Microsoft’s New Logo and Digital Authenticity

The Windows 7 logo (2009-2012)

I was standing in line at Duane Reade recently, looking at its latest batch of store-branded products, thinking about how much of a throwback the simple, solid-color designs are.  This got me thinking about the general trend in logo design (and design in general) away from the swooshy, beveled-and-embossed 3-D look that dominated corporate design over the last 10 to 15 years.

Until recently, there was a tendency to add as much glossy sheen to logos and graphics as possible, particularly in the technology sector. Perhaps designers and clients hoped that these tech-y stylings would help bring viewers into the world of the screen, as if through a modern-day equivalent of trompe l’oeil. Examples of this gimmickry are everywhere, from UPS’s ill-advised 2003 logo update to countless smartphone app icons.

The UPS and DirecTV logos

Selected iPhone app icons

To designers and clients perpetuating this style, I would say: the horizon highlight is no longer mandatory! We are not looking into the future with our icons. The future is here.

Which brings us to Microsoft’s new logo, the most prominent example of the growing shift away from the glossy, beveled style. With it, the company seems to be practicing a digital version of “form follows function.” Microsoft imagines that its logo will live in a digital ecosystem, so it is designed for that ecosystem.

The logo itself (by Pentagram) is fine. It is a smart distillation of the previous incarnations, and it represents the company in the way Microsoft wants it to—it is a self-conscious signifier of the new Metro OS and the company’s longstanding commitment to grids.

Here is Sam Moreau, the principal director of user experience for Windows, explaining the thinking behind the redesign:

It was important that the new logo carries our Metro principle of being “Authentically Digital”. By that, we mean it does not try to emulate faux-industrial design characteristics such as materiality (glass, wood, plastic, etc.). It has motion — aligning with the fast and fluid style you’ll find throughout Windows 8.

It is strange that a software company is concerned with being considered “authentically digital.” This is one place where Microsoft seems, to me, to be off base. The thing that digital inherently does is free designers from the technological constraints of printing processes and allow for innumerable “design characteristics.” Moreau is mistaking trend and zeitgeist for an authentically digital experience. No doubt this an attempt to position Microsoft as more legitimate in the eyes of a new generation of consumers. Don’t trust anyone over 30, or anyone who puts a brushed-metal texture on their logos.

But implementing more simple, streamlined logos is not a question of authenticity so much as necessity. When designing a logo today, we have to assume that it is going to exist in any number of formats, from the smallest screen of a handheld device to a giant billboard. Although it is possible to design multiple styles for particular uses, it is far better to have a solid base design that can scale and translate across wildly different platforms. And I believe that this technological necessity—designing for myriad platforms at once—is what’s really driving this respect for and return to simplicity, and the new preference for a one-point stroke over a ten-point curved high-lit border with a lens flare.

There may also be generational forces at work. There is an ongoing discussion about the idea of “digital natives” —the gist is that children today are born into a digital world, and because they have grown up with things like the internet and the iPad, they interface with, think about, and learn with them differently than those of us who saw their invention. I think this idea could and should be extended to “design digital natives.” The designers who are graduating college today have only known a world with Photoshop and cascading style sheets, and because of this they conceptualize ideas about these things differently from designers who cut their teeth doing paste-ups and used ruby litho to silhouette images for reproduction.

Perhaps as a result, tech-y embellishments have also been rejected  as kitsch by a good portion of the design population. Today’s designers are savvy enough to know that the computer itself is a tool, and that any one-click solution will look cheap and phony.

Nowadays, to stand out from the pack, you don’t need a shiny logo with speed lines and lens flares to gain the attention of a consumer; you need something bold and simple. Something like what Saul Bass or Josef Müller-Brockmann would have designed (although many of Bass’s logos have not fared well in recent years). This is where Microsoft has gone with its new family of logos, and it seems to work. And Microsoft isn’t the only major tech company making this realization. Have you noticed anything different about the Google favicon in your browser lately?

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Jim Krause’s Logo Brainstorm Book is now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.

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ADD A COMMENT

15 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a bit skeptic of Microsoft as a whole as they seem to copy rather than innovate and then mass market it, in which they’re doing such a good job mass-marketing. But this new trend of logo design, I think they’re setting the pace this time. It is so simple yet beautiful and it shows fluidity and dynamics as well. My friend has a Samsung Windows phone and it really stands out from iPhone or Android. Android is too messy and a lot of visual clutter, yet the Windows phone seams flowing. So I welcome this new trend of logo design.

  2. So, an entire article lavishing praises on the simple approach, ala Saul Bass, then wind up the article by stating:”(although many of Bass’s logos have not fared well in recent years). THIS is why I follow my instincts, and don’t listen to “professionals”.

  3. Thank you for all of your your thoughtful response. I appreciate what Paula and others are saying about user interface; faux enhancers like skeuomorphism and haptic feedback are completely unnecessary. In the essay above I wasn’t talking about Metro or any other user interface, I was talking about the logo. I think logos have a very different set of uses, standards, etc. than interfaces do. A logo should certainly reference the visual language of the thing it represents, but it will exist in a very different (not closed, and not entirely digital) ecosystem.

    I also think there is an interesting idea of using form-follows-function to help us in our design decisions and avoid “fake product design”. I just wonder if this is applicable to logos, which exist in many different contexts and media. I guess that’s why we provide style guides.

  4. Yeah. I hope that in context it is clear that I meant “Avoiding metaphors in screen design does not make an interface *more* authentic.” One more thing: “Meta-phor” literally means “trans-portation.” All language, visual or verbal, is a form of transportation. The authenticity of what we say is not so much a matter of how we transport, but of what we transport. If what we intended transport arrives intact at its destination. I hope that makes sense.

  5. I hate when you type something brilliant, hit send, and then realize you have typos and misused words and there’s no way of getting it back!!!!!! Nooooooooooo…..come baaaaaaaaaaack. It’s too late; it’s out there. It’s stealing the spotlight, dimming the brilliance of your ideas, and making you look like a fool.  It’s laughing about it too, just waiting for the chance to do it again. *ANGER*Anyway, excuse the typos in my post above. I think the new Windows 8 logo is a breath of fresh, yet familiar, logo air. Design authenticity? Absolutely. I like it. 

  6. “The thing that digital inherently does is free designers from the technological constraints of printing processes and allow for innumerable ‘design characteristics.’ “…I completely, wholeheartedly, emphatically disagree. As a designer, you cannot, and should not, see the digital aspect of your work as anything that frees your from the constraints of print. You are not free of printing process and you shouldn’t design like you are. There is still a physical world that demands practical applications of our work. Allow me to move the conversation away from the more philosophical “authentic/nonauthentic” path for a minute and toward sheer practicality…and not specific to the Windows 8 logo, just regarding logos in general. A logo will be used on everything from a web site to a business card to embroidered golf shirts. Say a company will be attending a trade show and they need matching golf shirts for their team members. Well, embroidery doesn’t work with bevels and lens flares, so you’d need to use the “flat” version of your logo. And how about signs and wayfinding? Maybe the signs will be carved or sandblasted, maybe they’ll be cut from vinyl or acrylic. It’s best to assume a flat version would work for most projects. The digital realm does not free you from anything accept maybe cutting and glue. It’s a tool. Nothing more. If you start designing only for digital applications of your work, you’re missing too much.

  7. It is not silly to design user interfaces in concordance with to common UI standards. It is not silly to use common metaphors to make ways shorter. Concise metaphors have their place in every language and so they do in screen design.

    Achilles is not really a lion, but by calling him a lion, Homer is not inauthentic, he visualises using an image that Achilles is strong and ready to fight. The same thinking and experience applies to metaphors in screen design, they make things clear. Avoiding metaphors in screen design does not make an interface less authentic; avoiding metaphors in text doesn’t make you more concise.

    Of course, broken metaphors in screen design are a pest (looks like a button but can’t be clicked), just like broken metaphors are a pest when it comes to written language.

    If you get to the point that you reduce visual clutter to make an interface more graphic you are on the same inauthentic path, where you change the shape for the sake of the shape and not for the sake of how it works.

    It *is* rather risky is to assume that “we all now understand how to interact with the screens” when designing for an audience as big and diverse as the Windows community.

    There is no innovation without risk, but in this case I’d say Windows is going for quite a bet. The bet being that its global audience will appreciate the graphic approach to an interface without tangibility clues, without visual depth, trying to avoid metaphors for the sake of visual purity.

  8. Thank you for this intelligent article about the Windows logo. I think you misunderstand Sam Moreau’s point about being digitally authentic. Let me explain it a bit. It’s not just about style, it’s about functionality.

    When you pick up your i-phone and look at all the navigational gradated icons, you have realize that they were initially designed that way so they would feel like operational buttons. People are accustomed to pushing buttons and not things that appear as flat shapes because, well, flat shapes don’t look like they “push in.” Since we all now understand how to interact with the screens, the illusion of the depth of the button is silly. It’s fake product design, therefore inauthentic.

    So much of the iconography of the computer was initially designed to look like a real object. If you can get your hands on a Windows phone where all of the operational cues exist as flat colored squares, you will be struck by the inevitability of this very logical, functional, modern and experience. it makes the interface on the i-phone feel dated.

    Most graphic designers, myself included, are mac users and have not experienced the phone interface of the Metro system. The new Windows 8 software takes it a step farther. Windows 8 is truly a breakthrough for Microsoft. I hope the design community sees it.

  9. I’m glad that Microsoft have gone for a clean minimal look. The 3D rendered glossy look is fine for buttons or icons but not a logo or brand. You need a design that can work at any scale across any media and I think Pentagram have got it right. They generally do!

  10. Microsoft’s “authentically digital” claim is a thinly veiled reaction against Apple’s continuing adoption of illusionary interface elements in iOS and OS X. They are self-consciously setting out their stall as ‘not Apple’, an anti-Apple, if you will.

    Which is probably a good thing. Design diveristy is better than mono-culture. And that new logo is infinitely better than the previous version.

    There is an issue with using purely flat colour/tone in graphic elements on the screen however. A printed logo acquires highlights and shadow it because it exists in the physical world. It inherits texture from the paper stock it is printed on. A logo on screen is made from uniform light. It is without shadow or texture, unless these elements are simulated in some way. Without (subtle) lighting effects a logo can look unnaturally flat.

    I wouldn’t advocate the overuse of lighting effects as seen in the UPS example. When something like that then appears in a printed form we have a strange sort of inverted logic going on. What probably should happen is that graphic elements such as these should have different treatments for print and screen – flat for one and subtly lit for the other.