Visual communication has been around for some 20,000 years or so, from when someone decided to decorate his cave in Lascaux with pictures of his intended next meal. Ancient civilisations, including the Egyptians and Aztecs, developed hieroglyphics – or logographic scripts – over 3,000 years ago. The concept of branding probably stems from the heraldic crests of the aristocracy and the Crusaders which dates back around 1,000 years.
Commercially, the red triangle symbol of the brewer Bass is often acknowledged as the first logo as it was trademarked in 1870. Since then we’ve seen a rapid evolution of the concept of branding and corporate identity. Most companies developed a logo at least, larger companies built ‘corporate identities’ and companies that sold to consumers had brands. The design of these icons was led by legendary graphic designers such as Raymond Loewy, Saul Bass and Paul Rand working in the US during mid-20th century, who created the brands of United Airlines, IBM and AT&T respectively – to name but a few. And in the UK, which has become a world leader in brand design and communications, agencies such as Wolf Olins led by branding guru Wally Olins, designed logos for Audi, Orange, BT and Akzo Nobel – again, to name but a few.
Then, around the turn of this century, the boundaries became increasingly blurred. Driven by market forces, mergers, competition, deregulation, the advance of technology and the realisation that a brand could actually stand for something, that a strong brand could make a company, product or service stand out from the crowd and that consumers built loyalty to a brand based on their experiences. This resulted in all sorts of diversification: supermarkets who sold washing powder started to sell loans and insurance; tractor manufacturers putting their logo onto clothes; And Richard Branson putting his Virgin logo on just about everything from planes and wedding dresses to gyms and banks, all based on the power of their brand.
The advance of digital channels has seen a further evolution of branding reflected in the logos of the plethora of new dotcom businesses. We now carry dozens of branded icons on the devices in our pockets everywhere we go, swiping across them daily: “People are literally, physically interacting with those symbols in a way they never did,” says Michael Beirut of Pentagram. “With the logos of Facebook, Airbnb, Snapchat and Uber customers are having a really, really intimate sort of relationship not just with those brands, but with the symbols that represent the brands.”
Almost every consumer facing business has to now accept a form of communication partly defined by app buttons and Twitter avatars. As a result of the frequency and intimacy of interaction, these logos have become ever more embedded in our daily lives. Furthermore, the speed of change and volatility of the digital era has seen frequent new entrants, stylistic updates and redesigns that up until recently would have been seen by corporate identity designers as far too risky. Airbnb and Uber completely redesigned what were already new brands, whilst Instagram and Google made significant updates to identities that had only been in existence for relatively short periods.
Coincidentally, although for different reasons, the key criteria for successful logo design remains the same. The thinking during the era in which those legendary designers worked – the sixties, seventies and eighties – was all about being distinct, memorable, flexible and simple “There were no gradations, no fine lines; they really looked like they’d been created with a Magic Marker – and many of them were.” Comments Jerry Kuyper who worked with Saul Bass. This was largely driven by the practical limitations and costs of print production, lots of colours, intricate detail and gradients were harder and more expensive to reproduce and logos needed to work as simple black and white version for newspapers, the Yellow Pages and faxing. Many of the logos from this era, although shaped by these production constraints, have thrived in digital media due in way that could never have been predicted due largely to their simplicity.
Reproduction issues are no longer valid where the screen has replaced paper as the primary media – reproducing multicolour or complex effects hardly matters when screens have up to 16 million pixels and even full colour digital print production techniques have advanced in terms of quality and costs. One of the first logos to be designed accepting this new approach was Microsoft’s MSN logo in the early 2000s which featured a butterfly with complicated colour overlays. Many designers at the time criticised it based on its suitability for print but Microsoft decided it would live in an entirely digital world. Designing for digital media has, from its early days, offered challenges and opportunities especially in logo design. A logo that incorporates the brand name is obviously easier to build brand awareness of, however when it’s reduced down to about 1cm squared for an app button it can be hard to recognise. A way round this has been to use just an element, such as Facebook’s ‘f’ on the corporate blue background, but this is a lot easier where the brand’s colourways and marque are ubiquitous.
Dotcom brands arguably have an easier path to follow as they’re new businesses that have these criteria in mind from the onset. Apparently the founder of Snapchat drew the ghost himself and chose the background yellow because not many companies in the app store were using it. Mature brands have had to respond to these changes, for example Mastercard’s recent redesign incorporated a simpler interlocking circles motif with the ‘mastercard’ wording moved below so that the device can be used as a standalone. Digital, by its nature, embraces change so many of these relatively new businesses have gone through brand changes or refreshes within a decade, something previously considered taboo. However, one of the big issues historically has been the cost of roll-out – new liveries, signage, uniforms, stationery – could cost millions for larger businesses, now it’s just a case of changing a file in a template. This is coupled with a different mindset too within most technology businesses which are often design-led, more specifically, they’re often interaction-design-led. They focus heavily on the user interfaces that shape the way users interact with the solution – online, app or system. For example, Apple completely revised its IOS icons to remove symbols that mirrored analogue contexts, such as a wooden shelf for ‘newsstand’ in favour of flatter imagery. Likewise Instagram’s logo, clearly designed specifically for an app button, moved away from a fairly detailed depiction of a camera to the more abstract and colourful version it currently uses. Finally, the pace of change in technology makes things look old hat very quickly adding to the temptation to make changes more quickly.
This approach isn’t without its issues however, as David Turner of leading San Francisco based design agency Turner Duckworth: “Applying interaction design thinking to identity design results in logos that can be highly logical, very stripped down, but what’s starting to happen is you’re losing personality. You’re losing what brands are all about, which is connecting to human emotion.” However, it’s clear why this interaction trend would influence logo design today for a digital company, as they’re simple, clear, easy to remember which is not just a key part of the brand it’s actually functional.
Digital has also added a more direct relationship with the user’s opinions and the power of the crowd. Designer’s of logos in the last century never had to deal with social media and the instant and forceful criticism it can bring, notwithstanding exceptions such as Thatcher’s damning public indictment of British Airway’s re-brand in the late 90’s. Re-brands such as Tropicana’s and Gap’s were vilified via email, Facebook and Twitter forcing re-thinks. Any new logo will be widely scrutinised especially with digital brands, as Uber’s design director Shalin Amin points out “There’s a personal relationship that people have with their phones, what they put on the home screen versus the second screen – it’s almost like somebody’s house, where you place your furniture and all of a sudden someone comes in and changes your couch.
Uber, as one of the new breed of ‘digital disruptors’ is a fascinating example. In the 8 years or so since it started, growing to a market capitalisation of some $70Bn by the way, it’s changed logo a few times with variations of the letter ‘U’. Then, in 2016, it launched a new brand, inevitably within an app sized square, featuring a very simple design of a small rectangle within a circle connected by a thin line. The thinking behind this, which was undertaken in-house rather than by an external design agency but encompassed extensive user research, is explained by Amin: ‘We live and breathe the brand. The Uber glyph is an extension of the internal concept of linking bits and atoms: The rectangle is a bit; the circle is the physical world.” Whether any user gets that concept is highly debatable – it is at least a global marque for markets where the letter ‘U’ means nothing. It’s a brand that sits on our mobile phones and one with which we interact directly from the moment we tap the logo to open the app. What we think of Uber is an interesting question at the moment given the company’s many current issues – is it a visionary disruptor or a ruthless corporate? Our opinions are being formed. The success or otherwise of the logo will depend on how it is perceived, over time, as a key part of the company’s brand and it will be principally determined by all of our interactions with the business as consumers, employees and investors.