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Forward-thinking companies are starting to figure out ways to convert their logos to tools of engagement. Why be satisfied with having people look at your logo when you can get them to use it?

Google.com's interactive Les Paul doodle. Click through to play along

A little less than a year ago, Gap got caught with its pants down. After 20 years, the company had decided it was time to roll out a new logo. So, with next to no fanfare, it replaced on its website the familiar white letters on navy blue background with a fresh look. A Gap exec described the new logo as “current and contemporary.”

Sadly, a lot of people didn’t agree. In fact, it was as if Gap had announced that anyone who had worn Gap jeans—ever–would be audited. The offended gathered their modern-day version of torches and pitchforks—tweets and status updates—and expressed digital outrage.

Gap backpedaled furiously. First, it asked people to send their own design ideas. But a few days later it dropped the crowd-sourcing notion, derided, particularly by professional designers, as cheesy and cheap. Today, Gap has the same logo it did 20…uh, 21 years ago.

I bring up this story because it gets to the heart of the dilemma facing every company with a marketing budget. We’ve vaulted into a world where simply pitching products is bad form; now it’s all about building relationships with a “community.’ It almost doesn’t matter how Gap’s new logo looked. Its bigger sin was that it had surprised its fans. It had agreed to a date, then showed up with a shaved head.

At the same time, there’s the trend of logos becoming the bludgeon of choice for groups wanting to hammer those they see as corporate evildoers. Greenpeace, for instance, has become a master of this kind of beatdown by Photoshop. Witness some of the 2,000 versions of BP’s logo that sprouted from Greenpeace’s call to action after the oil well explosion in the Gulf last year.

So what does this have to do with innovation? Actually, plenty. Forward-thinking companies are starting to figure out ways to convert their logos from iconic symbols to tools of engagement. Why be satisfied with having people look at your logo when you can get them to use it? (You may have noticed that we changed this blog’s logo after people pointed out that the gears in the original version wouldn’t have turned. It wasn’t meant to be interactive, but the new one should be able to function in some virtual machine.)

Look at what Google’s doing. (I know, this is a second time I’ve mentioned the Google gang in the short life of this blog, but they get the innovation thing.) They started by playing with their logo, allowing it to be as fluid as the world in which it lived. Like some typographic shapeshifter, Google’s Doodles began morphing to celebrate holidays, famous birthdays, notable anniversaries. Then it turned interactive, enticing us to play Pac Man or steer Jules Verne’s submarine or strum Les Paul’s guitar when all we wanted to do was look up a restaurant address. People used that guitar doodle to record their own versions of Lady Gaga songs, Beatles songs, Beethoven songs. All on a logo.

Not that we should expect the Walmart logo to turn into an accordion any time soon. What we’re more likely to see from major brands is the sort of thing Toyota is rolling out with some of its 2012 models. It’s a special logo called a ToyoTag and it works like this: You take a picture of the logo with your mobile phone and send it to a short code. Or if you have an iPhone or Android model, you can use a reader app. Either way you’re sent info about the new models, sales promotions, videos or anything else that will help you feel the ToyoTag is more a friend than half the ones you have on Facebook.

And when it comes to logos on business cards, no one can top the MIT Media Lab. It’s created an algorithmic logo that can generate 40,000 different shapes in 12 different color combinations. Which means that for the next 25 years every Media Labber will have his or her own version of that very liquid logo.

What if you could make logos totally honest? To see how that might play out, look at this slide show from Swedish design artist Viktor Hertz.

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