By Sarah Williams, Partner and Creative Director, Beardwood & Co.
Panels, pundits, talking heads and trolls. No, it’s not an open casting call for a new season of Game of Thrones; it’s our current hypercritical media environment. It’s salacious, gory, loud and high-strung, where a questionable tweet can set off a firestorm, or a Kardashian selfie plagues us for days. It’s full of visual candy and exhaustingly verbose at times. There’s no telling where the salivating jaws will clamp down next, but the latest victim is logo design. I can only speculate that perhaps we’re looking for a place to channel our nervous energy beyond the endless political debates and agro-fueled stump speeches.
It’s no secret that design culture has been building its own school of hungry sharks. For years, the comments on design blogs have been filled with snappy remarks saying, “Those m’s and n’s are just the worst!,” “Total Fail,” or “Dear Lord, this is terrible!” It’s nothing new that as designer or branding person, you need a thick skin because you know your work will be scrutinized by colleagues and clients alike—but until recently, it’s primarily been in the collegial spirit of actually making the work better.
Unfortunately now, mainstream media has discovered that branding and logos can be shark bait for broader public commentary. One recent example is the takedown of the barely-launched Metropolitan Museum of Art identity on Vulture, (“The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Logo Is a Typographic Bus Crash”). Another example is Uber’s new branding, which was, upon unveiling, immediately reviled by Gawker (“Uber got a New Logo – Which Doesn’t Mean Shit”).
Logos have become the newest touchstone for resistance to change. Never mind that most commentators aren’t privy to process, the detail of client’s future business objectives, the pivoting competitive landscape, and the alignment and initiative it takes to launch and complete a project of such nature. Love or hate Uber’s rebrand, once you understand their broader business objectives and the internal politics behind how it was created, it becomes much harder to quickly trash it.
However, if we take the longer view, there is a bright side. The clamor and outcry signals a broader cultural shift for the design world per se. Along with this deeper scrutiny and faster backlash—love it or hate it—we in the design world are now at the forefront and in the spotlight of pop culture. Now more than ever, people are actually paying attention to brand aesthetics and the role it plays in their lives. The brands we choose are a reflection of ourselves, hence why people feel more entitled to discuss and debate the merits or shortcomings of redesigns for well-loved brands.
Change is hard, and the true test of a logo lies in its ability to represent a company, to become iconic and part of the public vernacular. We’re now living in a world where brands must actually brace themselves to weather the immediate impending storm (on social media and otherwise) on day one of a brand launch, in hopes for calmer waters that come with building familiarity and brand love, over time.
As this logo conversation moves to the main stage, it implores us in the design community to uphold one of our great traditions—the critique. The community remains strong and vibrant when we respectfully challenge each other and evolve our practice to meet the ever-changing needs of the business landscape. We must move swiftly, but thoughtfully, to encourage the kind of discourse that is productive and constructive. A true critique considers the context, meaning and the execution. In the same way that we can be enlightened by a great film review in The New York Times by A.O. Scott, or a Cathy Horyn fashion commentary at New York magazine—we gain insight, get the back story and perspective on what works, what doesn’t and why it may be culturally relevant.
Going forward, I’m calling on the design community at large to rise above the din of the current media climate, and stop behaving like the mainstream and cable news outlets. Unless we do, design and branding criticism will continue down the rabbit hole, and become sport and chum for mockery. Proper critique is essential to improving our work and our craft, and requires intelligent, dissenting opinions, debate, championing of an idea and hard work. The strength of the design community depends on it.