Unless you’ve holed yourself up in an anti-design commune, you probably know about the ongoing flat, 2D versus 3D logo debate the design world has waged for the last couple of years. Fanning the flames has been a recent slew of brands in the automobile industry, including Volvo, BMW, and Cadillac, who each released 2D logos following this trend. Even the network ABC has gotten in on the action.
To get to the bottom of this leaning toward flat and minimal logos, we sought out the expertise of designer Alex Center, the founder of the Brooklyn-based design and branding company CENTER. After chatting with Alex recently about being creative and eating buffalo wings (two things that can often go hand in hand, in fact), we knew he’d be able to shed some insightful light on our world of ever-flattening logos.
According to Alex, the flat logo trend isn’t all that new, first breaking onto the scene a decade or so ago with the emergence of start-ups and big tech companies. “They really started this trend,” he tells us. “Now it’s something that we’ve seen happening in many categories, moving into the fashion world and now in the automobile industry.”
You can attribute the flattening of logos to a few things, Alex explains. “The reason why brands are doing this is because of flexibility and the variety of places in which people interact with brands,” he says. Essentially, the duties of a modern-day logo are vastly different from those of a logo created in, say, the 90s or even early 2000s, given our hyper-digital world. “A logo that was maybe once just on the hood of a car and maybe a dealership now has to work on a mobile app, a website, and as a social media avatar,” Alex adds. “Brands are expressing themselves in more moments and places where they are alive.”
“The place where most brand interaction is happening these days is on your phone, so having a logo that’s flatter and simplified allows it to scale down to mobile sizes and allows it to be more flexible and change color. The brand can take it and reimagine it in different ways—give it motion, give it more life. All of that is easier when your logo doesn’t have seven different textures. It’s not chrome or doesn’t have shine.” Simply put, flat logos are more malleable, easier to work with in different ways, and modify.
While this context makes a lot of sense, there are clear downsides to a dominant design trend that tends to strip away individualized flair and detail. Naysayers have even coined the word “blanding” in regards to this wave of minimalism and flattening.
“Things are starting to look similar,” says Alex. “Brands are starting to become a bit homogenized. I think you’ve seen this a little bit in the fashion space and other categories where every brand’s logo starts to feel somewhat familiar and like there isn’t as much differentiation. They all start to appear like they are flattening and simplifying and losing some character.”
Alex provides Dropbox as an example of a brand that has executed a flat logo successfully in a way that doesn’t feel too derivative or, to put it bluntly, boring. “I think of their system as being so dynamic, has so much life to it, has so many colors and typefaces, and illustration, and then the logo itself just serves the purpose of being an iconic signal and familiar representation of the brand,” he elaborates. “It plays its role and lets the rest of the system do the heavy lifting. It’s a good example of the logo is not your brand.”
A logo, of course, is just one component of a branding system, albeit a very critical one. Alex harps on this fact, describing how a simple and flat logo can be exciting so long as the rest of the brand’s design is dynamic and complex in other ways. “That’s the key here. Brand systems are so multi-dimensional in terms of how they come to life. You have so many different pieces of branding that come together to make the visual identity what it is. So the logo is an important north star, but not necessarily the most important thing anymore. I don’t think your logo needs to tell as much of a story these days.”
Alex mentions Uber as a brand whose flat logo and subsequent branding system leave much to be desired. “Uber has flattened and simplified in a couple of different rebrands, and I think their brand doesn’t have a lot of character to it. It just kind of feels neutral,” he says. “Some of the brand systems have simplified things too much, where everything is flat and 2D and kind of safe and forgettable. There’s no joy or delight. Sometimes a little bit of texture and chrome and personality is fun!”
Luckily for all of us OD-ing on cookie-cutter 2D design, Alex is optimistic that this too shall pass. “Design trends sway. They’re circular. If everyone goes simple, flat, minimal, and clean because that’s what we think modern design is, and that’s what signals that the brand is new, then those brands are no longer differentiating themselves from the pack. And at the end of the day, branding is about differentiation.”
By Alex’s estimations, this reverting back has already begun. “You’re starting to see brands go maximalist and less precious, more textures, more of that 90s aesthetic that was a little bit more chaotic. I do see that coming back as 90s fashion comes back and other trends come back around.”
With that said, Alex concedes that considering that the numerous digital touchpoints a logo must thrive on aren’t going anywhere, the flat logos specifically might be here to stay as well. “You can be a brand that has a two-dimensional, flat, minimal logo and has a system that’s more maximalist and chaotic,” he says. “I don’t know if that necessarily means that all logos will go back to chrome and a million layers and textures, but I do see brand systems, in general, moving a little bit away from the simple and clean. Getting a little bit funkier.”
Alex plugs beverage brands Kin Euphorics and Ruby as examples of those rife with character and world-building, while their logos and packaging remain simple. “I think these brands are more of a representation of where we’re going,” he adds.
“The logo is just a signal of the world that they’re building in other places, versus trying to put that all into the logo itself.”