Show who belongs to the club

Brands as designed denunciation

Eine Kolumne von Michael Erlhoff 

Sometimes English is immensely clear. One good example being the term ‘brand’ for the extremely well-defined name of a company or possibly a product. And the strategy that leads to this, the branding. Which itself quite blatantly references the historical tradition of the ranchers using a branding iron to mark their cattle and thus designate to whom each animal belonged. There is of course more to the history of branding; not only cattle but of course slaves were also branded in the same way. And, as we all know from various movies, the branding irons were designed and forged with great craftsmanship to create a pleasing document of title. Possession likes to prove itself with such severity.

Family names

Now it is well worth bearing in mind how the transition from cattle-breeders to today’s companies came about. It seems obvious that at an early date companies (and crafts workshops, financial and other service providers before them) usually relied on family names to designate themselves and had these artistically formulated and printed on various media. For the purposes of distinction and to show they were proud to bear the name. Moreover, at an early date the military devised ways of using specifically designed uniforms to distinguish themselves from other military formations and to create visible hierarchies within their own ranks. Add to the uniforms the banners, the rules of conduct, or, in the Prussian army, the minimum body size, the uniform greetings (and not just metaphorically), the marching songs – that later became hymns of the republic.

Even the Bible plays a role

These means of creating visibility for a group became connected in the further process of industrialization and of the emergence of ever greater enterprises to form what was initially presented as demonstrative logos: proud evidence that had to gain sway on the markets. Incidentally, it is interesting that this essentially simple information on the company name pathetically and covertly quotes the Bible with its “In the beginning was the Word”, whereby “word” was as we all know translated from the Greek “logos” (actually concept and thus the beginning and end of logic).

Peter Behrens and AEG

One of the first to grasp the possible reach of such activities, and they increasingly became crucial for companies, was German Art Nouveau protagonist Peter Behrens in the early 20th century. He worked as a practical designer for AEG, the major German utility “Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft”, and well ahead of all others realized some of the complexity and influence design had for market success. He renewed the AEG logo several times, created brochures, catalogs and even products such as electric kettles and ventilators to reflect it – and even the company’s architecture. The result was the concept of an overall image as an imperative, an image expected to dominate the market.

Corporate design

A few years later this was taken up by US designer Raymond Loewy, a French emigre who applied it to countless companies such as “Coca-Cola”, “Coop”, “Exxon” and “Lucky Strike”. Whereby something gradually gained sway that later caused quite a stir as “corporate design”. Now everyone started trying to grasp and depict companies’ visible presence as an overarching context. For so-called graphic designers (at the time, in the 1950s and 1960s there were hardly any female designers) this was a key branch of business. Initially, largely one-dimensional shapes held sway, as a means of actually creating uniformity for a company. For example, IBM always used a specific blue that, starting from the logo, likewise defined the products, the brochures and the advertising – anyone seeing this particular blue was supposed to immediately associate it with Big Blue, IBM.

Corporate identity

Only an Italian company, a fierce rival of IBM at the time, namely Olivetti, refused to follow suit and opted instead for an open corporate design as a counter-concept: This featured several, all muted color tones that could be combined with one another. The objective: not a uniform design, but the quality of the configuration was to be effective. Along the lines of: All in blue, must be IBM – everything harmonious and somehow beautiful, must be Olivetti. At least that was more complex an idea. Somehow this also marked the beginning of a new saga as to how to constitute and represent companies. Because roughly as of the 1980s, in particular the now very large globally active multi-national corporations noticed that the problem was no longer so much asserting themselves in the market (they felt they could now achieve this by power), but the corporation’s internal structure, internal communications, a sense of faith, the trust possibly needed, identification and automatic processes had become more complicated and market success could possibly be unsettled by this. The call for a “corporate identity” became all the louder. Design was now supposed to help upgrade the necessary internal structures. Compulsory forms of conduct, clear and pleasant internal design, internal symbols of membership and a uniform face to the outside all came into play.

Corporate culture

This all sounded strangely euphemistic when summarized under the label of “corporate culture”, whereby the term simply highlighted what was already known from the military and other authoritarian formations: If the stringency of rules and laws needs to be underpinned then precisely by measures that accept these as self-evident and as one’s own and propagate them as such. One is expected to believe in them and link one’s own identity to them. And at the same time set oneself off as a group clearly from all others, precisely from those who ostensibly do not belong – which can be marvelously grasped as communications, as this always implies distinction-cum-separation; anyone who does not understand the signs – is out. This occurred in an alliance above all between agencies for so-called corporate consultancy, which grew considerably during this time, architecture, since it had to secure these monuments of self-perception and its impact on the outside world, and design, which was thus at least assumed to have clear insights into the veritable complexity and influence of this profession and had to square up to this challenge.

That said, the process took very different forms from one company to the next. Some of them, for example, went so far as to standardize the internal voice of the company and give it a positive spin – there was a time, for example, when staff members of Frankfurt’s trade-fair company were not allowed to say something was down, or behind this or that. Instead, they had to say “in the basement” or “gone south” or otherwise “north”. Another company, the luminaire maker “ERCO”, once with its design under the directorship of a former co-founder of the famed “Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm”, Otl Aicher, to this day is so rigid in its CI structure that even the flowers on the desks have to meet specific design principles and the Coca-Cola vending machine got spray-painted gray as the original red did not fit in with the gray CI color code.

So, now to branding. Not that any of it is in the final instance and given the above-mentioned development particularly new; it is simply that marketing has been added to design and otherwise has given itself a new label.

Brand marks remain

Evidently it is a pretty brutal way of marking things, namely one that offers no way out. A brand mark can no longer be removed. It remains, forever. And one simply has to accept the fact and essentially identify with it. Which means that the flipside of this design process, basically tangible the whole time, becomes truly manifest. Because somehow branding degrades the people who are meant to buy and use the companies’ offerings (just as it does the staff members) to the status of cattle and slaves. In other words to the status of people who passionately believe all this and therefore are expected to be obedient. Which, in the renewed glance back at the history of this development, shows just how inhuman such a corporate policy is. As it is impossible to really avoid thinking that this corporate idea is not somehow fascinated by what was so perfectly conceived, designed, realized and achieved by Italian fascism and in particular by the Nazis.

In fact, the perception perhaps holds true that German Nazism at a very early date and possibly in exemplary fashion anticipated what companies later resorted to as a corporate design and corporate identity (and possibly, at a deeper level, companies learned from it, after all, it was after 1933 that the “Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung/GfK” was founded in Germany, to this day an influential market research institute, by the later Federal Republic’s economics minister and then Chancellor, Ludwig Erhard). Indeed, the pattern of such CIs was tried out and put into practice by the Nazis most unequivocally with all the severity and consistency required. In each and every detail.

Uniforms become an everyday sight

This was of course done with the intention of gaining a strong outside image, and clearly of very carefully controlling and establishing all internal procedures. Thus, uniforms became an everyday sight along with the visible hierarchies and designations involved, standardized gestures evolved, collective public appearances (which included sporting events), a penetrating corporate voice with all the corresponding exclamations and often strident battle cries. This even included the furnishings (including those nefarious interrogation lamps that along with all the rest of the interior were trotted out in movies at the time), not to mention of course the architecture and design of public spaces. Nothing was supposed to be left to chance, and yet the offer was to be so precise and thus compelling and functional that the inhabitants of this country identified with it and on this basis developed a sense of belonging and security. It really took some time before worldwide companies adopted this with the same sense of brutality.

That said, it is not just those characteristics and modes of behavior that controlled social processes through rigid planning (and with utter consistency then won the day as scenarios during the War). Rather, such a thing can only succeed if at the same time demarcation and ostracization are given a drastic designed form and deployed accordingly. Only such measures make it simpler to feel that you are something special, to specifically overcome fears (of unemployment, a lack of success, inferiority, etc.), to feel you have a higher station and to hunt down the enemies of the state – acting as the latter’s extended arm. For example as a local Nazi watchman officially watching over a block of apartments or merely as an informer, because then you think you are a key part of the powers-that-be and therefore yourself powerful. This, however, requires signals that designate those who may not or should not be allowed to belong. Signals that as such can as it were be called for and defined empirically by the powers-that-be and need to be designed by the relevant specialists.


In other words, either the respective rulers (or today some petty-minded persons and rights owners) discover and formulate or they construct a certain focus on possible differences and idiosyncrasies in appearance, in behavioral patterns or people’s language in order to ostracize them. In the process, depending on the social situation and the interests of those who search for ostracization, characteristics get set that are destined to make the segregation seem plausible. For example by virtue of skin color, size, facial shape (notorious since the 18th century owing to that awful pietist Lavater and his claim that a person’s physiognomy defines their character), of how they behave, their eating habits, their patent membership of a religious group, language, and the like. What would in normal life no doubt have been by no means striking up to that point now takes center stage as a mark of distinction. And gets intensively highlighted in publications. By caricature as well as other designed images and slogans.

Should that not suffice, even more design is brought to bear (which previously had already fiercely supported the purported distinctions). Because now distinctions are needed that can be tacked on to the people who are to be ostracized. The most obvious example of the resulting trivial and yet incisive designs would be the “yellow star” Jews were forced to wear, devised to mark out all those people who were absolutely not allowed to be members of the “people’s community”. A clear, very simple and definitely clear and easily recognizable sign that was based on a very simplistic and yet incisive design. Someone designed it. To brand those who were to be persecuted.

Caution when assigning characteristics

Now the reference to history is by no means intended to appease the present. On the contrary, precisely design and doubtless everyone should be very cautious about assigning characteristics. Because the latter are always pure constructs, projections. Even the possible surprise at seeing a man in a bespoke suit suddenly begging merely articulates the generally propagated notion that beggars need to look shabby. And the socially virulent reservations against a doctor whose skin is of a different color are pathetic (and bad for your own health). People who master German fluently are by no means smarter than those who occasionally stammer or cannot express themselves fluently.

All the same, design continues to participate in the shape of icons of belonging and ostracization. Not just by the branding in corporations, but also by social branding. To take a minor, but not insubstantial example: On German railway platforms there are yellow rectangles painted on the ground to clearly demarcate smokers from the rest of society. A clearly designed distinction with which you can hardly feel easy – and that is the idea. Here, again, design is active and used in order to construe ostensible identities and to formulate denunciation.

Michael Erlhoff

He is an author, design theorist, corporate consultant, curator and organizer; he has been, among other things, CEO of the German Design Council, Advisory Council member of documenta 8 and Founding Dean (and until 2013 professor at) of the Köln International School of Design/KISD. Erlhoff was founder of the Raymond Loewy Foundation, is a founding member of the German Society of Design Theory and Research and as a visiting professor heads projects and workshops at universities in Tokyo, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Taipei, Hong Kong, New York and Sydney. Since 2016 he teaches as an honorary professor at the Braunschweig University of Fine Arts.