How we got 60 million members through ehhh design

Alex Parker
Dec 9, 2016 · 5 min read

Before interviewing at Credit Karma I was under the assumption that CK was run by a small team of nerdy older dudes. You know, the sort of online company that barely exists in person, based in some underutilized, dot-com-boom warehouse of an office where everyone wears Dockers and polo shirts.

When you look at Credit Karma’s legacy brand, it’s not hard to see why I thought that. The visual brand was awash with dated style: Blue, just like everybody else in financial services. Gradients, do they ever go out of fashion? (yes, yes they do) And a myriad of mismatched illustrations in all the weirdest places.

This very web 1.0 approach to design wasn’t without merit, though. I have to give Credit Karma some credit (heh) — The visual identity Credit Karma had been leaning on helped the company blend in with big financial institutions.

In a way, Credit Karma’s imperfect visual identity afforded it credibility in the space. Members could trust us because we looked like reputable financial institutions, without all the BS that usually comes along with financial services.

It’s like the company had spent so long trying to prove it was as credible as the stuffy big banks that it started to look like them, too.

Trust us.

I wasn’t too nervous when I interviewed at Credit Karma. The job description fit me really well, for one thing. But I was also under the impression this would be just another practice interview. I didn’t have high hopes for the design environment at Credit Karma.

I bet the designers worked in cubicles. I bet the company culture was like an attorney’s office or a bank or something.

Thankfully, I lost that bet.

Inside Credit Karma, the employees were really progressive and energized. It seemed like everyone knew how obnoxious finances are, and how understanding them could be really difficult for most people.

So what gives? As an outsider, why did I have the impression that Credit Karma was so lame?

During the interview I learned how mismatched Credit Karma’s visual identity was from their internal perception of themselves.

Nearly everyone I met was a real human eager to help real members with very real financial lives. So much so that I could see how Credit Karma was bursting at the seams with real energy and interesting ideas.

Or maybe the seams had already burst. What made it to the public was a mess of financial articles, ads, commercials, and various graphic styles. As an Art Director, I could see that Credit Karma had good intent, but lacked unification.

Credit Karma had the right tone, content, and product. This is what helped the company acquire over 60 million members with lackluster design. Love for the brand, at that point, was much stronger than the actual visual identity.

But not even the strongest brands can survive with a boring visual identity.

Cue the brand evolution.

In all the time I’ve worked at Credit Karma, our design team has been working on the next iteration of the Credit Karma brand. We needed a brand that better reflected our internal drive. One that conveyed our mission to shake up the personal finance space. We needed a brand that looked as honest and confident as we really are.

That’s when we (along with S+G) came up with the concept of Upswing. Or the feeling of being on the right track in your finances. Being in the green.

The new concept spoke to me on a personal level. To be honest, I’m a financial fuck-up. I’ve got mountains of debt piled over me. School loans, credit cards, tax debt, you name it. From working at Credit Karma, I’ve learned how to deal with all that. I’ve managed to turn things around and have started paying off my debt faster. Sure, I’m not perfect, but this is the first time I’ve felt like I’m moving in the right direction.

The truth is there are a lot of us financial fuck-ups out there. And we all want to experience the upswing, too. That feeling of the arrow on the graph going up instead of down. That feeling of massive financial stress on your shoulders being lifted. That’s what we had in mind as we approached our new mark:

See how the logo flows? That represents your financial progress. There are sharp moments, and there are smooth moments, but overall the mark is happy (look at those smiling ‘e’s), inviting (nice open counters), and progressively pointed upwards (notice how the arm of the k easily connects from the c or the t and pushes your eye rightwards.)

After nearly 10 years, this is Credit Karma growing up. This is us saying: all right, we’ve proven you can trust us like the banks, but let us show you how we’re more like you than we are like them.

Our illustration style was provided by Ryan Putnam, who also has the most purely curated Instagram I’ve ever seen. We use illustrations to give character and to celebrate moments of success.

For photography, we’ve chosen to use a confident documentary approach. One that better reflects the daily situations we all live.

Now that I’ve been at Credit Karma for a while I’ve watched it grow both in size and as a brand. Thankfully, there still aren’t any cubicles, and it’s clear that design has been given higher priority around here.

Just like our members, we’re always striving to be better. We feel that our new visual identity truly reflects who we are, and we hope you see that too.

If you haven’t yet, explore the new Credit Karma.

Alex Parker

Written by

Art Director for Credit Karma. I’m that one friend you have who looks like me.