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Does digital stifle or inspire brands’ visual codes?

Camille Yvinec
Co-Managing Director & Strategy Director


Does digital stifle or inspire brands’ visual codes?

“Everybody falls in line!” This was the cynical tweet from Californian studio Oh No Type earlier this year. They were responding to the recently redrawn logos of Airbnb, Spotify and Pinterest, which all looked strangely similar. All featured sans-serif type with very similar curves and color palettes. Why were these billionaire companies, all geniuses of branding, suddenly so similar in their visual identity? And is the result deeply boring, or have they hit on something awesome?

Simplification: fault or force of digital?

These logos are the latest evidence of the global phenomenon of simplification, and these giant brands are far from alone in having yielded to the diktat of the sketch. The minimalism of these logos represents the will to convey the simplicity of using the sites and apps they represent. They have taken the same approach to graphics because they want to present their offer as clear, direct and straightforward. But here’s another, more provocative thought: these brands are household names, and at least one is now a verb that’s come to represent the whole category of search, so do they still need a logo at all?

It would be a rather simplistic view to think that by omitting so much detail, designers have opted to make the shape prevail over the message. But at the same time, digital does require a brand to represent itself in an image or logo that is sufficiently recognizable on an application button. And what a titanic job it must be to find the perfect visual for a brand’s app icon, when we know how much difference a great design makes to clicks and sales. A good example of attention to detail is the app symbol for Doo, the digital to-do list; its « conquered Everest » icon is so much more inventive than an umpteenth tick.

An augmented reality of possibilities

While digital brings us challenges, including the risk that we oversimplify everything, we must recognize it also brings benefits. It has reminded us that a logo cannot and must not say everything: it can never contain the entire personality of a brand.

Moreover, some brands have brilliantly benefited from technology in their use of visual signals. Sonos made an impact in 2015 when its pulsating logo was released. Imagine an animated design that reproduces the vibration of a speaker cabinet when you scramble the identity. The optical illusion has given elegant life to this brand of hi-fi systems. Another trend that has taken full flight thanks to digital is that of "logo systems". Inspired by "organic logos" or "flexible logos" (that of Tate Modern is a fine example), these are identities that, rather than having a static expression, prefer to create a graphic framework and take it from there. The framework adapts and changes depending on the situation, allowing brands to start conversation beyond their usual area of expertise, commenting on ideas or topics that are important to them. The one made for Hillary Clinton was especially interesting. At first it was criticized for its simplicity, and few identified its real potential. Anyone could draw it, but this meant, most importantly, that it could be adapted depending on current events, from Gay Pride to Thanksgiving.

In the end, choose not to choose

It is interesting to note that Google has chosen not to choose between the two approaches. Its streamlined logo with its bold colors is simple, yet the "Google doodle" - illustrations, animations or games designed in an ad hoc way to celebrate certain events - makes the brand come alive.

There is only rule: stay the same, while being different. Be challenged by the constraints of digital, but also inspired by the possibilities.