Of Irreverence and Irrelevance: A Yahoo! Redesign
An essay on branding for the 21st century
Yahoo! has been making waves this year. A new homepage, better, award-winning apps, content deals, Tumblr(!) — it’s springtime in Sunnyvale after a decade long winter of letdown and disappointment. How exciting! Yahoo! is part of the internet conversation again! Exclamation mark! And that’s when it hits you, like a BANG!-shaped baseball bat over the head:
So it’s no surprise to me that the brand is up for a massive redesign — the color purple excepted. It’s a good move; one that I’ve expected ever since Marissa Mayer became CEO. In fact, a few months ago, I spent a little time thinking about how I would redo the Yahoo! brand, played with some designs, looked into what the company is about — even coming up with a non-corporate-speak version of what their mission statement should be. Such may seem excessive, but it’s really just the first step in making something good enough to be great.
This creative process is more than a bit like sword-making.
While I find it difficult to transcribe thoughts into an essay, I am writing down these words to share my design method and to run them through the gauntlet of the greater design and tech communities in hopes that it will foster some constructive discourse on the nature and purpose of the aesthetics we call “branding”. Branding gets a bum rap because of “douchey” startup culture and PR-speak and marketing gurus that talk about “brands” using vapid industry buzz-words that have little meaning because few of them actually understand what they are talking about. Branding is about semiotics and linguistics and functional art, about neurology and pattern-seeking and taste, areas that fall out of the purview of most who talk about brands. They seem, in the main, parrots — intelligent enough to make the sounds that make sense in and of themselves, but together have a meaning far less than the sum of its parts.
Yet it is the exposition of thoughts superficially like these that create a solid design. On their own, they may be no different from that of the parrot marketer. But the design process is one that should be judicious, combining only those ideas that work together within the constraints set before it. The survey of even the most basic concepts is worthwhile, especially when when they lead to a dead end, for those walls, fruitless in themselves, may be the catalyst for a truly great idea, pointing the discerning designer in a right direction.
Branding is storytelling.
Logo designers are no more than bards of the modern age.
What follows, then, is a meandering narrative built on these scaffolds of thought, connecting the selection of a brand based on novelty with the epitome of uncool, punctuation as meaningless character with the letter Y, data-driven decisions with taste, simplicity with timelessness, until finally, getting to the central conceit of this article — a new design by yours truly. So sit back on this lovely day and enjoy. We begin with a brief explanation of what I see is wrong with the Yahoo! logotype — an apt metaphor for the company in recent years — and a lesson present day startups should take to heart.
Out of Touch
It starts in the mid-nineties with Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle, an early site that acted as a portal to the nascent World Wide Web, with links to cool things. YAHOO was one of the first companies to benefit from the explosion of dotcoms and endless investment that catapulted many startups into multinational businesses — companies that could do no wrong, seemingly. The Information Superhighway turned the staid world of capital allocation on its head — with just an idea and a domain name, you could build a multimillion-dollar business, and with a little execution, a cool billion was not out of the question. Who were the people running these upstarts? In the case of YAHOO, two young, brilliant, and naïvely idealistic Stanford grad students, or at least that’s what the logotype tells me.
An exclamation of unbridled joy loses its meaning
if it’s exclaimed too much.
I understand that a company founded on the new meritocracy of cyberspace would want to shout from the rooftops, tell the world it’s different — a rogue, a pirate, a rebel — maybe even a yahoo. And what is the most effective way to connote anti-establishment even while your company is being flushed with the cash of establishment? Branding. What kind of branding, specifically? Branding of the time. Remember the go-go Nineties?
This was pitch-perfect when the internet was known as The World Wide Web, but it’s just the web now, uncapitalized and commonplace — even the most plodding of institutions, traditional newspapers, have uncapitalized the web, stripping it of its pretense and novelty, an acknowledgement that the internet generation has long known. We who have grown up with the web don’t need pseudo-excitement to be excited about the web, because the web is genuinely interesting and diverting. Such overly cheeky corporate branding may have shown real personality back then, but here in the two-thousand-teens, brazenly uncouth just isn’t cool anymore. In fact, it’s the epitome of uncool, like the careless yahoo that cut me off on the road the other day. It feels forced and ingenuine, befitting a company that had become so out of touch with the internet that gave it life.
This is the information age. We need brevity and clarity.
But that out of touch doesn’t end at just logos — it pervades their corporate style guide — foisting a particularly egregious and unconventional convention on journalists and readers. This guide explicitly states that Yahoo! is to be written with the exclamation mark, with that BANG! to be considered just another character, serving no real function. So look at what happens when I end this sentence with Yahoo!. What about a question ending with Yahoo!? How absurd it is when I end an exclamation with Yahoo!! Would an interrobang be Yahoo!!? Yahoo!?! And then there’s Yahoo!’s possessive form — it all looks wrong to read and feels wrong to type.
Regardless of the logotype that’s in flux at the moment, this violation of orthographic convention, rather than underscoring the defiance of the company, undermines its impact by forcing an arbitrary and unnecessary character that has been robbed of its grammatical meaning. This is the information age. We need brevity and clarity. Superfluous glyph is superfluous.
But what if we consider it an exclamation? This is even worse. An exclamation of unbridled joy loses its meaning if it’s exclaimed too much. Instead of conveying exuberance, it starts to feel like a put on, an act, a con, not the story a Fortune 500 company should be telling, particularly not one that has become just another lumbering giant, with little resemblance to the disruptive upstart. So the first order of business: lose the ! in writing, full stop. The second order of business is to figure out what Yahoo does.
Directing the Design
Yahoo is a destination, an aggregator, a search engine, a content creator, a media company, an advertiser, a mail provider, a few platforms for user-generated content, a web-first television producer, and they have been making great strides in transitioning to a mobile-first company with prominence on iOS and even an award-winning weather app. Putting it all together, they are a media-search-platform-service that keeps the lights on with advertising. That’s a pretty hairy mess if you think about it. It’s why I bothered to come up with a mission statement to help drive the design:
We mean to be indispensable,
even to those who have never heard of us.
Audacious? Yeah. In my view, mission statements should be aspirational, otherwise what’s the point? Yet I didn’t settle on it because it’s aspirational — I wanted to answer the question of who Yahoo’s customer is. It’s not just advertisers, shareholders, or even current users — it’s anyone that may one day access the internet. And to that end, Yahoo can’t get away with shoving itself front and center like that ostentatious and immature logotype of old. Yahoo needs to be in the background, something so ubiquitous yet understated, netizens take it for granted, like fresh water from a drinking fountain. To get there, I’ve come up with half a dozen attributes I believe any serious Yahoo rebrand must convey:
- It needs to be playful: Sacrificing fun and serendipity in the name of looking new would be the worst thing Yahoo could do. Yet playfulness does not mean gaudy and clown-like.
- It needs to be simple: Call me old-fashioned, but if it doesn’t look great dressed in black and white, it’ll never be great.
- It needs to be original: So Helvetica is out. In fact, all typefaces are out. Like their current logotype, bespoke is the only way to go.
- It needs to be iconic: Compression matters, particularly on the web and mobile devices. Any logotype for them needs to be unmistakable — preferably with an accompanying logo that fits well in a square.
- It needs to be meaningful: Good design allows for many interpretations, great design anticipates and guides such interpretations.
- It needs to be timeless: True craft isn’t something that you notice because it’s yelling in your general direction, it’s something you notice because it’s ineffable.
Playful, simple, original, iconic, meaningful, timeless.
Piece of cake.
The current branding does check off some of the above — plenty of playfulness, certainly original among its peers — but it’s not simple, does not adapt well to other forms, and its meaning, as we’ve covered, is not great. The zag-instead-of-zig feel has been lost, leaving that haphazard typeface, meant to be an affront to typefaces, as just an affront to typefaces. I like the serifs though, partly because few tech companies still use them.
What about the bang? I’ve already shared why I’d get rid of it in print, and many of the same reasons to ditch it there apply to the branding as a whole. But as Kathy Savitt has stated, the exclamation point stays, even if the mark likes to push itself to the forefront of all the designs, leading to this awkwardly compressed form:
Look at it, just floating off to the side, an ungainly appendage, essential only to the coerced excitement of the main logotype. Yet even though the bang is all urgency, blaring sirens and flashing lights, if it could be tempered into something less alarmist, it will prove useful for continuity’s sake. Design, after all, is about problem solving, about synthesizing old and new, about compromise.
Speaking of continuity and compromise, there is one more element in the ’95 version of the logotype that I think Marissa and friends would be remiss to omit, something I’ve hinted at in the title but didn’t include in my list — irreverence. I don’t think irreverence can be codified, especially in a publicly traded, multinational corporation, but a logo that speaks to such irreverence, even if subtly so, may help remind people not to hold any idea too dear, not to give so much respect for the way things are that you don’t dare to change them. And it’s clear that they are not afraid of change at Yahoo.
30 Logos in 30 Days
This is a fascinating exercise, showing off variations on playfulness and imagination. There is a certain boldness, reckless abandon even, in putting out a deluge of designs at differing levels of fit and finish, revealing some of the process that goes into creating and iterating a logo. It’s harder than it seems. However, I can’t help but think there may be some deeply flawed A/B testing of a logotype behind the scenes. I believe data can work really well to inform design, but not to choose it.
Data doesn’t account for taste.
Taste is complex. Even assuming data on taste could be reliably quantified, let alone qualified, how would you know your data collection wasn’t itself introducing errors? Remember New Coke? It beat Pepsi in blind taste tests, the so-called Pepsi Challenge where Old Coke would always lose. Yet it was a PR disaster lasting only three months before management reverted to Coca-Cola Classic. In addition to the cultural significance and media backlash, the conclusion Malcolm Gladwell turns out in Blink re Coke’s decision to monkey with the recipe is that the taste tests were systematically neglecting two crucial elements of enjoyment. First, they were optimized for sipping, not drinking, skewing the results toward the sweeter Pepsi, particularly in comparison to something a bit more bitter. Second, because the taste tests were blind, served in disposable cups, they were missing some of the sensory experiences of consuming the beverage, and with it, the emotions and memories triggered by those experiences. Expectations matter.
The first impression is seldom the lasting one.
But there is another explanation that I think needs to be added to the list: Coke panicked because they were having an existential crisis, because Pepsi was more popular in the younger demographic — and I’m sure they knew that demographic changes can destroy a company just as easily as technological ones can. But they failed to take into account that taste changes over time. I grew up a Pepsi person. Now it’s sweeter than I like. If I’m going to pick between Pepsi and Coke, it’s going to be the latter — and even that’s too sweet. I’ve noticed my preferences change in regard to chocolate, coffee, yerba mate, beer, and so on. Taste matures; sometimes it has to be acquired to be truly appreciated, maybe with some training-wheel sweetness to help. And it’s not just food and drink — it’s music, art, movies, whatever. Some things need to be listened to or seen many times to truly enjoy them; for others, enjoyment fades the more you experience it. To put a finer point on it: the first impression is seldom the lasting one. So not only does the data not account for taste, but a twenty-four hour period can only really measure a first impression, when for a brand, the repeated impressions are what matter.
New Coke, turns out, is not a perfect metaphor for a Yahoo rebranding; it’s a perfect metaphor for the failed Gap rebrand of a few years ago. I don’t know the details, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the new Gap logo tested well, partly because of its blatant mediocrity. But here’s a turns out that any graphic designers worth their salt should have said before, during, and after that logotype was tested — now how can I put this lightly — don’t fuck with timeless.
It’s an admonition we do not need to heed, because timeless the old Yahoo logo is not. But what about the designs they’ve previewed so far? Are any of them playful, simple, original, iconic, meaningful,timeless, and irreverent?
Before kindly critiquing these designs, it must be noted that I don’t want any harshness in my criticism to mean that these were unworthy of being tried out — many great ideas will come out of not self-editing and trying many dalliances, even if most of them are ridiculous. That is essential to the creative mindset. Many kill bad ideas before they become good, or quickly fall in love with good ideas that keep them from becoming great. That is the antithesis of the creative mindset.
Creativity is the ability to make new connections between things. And when seen that way, it just becomes a function of throwing a lot of stuff at a wall, with taste, of course, as a guide for what sticks. It’s a flow chart with three steps that easily turn into fifty:
Try many things.
Do any of them have promise?
Combine them and repeat.
It’s more than a bit like sword-making: you put your designs in the fire, heating away impurities, beating and folding them together with very large hammers until you end up with a many-layered alloy of very fine ideas that are strong enough to stand on their own and light enough to seem effortless, worthy of polish. For this reason I am more than a little optimistic about the aesthetic direction of Yahoo — they’ve been hammering out a lot designs:
Are they playful?
Absolutely. Yahoo has put this high on the list.
Are they simple?
Again, simplicity shows up in many of the designs, though there are a few haphazard stragglers.
Are they original?
Certainly. None of their teased designs are off-the-shelf typefaces that I can tell.
Are they iconic?
This is, sadly, where pretty much every design of theirs falters. But it’s obvious they weren’t trying. Whether this is worrisome will be revealed soon.
Are they meaningful?
Again, not a lot of significance beyond the exclamation Yahoo! — and though such can grow with time, relying on it is a foolish way to approach branding. Better to stack the deck in your favor from the outset.
Are they timeless?
Many of those above are distinctly of a time that predates Yahoo’s existence by decades. This may not be a bad thing, just an observation. It’s hard to gauge “timelessness”, but I believe that if it follows the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement, it may be a candidate for such.
Are they irreverent?
As a whole, indubitably. A few may be too bland to be really irreverent, but it’s clear to me that the that they want to preserve that aspect of the original brand. A few take it too far, however, to the point of just being gimmicky — which I believe is the death knell of good branding.
So which of these is going to be the next Yahoo logotype? As long as this isn’t some hair-brained, data collection scheme like I outlined above — none of them. While it is fun to think that they were going to hide the final design in plain if brief sight, none of them stick. Too many are mired in inconsistencies that aren’t readily noticeable when flashing by or in motion as kinetic type, but stick out immediately when viewed as static type. And of those without inconsistencies, I don’t believe any offer a compelling reason to change beyond just replacing the old logotype. I don’t mean to diss the movie either — it’s fun,well done, and flows really nicely. But it’s job was not to showcase the final design.
And what about all these circle-Y’s? En masse, these buttons look pretty cool, but looking at them individually, like the logotypes they are based on, they can’t be taken seriously.
If a story is told well, other meanings emerge,
greater than the sum of its parts.
But like I said, that’s OK — this 30 in 30 and accompanying kinetic typography piece are more about generating buzz and getting conservative users used to change than divining which of those shown will be the new Yahoo brand. And in this case, the meaning of the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. I’m genuinely impressed. We’ll see whether a really great design will come from it.
The Logo: Metaphor
Which brings me to mine. I began, as one does, by playing with some ideas in idle moments, a few sketches on paper or a whiteboard, tinkering with letter-shapes in the computer, but mostly, just combining things in my mind, letting them simmer in the background, waiting for that Eureka! moment. My initial thought was an italic slab-serif, all lowercase, something that would flow well, be modern, yet not be so of the time that it had no personality like the new eBay logo. But that exclamation! It never wanted to cooperate.
The logos need to be versatile enough to be wild when wanted,
yet calm enough that they can be taken to fancy parties
without embarrassing themselves.
So rather than starting with the logotype and then shrinking it down like all of the above seem to do, I switched tack, focusing on the icon first, then expanding it. Since I happen to really like letters, I didn’t spend much time imagining a stylized version of a yahoo or a yodler or reviving that garish smiley face. That leaves a Y and that appendage known as an exclamation point. Capital Y’s are a funny shape, half X, half I, they have the inverted triangle or trapezoid shape of the V and W, but without a flat edge to butt against in its upright form, making it a rather fine letter to stand on it’s own, but not so much in combination with others. Meanwhile, ! looks rather bland on its own and lends itself to rather crass interpretations.
Part of design, and problem-solving in general, is the arrangement and compression of seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive whole, without losing the identity of the parts. Designers are storytellers. And if a story is told well, other meanings emerge, greater than the sum of its parts, creating depth and surprise and delight. Given the Y’s symmetrical, tree-like form, majestic enough to stand on its own, and the !’s distinct lack of propriety, when you look at the interesting bits of each — the upper part of the Y, the lower part of the ! — the solution pretty much draws itself.
Yahoo is the confluence of the myriad streams we face, aggregating the significant, culling the inessential, helping us make sense of the din. Yahoo is a place we put the things we care about, our memories and images, the place to collect our thoughts. Yahoo is the inbox. Yahoo is the place to look.
Is it playful? It’s the Y.
Is it simple? It’s a Y.
Is it original? It’s not just a Y.
Is it iconic? It’s a new Y glyph.
Is it meaningful? It’s Y.
Is it timeless? It’s either Y or N.
Is it irreverent? It’s the Y-bang.
It’s the wishbone. It’s the flux capacitor. It’s the antenna that gets a signal. It’s the pylon supporting the bridge. It’s the question with vastly open-ended answers. It’s the metaplatform.
While the color purple is there, it doesn’t need it to stand out and be recognizable. It looks great in black, it looks great in white, it looks great in grey.
The glyph itself is versatile enough to be wild when you want it, but you can still take it to fancy parties without worrying about it having one too many vodka martinis and turning a side table into an impromptu stage for a drunken performance of Twist and Shout.
The Logotype: Whitespace
This was actually my first attempt to draw the idea. I happened to be writing on a whiteboard at the time. It’s too condensed, too upright, and that Y is going to topple over, but it’s something to build on. The stem of the Y needs to be thicker relative to the serifs, yet the point wants to be square, satisfying both of which throws off what may have been a pleasing rhythm with the size of the slabs. The bottom slab on the h makes the whole thing feel a little more urgent than necessary. And it isn’t playful. So I found some fun in the asymmetric serifs of the inimitable Museo and in the continuous curve of the a.
It’s pleasant and friendly, doesn’t scream in your general direction, yet it’s not quite as cohesive as I would like. One way to fix that would be to add the exclamation mark on the end. Indeed, most people subscribe to the notion that if one thing is not quite right, adding something to it will make it all better.
But what about addition through subtraction? After all, even though they say more is better, they also say less is more — so I think it’s safe to conclude that less is better. Instead of tacking on an exclamation mark that would be redundant since it’s already in the Y, why not do something that makes the logotype stand out further while reinforcing the meaning of the icon and contributing its own significance that echoes the location and architecture of Yahoo’s Sunnyvale headquarters.
There you have it. The water. The building. The platform. The path.
And updated to just about the new color:
Update: The Actual Logo(type)
And there goes my optimism.
Is it playful? Bevels.
Is it simple? Bevels.
Is it original? Bevels.
Is it iconic? Bevels.
Is it meaningful? Bevels.
Is it timeless? Bevels.
Is it irreverent? Bevels.
I’m a fan of the more violet color, and the Optima-esque letters are attractive, but it’s not Optima. Optima’s right leaning strokes are thinner like a transitional, the A comes to a point, the H is only symmetrical on the vertical axis, and the BANG! is different. The O’s are so similar to that beautiful typeface that I’m guessing they started with Optima and modified it — nope:
The resulting typeface is one unique to Yahoo. “We always knew that we wanted to develop our own proprietary font, and that this would be intellectual property that would come from Yahoo, from our design team,” Ms. Savitt said. And so they did (though Yahoo’s new font doesn’t yet have its own name).
This is a great disappointment. And beyond this typeface being to Optima as Arial is to Helvetica, where’s the story?