Visual Culture

How MTV Has Radically Reinvented Its Look over Nearly Four Decades

Jacqui Palumbo
Aug 1, 2018 11:50AM

On August 1, 1981, one minute after midnight, Americans watched the Apollo 11 launch into space. This wasn’t the first time they had seen the maiden moon voyage, but this time, when an astronaut appeared, planting a flag on the rocky surface of the moon, it was their first look at the now-iconic combination of letters “M,” “T,” and “V,” flickering triumphantly in place of stars and stripes—and signaling the launch of a radical new television network. This spot would kick off nearly four decades of MTV’s impact on youth culture, much of which has been successful thanks to its ever-changing visual identity.

Before its launch, MTV had little budget for creative. The logo was originally conceptualized by three young graphic designers—Pat Gorman, Frank Olinsky, and Patti Rogoff—who had set up shop in a tiny room in New York City’s Greenwich Village under the moniker Manhattan Design. Olinsky, who received the brief from his friend, the first MTV creative director Fred Seibert, was tasked with designing a logo for a 24/7 music video channel at a time when a “music video” was a foreign concept. The winning design was a blocky “M” with a freeform “T” and “V,” with “Music Television” printed underneath.

The logo remained unchanged for nearly three decades because of its fluidity. It could be any color or texture—as well as animated—adapting, like music, to the vicissitudes of pop culture. Over the years, a seemingly infinite number of versions were produced by various agencies to embody the spirit of MTV.

“MTV was the first real attitude channel; before that, people watched shows on TV, but the networks had no identity,” said MTV co-founder and Bob Pittman, who oversaw the network until 1987. The idea was to give MTV such a strong identity, that viewers would tune in because of the network itself, he explained. “We needed something that said, ‘We’re not like TV’....[It] set the mood of the irreverence of youth, but the seriousness and reverence for music.” (Full disclosure: Pittman sits on Artsy’s board)

MTV Logo, 1981. Photo by Fred Seibert, via Flickr.

The other early decision that made MTV a household name was the slogan “I Want My MTV.” Adman George Lois famously adapted it from the 1956 cereal spot “I Want My Maypo.” Campaigns throughout the ‘80s featured music stars—including Pat Benatar, David Bowie, Madonna, and Mick Jagger—quoting the famous line, and thus cementing MTV’s position as the it-network. When MTV reached Europe’s television screens in 1987, the first video, Dire Straits’s “Money for Nothing,” featured the slogan sung by Sting. (In America, the first video was notably The Buggles’s “Video Killed the Radio Star.”)

MTV’s early identity was provocative, colorful, unapologetic, and in a constant state of flux. Pittman said that making the decision not to grow old with viewers meant that the network had to constantly change. “Even if it was great, we had to get rid of it, because then it was your older brother’s MTV,” he said. This mindset could also be seen in design initiatives led by Jeffrey Keyton, who joined the team in 1987 and continues to oversee design today.

Similarly, programming in the 1980s and 1990s was new and often experimental. Viewers were treated to blocks of music videos and music-centered programming (Yo! MTV Raps, Headbanger’s Ball), offbeat talk shows (Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes), bizarre sketch-comedy (The Idiot Box), obscure animation (Liquid Television), and some seasonal hedonism (MTV Spring Break). The network also struck a chord with programming that delved into people’s lives: 1992’s The Real World and 1998’s True Life would become the jumping-off points for later reality shows and docu-series that focused on teenagers and twentysomethings trying to find their way in the world—or, as with Jersey Shore (and the U.K. version Geordie Shore), partying with cameras in tow.

By 1996, MTV’s unique visual identity had already garnered its own exhibition. The show, held at The Art Director’s Club in New York City and titled “As Seen on TV,” featured 15 years worth of print ads, posters, television spots, and interactive campaigns created for both viewers and MTV advertisers. A New York Times write-up called the work in the retrospective “often innovative, occasionally irritating and almost always rambunctious—all in keeping with a medium that has helped transform how other media, and advertising, looks and sounds.”

MTV logo redesign concept walk through, 2010. Courtesy of Jen Epstein/Pixel Party.


That same year, the network expanded, launching the anticipated MTV2 (then known as M2) to a shaky start, with regular programming change-ups in its early years. An overhaul in branding and programming in 2005—including the two-headed Rottweiler logo, designed by Keyton’s wife, Stacy Drummond—retargeted MTV2 for a teen and adult male audience and saved it from decline.

Meanwhile at MTV, music videos aired less and less frequently, and had been relegated to odd hours of the day. Reality programming dominated, with celebrity-centric shows such as Jackass, Punk’d, and the unlikely favorite, The Osbournes (featuring the family of Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne, who was a generation—or two—removed from many of its viewers), pushed to the forefront.

MTV’s idents—video and animation footage that bookended commercial breaks—remained eclectic through the turn of the millennium, and kept up with the network’s spirit of change. Shifting geometry, mysterious black-and-white drawings, and linework animations of famous musicians made appearances over the years. The logo’s colors and shape transformed with each concept.  

In 2010, MTV’s in-house creative team, under the eye of Keyton, turned MTV’s visual identity on its head, rolling out a new buttoned-up, black-and-white look. MTV also axed the words “Music Television” from its logo, thus admitting by omission that it was no longer a music-focused brand.

MTV’s 2010 redesign of the logo. Courtesy of Jen Epstein/Pixel Party.

“You’d have to be heavily sedated to not anticipate change,” Keyton said of the rebranding, in an article that ran in The Atlantic in 2013. “Especially for our audience, which demands it. MTV feeds off change. It lives and flourishes because of it. And all that change is a big part of what inspires our design.

The new creative was simple and practical. It employed Helvetica, a font often intentionally used for its lack of personality. Helvetica’s history reaches back to 1896, though it would reappear as an experimental typeface in 1920s Switzerland. Repackaged by German designers in the late 1950s for widespread use, the font became ubiquitous across companies such as Microsoft and Nestlé. It was enthusiastically adopted by the IRS for tax-return forms, and was selected for the New York City subway system precisely for its blandness. For an envelope-pushing brand to use Helvetica was rebellious in itself, in the same way that a teenager raised by artist parents dares to become a corporate account manager. But it served a purpose, to be different, and to contrast with the emotionally driven programming, like Teen Mom, that was in demand.

“We reached an inflection point when our eclectic identity of the past was getting lost in the cluttered visual landscape of the world today,” Keyton said to The Atlantic. “It became pretty clear that we had to be more consistent and visually unified to stand out and be remembered. We also needed to communicate that we were a new MTV, by doing something bold and different.”

That mission, to be different, is shared by all of MTV’s international channels, which span six continents. Up until 2009, MTV networks abroad handled their own creative separately. But that changed with the founding of MTV World Design Studio (later changed to World Creative Studio) which is headquartered in Buenos Aires and Stockholm and oversees design for 160 countries, excluding the United States.

In 2009, the in-house team launched a cohesive international rebrand with design agency Universal Everything. The new look featured a logo stripped entirely of color, though the video idents remained vivid and imaginative: piles of candy exploding in slow-motion or a furry humanoid walking to upbeat electronica.

In the past few years, the international team, led by creative director Sean Saylor, has made headlines for overhauling design. In 2015, they launched a new international brand identity with ad spots that were a frenetic fever dream of motion graphics, referencing internet aesthetic subcultures such as “seapunk” and “vaporwave,” with bobblehead avatars, cats, and pizza tossed in for good measure. Its attempt to reflect both the oversaturation of internet content and shortened attention spans prompted headlines such as Motherboard’s “What the Hell Is MTV’s New Rebrand About?

But that wasn’t all: A single word change in MTV’s slogan to “I Am My MTV” signaled the end of an era. The network began to invite viewers to upload their own content to be considered for on-air play through MTV Bump, a partnership between World Creative Studio and the creative agency B-Reel, which launched in the U.K., France, Sweden, Brazil, Germany, and Australia in June 2015 and was later rolled out in the U.S.

MTV’s 2010 rebrand concept walk through of the channel’s new voice. Courtesy of Jen Epstein/Pixel Party.

In early 2018, World Creative Studio shifted gears again, partnering with creative agency Builders Club and artist Antoni Tudisco, among others, to execute a multilayered branding identity, “Mood Swing,” which was initially released in more than 45 countries  and categorized MTV’s programming by emotion. It was created by identifying and color-tagging selected feelings (such as “happy,” “melancholy,” or “love”), and then producing for each a library of idents that emphasized storytelling and body language. Those visuals were broken down further into simpler on-air motion graphics and key art stills, representing color, texture, and mood. The library included short narratives that show the joy or ennui of teen life; macro footage of “microfeelings,” such as a teardrop falling; and surreal, textural representations—undulating blue fur for “relaxed” or bouncing pink plastic for “horny.” The MTV logo also assumed new textural forms, too, with animated red spikes for “angry,” or dripping blue liquid for “sad.” The project directly referenced emojis, but instead of compressing complex emotions into simple visuals, it unpacked them again in all of their multi-sensory glory.

The move toward a richer narrative in MTV’s international brand identity coincides with a time in which the future of narrative shows on the network is uncertain. Reality shows continue to perform well both in the U.S. and overseas, as evidenced by the revival of Jersey Shore in the U.S. and the recently announced aristocratic title The Royal World abroad. The arrival of well-received scripted shows Awkward. and Teen Wolf in 2011 suggested change (they lasted five and six years, respectively) with the campy adaptation of Scream following in their footsteps. But, the premiere of three new scripted shows in 2016 each ended in cancellation after one season, and this past February, Maggie Malina, the head of scripted shows in the U.S., exited the network, leaving the post open until yesterday. No scripted series are currently on the air (however, Scream will return, with a new cast).

News from MTV suggests that it has been looking backwards to refresh its lineup. The long-running music video countdown show TRL was revived last year, and recent revival announcements include animated shows Daria and Ӕon Flux, as well as The Real World and makeover series Made.

What the network will look like in the coming years—both its lineup and its brand identity—is unpredictable. But throughout its 37-year history, it has maintained a focus on serving an equally unpredictable audience: youth. It’s a television network that has consistently produced content for those who are finding their voice and coming of age; because of that mission, every generation of MTV must find its voice, too.

Jacqui Palumbo
Jacqui Palumbo is a contributing writer for Artsy Editorial.