Challenge accepted: How can design represent something that hasn’t been defined yet

Learn how The New Normal’s visual identity was created and what it stands for.

In the summer of 2016, “The New Normal” was announced as the theme of Strelka Institute’s new postgraduate educational program. Over the five months of the program, students explored how emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, VR and AR, blockchains, machine vision and others are changing and could change the built environment of today. Strelka’s next cohort of students will continue to investigate this contemporary condition building on the research of the previous year. Applications to the program are accepted from students around the world until November 1. Learn how to apply here.

Strelka Magazine talked to the creators of the program’s visual identity to find out how it will evolve in the new academic year and what tools they are using to represent something that hasn’t been defined yet.  

Anna Kulachek, art director of Strelka Institute, on the key idea behind the visual  identity and how it was created:

Designing of the visual identity started with our trip to California to meet Benjamin Bratton – design theorist and author, program Director of The New Normal. We visited The Center for Design and Geopolitics headed by Bratton, where he showed us the type of research that they are working on at UCSD. Our primary goal was to understand the key conceptual ideas behind the new program. 


The New Normal 2016/17 design
The New Normal 2016/17 design
The New Normal 2016/17 design

The initial version of the program identity was close to the classic Strelka visual style,  embodied through the grid in three main colors: red, blue, and yellow. The grid structure allows you to change the content constantly and with ease, and this also reflects our perception of Strelka as a public space which is easily reconfigurable based on the types of events and activities we are hosting. But Benjamin wanted to do something radically new with the program this year - attract new faculty, and explore new research themes with the students. Moreover, the world itself and the context for the program has changed in the seven years since the Institute was established. That is why we decided that we could not only broadcast new ideas, but also show something new in the form of our visual identity. 

The new style is inspired by the idea of an “encyclopedia of modernity”. Since it is impossible to explain the notion behind “the new normal” in just one image, we decided to create an “encyclopedia” which we will fill with new images and examples of student research throughout the year. We implemented this idea by introducing rectangular blocks which constitute the basis of the visual identity – they can be seen, for example, on the website homepage. One of our references was the following example: when you perform a Google search, or make a board on Pinterest, or go to Instagram or Facebook, you see a large number of rectangular windows or boxes - this way of presenting information is clear to everyone. That is why our “encyclopedia” is based on this system of blocks, which enables us to change the content according to the topic and context.

The main difficulty was that The New Normal was something that was not yet clearly defined, yet we had to somehow depict it. The concepts we discussed with Benjamin are unlike conventional themes and can’t be included in a template, as they concern multiple phenomena which constitute our contemporary condition: what is happening and appearing right now. Therefore, it was precisely the“now” that became the inspiration for us: Benjamin shared a lot of his favourite examples of books and videos which demonstrate how technologies and information are changing the world, and we reviewed the work done by his students.

Illustration: Strelka Institute

Another difficulty was that we needed to embed images into the Strelka identity style which initially had neither images nor raster graphics (developed by OK-RM studio),  while  trying not to mess everything up. OK-RM are talented designers and they know that the search for appropriate images is a difficult task: when they are not used correctly it can easily mess up the design. That is why they introduced a clear system and there have never been images in the Strelka style. To cope with this challenge , Vladimir Shlygin, the senior digital designer for Strelka, created a script using processing which transforms any image into a specific style. 


Illustration: Strelka Institute

The concept of the encyclopedia remains in the new iteration of the program identity. We continue to work within the idea of The New Normal, but we slightly changed the style by adding bright colors to announce the launch of the Apply to Strelka campaign for 17/18 and the start of the new academic year.

Maxim Korolevich, digital art director of the Strelka Institute, on how the website design managed to reflect the idea of The New Normal

The brand identity was first reflected in the website, so all the experiments were tested there. The idea of The New Normal, which is about combining several concepts, could be best represented through movement. We started combing short videos associated with some of the program themes: nature and technology, technology and the urban environment, the urban environment and nature, and so on.

We wanted to express abstraction and through our interpretation convey a spirit, a direction in which future students could work. Since there is no clear definition of what The New Normal is, you can start mapping it only through research.

We made an ambient video which was used as a background on the website and realized that we could speak about the program through the subtitles: the video created the context and the text explained the details. This is how the website with shadows under the words and the mysterious montage on the background appeared. The remaining  videos were used for the Instagram account created for the program.

The style we created had to be easy to modify, because the types and number of new mediums is constantly growing. We wanted to find a solution that would enable a flexible use of raster and vector. There were a lot of ideas but all of them had the same pattern – the continuation of the concept of combination. This is how the mosaic consisting of different colors and images appeared – a system of unlimited variations.

While we were working on the evolution of the the new style, Radim Peshko, the author of the font used in Strelka’s identity, released an update – a version of Fugue font called Fugue Tails. The font suited the concept: it was something familiar, but modified. We also picked a second font - William, designed by Masha Doreuli, which we are going to use more and more in the future. The modern antique counterbalanced the futuristic Fugue Tails and added a classical touch.

The program explores changes in the world where technologies are affecting all aspects of life. Therefore, in the second version of the website we decided to represent constant changes through transforming blocks of the mosaic and the distorted satellite image of the Earth.

When you open the homepage it shows the information collected on the user in the form of notifications. We took basic data which people, sometimes even without a second thought, give to any website: the services they were logged into, their browser and OS, their IP and location, the time spent on the website, etc.. We do not store this information, but simply show how machines can analyze people and how they see us. This is also one of the main topics discussed during the program.

Vladimir Shlygin, senior digital designer for the Strelka Institute, on the creation of graphics and images for the brand identity of the program

My task was to create content for the blocks of the encyclopedia. Since the program is about modern technologies, we decided to use them to create pictures. The idea was based on several metaphors. First of them was the effect of the uncanny valley in the context of real spaces and objects implemented into the digital environment. Through this effect we wanted to show how new technologies are increasingly penetrating our lives and that in the near future these processes will be inseparable from the daily activities of people.  

We tried to reflect the effect of the uncanny valley through a character in a three-dimensional world who behaved and looked like a human, but with was something strange about it: for example, it was sitting without a bench, or there were three identical people walking down the street.   

Illustration: Strelka Institute
Illustration: Strelka Institute

We also wanted to show that technologies not only change people’s lives, but also transform the space around them. So, we decided to create a digital landscape and to combine it with real photos. For a landscape we took images that were automatically downloaded from the internet and turned their black and white values into an altitude map, on which, as a result, even letters could be seen. Above the map we put photos of the real sky.

To develop the idea of digital landscapes, we wanted to start from the opposite end, and to create a generative landscape. We decided to use Perlin noise algorithm for generation of pseudorandom numbers, which has been used for that purpose for more than 30 years.

We were inspired by another quite obvious metaphor about imaginary cities. There is digital infrastructure that surrounds the city and is a part of it, but at the same time it is intangible, it is hard to visualise it. This infrastructure has become part of our lives – it is the “new normal” for us. So, we had the idea of showing that in images.

We also wanted the design to reflect the student research. Out of all possible options, Pixel Sorting algorithm suited us most. This algorithm analyses a picture, finds the lightest pixels in it, and reverses them with the dark ones. To make the result look unique, I changed the traditional logics of the algorithm – in our version the light pixels could not only mix with the dark ones, but also replace them, extending in this way the light parts of the photos. We selected three key topics: urbanism, sociology, and technology. Then we selected  images related to these topics and distorted them through the algorithm. In this way, the pictures were recognizable, but looked completely new. This principle became the basis for all the images in the identity.

At the end of the 2016/17 educational year Strelka hosted the New Normal Showcase – a two-evening event where students and faculty presented their work in the program. This was a big public event and celebration and was supposed to have a brighter and more dynamic identity, so we limited the colors to a bright palette. To fully present all the potential of the algorithm we decided to interpret the live feed from the video camera and project it on the screen in real time.

Photo: Dmitry Smirnov / Strelka Institute
Photo: Dmitry Smirnov / Strelka Institute
Photo: Dmitry Smirnov / Strelka Institute

Alya Datiy, project manager at the Strelka Institute, on the identity of the new academic year

In the new educational year, students will build on the research of Year 1 and continue to explore some of the 2016/17 themes, but from a new perspective. We wanted to represent this continuity in the identity by preserving the key elements: the Fugue Tails font and the blocks that were constantly changing their position. This time in the system of blocks we used distorted images of items that were either timeless or depicted modernity. Distortion, according to our idea, referred to the new normal formation in the whole world; therefore, the Earth was chosen as the basic image. We changed the color scheme completely: there was a black background on all the mediums and the images had very bright colors.  However, after discussions with the program director we decided not to move forward with this version of the new design identity. Besides, our website is text heavy and for many people it is harder to read white text on a black background.  We decided to give it another try and build on the identity of the Showcase. The pictures used during the event were distorted by the algorithm created by Vladimir Shlygin: images became blurry but could be recognized from a distance. The identity style from the Showcase looked good at the two-day event, when we knew the number of mediums in advance. But despite the automatic operation of the algorithm, it still requires a suitable image selection and a lot of work; that is why it is not possible to use it regularly for the creation of cover pictures, posters, presentations, etc. So, we had the idea of adding a gradient that balanced the algorithm and looked great in print. Now some blocks in the identity are filled with the gradient and others with images distorted by the algorithm. We divide these two types by the medium: for the print version, we usually choose the gradient, and for the digital one – the algorithm, because it looks better on screens. Such a flexible combination enables us to preserve the same style, background, and font and at the same time to renew the idea.  

Illustration: Strelka Institute

Text: Alexandra Dorfman