Visual Identity & Branding

This topic utilizes my passion for the rock group U2 as the context for investigations of fundamental concepts of brand/visual identity strategy (such as naming, brandmarks, logos, brand architecture) in conjunction with unconventional approaches that have yet resulted in indelible brands of visual identity.

Major Research Initiative: The U2 Tattoo Project

This theme encompasses my major research initiative, The U2 Tattoo Project, which has involved the identification, documentation, and curation of more than 300 U2 fan tattoos. One major outcome of the project is the forthcoming gallery exhibit, Ink, Icons, Identity: Exploring the U2 Brand through Fan Tattoos (August, 2016). This multimedia exhibit will showcase photos, research, and artifacts related to U2 tattoos, as well as the compelling personal stories behind the permanent bodily markings of these logos, symbols and designs. The exhibit will also be the basis for proposed articles and a book. (See separate section.)


Conference Presentations

  • Three Logos and the Truth: The Iconography of U2 Fan Tattoos (upcoming)
  • Read Abstract

Southeastern College Arts Conference (SECAC 2016)
Roanoke, Virginia
October 19–22, 2016

As tattoos become more mainstream (approximately 20 percent of Americans have one) and as consumer culture rises, logos are rapidly moving off the pages of graphics standards manuals and onto the bodies of fans and brand-lovers, where both execution and interpretation are up for grabs.

The U2 Tattoo Project examines this transition from ephemeral marketing to permanent modification in the context of U2 fan tattoos. Born from research exploring the band’s lack of an official logo, the project investigates how U2 fans visually brand themselves. Three icons appear more frequently than anything else from U2’s extensive visual archive, but why? This study pulls from more than 300 documented fan tattoos as well as interviews with U2’s creative team to understand the allure—graphically and conceptually—of these particular symbols. Their prevalence is partly due to the same factor that makes a corporate logo successful: they strike a perfect balance between communicating the brand message and inviting personal connection. They are universal in meaning yet allow for individual appropriation. Beyond this primary consideration, the study also examines the graphic quality and reproducibility of the marks as well as correlations with the popularity of certain albums and of tattooing in mainstream culture.

  • From Marketing to Markings: The U2 Tattoo Project Explores the Ultimate Fan Expression
  • Read Abstract

Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference
Seattle, Washington
March 22–26, 2016

The U2 Tattoo Project is an ongoing curation and study of U2 fan tattoos born from previous research exploring the band’s lack of an official logo. Unlike most of rock ’n’ roll’s biggest bands (The Stones, The Beatles, The Who) or more current bestselling groups (Foo Fighters, Muse, One Direction), U2 doesn’t have a singular, iconic symbol that is readily associated with them. Instead, they have a history of transient visual identities from each era or album. In the absence of that official logo, what do U2 fans get tattooed, and why? The project, a partnership between a graphic designer and a visual anthropologist, has already documented more than 300 fan tattoos and investigates the transition from marketing to body modification. What drives fans to go beyond merchandise and to permanently mark their bodies with a band’s identity? How does the role of a graphic identity—a logo—change as it moves from the ephemeral to the permanent? Are tattoos extensions of a band’s brand? What happens to the brand when these symbols are appropriated by fans as very personal expressions? This paper will explore the dynamic relationship between fan and band as U2’s visual identity passes into the hands and onto the bodies of fans.

  • Where the Bands Have No Logo: U2’s Mutable Visual Identity as a Contemporary Branding Model
  • Read Abstract

Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference
Chicago, Illinois
April 16–19, 2014

“Brand” and “logo” are not synonymous, but the most successful brands are traditionally accompanied by a readily visualized graphic identity: Coca-Cola, Apple, Google. Within the music industry, rock’s biggest bands have established logos that even non-fans easily conjure up: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. U2 inarguably belong among these juggernauts, but are quite the anomaly; they have become an iconic band with no consistent icon, but rather a history of transient visual identities (Achtung Baby’s hand-brushed grunge script; War’s bold, red gothic sans-serif face; The Joshua Tree’s silhouetted logomark).

U2 have established an unmatched transcendental brand while (and perhaps by) flouting two fundamental concepts of traditional brand strategy—consistency and clarity. U2 have made a career of convoluting their identity, including graphically reinventing themselves with every album cover. Yet, their powerful brand remains intact.

For nearly four decades, U2 have implemented an avant-garde flexible branding strategy that is now becoming prevalent in the corporate world, prompted especially by a growing digital landscape. Companies are challenging the traditional model of an immutable visual identity and shifting to pliable brands that can adapt to a changing relationship with the consumer.

This presentation will examine trends of 21st-century branding through the context of U2’s visual identity, from their homegrown first attempt at a logo in 1978 to their upcoming 2014 release, and consider the possibility that the absence of a consistent logo has helped them maintain relevance within an evolving music industry.

  • ‘What You Don’t Have, You Don’t Need It Now’: How the World’s Most Iconic Band Got There Without a Logo
  • Read Abstract

U2 Conference: U2 TRANS—
Cleveland, Ohio
April 26–27, 2013

A brand doesn’t have to have a logo, but the most successful brands do. Apple, Google, Coca-Cola—all have a definite graphic identity readily visualized and recognized throughout the world. Within the music industry, most chart-topping groups (classic and contemporary) have established logos that fans emotionally connect with and non-fans easily conjure up—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Run DMC, Kiss, Muse, The Killers. But what do you see when you think of U2? The hand-brushed grunge script from Achtung Baby? The bold, red Block Gothic face of War? The Joshua Tree logomark?

U2 have become an iconic band with no consistent icon, but rather a history of transient visual identities that embody their eras and represent different emotional experiences for fans. They’ve established an unmatched transcendental brand while (and perhaps by) flouting two of the fundamental concepts of brand/visual identity strategy—consistency and clarity. U2 have done everything they could to convolute their identity—tried on several names, as individuals and as a band; graphically reinvented themselves with every album cover; changed hairstyles, sunglasses and personas; released albums under different names and even opened for themselves incognito. Yet, their powerful brand remains intact.

This presentation will examine the history of U2’s visual identity through the context of brand strategy, including naming, brandmarks, brand architecture and more; explore how the band has established one of the most indelible brands in music history despite unconventional approaches; and look at U2 album covers re-imagined with a consistent logo, and how not developing such a logo has helped them maintain relevance within an evolving music industry.