The Amnesty International Global Identity…

There is an interesting paradox at the heart of the new Amnesty International ‘global identity’ which appeared this year. For such an high-profile organisation there is remarkably little information about it available on the web either. Indeed it was only when reading the magazine of Amnesty’s Irish Section that I came upon an article which discussed it in any detail.

And that article is a fascinating insight into the rationale for a global identity and the approach taken to develop it.

It starts with the truism that:

The average urban western citizen is exposed to 50,000 advertising messages per day. We simply cannot take in all this information and unconsciously filter messages that we don’t think are relevant. We end up ignoring the less distinct and less repeated.

Here’s an interesting fact. Michael Johnson in his useful Problem Solved: A primer in Design and Communication (Phaidon, 2002) wrote that:

It’s claimed that we are all subjected to thousands of marketing messages a day. Can you remember even a hundred of the ones you received today? Probably not. Why not? Because we’ve trained ourselves to filter out all bar the absolutely essential. Pity, then, the designer or communicator charged with getting information over in a way that the public will absorb, not ignore.

That his comments and those of Amnesty are a truism is self-evident. That the language is near-identical perhaps points to the centrality of the problem. Because the necessity to convey specific information in an message-saturated environment is crucial to the success or failure of visual identities.

But this is then localised in the specific.

Amnesty International has 80 different sections and structures throughout the world. The majority of them use some local variation of the name and candle. That’s a lot of imagery coming from just one organisation. We don’t want to be uniform – but we do want to be unified.

Amnesty International is unique. We expose injustice. We create a sense of outrage. And we act to liberate people from injustice with a sense of hope. This is the spirit of our new Global Identity. Everything we create should combine a feeling of outrage with a feeling of hope.

It is notable that hitherto Amnesty has ceded considerable latitude to national sections and structures to implement their own approach to a visual identity. This is hardly surprising, the organisation developed in an essentially ad hoc fashion over a many decades. It’s also probable that it sought to avoid an overt visual professionalism early on, an attitude that was for a considerable period of time reflected in many organisations in the voluntary and charity sectors, and indeed left-leaning organisations more generally. Indeed it is fascinating to reflect on how that attitude is now all but gone in a world where the necessity to communicate messages as directly and clearly as possible is paramount – a necessity underlined in the opening sentence.

The process by which Amnesty International arrived at the new identity is detailed with some clarity.

From December 10 2008 the Irish Section will fully adopt the new Global Identity. We’ll be joining the International Secretariat and a number of other sections who’ve already done so and by 2011 every section and structure within Amnesty will be using it too.

Members led the way on this decision. The debate began almost ten years ago at the International Council Meeting; the ulitmate member led decision-making body of the movement. The identity has been under development since 2005 and was agreed by the movement’s Executive with a mandate from the membership every step along the way.

It is telling that the introduction of a ‘global identity’ is taking place over four years and that this is the culmination of a process already ten years old. The decentralised, near-autonomous, nature of the organisation requires this sort of gradualist approach. This is very different to commercial identity campaigns where timescales are generally much shorter and implementation is usually simultaneous (although that said differentiation of brand and identity in local markets is not unknown, as a journey to different supermarkets will demonstrate).

That said Amnesty is fortunate to have a genuinely iconic visual signifier. As the document continues:

The candle symbol combines the barbed wire of oppression with the light of hope. It is a hugely powerful icon for Amnesty International, recognized by millions of people around the world.

Yellow is an attention-grabbing colour. Yellow is the colour of urgency, and also the colour of hope. Yellow always stands out.

The Yellow panel as well as carrying the name and candle is also used as call to action by placing it on top of an image. It covers up part of the image and by doing so shows dramatically that something is wrong or missing, that we have something urgent and important to say or do. Something that cannot wait. Like this.

The yellow panel carries a short sharp headline, which tells the truth with a feeling of outrage. The panel can also include the campaign name so there will be a common theme for all campaigns. We will also use yellow to highlight important content in reports or to alert people to good news.

Indeed the simplicity of the solution is immediately apparent. The iconic candle and barbed wire symbol printed in black upon yellow field is strengthened by the visual separation from the text, which is ranged left or right depending upon the language being used. The selection of yellow as the colour is particularly adept. The visual significations of yellow and black imply attention and are used in industrial contexts for precisely that reason. This is allows for a sense of danger or attention, of work and energy. The selection of a strong condensed sans serif face, apparently a Univers, adds to this imagery of seriousness.

It’s interesting to note that precisely this approach was used in a radically different context by Peter Saville when producing imagery for Factory Records, and perhaps most obviously the FAC1 poster. This dependence upon a visual lexicon utilised by industry, and in particular the BSI work-site hazard warning signs, translated almost seamlessly into the context of visual imagery for entertainment. Indeed it was precisely by retaining the original concepts that the material became so distinctive. The significations were both humourous and serious, humourous in the sense that they generated a visual pun, but serious in the sense that this was considered an aestheticisation of the original imagery, not merely a parody of it, something that was evident in later work for Factory.

And a similar process is evident in the Amnesty International identity.

This is visually as far as one could imagine from most commercial identities. As the document notes the visuals cohere into an identity so that:

No matter where you come from or where you happen to be you will be able to instantly recognise Amnesty International.

Nor is it entirely static. There is scope for some degree of flexibility.

A concise set of guidelines has been drawn up and everyone throughout the world will adhere to them. The guidelines plus artwork will be sent to all the local Groups before the Irish Section changes over in December.

While the guidelines are rigid for print and web, the possibilities for using the yellow panel in campaigning activities are endless. We can paint yellow squares and banners, use post it notes and other iconic yellow items, print on yellow paper, colour things in. Yellow should become synonymous with outrage, with hope, and with Amnesty International. With every section of Amnesty International throughout the world using the global brand, our yellow will become instantly recognisable.

This approach makes sense for an essentially volunteerist organisation. It engenders a sense of ‘ownership’ amongst members while subtly directing them towards unified visual solutions that should – if implemented appropriately – result in an heightened profile for the organisation. And legibility, both conceptual and visual, is at the heart of this new identity.

We need to be very clear about what we are saying. Our images will do that, and so will the words we use. In order to change people’s minds our writing needs to be”

– Readable, or people will ignore it.

– Authoritative, or people will dismiss it.

– Impassioned, or people won’t act on it.

One can see the applicability of these thoughts to many other design and visual communication contexts. And the key sentence in the above, the one which reaches into the heart of Amnesty’s self-perception is:

We don’t want to be uniform – but we do want to be unified.

The necessity for visual cohesion must, of necessity, elide other meanings by superimposing upon them a small number of basic concepts that are rendered with almost an hyper-clarity. But by reworking and repositioning their previous identity in such a rational way they have updated it without losing its original power. It is notable that the explanations for this are so transparent. Yet, again, that is presumably a necessity in an organisation which prides itself on being open and democratic in its approach. Despite the idiosyncrasies implicit in such a project this certainly provides an example of how to engage with the stakeholders in an identity programme. A lesson that could usefully be applied to many more organisations both public and commercial.

However, it is also important to note an aspect of the identity which Michael Johnson refers to in his book, referenced above. He notes that when the World Wildlife Fund sought a reworking of their identity, and in particular that of their “40-year-old panda symbol” they went to North American identity specialist Landor.

…this was not a radical redesign of the Panda, just an exercise in rationalizing the many version of the mark in existence, and applying it consistently across the globe.

Somewhat cynically he adds.

Of course, at their next credentials presentation, the agency will have been able to show the Panda mark, discuss the project and bask in a little reflected glory.

Yet it is true that the visual capital that Amnesty International already possessed was sufficient to allow for a very similar process to that described for the World Wildlife Fund. To reposition the logo, however adeptly is a task of a different magnitude from an entirely new identity. Given that caveat though it remains a thoughtful reworking of an already extant and well-known visual identity.

Ciarán Swan

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