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324. Branding Should Have a Backbone. 

London 2012. Gap. The BigTen. Starbucks. Just the beginning of some of the identity redesigns that have generated strong negative feedback recently; within the design community but also from the general public. And increasingly the public is getting more involved in the critique perhaps because it is easier and easier to do so with technology. It's not like you need a degree or any talent to say, "That sucks" or some other helpful anonymous and constructive criticism inside a thread of comments. Obviously Gap is the best example of the public altering a brand's design direction, but Starbucks has been dealing with contempt for their logo long before they changed it last week. The launch was covered on CNN with a headline that read: New Starbucks Logo Generates Disdain. Hmmm.

A few Random Comments on Starbucks New Logo:

Now, one thing that Starbucks did when unveiling their new look that Gap didn't was attempt to provide some context for the change via a video from CEO Howard Schultz.

Whether you want Starbucks to sell cellphones and car tires or not, at least they hinted at broadening their business and why they simplified and focused their identity. (For my taste, I like the new one. The old design was long ago turned into a bad cliche and parodied to an inch of its life. The circle text was horrible. End of story.)

Starbucks Logo Parodies Collected by LogoMania (Click for more. Some use the swears.)

Clearly the design of a brand will be engaged by the public in some way, and it's important they know for what it stands. But it's not important that they like how it looks. The growing design critique from the masses should be ignored for a lot of reasons.

  1. The majority of people don't know enough about design.
  2. They can't envision the context in which it will be used.
  3. When asked, some companies simply won't generate positive feedback on anything. Starbucks is an easy target, but yet they have what is considered one of the strongest in-house design teams around. "Oh, you want my opinion on something Starbucks related? I hate it. What are we talking about again?"
  4. The identity is not the entirety of the brand and it's more important for the public to like the other stuff (experience, customer service, price, personality, and oh yeah - the product.)
  5. And most importantly, the public really doesn't care. At least about the type and color over the short term. They say they do, but they don't. They do care about it being authentic and how it connects with them over time. (This is what you pay the experts for, by the way.)
  6. The public's attention span is shorter than yours. Usually, the masses will forget the controversy and the new look will be established in short order.

Duffy and Partners said it best in a related post on their blog, "But this is our reality. We put something out there and we get instant feedback from the masses. People are not only throwing out their opinions but also sending in their own free design solutions. It's becoming a beauty contest, the exact thing that we try so hard to avoid with every design project."

They used the recent BigTen redesign as the anchor of their article and it's a good one because it was designed by Pentagram; one of—if not the best—studios in the world. Now, I don't love everything Pentagram does, but personal opinions aside, it's always smart, well-executed and appropriate. Unlike most of the vitriolic comments that they heard after the launch. Not only could Pentagram out-design pretty much any amateur or common citizen out there, they can out-think them too. And that's the real difference.

The BigTen: If You Don't Like This, You're Wrong. Ha.:

The best point Duffy made was this, "Many can create something beautiful, but so much more goes into creating a great identity. The hoops we need to jump through these days are endless and sometimes we are fighting winless battles along the way. But without being involved from the original brief to the actual launch and all the steps in between, how could you possibly render a legitimate opinion?" For the record, Duffy can go toe-to-toe with Pentagram as they're pretty darn good too.

Sure, this blog and many like it critique design and communication just about everyday. But some of us have a history of commentary, a design education, experience and a portfolio to back all of that up. Anonymous commentary from the masses is bad enough, the fact that companies are listening to it is borderline insane. Sure social media and the instantaneous 'dialogue' it engenders between companies and the public is powerful and can be used in many, many useful ways. But it shouldn't be used for crowd-sourcing or group-thinking your entire design approach. I don't understand how companies can be so stubborn and insular about some processes and yet so 'invertebrate' about others. Research. Hire experts. Do something. Evaluate it. And don't listen to people who don't matter.

The public hated the new Gap logo, even though a case could be made for it, especially with how they were planning on implementing it inside their retail space. I didn't like it, but that doesn't really matter either. It also goes the other way. Here in California, people seem to love the new Golden State Warriors logo, a design that might just be the worst designed identity in the world right now. It is—as Charles Barkley would say—Turribull.

I Don't Care What the Public Thinks: This is Garbage:

The point here is that more companies should do what Comedy Central did when they launched their new look. They gave people the reason(s) behind the move in a way that resonated with who they were and basically told people to deal with it. How do I feel about the design itself? Well, the old identity was a mess and the new one has very little personality (albeit a little wit when the copyright aspect is considered.) But I love how they didn't blink when it wasn't received very positively.

Comedy Central. This is our logo. Cope.

Comedy Central: This Is 2011
Funny Jokes It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia Ugly Americans

People don't seem to like change, even when it makes sense. But give them something that is smart and forward-thinking, or maybe even challenging at first and they'll eventually accept it. (Though if you ask them, they'll probably deny it.) Just remember Company X Brand Manager: at least they are talking about you and paying attention to your communciation design. How you respond (or don't respond) to this conversation is key.

People will be far more likely to respect you as a company if you respect yourself first.

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References (71)

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Reader Comments (17)

Great articule, clever reflection.

we designers should build a more mature and structured review of our own work, less visceral. The design is much more complex than whether something looks beautiful or not.
January 13, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGAB0!
Very well said.

All opinions are not created equally.

Some of my own thoughts on the topic.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterXK9
Really good article, I think the last paragraph sums it up with the public don't like change, when they say they don't like a new logo for a brand the reasons behind the refusal have nothing to do with the design and mostly based on the public''s fear of change.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Brierley
While I agree with the spirit of the article, I have to take issue with the selection of quotes from Starbucks logo announcement page, amongst other few points. As with any major identity change you're going to end up with handful of crazy people who contribute nothing constructive to the conversation, but that's not indicative of company's choices in either direction.

Starbucks logo wasn't quite changed. It was augmented. There is no new element introduced nor does the current iteration have typography for the typeface nerds to hyperventilate over.

There is a very fine line between having a spine in design matters, believing in the finished product and being incredibly stubborn. The fact that Pentagram is a huge design house does absolutely nothing to persuade those who are exposed to their work out in the real world. Branding is a strange beast that lacks context, unlike say a Picasso painting which has plenty. Individuals are not given a coffee table book with their entire portfolio and there is no narrative. Each design is a blank slate and should be judged on it's own merits.

No one loved the new GAP logo. It was objectively bad. Even GAP conceded that it was quite awful and backtracked. A rare thing in the world of branding. The last instance of reverting back to the original was the infamous Tropicana packaging fiasco.

To tie it all together, I'd have to say that the most successful branding decisions involving omnipresent logos are iterative in nature. See, Nokia, Apple, Coke, Ford. Same language — new accent. This is where Starbucks was not a huge deal and didn't even become a trending topic on twitter. The change was subtle for the average person and it retained the old essence.

Most people have innate sense of aesthetic beauty and practicality but can't express it or unwilling to delve into the minutia of it. It's the silent majority you should be producing for, not the vocal few who have found a platform and complain about a change. Above all, never design to impress your peers or try to create an entirely new language for the sake of being different. London 2012 logo is a good example of it. Too theoretical and masturbatory that requires a thesis to explain the logic behind it. It's never obvious.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAxian
Spot on. Everyone has an opinion, but there seems to be an idea that everyone's opinion is equally valid, symptomatic, I think, of the idea of people being born with the 'right' to everything without having to lift a finger in order to get it.

Hope you don't mind, I've quoted you in a post about the same subject. I couldn't put it better myself, so I didn't.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMark Astle
I wonder how much people's opinions on rebranding are affected by their preconceived notions about what they think the branding should be?
For example, as a counter tho those who say the new Starbucks logo isn't "right", should include the name etc, my first thoughts on arriving at this page were "what's a Starbucks cup doing here, I thought this was about Comedy Central?", before having even read anything that hinted at the word "Starbucks". So I guess that for me at least, not being a regular Starbucks customer, the new logo worked exactly as its creators intended in that it was immediately identifiable as being the iconic Starbucks brand. I initially didn't even realise that the text was missing (it didn't look quite the same, however) so the mermaid device is obviously the major identifying feature in the logo. Only after having seen the previous logo did I realise what other peripheral elements were not present in the new one. Were the logo not on a coffee cup, however, there might not have been such instant recognition. Which calls forth another question regarding the relationship between expectation of logo placement and brand recognition i.e. do we recognise the brand from the logo not only because of the inherent design of the logo but also because it's positioned somewhere we would expect to see it?
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ Allen
"The point here is that more companies should do what Comedy Central did when they launched their new look. They gave people the reason(s) behind the move in a way that resonated with who they were and basically told people to deal with it."

Except for everyone outside America, who get to waste another 30 seconds before being told to talk to the hand. Not clever.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPete Austin
I don't know. I really like the new Golden State Warriors logo. It appears clean and really makes me think of California/SF when I see it. Of course I was never a fan of the name "Warriors" as it sounds like an amateur team out of Iowa or something.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterpchukwura
It would appear that most of the public criticisms of the new Starbucks logo are from douchebags and haters. I think the Starbucks logo and the Gap logo are two completely different things. It's obvious (without a video) that Starbucks chose both evolution and modernity (branding minimalism) for their new logo, while Gap simply took a crap in their pants, and decided to call it their new logo.

I enjoyed reading all of your thoughts on the rise of public and vocal reactions to new branding. I think the point you made that is universally true, is that people don't like change.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJon Henshaw
Funny how many people are making comments about the mermaid (or witch as a few have mischaracterized) given that she existed in the original logo. The only substantial difference is the removal of the type from around her image. It's amazing how many people have seen the Starbucks logo thousands of times and never realized what they were looking at. If I had to guess, that's why they changed it.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMike
"But without being involved from the original brief to the actual launch and all the steps in between, how could you possibly render a legitimate opinion?"

If you ask me, this kind of thinking shows a total misunderstanding of audience. If your audience is yourself, and/or your clients, then this makes sense. And all too often, I think that leads to terrible results. But invalidating an audience reaction because they don't understand your work process, or how hard you tried? Crazy.

I agree that you should have balls and ignore irrelevant opinions, however you determine that. But this attitude reminds me of things I've seen working in film and theater, where if the audience doesn't respond, the artist thinks a) they're too stupid and b) OUGHT to like the work, because the artists tried so hard. That sense of entitlement is a form of contempt for one's audience, and—it seems to me—seldom leads you towards doing better work.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAB
Caught the Lakers / Warriors game the other night. The first thing I noticed was the horrendous new logo in the middle of the floor. And it's HUGE, like they're proud of it or something. Fully agree - it's absolutely awful.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterbOMBfACTORY
I must say that I think the new Starbucks logo seems to be missing SOMETHING. I just can't say what. But it won't make me like their coffee any less. Also...I totally agree about the Warriors new logo. What garbage. It's so bland and uninspired.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny Rocket
The Warriors logo was hands down the WORST logo of 2010. Yes, even worse than Gap.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterXK9
Johnny: "The Starbucks logo seems to be missing SOMETHING."

I agree. I think it's too symmetrical to be entirely pleasing. Just shifting the siren slightly off center would help, but a slight change to her pose to alleviate that might also be an improvement. But it's generally a decent evolution. I will be seeing a lot of it around here in Seattle.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJerry Kindall
"world's leading purveyor of the highest quality coffee"??
If you like to drink milk... maybe ... their coffee blend tastes of smokey manure if you drink it sans milk.
I would say their brand aspires to be the McDonalds of coffee. The updated logo tells me nothing about their product, just that they are a pervasive brand.
January 14, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersc300
Great thoughts here. As a designer and brand facilitator I get frustrated every day the over reaction of the interwebs about things they don't know anything about. I don't need to re-iterated everything you said here as you did a fine job, but it all boils down to the fact that people hate change.

Companies change things all the time, and sometimes that includes their identity. But as you stated earlier what's more important is the services, products and experiences we associate with the company not what their logo looks like. It truly is a challenge getting people to understand that a brand isn't a logo and an updated look doesn't mean the brand is changing.
January 15, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterClayton Borah

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