2010s retrospective - death of the logo and birth of the brand

13 November 2019

2010s retrospective - death of the logo and birth of the brand

This was the decade the logo died. The rulebook’s been ripped up. Brands: change your attitude, not your logo.

A logo, as we all now know, is not a brand. It’s a visual symbol that an organisation uses to identify itself. That’s it. But once, let’s say up until 10 years ago, that humble logo had more stature. You might say it was iconic. So iconic in fact that it got all confused with brand in the public’s minds. And it’s that one-dimensional logo that’s been flailing this past decade. That’s what’s had its rule book ripped up; that’s what’s been simplified to within an inch of its life; brand-jacked; crowd-sourced (badly); scrapped. Coming from a design agency’s perspective, the 2010s was the decade the logo died.

Ten years ago, almost to the day, Steve Jobs unveiled Apple’s first generation iPad. It was a launch that would change everything, and not just for the early adopters. iPads quickly got snapped up by consumers, it became the biggest Christmas gift of 2010, and it’s since had such an impact on our everyday lives. We’ve seen 10 years now of people radically changing the way they work, browse, socialise, learn, listen, live. The list goes on. It’s tipped the design world on its head.

Let’s be clear, the public’s absorption of brand was pretty basic before the iPad. A brand would have touch points that were very specific, very defined and largely offline. Think logo on a letterhead. Now graphic designers and brand experts are facing this whole new world where the parameters of the past have gone right out the window. The relationship we have with a brand now is multifaceted and ever-changing. Brands have had to grow a solid digital strategy to deal with that. There has to be a much broader way of thinking behind the brand.

Global publishing giant Macmillan’s new adventure in Navio is a great example. Navio is their new digital platform that accompanies MacMillan’s English language courses for young learners. It’s interesting how such an established print publisher has been able to move towards adopting the digital revolution, and that began when the iPad came out.

Yet Macmillan hasn’t simply put all its textbooks online. Though gamification, it’s changed the way children learn. Navio is an environment that’s more aligned with what children are used to seeing on tablets, which is obviously games.

With Macmillan, Third Floor created a digital universe where the user plays a character who can win performance-related rewards. Our team of graphic designers created Navio’s brand ecosystem. The design concept is fixed, the colourway and the logo mark are fixed but everything around it is very movable. Within that model we created a whole series of icons representing elements from the Navio universe. The combination of elements can change at any time, there’s a fluidity and adaptability that works whatever the placement. And this is the direction brand entity has taken. A brand is no longer a logo on the masthead of a letter or business card. It’s now living within a world, a movable three-dimensional world.

The challenge we face now is, how do brands remain instantly recognisable? The answer is to have something within the design that’s fixed, even though everything else is fluid. A good example would be the Starbucks logo, which has evolved over the years from an elaborate mermaid scene with typography, to just a floating mermaid’s head, if you’ll forgive the pun. The logo is still instantly recognisable as Starbucks’. But what happens when simplification goes wrong? Just where is a logo’s vanishing point? For UKIP and the Premier League, it was 2018.

In around 2016, the Premier League’s brand consultants were addressing the challenge of how to create an identity that lives on a football shirt, on a billboard, and yet needs to squeeze down into 40 pixels square on a social account, which happens to be one of the Premier League’s biggest marketing channels. How can it have that same impact? What do you do?

The danger is to simplify it to the point where it looks terrible on a billboard but great on social. The solution is a much more fluid and adaptable identity structure. One part of Premier League’s brand reiteration is simply lion’s head. The design moved from a word mark into an icon that has since become so synonymous with Premier League, words are no longer needed.

But then along came UKIP. In late 2017, UKIP replaced its iconic GBP symbol with a lion’s head, almost identical to that of the Premier League. Some might say it was coincidence, but others played the copyright infringement card. Either way, simplication had laid the Premier League’s lion bare, and UKIP’s actions were was undoubtedly inspired. While the UKIP lion logo lasted little more than months, it wasn’t the quickest redaction of a rebrand. The prize there goes to GAP.

GAP’s new logo debacle in 2010 was, fortunately for them, a case of blink and you’ll miss it. I think I can describe it almost as quickly as it happened. The old logo was scrapped; the new logo, which never made it out to the US by the way, was crap; GAP tried to crowd source a redesign, which predictably led to public annihilation. And thus, within a week, it was as if it never happened, save for some egg on GAP’s face.

And while all this was going on, what better time to rip up the rulebook?

Brand consultancy Wolf Olins started work on the infamous 2012 Olympic logo years in advance and, when it arrived, it was light years ahead of its time. In fact, maybe that’s putting it mildly. It was garish. It was lurid. The animated version was causing epileptic seizures. At the time it was something so radical and frankly jolting that almost everybody hated it.

In another departure from old-fashioned icon to fluid brand entity, that’s some attitude from Wolf Olins – and it paid off. The Olympic logo drew attention like never before. Wolf Olins had changed the playing field. Two or three years later of course, other brands were following suit. Yet, while the most successful brands are built on attitude, it doesn’t always have to be a slap in the face, it can be a breath of fresh air.

When Airbnb came along it disrupted one of the biggest industries in the world: tourism. But it did it so gracefully. Its backstory is human (I’d urge you to look it up) and, most importantly, it has a heart not only in the centre of its logo but also at the centre of its brand. That’s not just being gushy either. Airbnb acts philanthropically, and the most famous example of this is its response to Donald Trump's threat to restrict the movement of citizens, including a ban on refugees and immigrants.

Airbnb launched its award-winning #weaccept campaign at the Superbowl which, very authentically, reflected the brand’s raison d’etre: the freedom to move. This is powerful example of a brand piggybacking on a global news story, with rare relevance and selfless philanthropy. None of this would ever have possible before the digital revolution brought about by iPad.

There’s a lesson for brands here: change your attitude, not your logo. Actions speak louder than words. Maybe that’s why no one noticed when John Lewis switched up its logo last year. (We did – it was an evolution eclipsed by brand values – but that’s a whole other story.) And maybe that’s why, through this whole decade of disruption, there’s one organisation whose logo has remained completely untouched. The very brand whose product was the catalyst: Apple.