Why Uber’s New Identity Is Comical
A minimal, black, serif letter “U” contrasting against a white background was unanimously associated with the convenience of getting where you needed to be, hassle-free. The elegant black and white minimalism was the hallmark of Uber as we knew it 2 days ago.
Yesterday Uber drastically revamped their brand identity from website to app icon, followed by a strong critical public perception. It’s not uncommon for the Internet to react negatively to change by default, but after a close examination I don’t think this is the case here. Let’s take a look at Uber’s branding choices and examine what doesn’t sit well with people and why.
The Video Manifesto
My first impression came from the official marketing video explaining the company’s philosophy.
It immediately starts with a brief history of “the bit” and explains how it’s “the building block of the digital world.” Then leaps to “the atom” and how it’s the foundational building block of life, complete with imagery of cute cats and a BLT burger?
The video narration continues…
“Until a few short years ago, atoms and bits existed in entirely different worlds, but then, something happened- at Uber we asked “What if we brought these two worlds together? What would that look like?”
Uber, you’re a taxi company. Or as I’m sure your marketing team would spin it: “a logistic entity optimizing the transportational needs of homo sapiens.” Whichever you prefer.
If Google based their identity around the atom- I’d understand. Somewhere between creating an artificial intelligence, connecting humanity via WiFi emitting balloons and attempting to build an elevator to space, they’ve more than earned the right to implement the fundamental unit of our Universe as a part of their identity.
If Apple associated itself with the concept of a “bit” after inventing the personal computer along with numerous devices that have revolutionized a part of the human condition- I’d understand.
But a transportation company attempting to establish a connection to existential concepts not only comes across as a humorous disconnect, but it borders parody. The atom is well suited for the W7-X Nuclear Fusion reactor which actually splits atoms in hopes of providing us with infinite energy.
A better alternative would be to explore concepts that more honestly reflect what Uber does extremely well: unite you with the people and places you care about and delivering the things you need (Uber Rush, Uber Eats, Uber Kittens or whatever it’s called.) Unity, connection, movement, motion, or even nature’s mediums of transportation- wind and oceans are worth exploring for inspiration. Airbnb executed this beautifully by focusing on the concept of community instead of housing as a central theme to their identity (but then again, they didn’t let their CEO drive the design efforts and actually left it to professionals.)
My point is, there are a million arbitrary concepts that could be used to justify the graphical use of circles and squares for branding purposes. As long as it’s honest and sensible to your value proposition.
The App Icon
Moving on to the most central touch point of Uber…
Let’s be honest, you fucked this one up. All the way up.
Uber had a monopoly on the letter “U”
They owned it.
How many brands can you think of that own a letter in your mind?
G for Google, F for Facebook… that’s about all that comes to mind.
Why give that up? It makes no sense. Brands would kill to own a color, a phrase, an image, let alone a letter. Although symbols and icons are empty vessels to be filled with meaning, the aesthetic choices seem arbitrary and crude. While I understand the square (bit) superimposed on the circle (atom,) I don’t get the left line nor the displeasing kaleidoscopic pattern. Weird.
Taking a page out of Google’s Material Design and going for the overlapping look by swapping Google’s circular call to action with a square “bit” - cool, I can live with that. I really like the ideas of subtle patterns as opposed to solid colors.
What really bugs me are these particular cutouts, I find them distracting.
I like it. I really like it.
It’s much more approachable and compact than the old typeface. It’s confident yet friendly and most importantly, legible.
One thing the Uber team absolutely nailed is creating a unique look and feel for individual countries while conforming to the overarching design framework. It’s an innovative move which I certainly think other companies will take note of.
The biggest inconsistency by far is the aesthetics of the actual app. Not the icon or splash screen- the interface and behavior is still very much the same and doesn’t seem to sit well in the grand scheme of the new identity. Once again, Airbnb executed this greatly by revamping their interface to match the look and feel of their new identity.
Scroll up to the top of this page and look at header image of Uber’s branding assets and compare it to this screen. Nothing about it is consistent. Do you see any of the bright colors here? Any of the new patterns? Rebranding is about unifying not just marketing collateral, but the product packaging which should reflect the newly acquired identity as well.
The Smart CEO Syndrome
WIRED published an expose on Uber’s brand redesign process, which has spanned several years. The thing that immediately stands out is the fact Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanic was the driving force behind the design decisions, without prior creative experience. I find that troubling. The article describes him choosing color palettes and selecting typefaces as the actual Director of Design Shalin Amin seems to have been sidelined.
“I basically gave up understanding what your personal preference was,” Shalin tells him. ‘He’s got this pastel thing going with, like, bright colors.’”
I can’t fathom a scenario where a Design Director should be considerate and understanding of the CEO’s personal aesthetic preferences. There seems to be a repeating pattern of smart, technically capable CEO’s who think they can do it all. They tend to project their personal aesthetic preferences on their company’s brand which almost never aligns. Just because you love the rich brown leather on your Ferragamo shoes, that doesn’t mean it would be a good color choice for your company’s brand.
After reading the article, it all made sense. It strikes very close to home for me as a designer, having been in situations where my decisions have been overturned by CEO’s on no merit other than personal intuition.
The article continues…
He studied up on concepts ranging from kerning to color palettes.
“I didn’t know any of this stuff,” says Kalanick.
Noo, you don’t say!
I think I’ll “study up” on variables and databases and sit in on engineering meetings to make some decisions for them.
Reading about design principles is like studying how to ride a bike or swim- useless unless actually practiced.
“I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.”
Then why not let your Director of Design drive the effort? The article states that outside firms simply did not get Uber or lacked good execution, on both of which I call bullshit. The most likely scenario is Mr.Kalanick being married to his ideas of what Uber should look and feel like and not trusting his Director of Design, who sounds frustrated to say the least.
To recap Uber’s branding decisions: replacing an iconic logotype with a symbol reminiscent of a financial institution, appropriating Google’s Material design with moderate success, not refreshing the actual app, all while positioning itself as a uniting the very fabric of the universe.
The rebrand is not terrible nor great; it’s somewhere between an unenthusiastic “Nice” and a slight expulsion of nasal air accompanied by a slight head shake. I think this was a real opportunity for Uber to reshape it’s image from a luxurious brand to an everyday service accessible to everyone, which they’ve accomplished moderately well. What I’m really left wondering is what the rejected proposals from the “unqualified” design agencies were. Guess we’ll never know, which is fine by me as long as I can get to the airport on time.