Launching a new take on your brand is always difficult. People have gotten used to your design and they probably hardly think about it unless they work in marketing. But you want to change your business, take it to a new level and hence you, or some mighty guy in your management team, wants to change the logo.
So you often end up hiring an expensive agency to rebrand. You might think a rebranding process is a small thing, but for large, established companies it is definitely a huge deal. And when you spend a million on your new logo it wouldn’t hurt if it was revealed to an appreciating audience, right?
I’m sure that’s what Uber wanted and hoped for, but instead the Internet frowned (just google “new Uber logo” and you’ll see) when the revolutionary (big word, but let’s use it) transportation company launched what looks like a…a…a…
I have no idea what it looks like to be honest and neither did most people. Uber claimed on their new website that it was “inspired by the “bit” and the “atom,” both building blocks of technology and the world.”
Having worked as a creative for a large part of my life it does sound like the usual agency bullshit to me (the masters of bs award goes to the Arnell Group for their infamous documentation on their Pepsi logo redesign), but it’s often too easy to write these things off without knowing what went on behind the scenes. So I did some research.
The thing that is different with the Uber rebranding is that it was done in-house and actually deeply involved founder Travis Kalanick, who is not a designer. However, he saw it as a personal rebranding (“there’s an evolution here, for the founder as well as for the company,” he said, “because really, they’re very connected.”) and decided to read up on kerning and color palettes to be able to contribute to the process in a good way.
Together with design director Shalin Amin they sat down to tackle all Uber’s branding problems which according to Shalin were:
- The company had two logos. U inside a box on Android and U and no box on Apple.
- The letters in the UBER wordmark were too widely spaced.
- The upper-case U looked weird beside the wordmark, almost like it extended the word to Uuber.
Like pretty much all design processes, the rebranding of the Uber logo became a lengthy one. But the wordmark part of the Uber logo project went relatively smooth and ended up like this:
But next to this new logo that they all liked – their other brand assets looked dated. And so the process grew and became an entire rebrand with icons, fonts, website look and feel. The design team started working on the story behind it. Thanks to the above mentioned blog post about bits and atoms Kalanick had written, the team had a concept to work with and through multiple jam sessions (sounds better than brainstorming), a communications designer named Catherine Ray came up with grid-like themes inspired by her bathroom tiles. Together they would then choose the pattern that would represent the Uber brand based on the five pillars of Uber: grounded, populist, inspiring, highly evolved, and elevated.
When it came to colors, things got more complicated. They realized they couldn’t be basing the entire design of a worldwide brand (400 cities in 65 countries) around the ideas of a “white guy in California”, even if he was the CEO. So they set up a few design principles and started to work on an international palette based on colors, imagery and popular symbols in the respective markets. This ended up becoming 65 country-specific color-and pattern-palettes and five global ones. Talk about ambition!
The next stage was designing the icon, which wasn’t a straightforward process either. Like with many creative processes today, you high-five after reaching consensus on something you like, only to realize someone else already had this idea before. And if you’re going live in as many countries as Uber, you need make sure you do your research.
The Uber design crew needed to frequently go back and forth to their so called “war room” for brainstorming exercises before they agreed on the geometric shape concept, created by designer Bryan Jow. The idea of the concept was that it, through different interpretations, could work for all Uber apps. Kalanick was satisfied and the decision was made. As an example, below are the patterns and icons for the rider icon (left) and the partner icon (right) – the two key planets in the Uber universe.
This is how Uber described it in their press release:
“Uber no longer moves just people; we’re now moving food, goods, and soon maybe much more. With the potential for many apps with many app icons, we needed one approach that connected them all. So we came back to our story of bits and atoms. You’ll see that both rider and driver icons have the bit at the center, and then the local colors and patterns in the background. This is a framework that will also make it easy to develop different icons for new products over time.”
It makes sense in a way, but when you’re building or refurbishing a brand you will also need to be more basic in your thinking and consider the daily customer. Will they recognize it? Will they connect with the story and the vision of the brand? If Uber wanted more products and apps one way could have been to create multiple brands and kept the Uber brand as it was.
Alexander Chernev from Kellogg School of Management argued in his excellent Fortune article that “The story of bits and atoms is just too abstract for customers, who know Uber for its primary function: efficient and reliable transportation. The concept of “bits and atoms” can describe a wide range of companies, including Intel, Amazon, and Google; it does not uniquely identify Uber.”
I cannot agree more. What brands strive for is to be remembered and to own a color, a symbol, a word, something in people’s minds. And Uber had done a good job in owning a whole letter in the alphabet due to its successful delivery of a unique (at the time) and excellent service. The risk of going as abstract as they have, is that they lose the distinction in their brand, which might not hurt them on a short time-frame, but might turn out to be a mistake in the long-run.
What easily happens when a company decides to create or redesign a brand internally is that they see things too much from the inside-out. Their perception of who they are is not necessarily what their customers think they are. It’s like it is with most consulting services companies use, whether it’s creative or legal or financial: sometimes you need someone from the outside to tell it like it is.
However, there are many good things about the Uber process:
- Creating a logo in-house enforces it and makes it easier to organisation to buy into and believe in.
- Having your CEO be so actively involved communicates to the organisation that this is important.
- Letting a process take time is important as you’ll usually live with your decision for a longer time.
- Opening up the process to get inspiration from a broader team is a good idea.
But if you summarize the downsides in the way Uber designed their logo
- Getting an outside perspective of you who are and should be can be quite healthy. Otherwise it is easy to get stuck with ideas that stick with you, but not your customers.
- Maybe they didn’t take a customer first viewpoint on their app-icon. For you to be able to find it on your phone among that clutter of symbols, it needs to be distinct. Their new app icon is, in my humble personal opinion, not.
- Sometimes a design process can take long. Very long. And the amount of hours that Uber used on their new app logo could surely have been used effectively on other things if they’d let an external agency take the lead on it.
What do you think about the new Uber logo and app icons? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment.