Mutton dressed as lamb: a dangerous design trend

Google revealed a new logo this morning; a distinctly fresh, modern, colourful, sans-serif logotype with subtle elements borrowed from Futura and tweaked to form a new identity. Its crisp edges, playful colours, and tightly kerned characters are a great example of the care and detail Google has focused its design methodology around.

However, I don’t like the new logo. Actually, I think it’s some of the worst identity work I’ve seen. The playful undertones don’t match Google’s professional product offer. Losing the loop on the lowercase g is a distinct departure of character and devalues what was a very recognisable part of their identity. The new logo feels like it’s trying to be my friend and in my humble opinion: it’s completely un-fit for purpose, but that’s not the real issue here. There’s a growing trend that brand identity can shift user perception about a product’s value… and it’s a dangerous attitude.

Right now Google is undergoing a major restructure under their new parent company Alphabet (who also happens to have a very similar logotype identity) and and in the process have taken a radical departure from the evolved 1998 design recognised by millions of people every day and intrinsically linked with their product: Google search. Google has always had a long, dissonant relationship between becoming a recognisable search monopoly and trying to avoid their name from becoming lingo (a situation that would nullify their rights to ‘Google’ as a trademark).

Speculatively analysing Google’s point-of-view, the reasons for such a change centre around one theme: distraction. The new identity doesn’t improve their product, it distracts from a lack of product improvement and innovation. It polarises opinion as their users either loath or praise the superficial changes rather than complimenting a new product experience. As their blog post says, their identity and products have evolved over the last 17 years. Their reason for such a radical departure, “today we’re changing things up once again”. Sorry Google, that’s just not good enough. Sudden changes infuriate and confuse users, exacerbated even more when unaccompanied by any real rationalised purpose or benefit.

It’s unfair to focus on Google here, they’re just the latest case in a growing trend of “brand-washing”. Facebook too recently unveiled a new logo which also replaces their old one with a friendlier (albeit less characterised) sans-serif typeface. Yahoo did the same thing a few years ago, and Microsoft completely overhauled their Windows branding with the release of 10.

The impact of such brand changes can be crucially embedded in the user-experience of a product, particularly a digital one. The brand has to work as part of the experience, not just slapped on afterwards or changed because some executive has some spare cash in the marketing budget. Spotify’s updated green for instance sparked a series of tweets complaining how the new colour clashed with users’ highly personalised home screens. Not taking into consideration the impacts across every touch point is dangerous. Designing and testing the brand as part of the wider experience is crucial to a product’s success; on-boarding users through the change and demonstrating the value will mitigate against backlash.

Do the dots represent the number of people that could have been connected with the re-brand budget?

In a similar move NBN co (the National Broadband Network Company) recently spent upwards of AUD $700,000 to drop ‘co’ from their name and re-brand as just “NBN™”. The press statement highlighted the new name was “simpler” and “friendlier” for consumers to understand the otherwise highly complex role of the NBN™ [company], the NBN™ [infrastructure], and the NBN™ [service] and their relationship with consumers, ISPs and government. The strategy is the exact opposite of what Google has been trying to achieve. Rather than distinctly separating their identities, they’ve decided to combine them into an acronym that amalgamates the product and company together, further confusing people as to who, what, where, and when NBN™ is. A move that has been slammed by Australian media as a wasteful, distracting strategy – and rightly so.

All of this feels remarkably similar to the Gruen effect: deliberately confusing and distracting users to encourage a business objective. Phrases like ‘shaking up’ or ‘disrupting’ aren’t rationale for a departure from a very familiar and functional user experience. When the business needs something new, something innovative, take pause to remember: redesigning your brand won’t fix your products’ problems.