Rebrand advice from the experts

Alex Bigman

Major brand redesigns bring the graphic design process to public consciousness more than anything else. When this happens, just about everyone has an opinion – something that The Gap and AirBNB learned the hard way.

Most recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been the object of scrutiny.

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The Met logo before and after (via Under Consideration)

While opinions are a dime a dozen (some being more reasoned than others), insight into the actual design process is comparatively rare. So for this post, we thought we would edge past the criticism and look at statements made by the designers themselves.

Sometimes they come from world class design agencies, like Wolff Olins or Pentagram. Other times the magic (or mayhem) happens in a company’s in-house team, as was the case at The Gap, AirBNB and, most recently, Uber.

Whether or not you like the end product, there is always wisdom to be gained by attending to the thought processes of the designers who made it. We’ve grouped the following quotes according to six current branding trends that have gained serious traction over the past several years.

Being flexible

It is quite common for a company to have numerous sub-identities; they might correspond to each of a company’s products or, in the case of a University, its various schools.

This was the challenge that Pentagram’s Paula Scher faced when redesigning The New School’s brand.

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The New School (via Pentagram)

“We had to create an identity system where, no matter how you listed the schools, they’d always look like they were part of the same organization, even if the departments changed,” explains Paula Scher. “It had to be flexible.” (via Fast Company)

Choosing a wordmark, which has only text and no icon, provided the flexibility that was required.

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Penguin Random House by Pentagram

A similar challenge for Pentagram was creating a brand for Penguin Random House—the entity that resulted from a merger of the previously separate publishers Penguin (which had a Penguin for its logo) and Random House (which, surprise surprise, had a house).

“We tried birdhouses, igloos, every combination of a bird and a house…” explained Michael Beirut. “The wordmark signals that the autonomy, authority and energy of each of these imprints wouldn’t be compromised or neutralized. Each would be strengthened rather than weakened by the new relationship.”  (via Fast Company)

However, the design had to look good beside a number of different subsidiary imprints, from Fodor’s to Ten Speed Press, each with its own separate brand mark. Ultimately, it was once again the flexibility of a plain wordmark that prevailed.

Being variable

The concept of variability, as we’re using it, is quite different from that of flexibility. The latter means creating a single design that is capable of working in a variety of situations, as we saw above. Variability means creating a brand where design components actually change in response to circumstances.

A famous example was the Whitney Museum of American Art’s “W” design by Experimental Jetset, which can stretch into any number of shapes depending on its graphic context.

Uber, which unlike the Whitney operates all over the world, took the same principle in a global direction with their redesign released last month. The wordmark is singular, but the background patterns for the app will vary depending on where the user is located.

uber_2016_patterns

“When we start designing for a specific market, we look at the culture holistically—art, architecture, tradition, old and new fashion, textiles, the environment—to create color palettes and patterns that are both fresh and relevant,” noted Uber.

“We’re launching with 65 local color palettes and patterns, representing countries in which Uber operates. These colors and patterns are authentic expressions of the real world’s diversity, and they afford flexibility in our communications.”

Uber’s rebrand has drawn some flak from the design world for a perceived lack of polish, but the principle here is certainly interesting.

Being unresolved

At the risk of splitting hairs, we submit “unresolved” design as another trend that is similar to flexibility and adaptability, but not quite the same. The principle comes from Wolf Ollins’ Chris Moody, who says,

“Modern brand identities often work best when they are slightly unresolved. This allows people to meddle with them.” (via Creative Bloq)

Virgin-Media-on-demand-service-status1

He is referring to something like Virgin Media’s new design, which his team executed. For this redesign, they took the existing design, which was based on an infinity sign but souped up with lots of complex visuals, including a Union Jack pattern, and erased everything but the underlying infinity loop itself.

In its sheer simplicity and status as a “given” symbol that everyone knows, the resulting design lends itself to “meddling” in which anyone can partake.

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“It’s a symbol anyone can create, whether drawn on a mirror or etched in the sand. Every single person can have their own impression of the brand.” (via Fast Company)

Not all impressions of this logo have been charitable (many commentators found the icon odd and unfortunately suggestive). However, we think it is fair to say that the spirit of “unresolved design” on the whole has been appreciated.

Being agile

Here’s another thing that Wolff Olins’ Chris Moody had to say:

“Don’t be precious. Designers need to embrace the opportunity that being more agile can bring you. The days when a brand agency could hide away for months on end then dump a guideline document on a client’s desk are over. More and more clients need you to work smartly and coherently alongside some existing live assets.” (via Creative Bloq)

In other words, as they say in tech, be prepared to move fast and potentially break things. While most people might think a redesign consists of just a logo, Moody’s statement here points to the fact that it actually involves a whole lot more, which companies often want to roll out gradually.

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In case you don’t remember, they started by showing us 29 versions that it could have been, before showing us the one they ultimately decided upon. The company wrote:

“The new logo will be a modern redesign that’s more reflective of our reimagined design and new experiences. To get everyone warmed up, we are kicking off 30 days of change. Beginning now, we will display a variation of the logo on our homepage and throughout our network in the U.S. for the next month. It’s our way of having some fun while honoring the legacy of our present logo.” (Source: Yahoo!)

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Responses to the final choice were mixed, but the thirty day countdown did inject the process with a spirit of casualness and down-to-earth fun, which the company continued by presenting the official logo with its organizing grid still visible, thus leaving the “magic” of the design process transparent for anyone interested to see.

Being balanced

One last tip from Moody:

“We always look at different elements of what’s creating our brand palette, which starts to give a hierarchy early on. When you’re creating a new identity, everything is new to the audience. It can be hard to take on all the meanings of all these different things.

“For instance, if it’s all about being global and universal, you might make iconography the hero and everything else becomes a supporting role, therefore colour is used purely in an applicational sense. Think of your brand like a mixing desk: not everything is turned up to 11.” (Source: Creative Bloq)

Typically in design, balance refers to composition. Here, Moody is referring to balancing out the impact of new visual elements, which is of course inevitable with any new brand, re-design or otherwise.

In other words, if you’re introducing a visually striking new icon, you might want to tone down the color scheme so viewers have a chance to form a relationship with the image, without being visually bombarded by an aggressive color palette. On the other hand, if your icon is minimal or perhaps nonexistent, as with a wordmark, then you can afford to crank up the color so the viewer can form a connection with that.

Being challenging

Gap-logo-change

Probably the worst branding debacle in living memory was The Gap’s miserable re-design from 2010, which was so bad that even the company acknowledged it as a failure and quickly replaced it with the old one.

The redesigned logo was just so utterly bland, corporate and soulless, one wonders what possibly could have gone so wrong along the way.

Jake Himmelspach of Peopledesign presents a useful dichotomy that we think might explain the situation:

“Taking the path of least resistance and trying to accommodate all audiences and all of their needs, the “Yes” brand quickly becomes a replaceable commodity …. The remedy is in becoming a Challenger brand. A Challenger brand has 4K HD clarity on what they stand for and who their target audience is – not just by age and income brackets, but as human beings.” (Source: Peopledesign)

It looks to us like the Gap fell into the “Yes” trap; in trying to create a brand that would appeal to everyone, they created a brand that appealed to no one. As Himmelspach’s choice of terms indicates, it is a much better idea to challenge a brand’s audience, presenting them with a compelling, individualized and self-sufficient identity that everyone might not understand right away, but which the intended audience will eventually be able to rally around because it clicks with them on a personal level.

So … The Met

Having gone through this list of six branding redesign trends, let’s give that controversial new scheme for the Metropolitan Museum—also by Wolff Olins—a second look.

Is it flexible?

It aims to be. The Met has three sub-identities: the main museum, the Breuer building (a space for contemporary art named after the building’s architect, Marcel Breuer), and the Cloisters (a reconstruction of a Romanesque abbey). The main wordmark logo was made to fit all three, though we suppose the success of this is up for debate.

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Is it variable?

Not prominently so, but we do see some attempts to assimilate this trend. For example, the printed visitor guides come in a range of colors in the red-purple spectrum, with each hue corresponding to a different language.

the_met_maps_languages

Is it unresolved?

This one is debatable. The wordmark is based on a familiar-feeling serif typeface and the icon is gone, which makes it feel more unresolved than the old logo. Plus, it has switched “The Metropolitan Museum of Art” for the more casual “The Met,” which is the way that most New Yorkers refer to it in everyday conversation. But it is certainly not replicable in the way that, say, Virgin Media’s logo is.

Is it agile?

It seems to be. The logo appeared on letterhead long before the website changed and the banners dropped. We’ll see if any notable changes are made…

Is it balanced?

We would say so. The wordmark is striking, but not so very complex, and there is no longer an icon. Thus, color is amplified in a way that it never was before, introducing an alternative point of impact.

Is it challenging or a “yes” design?

The predominant outcry about the design could be a signal for either one of these. It could reflect a logo that is so challenging the public is not yet prepared to embrace it (but hopefully will be eventually). Or a logo that simply went off the rails and lost touch with its true customer base by trying to say “yes” to too many people – the old masters crowd, the contemporary crowd and the medieval enthusiasts all at once.

We’ll reserve judgment on this, but if you have an opinion, share in the comments!

 

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