Rebranding Reax: Aol.

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—When Time Warner finally unburdened itself of AOL and the newly spun-off company unveiled a logo redesign, the world was breathlessly poised not to care. Instead, Wolff Olins (remember London 2012? NYC?) put forward a redesign that was impossible to ignore if only because it was so polarizing. The firm, once again, perfectly straddled the line between ballsy and hate-able.

AOL—now Aol., including full stop—gave Wolff Olins ample license to fill the canvas behind a looming white “Aol.” with a startling rainbow of shapes, landscapes, and obsessions, the infinite worlds of online content Aol supposedly connects its users to. Plenty of these visualizations are lovely, active, collectible, and share-worthy, best exemplified by the videos Wolff Olins commissioned from Universal Everything. (Except for the video that Wolff Olins chose for its homepage, a giant powdered donut hole swallowing the world.) Colorful “skins” on the site round out the look.

At least Aol is providing grist for energetic debate. Here’s a range of responses so far:

Creative Review points out that the company’s “use of interchangeable imagery is a similar approach to that employed by Wolff Olins for New York City, whereby the basic logo could be filled with various images to add freshness, while the goldfish is somewhat reminiscent of a piece of work by one of WO’s founders—Michael Wolff’s logo for The Consortium.” Or, as one commenter dryly notes, “Same shit, different client.”

The Guardian collects opinions from several dissenting designers, including Oliver Reichnestein, creative director of Tokyo based design agency Information Architects: “Radical identity changes usually suggest that there is something wrong with the company. Well, we all know what’s wrong with Aol. Their original business (Internet access) is obsolete. Dropping all visual keys and forcing the logo to a negative appearance on random images surely is a drastic measure. If the goal of the redesign was to illustrate how the company is slowly vanishing from the fast changing digital surface of the planet, I’d say: Job well done.”

And for hoi polloi animosity, you can always join Amplicate’s Aol Sucks group for tweeters weighing in against the new brand.

But not everyone’s landed on Aol like a ton of bricks. In fact, several doubters have slowly warmed to the new brand’s potential. Armin Vit of Brand New called the new campaign “a strong identity hindered by a weak start.” He also worries that the company has opened itself up to mockery: “Anyone with Arial on their machine will be more than happy to slap an “Aol.” on whatever they find funny or demeaning.”

The New York Times reports a range of reactions, but sticks the article’s ending with a conundrum worth pondering: Aol’s manifest uncoolness matched with its still-impressive ubiquity. Jonah Disend, chief executive at Redscout, a brand strategy agency in New York owned by MDC Partners, says, “The problem is that AOL is the My Little Pony of Internet brands, for when you’re starting out online … The last thing you want to be is a nostalgic brand in a category that’s all about the future.” Allan Adamson, managing director of the New York office of Landor, said he would give a makeover of the AOL brand “one good try” before giving up on it. After all, he said, “I have an AOL account.”

In an interview with the creative team responsible for the redesign, Alissa Walker surprised herself by rethinking the mark she’d heartily disliked before. “Wait. Has AOL just created the first completely user-contributed, 100% flexible, invisible logo? Where all that matters is what animates around it? Suddenly it occurs to me that Wolff Olins is somehow privy to the future of branding, and we’re just the snarky naysayers stuck in the present.”

So there’s hope, it seems. If nothing else, its circulating campaign images have clued Generation Y and younger into the continued fact of its very existence. But Wolff Olins may have to continue tinkering. For one thing, everyone seems flummoxed by the new spelling of the corporate name.

“I’m not sure how to pronounce the new name of the company,” comments Kevin Tucker on Under Consideration. “Since it’s now a word, rather than an acronym, is it supposed to sound like ‘owl’ or more like ‘aioli’ but without the last i?”…Anyway, as ‘blah’ as it may be, at least it’s not the chronically off-center teal swirly pyramid monstrosity of a logo that already looked like a moldy Trapper Keeper when it was released in the early ’90s.” That’s the politic version; another reader doesn’t mince words: “Am I the only one that reads it as a word because of the period and sentence cap? Aol. A-ole. A-hole. You see how poorly this could go.”