The case for modularity: 3 approaches to fluid design systems

Setting out to build a brand from scratch is daunting. Modular thinking can help designers beat creative block to provide a superior product. Try any of these three unique approaches next time you land an identity contract.

To start, a quick definition from Wikipedia:

Modularity: the degree to which a system's components may be separated and recombined, often with the benefit of flexibility and variety in use. — Wikipedia

When a designer creates something, it is comprised of pixels, ink drops, pencil markings, brush strokes, [insert your art media here]. In this sense, the designer is adhering to a set of rules (or modules), however small they are. Now enlarge the smallest unit (the humble pixel) to a larger unit: a motif, a narrative, a grid, etc. From here, start to think of your modular unit as the cornerstone of a branding system. 

At the heart of modular systems lie an intense struggle: consistency vs inconsistency. Consistency, being the idea that any touchpoint evokes the accurate perception of the brand; inconsistency (more accurately: uniqueness, fluidity or adaptability), being the differentiator that brings character and intrigue. Building upon the modular unit with the successful marriage of these two contrasting concepts is the beginning of a brand that makes sense...

So it makes sense that modern identity systems are implementing fluidity. New and various formats and screen sizes necessitate adaptable brands. But apart from it’s visual responsiveness, breaking apart brand elements and reimagining them in different conceptual ways is intriguing to the consumer. It adds flexibility to the message without introducing confusion. In the end, it should solidify the essence of the brand. Let’s look at three approaches to the modular concept.

The MIT Media Lab Approach

An expert example of modularity is the design system for MIT Media Lab. Pentagram used a grid structure to expand the MIT brand identity to 23 research groups in the Lab. I’ve redrawn three of the logos on grid paper to show the 7 x 7 structure.

“The result is an interrelated system of glyphs that at once establishes a fixed identity for the Media Lab, but celebrates the diversity of activity that makes the Lab great.” — Pentagram

You can see the 23 research groups based on the initial “ML” glyph. Much like a language, these work excellent as a system. Being both complex and simple, the system proves to be extremely consistent while also quite fluid.

The Fin & Fino Approach

Another great example in modularity is the branding system for North Carolina seafood eatery, Fin & Fino. It’s built of multiple unique yet seamless elements. I’d call this a narrative structure, where various type treatments and styles are used to unify the system while adding charm and character. 

I caught up with the designer, Anna Kate Bryan, who shared valuable insight into the process. These process sketches are helpful in understanding how to think in modular terms. Anna Kate explained that fluidity is achieved by the sheer quantity of marks, making the brand scalable and flexible. This gives more depth than one main logo distilled into multiple lockups that would become stagnant over time.

“The entirety of the brand is comprised of multiple different elements which are unique on their own, but work together visually to tell the story”. — Anna Kate Bryan, The Plaid Penguin

The 23andMe Approach

A motif structure is the backbone to Metadesign’s 23andMe identity. As a personal genetic research company, 23andMe is already ingrained in the concepts of personal and uniqueness. Metadesign built 23 distinctly unified logos that reference the building blocks of DNA.   

“The identity successfully reduces the intimidation associated with the field of personal genetics, thus distinguishing the brand in an emerging and exciting field." — Anne Wojcicki, Co-founder

Citing “friendliness” and “approachability”, 23andMe boasts this motif that can be used as an underlying design element for collateral. You can view more of their case study on their Behance page.

These are just a few of the interesting examples out in the world of branding. For further study on brands using modular systems, check these out: Australian Open, EFF, Atlanta Brewing Co.

Try approaching your next project with modular thinking and let me know how it goes. Comment below if you find another way.

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