the right amount of spirited debate, which is precisely why GBA’s brand evolution will be notable to study—even for Cotton herself.