When a logo is launched that the public doesn’t like or understand, the result is “a seemingly endless series of drive-by shootings punctuated by the occasional lynch mob.” So wrote Michael Bierut on Design Observer three years ago. Since then, a number of redesigned and new brand identities have been launched that attracted immediate, loud responses—including the Verizon redesign and Hillary Clinton’s H, both Bierut’s.
How does this phenomenon of “logo pushback” affect the way design is practiced? Are designers playing it safe, or do they welcome increased public scrutiny? To find out, I assembled a virtual panel. Joining Bierut are several others in the forefront of identity design: creating it, teaching it, writing about it, and running successful websites and conferences on the subject.
I’ll begin with you, Michael. Have the lynch mobs gotten bigger and louder?
Bierut: Yes, bigger and louder, but also more predictable and perhaps more manageable as a result.
Are logo designers—from individual practitioners to big branding firms—playing it safer these days because they’re worried about criticism from their peers and the public?
Wheeler: The firms that lead a responsible design process that includes research aren’t worried about pushback. Consumers and the general public are sharing opinions about everything. It’s part of our culture. Why should design be any different? Design as a cultural force and strategy for business building is the strongest it’s ever been. A tremendous amount of stellar, smart, sustainable work is being done now.
Vit: Some designers and clients are going for approaches that won’t ruffle feathers, but there’s also a sense of renewed optimism. Consider the Google redesign. It was safe even though it was a drastic change—serif to sans serif, OMG! The result is a new execution that maintains a legacy to the old one. Had they done something weirdly new, the pushback would have been insane. You could imply that being safe leads to boring work, but I argue that being safe leads to simple, solid executions.
Luckhurst: Rather than being motivated by fear of criticism, the safe solutions are driven by a celebration of sameness. Many identities—Google, Lenovo, Verizon—follow a formula of simplicity and minimalism. They’re smart and clear, but none seem to have, say, Glaser’s imagination or Vignelli’s hyper-stripped-down aesthetic, just a modern formula: sans serif typeface + geometry + color = identity system. The question is whether consumers will get bored or confused as more of these visually similar identities appear.
Just like swooshes, globes and planetary orbits did a decade or two ago?
Luckhurst: Yes. Identity design as a practice is more skilled and polished now, but we’ve lost some of the special work that comes from a less formulaic, riskier approach.
Are any of you personally affected by the pushback phenomenon?
Collins: We are well aware of the growing noise. Does it affect what we think is the best answer? Absolutely not. Our profession’s audience is more engaged than ever. That’s welcome, even when it ticks people off. Oh, they didn’t like your new logo? Boo-hoo. I’ve had my turn in the mire. It’s frustrating, especially when you’ve put your heart into a project. But you have to separate the truth from the noise. What’s just bitching and what’s helpful? The more relevant question is this: should clients act on public derision? No. Too much public outcry is just illiterate verbal shrapnel: “This thing sucks.”
Morioka: My favorite quote is from the late designer Tibor Kalman: “When you make something no one hates, no one loves it.”
Bierut: I haven’t had any sense of caution on the part of my clients. They’ve learned quickly—within the last year or two—that logo launches attract attention, including attention they might not like. The best of them are ready. They develop careful launch strategies and steel their nerves against any knee-jerk negative reaction.
Schatzle: In this era of instantaneous, continuous posting and commenting, it’s way more fun to be on a bandwagon, pointing and laughing at something.
Vit: One positive result of all the criticism is that fewer logos are arguably bad. Since 2008, I’ve been doing recaps on Brand New with the twelve best and twelve worst identities of the year. I used to have a field day choosing the worst, but last year, I could only choose six. The pushback has made designers and clients work harder to do work that doesn’t suck.
Gardner: What really hurts effective branding is clients’ overcautious testing and sampling that can reduce brilliance to gruel.
Let’s assume you’ve done the research and an identity accurately reflects the client, but the public doesn’t appreciate it. What then?
Wheeler: Few identities have immediate meaning. Meaning needs to be nurtured and expressed. Over time, a well-designed symbol becomes accepted, and you can’t imagine when it didn’t exist. We have to teach our clients that change is hard. But if the company does a good job communicating the rationale, you get less pushback. Consider the NASA “worm.” The ridicule forced NASA to revert to its old, dysfunctional but loved symbol.
Morioka: The more important question is this: does the company the logo represents live up to its promise? At first, I thought it was ridiculous for UPS to abandon the Paul Rand mark that differentiated it from the pack of delivery companies. My interaction with the old mark was positive, and I thought the change meant that UPS’s core values had changed for the worse. In fact, UPS was instigating sophisticated processes and expanding services beyond bow-tied packages. Time to let go and move forward.
Luckhurst: Both the Hillary and Airbnb logos are standing the (relatively short) test of time. With Hillary, the reaction was entwined with her persona as a public figure. Although not groundbreaking, the symbol fits the times, and the system is effective for the campaign. If it weren’t for the extreme scrutiny and lofty expectations around her candidacy, we wouldn’t have heard much about it. I was at Airbnb when that logo launched, and I can say that although the fervor of the commentary was unexpected, the fact that there was pushback was not.
Vit: A year later, no one is talking about Airbnb looking like boobs or a butt any more. It’s just the Airbnb logo. It’s not so much acceptance as the passing of the novelty phase. The more we see a logo as part of daily life, the less it becomes a shiny object to be distracted by. The Hillary H had an amazingly fast timeline. For two weeks, everybody made fun of it, and then media outlets started seeing it in action, and they were, like, “Wait, this is actually really good.”
I’m glad we’re talking about “in action.” When the public first sees a logo, they often haven’t experienced the system, the key components that bring it alive: when it’s animated on screen, in motion on a bus, laid out on a series of posters in airports. Or when the Hillary H is illuminated with images of American landscapes. That’s when perception can really change, right?
Gardner: What is it if not the system, the applications that make the difference? Logos don’t live in white space! Real life provides context and allows for the visual vocabulary of color, type, texture and images that give a mark a sense of place. The client is intimately aware of all these considerations before saying yes, but invariably, the public’s first glimpse of a new mark is on a virgin white background.
Overall, is it a bad thing that members of the public are weighing in? Does it show that graphic design is in their consciousness and means something?
Bierut: I like that the public is interested, and I foresee a time when it actually might be considered a failure if a logo launch doesn’t get attention, even negative attention. If we designers claim that what we do is important, we can’t complain if we don’t like how people react.
Wheeler: The challenge is to keep the conversation at a high level.
Is the complaining public ever right?
Morioka: When they are, it’s when the company does not evolve to embody that change.
Vit: The public’s opinion of a logo can be as right or wrong as I am about the food of a chef with three Michelin stars. I can express my opinion on Yelp, but that doesn’t make me an authority who can make or break the chef’s reputation. More nondesigners are talking about logos, but maybe one day, one of those nondesigners will be our next client and will at least have a sense of what a logo is and the implications of making it meaningful to the public.
Luckhurst: Some of the most interesting identities, like the London 2012 Summer Olympics, may not be easy on the eyes at first but become beloved as people live with them. However, if the public considers something to be ugly or in bad taste for a significant period of time, the criticism can be valid. The short-lived 2011 Gap logo with a blue box behind the p is an example.
Gardner: I was in London during the release of brand consultancy Wolff Olins’s solution for the 2012 Olympics, truly one of the great public logo drubbings since the turn of the millennium. The British tabloids were merciless and derided it as a smirch on the crown. I give the organizers credit for not backing down, and even I was respectful of the solution once the games were under way.
We’ve been talking about work for very large organizations. I’ve found that many readers don’t care what big-name designers do for big companies. In fact, they seem to resent those stories. They could only hope for a little controversy that will get their name in the media or at least in design blogs. What’s your advice to a solo designer or the owner of a small design firm in, say, Cleveland?
Morioka: As a small-firm owner now, I maintain that getting noticed is not the goal. Doing thoughtful, well-crafted work is. Many of our larger clients were smaller clients that grew to that size or moved on to larger organizations. Great work always leads to something bigger and better.
Collins: What’s a “big-name designer”? It’s a small-name designer who busted his or her ass for a long, long time—often in the face of tough obstacles. But higher prominence invites higher scrutiny. As it should. Don’t confuse fame with mastery. You can work toward mastery anywhere—New York, London, Amsterdam or Cleveland.
Wheeler: My advice is to lead your clients through a responsible process. Focus on accelerating their success; that’s your job. It’s not your logo—it’s their logo. When you make your clients more successful, you get good references, and you fuel recognition among their peers and customers. How is your solution aligned with your clients’ business goals? How does it differentiate them from the competition? Does it work across marketing channels and anticipate the future? And make sure that when your clients launch the new identity—just like a Google or a Verizon—they issue a press release that describes the rationale and emphasizes that it was a business imperative.
Gardner: In the event of an information void, the public fills the blanks with negative assumptions: new owners, higher prices, bitchier personnel, longer lead times, more forms to complete, less coconut filling in the pie.
Cody, you’re a designer who does good work for a lot of small businesses and nonprofit organizations in your community. Many readers may have more in common with you than with others on this panel. Is logo pushback affecting your universe?
Schatzle: Not really. Local citizens get up in arms about things like construction noise or new development. And they tend to be positive about design for local merchants and organizations because they very likely know the owner or want to support their neighbors.
Client pushback can still be a problem, though. Small-business owners tend to judge logos, and design work in general, purely based on their own sensibilities. For them, the only question is, “Do I like it?” Unfortunately, they don’t think enough about whether something is fitting for their brand, whether it will be understood and appreciated by the public. They don’t understand that the real client is the audience, and I wish they did.
Yes! And if criticism still happens?
Vit: Ride it out. There’s no need to engage or go on the defensive. Stand your ground until the attention passes—and then assess. It’s easy to get caught up in the emotion and react. It’s also important to stay in touch with the client and reassure them that they went through a valid process. If they believe in the work, they should stand firm, too.
Morioka: And before you voice any negativity about a mark, please take a moment to think about this. If we as a group of professionals dump on other designers’ work, why would a client want to work with us? Or even understand why we should be paid what we ask? We complain about a lack of credibility and respect from clients, but the dialogue needs to start right here, at home.
Bierut: The worst thing would be to court controversy. Just find good clients, do good work and let the public engage with the results in any way they want. ca