Off Model

Animators refer to a deviation from a cartoon character's model sheet or original design as "off model." I've adopted the term to speak about brand and identity guidelines with students. The hilarious website, Cake Wrecks has provided this perfect, local example of "off model" content in the wild.

Off Model

While jarring - surely, you can admit there's something whimsical and charming about this. It'd never pass snuff as a promotional image for the university (for good reason) but it has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Compare it to the following. This is also off model but probably gets a little more respect (via Gannadene at Deviant Art):

UK Logo by Gannedene

It's not quite my cup of tea (neither is the original to be honest) but it's an off model step in a more positive direction. I'm not saying that it's an improvement, but that it would be considered skillful work by most, where our cake friend wouldn't. Of course experiments in "off model" work fail with more frequency the more iconic the source.

I'm sure that cake made more than a few UK fans cringe. The lynx a little less so - but there are probably still some who dislike it despite its draftsmanship. Such is the common reception for alterations to an iconic and beloved design.

Here's my dirty little secret - despite its flaws, I prefer the cake.

The animator John K (the creator of Ren & Stimpy) has provided some pretty wild, off model examples of (dare I say it?) even more iconic and beloved characters:

Bugs, Daffy, Fred and George by John K

They're probably not to everyone's taste but I certainly adore them. They retain just enough to tap into familiarity but veer enough to transcend that iconographic state. They are an expression both reliant on the original yet defiant to it.

They're not the "real" characters - just a little design vacation, right? They're absurd and farcical - unofficial, like the cake and lynx.

Sure. They're that (in this particular instance) but John K has worked on some official material for both Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbera in a similar style. I have a lot of respect for those institutions who take a gamble on someone like John K messing with their classic designs. While it might have been just a jaunt, it's certainly more than that other animation studio would be willing to do with their mouse (except in Japan).

As a project and not a "permanent" redesign it's easier to take liberties - but how does experimentation like this work in official design with brands and identities? Just how much liberty is taken? How far does the design veer away from its predecessor? Can official work be this fun?

Sure. Just take a look at this diagram of logo changes to Pepsi and Coca-Cola's identity over the years (via the blog of Victor Sosea):

Coca Cola vs Pepsi Logo

I can just sense the tension each of these logo changes must have caused - but also the admiration. It's all a gamble when you're playing with such iconic work. Going off model officially or unofficially is dangerous work. Not all of these were steps in the right direction and some weren't taken very well by the public. I find Lawrence Yang's take on the 2008 Pepsi logo redesign particularly amusing:

Yang's Take on Pepsi's New Logo

I'll never look at it the same way again.

Being able to faithfully following guidlines yet also explore and push limits are both important skills for a good designer. As someone who has both built and been beholden to brand and identity guidelines, I feel strongly that they're there for a very good reason - but I still relish the occasional opportunity to go off model.

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