The Speak Up weblog, a kind of gathering place for folks who know a lot more about design than I do, has a pretty interesting discussion about that new AT&T logo (previously mentioned here).
Most people don't like it, and that's because, as I and many others expected, it's underwhelming at best. But it's this nugget that intrigues me and makes it worth another mention here. According to the firm behind the redesign (quoted in the post), here are some of the reasons why it looks like it does:
...the new globe is three-dimensional, representing the expanding breadth and depth of services...transparency was added to represent clarity and vision...lowercase type is now used...because it projects a more welcoming and accessible image.
In reading over those statements I think I hit upon a major reason why so much modern corporate design tends to suck: it's a problem with the understanding and application of semiotics.
I studied semiotics quite a bit in college, but I'm far from an expert in the field. I'm what you could call an enthusiast, because to be an expert in this field tends to mean you spent more than just 4 years in college (the link above seems a good introduction, though). I do, however, know enough to know when it's being misused.
What seems to have happened with regards to corporate design and semiotics is that the cart has been put before the horse. Making a design choice such as "transparency" because it "represents clarity and vision" is a gross misunderstanding of process. Semiotics works from the ground up as the study of an existing symbol, taking into account not just the thing being studied but also the cultural conditions surrounding its production and the impact (or lack thereof) it makes on that culture. It doesn't work nearly as well as the application of assumptions, however logical. If a design choice is made on the basis that it will communicate a particular message then it's a crap shoot. This is committee thinking, boardroom thinking. A tantalizing but unsubstantiated idea put into play because it seems well thought out.
Now, if the logo also worked aesthetically this wouldn't be such an issue. The relative success or failure of the intended symbols would be academic, and a bonus at best. But when the hoped-for symbolic resonance of something takes precedence over the basic concern of good design, you end up with a mishmash. That's what AT&T and countless other companies are now stuck with.
See, "transparency" might end up being just that - it's clear. It might not end up "representing" anything. A good logo, on the other hand, backed up by a comprehensive branding campaign, will take on the meaning created for it. Through action, not assumption.
I'd like to think that at some point this trend will pass and companies will get back to the days when design was left to the designers, but I'm not holding my breath.