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Less is more when it comes to brand logos

Should you be ‘unlabelling’ your brand or logo?

In a trend dubbed ‘Unlabelling’, more and more brands are turning to extreme minimalism and ‘flat’ design for their logos and packaging.

Why is this?

When we talk about ‘flat’ design, we mean a style of design that doesn’t have any stylistic elements, such as drop shadows, blurs, gradients or textures that create the illusion of three dimensions. Flat design focuses on the minimalist use of simple elements, typography and flat colours.

The swing towards flat design away from depth and realism is a practical one in many ways. Design elements such as shadows and blurs don’t translate well to the smaller screens, such as those on our smart phones. The screen resolution can affect the crispness of an image and can lose a lot of the detail. As more than 50% of us are now using the internet via mobile devices, it makes sense that logo designs and other branding will have to simplify to translate across all devices.

Less is more

2014 was a massive year for simplification. A number of high profile household names unveiled their new simplified logos to – in some cases – mixed receptions. It’s fair to say that when an established brand changes its logo, it is often met with a negative reaction but feelings tend to mellow as people adjust to the change.

Airbnb logoAirbnb’s logo change is a perfect example. When the new flat logo was unveiled, it immediately created waves. Commentators felt that the symbol used in the logo was ‘provocative’ and ‘vaguely sexual’. “Is it balls? Is it a vagina? Is it balls in front of a vagina?” asked Gizmodo. “I challenge you to name a sexual area not evoked by the Airbnb logo,” tweeted another.

Apparently, the London-based company – Design Studio – that created the logo said the design was inspired by Kurt Wideman’s theory that a great logo “is something you can draw in the sand with your toe”.

Love it or hate it, the symbol – which Airbnb named Bélo – got people talking and overhauled the company’s brand message and positioning. The symbol is said to represent a sense of belonging and connectivity, and reflects Airbnb’s position as a global connector.

The typography in the Airbnb logo is flat, fuss-free and visually appealing, with a much more modern feel than the old, overly fussy serif font. Despite initial criticisms and a swathe of memes parodying it, the new Airbnb logo is here to stay and instantly recognisable.

One logo simplification that was generally very well received was that of Foursquare. The company has been keen to reposition itself as more than the app people use to ‘check-in’ their location. In 2014, Foursquare siphoned its signature check-in feature to another app and changed focus to provide customised local reviews and suggestions.

As explained on the Foursquare blog, “We designed (the logo) to be a mix of map pin and superhero emblem. We’ve always thought of Foursquare as giving you superpowers to explore your city, and our new logo reflects that vision”.

Again, Foursquare’s typography has simplified too, and looks like an older, wiser version of itself. The previously rounded, multi-coloured and playful typeface has been replaced with clear and commanding sans serif capitals.

PayPal is another company to unveil a new logo that reflects wider changes within the organisation. In September 2014, eBay announced its plans to split PayPal off into a separate company. The new logo reflects this new era, overlaying the two Ps to express motion and transaction between two parties. Some commentators have pointed out that the kerning between the letters is slightly inconsistent, so the logo could use some refinement, but generally speaking the new design is eye catching and works well on all devices.

When simplification goes wrong

Although simplification can work well for many brands, there are some brands for which simplification and flat design was a gamble that didn’t pay off.

Back in 2009, Tropicana unveiled its new packaging with a simplified logo and cleaner, minimalist design. The iconic orange with a straw stuck in it was replaced with a glass of orange juice. Sales of the product are said to have fallen by 20% and the new design lasted just two months before Tropicana reverted to its old packaging and logo, which still endures today.

Gap logo redesign failIn 2010, clothing store Gap unveiled its new logo. Gap’s logo has always been instantly recognisable for its elongated and elegant capital letters but the new logo was a fairly non-descript sans serif font in black with just an uppercase G and a blue box positioned awkwardly behind the ‘p’. The public immediately voiced its objections. In an attempt to rescue the situation, Gap took to its Facebook page to say, “We know this logo created a lot of buzz and we’re thrilled to see passionate debates unfolding!” The company then asked for people to submit their own design suggestions but the plea fell flat. The original logo was reinstated after a week and remains an iconic part of Gap’s identity.

Unlabelling depends on your audience

We recently found a great article on the Creativebloq website about a London designer, Mehmet Gozetlik, who decided to take iconic brands such as Nutella, Nesquik and Lindt and strip their logos and packaging back to the basics with the ultimate flat design.

mehmet gozetlik - simplified logosThe project showed just how many design elements there are on the packaging we see every day on supermarket shelves. Although many of the minimalist designs looked better from an aesthetic perspective, the question remains whether they would work in practise. This stripping back took away many of the pictures that people associate with the brand at a glance – for example, a guy cleaning the kitchen on the Mr. Muscle bottle – and may not work when placed against competitors’ packaging.

In many cases, the simplification of these brands relied on consumers already being familiar with the brand, suggesting that ‘unlabelling’ might work better with established customers. Of course, the flipside of this is that when brands get rid of the familiar, they risk alienating the people who are avid fans.

It’s important to consider a product’s audience when simplifying logos or packaging. Nesquik, for example, is designed to appeal to children and their limitless pester power. Take away the Nesquik bunny and glass of chocolate milkshake from the design, as Mehmet Gozetlik does in his project, and what is left to grab kids’ attention?

One simplified design that could work well is the Nutella branding, simply because the new design unveils the nutty chocolate treat inside the jar and relies on the product’s reputation.

Simplification is here to stay

There’s little doubt that we’re going to see more and more household names stripping back their logos with flat design. Some of the biggest changes unveiled in 2015 include the new Electrolux logo, where the dated font has been replaced with a more modern, edgy sans serif font, while the iconic Electrolux symbol has been retained.

In recognition of the need for fonts that are readable on mobile devices, the New York Times Magazine font has been widened and ‘more graciously spaced’ to make the very fancy font distinguishable on different size screens.

YouTube Kids is another flat design that combines the iconic YouTube logo with a more fun, even anarchic jumble of bold, attention grabbing letters that will appeal to kids of all ages, however they’ve viewing the channel.

One new logo that bucks the trend for flat design to great affect is the Freeview logo. The use of colour creates an almost lightning bolt effect that uses the red associated with the Freeview brand but makes it more dynamic with the blending of colour and 3D effects. The angular design suggests movement, agility, choice and a fantastic sense of fun. The design is simple enough that it looks great on mobile screens.

How does your logo look on a smart phone? Could your brand benefit from a redesign? What do you love about your brand? What would you change? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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