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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.

#Pentagram

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