04—Designer focused

eBay unveiled their new logo today, 17 years to the month since their launch. The original logo, designed by Bill Clearly of the now defunct CKS Group has been one of those awkward beasts that has, through time and sheer persistence, become embedded in my brain. I’ve even begun to like something about it. One thing I did always find strange is that eBay write their name ‘eBay’, yet the logo is written as ‘ebaY’, apparently this was because the designer felt the capital B would act like a ‘roadblock’ so they arbitrarily capitalised the Y instead. Makes perfect sense I guess, if you happen to be in the business of designing brand identities using magnetic letters on your fridge as your primary tool. Perhaps the truth is that the capital B had fallen under the fridge.

The eBay logo has marched boldly through the years and has stamped its mark in the psyche of millions of users and the company has become a truly global brand. There remains a goofiness to the logo that almost helps me forget their constant fee increases and the fact they bought PayPal in order to add on even more fees. Almost.

Which makes me think that this rather dull redesign is a missed opportunity. Let’s look at the images they use to show application of this new brand:

A logo photoshopped on a phone! A logo photoshopped on an iPad! A logo photoshopped onto some bags! And what’s this — oh it’s only a logo photoshopped onto a billboard with three photographs under it — GENIUS! The shopping bags image is particularly odd considering eBay don’t actually have physical stores, though I do seem to remember seeing an eBay mall in Shenzhen, China, probably a fake. So, are eBay going to be opening stores? Or is this just some weird, abstract representation of online shopping? The point is that unless they’re keeping something up their sleeves, this seems like a surface-deep brand refresh, and one that doesn’t even seem to cover the whole surface very well. Those photoshopped application images are particularly lazy. We’re seeing more and more ads being placed by eBay—even TV spots—and yet this seems (so far) to be simply a logo redesign that doesn’t reach any deeper at all.

So what of the new logo? It retains the alternating colour letters which appear to have been muted, brought up-to-date and more tonally unified, and the letters still touch but no longer overlap. Gone is the jiggly baseline in favour of a clean, stark look. The typeface is Univers Extended, which seems like one of those rather thoughtless choices — “oh… well, the previous logo used a version of Univers quite dissimilar to this but we felt we’d stick with the same font family just because”. All in all It looks… okay. It’s fine. it looks a bit dated and frankly, looks devoid of personality and leaves me a bit “meh”, which I suppose is certainly better than “uugh”.

Perhaps it’s bland enough to last another 17 years but my feeling is that the original logo had been around long enough to have built up status, even the higgledy piggledy, overlapped letters seem like they could have been thrown a life-raft and put to good use. Ultimately it feels like it speaks to mediocrity—which is probably fine, perhaps it very well suits where they are headed; eBay has obviously been changing course for a while now, moving away from its roots as a community based marketplace for individuals and midway into Amazon territory. So, I’m a little torn how I feel about this and I’m fully expecting the story to be played out further once it is officially launched. So far there seems to be no real expansion into a deeper brand experience, which for me is a lost opportunity;  I wonder if this just the nature of companies with engineers and tech people at their very core, there seems to be an overwhelmingly flawed attitude amongst tech folk that if the product (the website) is good enough, the brand experience is merely superfluous fluff.

Microsoft launched its new brand identity yesterday and it looks like they’re finally doing something right. It does seem to have confused some people who can’t figure out why they’ve dropped the stylised italic typeface of yesteryear in favour of a simple, humanist treatment coupled with a logo they associate with Windows® in particular. And others who can’t figure out why this rebrand isn’t something completely new and mind-blowing. These pundits are missing the point entirely, and here’s why.

Microsoft have not simply updated their logo. They have completely restructured their brand architecture.

Previously, we had the italic Microsoft® logotype that you would find on various bits of hardware like mice and keyboards, but Microsoft isn’t really a hardware company. The Office suite was always called “Microsoft® Office” — but the word Microsoft had no relation to the primary brand logo, though that italic logo would be on the box. Under that ‘Office’ brand each piece of software then had its own logo.  And then there’s Microsoft® Windows® with the famous, colourful window icon. Now, the Office suite has for a while been a pretty neat standalone brand in itself, but when you start to consider the overall structure of the Microsoft brand and its relation to its products you can quickly realise what a clusterfuck it all was. Different logos for this, different rules for that, fleets of products changing seemingly arbitrarily in relation to everything else, very much a window into the structure of Microsoft the corporation — a series of separate entities working autonomously under their own flags, but somehow all in the same building. Not the best message.

So, let’s go back to Windows. Windows, the operating system is what has made Microsoft the company it is today. With Windows shipping pre-installed on over 90% of all personal computers, Windows is by far the dominant brand and the driving force of the company, it also has the most recognisable visual device the company has—the window—so isn’t it really the obvious thing to do to bring that to the forefront and capitalise on that brand equity? Well, yes it is, and that is what they have done. By no means a minor tweak.

So, now we have Microsoft back on the top of the pile, under that we have Windows and then we have the Office brand and its fleet of individual products. This is known as a ‘branded house’ model whereas what we had previously was a mishmash ‘house of brands’ hybrid that seemed to have no rules. Microsoft’s most recognisable visual asset is now right at the top alongside the company name, and it’s been pared down to its simplest form, which, by no accident also ties in nicely with the visual style of their new Metro user interface which will be in place soon with the release of Windows 8 on both PCs and mobile devices alike.

Windows’ new UI—Metro:

Jeff Hansen, general manager of brand strategy, says “The ways people experience our products are our most important brand impressions… That’s why the new Microsoft logo takes its inspiration from our product design principles while drawing upon the heritage of our brand values, fonts and colors.”

This is the first time Microsoft have updated their logo since February 1987, and with Windows getting completely overhauled and a pretty nice looking mobile platform, Microsoft certainly seem to be entering a much needed new phase, and this time it all appears to have unity. The real test will no doubt be whether any of this unity is being introduced at the business structure level, a problem which Microsoft’s arch enemy Apple have long overcome.

Oh look—this looks familiar:

There’s a lot of fuss right now about the Kony 2012 campaign ran by non-profit organisation Invisible Children. In case you live under a rock and haven’t heard about it, it’s a viral campaign based around a 30 minute video that serves as a rabble-rouser in order to get people to ‘act’. The activism in this case revolves around buying bracelets, t-shirts and a kit full of posters which you are expected to paste up in your area on a specific night, all in order to ‘raise awareness’ about Joseph Kony — leader of the Ugandan guerrilla group known as the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). Formed in 1987, the LRA with Kony as it’s leader is accused of widespread human rights violations, including murder, abduction, mutilation, sexual enslavement of women and children and forcing an estimated 60,000 children to participate in hostilities.

There’s currently dozens of news articles covering something of a backlash, many alleging dubious use of funding, questioning the timing of the campaign (Kony probably hasn’t even been in Uganda since 2006), scepticism regarding its efficacy, the motives of the films producers and the arrogance to assume it takes young white Americans to ‘save’ Africa. You can find all that on all the regular news outlets, what I want to talk about is the campaign strategy and implementation.

The video is slick, using all the emotional touch points we’re used to seeing employed by large consumer brands. It begins with a dramatic overview of planet Earth, grandparents talk to their grandkids on Skype and share videos on YouTube. We’re shown images of the Arab Spring and how Twitter helped it’s cause. A woman gives birth and we’re reminded how important our children are with a series of ‘cute’ family videos. We then hear the harrowing story of a boy whose brother was taken and killed. There are tears and the screen fades to black. The narrator promises the child he “is going to stop them”, he then tells us “exactly how we are going to do it”.

Except he doesn’t really, we’re just fed the usual ‘raising awareness’ rhetoric. By raising awareness we are told that the US government will be forced to step in and do something about this problem. All we have to do is buy some bracelets, t-shirts and a kit full of posters to put up, spread the word on social networks and we will have, overnight, raised awareness which will ensure US military involvement in Africa. We’re not expected to question whether encouraging military collusion with a notoriously corrupt African state is something we should be doing, nor are we told that Kony has been very much off the radar and hasn’t even been seen in Uganda since 2006.

So how does the campaign work, and how does it fail? It has certainly achieved an incredible amount of publicity with support from celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, P. Diddy and Rihanna, and teenagers and young people are spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. The Kony 2012 website has put sales of the kit on hold due to high demand, I assume this means they have sold out. Ease seems to be the key here, we can all now be feel-good pseudo social activists and all we have to do is buy something from a website and send a tweet or two to help continue ‘raising awareness’.

But what issues does the campaign actually raise awareness of? The only messaging on the posters is “KONY 2012″ and the strap line “Stop at nothing”, or on an alternative poster we’re shown the merging logos of the Republican and Democrat parties with the line “One thing we can all agree on”. That’s it, that’s your lot. Utterly meaningless. We are told that the aim is simply to make Kony famous. This guy has been running around with his militia killing people for 25 years, ‘fame’ may help Lady Gaga’s cause, I’m not convinced it’s the best way to bring justice to African warlords.

So, on the day these posters will suddenly appear on our streets, if we’re not already aware who Kony is, we’re expected to what? To google his name and buy some more bracelets? Aside from the half hour video that provides no real information on the situation in Uganda today, there is zero further information about Kony, Uganda, or anything else for that matter, just a donate button and purchasing options, “yummmmmm.. things”. Awareness is not really raised at all, we’re just given a name. If anything, Joseph Kony will simply become—overnight—a nationwide graffiti king, all thanks to the American youth. The posters even have a rather edgily, if not somewhat dated, stencil style illustration of Kony, putting him alongside the usual icons of evil and terror, Bin Laden and Hitler. Ironically, Nike used the exact same style imagery several years ago to make heroes of Brazilian football players.

Vimeo stats indicate that at this point, 14.9 million people have viewed the video, though it’s unclear how many watched all 30 minutes of it. But that doesn’t necessarily indicate success, there’s clearly a backlash and I believe it’s almost entirely down to the superficiality of the campaign messaging—in that—there is no messaging. There is no real education. The campaign almost solely targets a ‘hip’ American youth that may be keen to try their hand at being Shepard Fairey for an evening, street art once again used as a convenient way to grab the attention of a seemingly predictable youth. But is that really true? Isn’t it incredibly patronising to assume that young people are just willing to get on board with your cause simply because you tell them they should and that you can sell them some ‘gritty’ posters? To add to the ridiculousness the organisers even chose a date (4.20) that celebrates cannabis culture. I guess the expectation is that these kids are going to spend the afternoon getting blunted and then run through the streets pasting up posters. Well who knows, maybe it will happen… if they’re not too stoned. Maybe they should have included some Kony 2012 chocolate bars in the kit.

The strategy is one of ‘trickle-up’, it functions not to provide real awareness but solely to get money out of pockets and then that money can hopefully be used to somehow bring some change, we’re not really told exactly how, but it likely involves lining the pockets of Washington lobbyists so they can get the go ahead to send more US soldiers into Africa. We’re expected to believe that this kind of hollow ‘awareness’ and vapid activism on one evening of one year is really going to bring about worthy change in what is in fact a very complicated political landscape. I don’t buy it.

Awareness campaigns need to be treated with tact, and audiences need treating with respect. Treating an entire demographic as a bunch of mindless hipsters who will get on board with your cause not through want of genuine awareness and knowledge but rather through the belief that making something look ‘cool’ is enough, is a wasted opportunity. This campaign is arrogant, superficial and based on short term fad interest and vanity. Though we can assume it has raised a lot of money, if not awareness. Let’s just hope they spend it where it can make a difference rather than the $1.1 million spent on personal travel and $400k on nice new offices in San Diego. I guess you can’t really judge the ‘success’ of a campaign without complete transparency as to the objective.

Branding has come a long way since the heady heyday of the logo in the 1980’s. Back then, the logo was king. We loved logos. We wanted logos on our t-shirts and the bigger the better, stickers were fashionable and we’d happily stick our favourite brands on anything we could. Status was everything and the logo was intrinsically linked. But then, in the 1990’s, the climate changed.

The bubble had burst and priorities changed as well as the fashions. The 90’s saw a period of depression and the yuppie ideologies of the 80’s were frowned upon and looked back on with ridicule. Environmental and social issues were becoming increasingly important and the groundswell of anti-corporate feeling had taken root. Brands needed to change their tact as well as their image. BP rebranded in 2000, portraying themselves as pro-green, (perhaps laughably so considering the recent disaster in the Gulf of Mexico). In 2005, Unilever took on a softer, environmentally sympathetic and humanist identity, despite obviously being a corporate monolith. More recently, in 2008, shopping giant Walmart did away with their somewhat military star and dominating bold caps in favour of a gentler, more optimistic and far less overpowering sun device with delicate typography. Politicians too, changed their tact and image completely, often to a degree that seems cynical if not a plain fallacy.

Thankfully, through time and necessity, large corporations have had to change. We, the people, now demand social and environmental responsibility. The more progressive corporations themselves have realised that sustainability is a key concern and that it is in their best interests to act responsibly. The internet has changed everything, with social networking now very much mainstream, the people are in touch with their brands. We have a voice, and businesses are naîve not to take advantage. Brands have become more fluid, the need for adaptability is paramount and the need to express the values and personality of a brand, as coherently and consistently as possible and through as many mediums as possible, is essential. Tone of voice and messaging are more important than ever.

Jason Little, Creative Director at Landor Paris, recently wrote that ‘The logo isn’t dead, it’s just irrelevant’ (article linked below), but it this really true? I don’t believe so. While the logo may not be as prime of an influence as it once was, we’d be foolish to neglect it and deem it ‘irrelevant’. It is still often the most visible element of a brands visual communication. Landor made its name in corporate identity, are we to believe they are turning down identity work now in favour of managing Twitter accounts? The fact that brands are now more in touch with their consumers than ever is a good thing of course, but it’s not the be all and end all. Take Apple as an example; Renowned as the most successful, valuable brand on the planet, and as a company that is the very epitome of design thinking, Apple do not utilise any consumer focus grouping or user testing whatsoever. They believe that that is their job and their responsibility, their speciality and that they are in the best position to do it. Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. A quote Steve Jobs no doubt knows well. Are Apple about to disband their iconic logo? I don’t think so. They use it as proudly as ever and its form remains virtually untouched since its inception in 1976.

I believe that the logo is certainly not irrelevant, it simply has to sit well amongst a whole new toolset. A successful rebrand is no longer simply a new logo, colour palette and rigid set of guidelines. A brand needs a strategy, and this strategy needs to be implemented to the core of the company’s operating code, both internally and externally. The way it thinks, the way it works and the way it communicates itself need to come from one place. That is the essence of branding. To consider what was at one time the core visible element of an organisation as now being ‘irrelevant’ is far too reactionary and polarised. What we need to be doing is thinking holistically—our aim should be to bring convergence and mastery of the toolset, we should not be thinking divergently and that it is somehow wise to leave core elements such as the logo, in the dust. If anything, the logo will have a resurgence. As we become comfortable with our new tools and they become second nature, our energies can be refocused. We can return cyclically to our existing skills with renewed enthusiasm and a new perspective. Long bored of the whimsical trends and techniques of recent years, the transparencies, the overlay effects and the hideous web 2.0 trend, designers are returning to the core ideas behind the identity. The logo will be born again, and it will have a lot of toys to play with.

You can read Jason Little’s article, which certainly has many valid points here. Just not the one about the logo being irrelevant.

There’s a lot of talk about process and research and strategy in design these days, but does the need to be business-like impede upon creativity? Could we be emulating traditional business practices and introducing levels of specialization and pseudo-science at the cost of allowing for talent and sparks of originality?

The design industry has increasingly—by necessity—needed to act and use methods more akin to the business world. This has helped us gain acceptance and credibility. But we’re at risk of selling ourselves short on what should be the core of what we do; our talent, our eye, our good taste and our natural creativity. Business requires and strives for the tangible and the measurable, but design and certainly the process of design is often intangible and immeasurable. Business people can be risk-averse and uncomfortable at treading into waters that may feel ‘unknown’ to them and buying design can often feel like those unknown waters. It can also be fascinating  as we have something they need and we work in different ways, seeing their projects come to life can and should be an inspiring and empowering journey for our clients. We should take advantage of that rather than talking back at them in exactly their language, it’s as if we have become somewhat insecure about our lack of spreadsheets or the fact we use pencils as well as computers.

Let’s be honest, if you’ve worked as a creative you have no doubt figured out a perhaps idiosyncratic method of working, sure it can fit within the usual process diagram we’re all too used to seeing, but all the same, inside of that there are things you do that you’ve worked out for yourself. Perhaps you need to read and ingest a brief before taking a long walk to let ideas gestate, perhaps you write down an incessant stream of words into a layout pad and pour over what came out afterwards. Perhaps your ideas come from the library of Russian literature you’ve read or the collection of films you’ve watched. It could be anything, but what it is often not, is a tangible, measurable, guaranteed ‘process’.

We can use research and analysis to assist our creativity, it helps keep us from veering too far ‘out there’ and it informs us of the needs of the client and ultimately the end user. We should of course think strategically about what it is we are producing and the best way to gain the results we want, but let’s not get too caught up in the venn diagrams and brand matrixes. These are mere tools which can help us work and help us communicate what we’ve been doing and why during presentations, but the real value, the real thing clients should be investing in us for is our aforementioned talent, eye, taste, intuition and experience.

Don’t become enslaved by the research, we need not emulate the business world until we become the very suits that need our creativity and lateral thinking. The best ideas come from thinking ‘out there’ and sparks of creative genius. We can reign them in later if need be, but one thing is certain: If we begin to think, talk and act like the business man, we become the business man and we will have nothing to offer that they can’t think of themselves.

Stay creative!