Pure and simple logos

Microsoft, eBay, Weight Watchers, Myspace, USA Today – over the last six months, a steady succession of major brands have introduced ultra minimal logos. But how effective is the back-to-basics approach?

When Weight Watchers abandoned its triple-swoosh logo mark and introduced an even simpler greyscale, gradient-based logotype in December 2012, it joined the growing crowd of big-name, global brands rolling out very simple logos, based around type and simple shapes. US-based Fuseproject replaced SodaStream’s busy visuals with a much cleaner wordmark, branding expert Lippincott swapped eBay’s overlapping letters for a neat baseline snap, and the iconic Wolff Olins created a super-simple circle mark for USA Today’s new identity system.

These pared-back logos tap into existing principles, with designers rediscovering the value of simplicity. “Good logos have always been relatively simple in appearance,” says graphic designer David Airey. “Think of Mitsubishi, The London Underground, Shell and Bayer.”

Brands with original names like eBay and Google have a particular advantage because they simply don’t need elaborate logotypes to establish a distinctive identity: “The names alone are strong enough to stand out,” says Airey. “But it always helps if the trademark holds a design element that can be carried through to other brand touchpoints – such as colour or a custom typeface.”

According to Paula Scher, the partner at global design consultancy Pentagram who created both the Weight Watchers identity and the Windows 8 logo, minimal logos aren’t so unusual. “Most of Paul Rand’s logos were amazingly simple,” she explains. “But the contrast of both the Windows 8 and Weight Watchers logos against their previous logo forms makes them appear extremely simple, especially Windows. They were designed for totally different reasons.”

The Windows 8 logo created by Paula Scher of Pentagram can exist in any colour – blue is just the default

Despite this, the fact remains that we are seeing increasing simplicity in logo and identity design. It’s something that Bill Gardner, founder of LogoLounge, attributes to the sped-up life cycle awaiting any design that is released nowadays. Along with the flagging economy, he says, this shortened shelf-life has somewhat dampened the spirit of creative risk-taking.

“Identity trends used to take years to develop. There’s a much shorter window now because of the technology we live with,” he explains. “If a LogoLounge member designs a logo for an Australian baker, it could be uploaded for people in the UK or America to view before one loaf of bread gets sold.”

Gardner continues: “There’s no timelapse, and any design that’s suspect will have a much larger, more vocal audience responding to it in real time. Everybody is an expert at everything – people suddenly all have an opinion and are willing to share it. That’s never been able to happen before. The consumer’s voice is more evident now than it ever has been, so people approach things with great caution.”

The redesigned USA Today logo was created by Wolff Olins, whose rebrand included a new logo, typeface and identity system

The companies that sign off on new designs tend to take an objective viewpoint. “They want to see a spreadsheet that proves it’s going to work before it happens,” Gardner says. “So a lot of companies are less willing to step out on the edge.”

After all, a newly launched identity is painfully visible. Unsuccessful products can be quietly withdrawn from sale, but it takes a rather more noticeable about-turn to remove or replace a rebrand – as demonstrated by Gap in October 2010. The clothing retailer made headlines when it withdrew a new logo after just one week, following a storm of negative feedback.

More recently, the University of California abandoned a new monogram after finding itself the subject of intense media criticism and receiving a petition from Change.org that campaigned for it to be dropped – which collected over 54,000 signatures. As it turned out, most people had misunderstood how and where the new logo would be used, wrongly believing the monogram – which consisted of a gradiated yellow-coloured ‘C’ letterform inside a blue ‘M’ – was going to replace the longstanding University of California seal.

The University of California’s controversial 2012 rebrand sparked a full-blown petition to have it withdrawn from use – and it worked

Despite the confusion, the university buckled under the pressure and announced that the new logomark would be making a tactical retreat. “The monogram was only a piece of the visual identity system,” explained Daniel Dooley, senior vice president at the University of California, in a statement. “While I believe the design element in question would win wide acceptance over time,” he continued, “it is also important that we listen to and respect what has been a significant negative response.”

Graphic design expert Armin Vit, co-founder of design firm UnderConsideration and editor of branding blog Brand New, felt the UC mark was a solid piece of design that didn’t deserve such savage criticism. He wrote an open letter to the university, expressing his disappointment at seeing the establishment succumb to mob mentality instead of having faith in its own creative decisions. “But when over 50,000 people say they don’t like something, it takes a lot to say: screw it, we’re going to stick with what we’ve done,” Vit concedes.

Minimalism doesn’t always pay off: the logo that Gap released was famously withdrawn after it was the subject of widespread criticism

“A new identity is basically the manifestation of an introspective period,” he continues. You’re coming out and saying: ‘This is who we are and what we want to be known for.’ You can’t say: ‘Sorry, we have no idea who we are.’ That’s why it’s more tricky than launching a product,” he explains.

As with the UC monogram, new designs are often panned after being viewed out of context: “Design blogs pick up logos and display them for comment in a vacuum,” reflects Paula Scher. “It’s not a good way to judge form. Form is something you come to accept. The best logos may initially look weird, but you have to view them in continual use over a period of time to understand if the form is working.”

“When the media asks people to view a logo in a white square on a website, they don’t know how to judge that,” agrees Vit. “There’s no real association, no context and no experience of the way in which it’s going to be used – and most people hate it because people hate change by default.”

eBay’s minimal 2012 rebrand – which swapped the familiar overlapping letters for a simpler, cleaner look – was held under a microscope

The majority of identity design involves this type of change – taking identities that have existed for a number of years and updating them. Most companies hold some degree of brand equity, as Bill Gardner explains, citing Coca-Cola as an example of a brand that understands this particularly well: “The secret behind Coca-Cola is they regularly revisit the script logo and modify it ever so slightly. They continually evaluate its relevance. If you compare today’s logo with the original, it’s evident there’s been a change, but we didn’t realise because it’s so incremental and therefore it’s not evident to the public.”

Indeed, stories of ‘bad’ logos tend to occur immediately after a dramatic redesign. “The brand will have built a lot of equity around a particular visual appearance – so a radical departure is a bad idea,” explains David Airey. “But if there’s been a radical change in how the company operates, there’s a much stronger reason for a similar change in the brand identity. If a design is backed up by a strong, emotive, appropriate idea, there’s much less room for criticism. At the same time, polarising design is often the most effective – where the outcome is either loved or hated. You can’t please everyone, so don’t waste time trying.”

The latest Myspace rebrand opts for a basic lower case typographic wordmark, with a simplified version of its original ‘three people’ icon

This is a viewpoint shared by Charlie Hay, creative director at Campbell Hay, which devised the brand concept for Myspace during its third major redesign. “It was very satisfying to see that the Myspace project split opinion. That meant it had done its job – people thought it was worthy of comment,” he says.

And while an ultra-simple identity may attract criticism at first announcement, there’s always potential for it to come to life once it’s applied in a wider context – or simply has time to gather some momentum. Armin Vit cites the ubiquitous Nike tick symbol as a mark that didn’t initially display obvious potential to build brand equity. Indeed when Nike co-founder Phil Knight first saw it, he reportedly said: “I don’t love it, however it will grow on me.”

Of course, it’s vital to understand the actual nature of the job of designing a logo. “If a new client says they want us to carry out a branding project, our answer is generally to ask if they mean they want a logo or they actually want us to carry out a branding project,” says Hay. “You do have to get the client to buy in and understand what they’re asking you for, and it’s important as an agency or as a designer to understand that question as well.”

“A logo for a large organisation is both designed and negotiated,” says Paula Scher. “The job is to understand the history, business goals, competition and users of the organisation’s product and service, and help them create and embrace a visual language that will enable them to speak to all audiences in every possible medium and platform, and always be recognised.”

New Weightwatchers logo by Paula Scher. “Gradation makes a good visual analogy to weight loss,” she explains

She continues: “What’s important is that audiences recognise the system when they see it. They don’t need to know they are recognising it. A designer has to convince a whole lot of people to change their behaviour and wear the same clothing at once, and feel good about it. That isn’t easy. Often, the systems have to be flexible enough to allow for different tones of voice from different divisions or departments.”

In Scher’s opinion, it’s a good idea to try to keep a logo simple because it has to do a lot of complicated things. “It might change colour, be attached to secondary typography, have to exist with a pile of other complicated logos, animate, contain patterns or make patterns, be used as a favicon, drop out or surprint over complicated photography, and so on,” she reasons.

In the case of Weight Watchers, the company wanted to modernise its look and had already done some research, strategy and positioning work. “They found that they were a transformational company, but they looked surprisingly pharmaceutical,” explains Scher. “They needed to look more like a lifestyle organisation.”

Weight Watchers also needed to harmonise its branding across different divisions: with multiple collateral originating from an array of different design firms, it lacked a consistent design approach, leaving the logo as the only unifying visual. The new design uses gradation as a visual representation of gradual weight loss, and is based on a customised version of Jeremy Mickel’s Fort typeface.

Some of the most satisfying creative concepts are so maddeningly simple that you can’t help but wonder why no one else thought of them first. “We get really excited about those ideas that make you think: ‘How does this not exist already? How is that we have come up with this and nobody else has?’” says Hay. “But they’re deceptively simple,” he continues. “You can easily look and think you could come up with them in your sleep, but there’s a lot of research and questioning involved. Can we sell this into the client?”

New University of the Arts London logo by Pentagram partner Domenic Lippa. Pentagram’s work followed a strategic review by consultancy Moving Brands

Logos need to be distinctive to be clear in most cases, but by no means all. “Sometimes the opposite is true. It depends on your audience and what you’re trying to achieve,” Hay adds. “In most cases, clarity and distinctiveness are paramount. Don’t be afraid to take things away. That’s a good exercise, in fact: see how much you can get rid of so it’s only just legible. Is that drop shadow really necessary? If it adds to it, great. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there.”

According to Armin Vit, the best logos are clever without trying too hard. They pinpoint something specific about the product or service, and build on it. He draws attention to the Starbucks rebrand, which stripped out the typography to leave the iconic, recognisable mermaid.

Of course, minimalism only works when there’s a strong, considered reason for doing so. As with all trends, blindly following for the sake of it will get you nowhere – and examples such as Gap and more recently the University of California show what happens when brands get burned.

In today’s social media-fuelled age of immediate feedback, everyone’s a design critic, with carefully considered branding solutions being exposed to public scrutiny much earlier than ever before. But ultra-simple approaches that might cause outrage when taken out of context come alive when applied as part of a broader branding system: if the idea is strong enough, minimalism can cut through the noise and stand out.

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