Wednesday, 20 April 2011

How have conservation brands evolved?

I have an opinion article in today’s Nature that I’m quite pleased with. It’s called “The art of conservation”, which could make it the first time that a title I proposed at pitch has not mutated en route to publication.

I have been thinking about conservation imagery for many years, making a brief survey of it in my first book Lonesome George and again in The Way of the Panda. With the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s panda logo 50 years old in July (almost certainly 16 July if you want to be precise), it seemed a good moment to reflect on the way that this and other conservation logos have evolved through time. It is a journey that I argue tells us quite a lot about changes in conservation practice. You can read the full article online to get the detailed argument, but here’s a prĂ©cis.

Conservation brands have gone from being homespun, anatomically accurate, single-species creations to being stylized, abstract, frequently global images. This is a direct reflection of the conservation movement’s journey from a single- to a multi-species focus, with organizations increasingly operating at the level of habitats, ecosystems and the globe. It also embraces the increasing reliance on design and advertising agencies.

Conservation International’s new logo is perhaps the best illustration of this evolutionary process. It was launched in September 2010; you can read the press release – New Logo for a New Mission – here. It was created by Sagi Haviv, partner at the New York graphic design agency Chermayeff & Geismar; it is stylised; it incorporates a globe; and it has an abstract human figure thrown in for good measure. Mr Haviv kindly took the time to answer a series of (probably quite annoying) questions and I have posted the full transcript of the interview here.

I had great fun with this article and inspired by Ed Yong’s brilliant stem cell timeline (which on has clocked up more than 300,000 views in a couple of months), I have produced one to accompany my Nature opinion piece (see above). I don’t imagine for a moment it’ll get anywhere near 1000th this attention but I enjoyed playing with this great site. I have only covered a minute selection of all possible conservation artwork and freely admit to a British- and US-centric bias, so if you work for (or are a member of) a conservation organization that I did not cover please feel free to add to the timeline; I think I have set it so anyone can add a new “event”.

Naturally (as it would support my overall thesis) I’d be very interested to have further examples of amateurish, biologically faithful logos from the 1950s and ’60s, the involvement of professional designers from the ’70s and ’80s, the appearance of human elements from the mid-1980s onwards and the incorporation of global motifs from 2000ish. In particular, it's really interesting to see how logos changed over time within one organization.

In addition, exceptions – and there are plenty of them I’m sure – can also be instructive. WWF’s panda is one of them. Though it has undergone three stylistic mutations since Sir Peter Scott’s 1961 original, it remains rather old-school in its single-species design, with no explicit attempt to bring humans into the picture or to acknowledge the global extent of the conservation problem. But, I argue, it didn’t need to. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, which prevented WWF from becoming involved with pandas until 1980, meant the charity – and its image – never fell into the trap of being type-cast in a species-specific role but was able to become established as a truly global symbol big enough to embrace the entire conservation movement at every step of its evolution.

Interview with Sagi Haviv

I interviewed many people for my opinion article on the art of conservation that appears in this week's Nature. I thank them all for their time and willingness to talk openly about this fascinating subject. Here, I include a full transcript of a particularly interesting interview with Sagi Haviv, partner of and principle designer at Chermayeff & Geismar and the man behind Conservation International’s new logo (right).

Henry Nicholls: Can you share with me – even if only in general terms – the brief given to you by Conservation International? In particular, I am keen to know whether they had decided to axe the rainforest or this was something you suggested? And at what stage did you know that the new design would not have wildlife in it?

Sagi Haviv: The first time we laid eyes on Conservation International’s previous mark, we knew that it was an extremely difficult logo to use. To begin with, it was a complicated form that was very hard to reproduce, especially in today’s multimedia realities, where it has to work in very small sizes, such as an iPhone app, on the web and so on.

But these formal challenges were not ultimately the reason the mark had to be abandoned. Conservation International realized that, although the old mark was beloved by everyone within the organization, the significant mission change – which had expanded from focusing on saving the most endangered “hot spots” to focusing on those environmental areas that affect the most people, such as oceans, cities and other areas that were not previously in their scope – rendered the rainforest mark conceptually irrelevant.

So not only was the previous image extremely limiting in its application potential, it was also implying a limited scope for the organization’s operations, and was missing the new focal point of its activities: humans. Our feeling was that what Conservation International needed was not a literal picture that illustrates every single area of their activities, but rather a new, suggestive and potentially expansive mark.

HN: Up until the 1980s, wildlife artists and conservationists had a big hand in selecting flagships and branding their organizations. Since then, advertising agencies have made an ever-stronger contribution. Can you explain what it is that you bring to this process that is so valuable?

SH: Trademark design is a specialized discipline within visual communications. It requires taking a long-term view and reducing often complex ideas to their essence, ultimately creating a form that is simple enough to be reproduced in a variety of sizes and media, ­and yet distinctive enough to be memorable and appropriate for the organization represented. It is this expertise that we bring to every client, regardless of the field. By applying these tenets of identity design to Conservation International, we created a bold mark that helped the organization complete its mission shift, from saving ecosystems to conserving the global environment, with focus on the humans who depend on it.

HN: I’m fascinated by something that you said in the press release for the logo. “The power is truly embedded in the simplicity. Yet it is expressive enough to help the organization redefine itself, and therefore has the potential to become a true international icon.” Did you mean that it is so simple and so universal that Conservation International will have the freedom to go about their mission without being trapped by its logo?

SH: When we worked to develop Conservation International’s new identity, the expansion of the organization’s scope was our primary concern. The previous illustrative logo was limiting because it was a literal rendition of a patch of vegetation. With the shift of focus expressed in the new mission, we created an abstract, symbolic form that suggests a myriad of ideas – the blue planet underlined in green, a green sustainable path, an abstract human form – that are all relevant to the new mission and expanded scope.

HN: In comparison to other conservation NGOs, Conservation International’s new logo has quite a corporate feel. Is this a strength or a weakness and why?

SH: Conservation International’s new mark is not itself inherently corporate. Rather, many corporations use simple, abstract logos, whereas smaller and non-profit organizations often use illustrative marks. Thus we tend to think of simple logos as corporate. But that doesn’t make the designs themselves corporate.

The important factor to consider here is that the logo is not the totality of an organization’s communications. It has a very specific role in the identity system, which is to be an effective identifier that can work in various sizes and media. For this reason, the simpler the logo is the better it will function. (This naturally limits the amount of information an effective logo can express). Within their larger communication system, the new Conservation International logo is contrasted and complimented by vibrant imagery from their fabulous image library. For example, for the back of every business card we specified a unique full-bleed photo of different wildlife, people and nature. And the same goes for their publications and other promotional materials. With this variety and individualization, there is a rich, vibrant and passionate feel to their overall brand image.

So ultimately the new Conservation International logo is not more or less corporate, it is just extremely simple, which will make it an effective identifier across all the organization’s communications.

Conservation International - Logo Animation from Chermayeff Geismar on Vimeo.