Creating an invisible brand.

Smith & Diction
Published in
9 min readAug 17, 2023


When Henry and Phi from Perplexity hit us up they said, “We want the brand to feel like a Scandinavian subway system. Clean and considered but in an invisible sort of way.” They didn’t want to come across as flashy, or modern, or youthful in any way. Just a vessel for facts.

So uhhhh, that’s not usually our specialty here at S&D. We’re often making wiggly logos with weird mascots and whatnot. But honestly, I’d die for Henry and Phi. We had one of those calls where the line from Step Brothers comes to mind, “Did we just become best friends? Yep.” So we were off to create the most invisible brand we could.

Before and after.

The Symbol

Very similar to our work with Exposure, our job was to change literally everything while at the same time making it seem like nothing had changed at all.

We started with the symbol. We wanted to create something that had the same simplicity as the previous logo, but just added a few layers of depth to it. At it’s core, Perplexity is a search engine. It blasts through the internet at unbelievable speeds and summarizes the findings in concise and digestible language. There’s no line of 300 “ads” before getting to the relevant information cough*google*cough. And the thing that separates Perplexity from the rest is that they cite all of their sources, so you can click the link back to the page that this information is coming from to see if it’s actually reputable.

Something we were interested in was an icon that could be integrated into the search somehow. Lofty dreams, I know. So we started with this idea of an asterisk—citing sources is a unique quality, so why not bake that into the logo? Then we added some depth to it, which added this sort of revolving door or rolodex vibe. Immediately we saw this rotating in our heads so obviously we hit up Justin Lawes to take a quick pass at what this could look like in a search bar. When we saw this animate for the first time it cemented this mark as “The One.”

You can see we brought the cursor into play as well, using it as the starting point for the loading animation that builds the asterisk after you finish typing.

Cursor loading animation

Then we noticed more and more concepts as we were building the brand. It has pages like an open book. Books…you know those things we used to use to get information from before the internet, though now we just ban them because people are scared of book information like the internet doesn’t exist or anything. ANYWAYYYYY. We also liked that when you broke the mark down it created these intersecting windows that were sort of a metaphor for how perplexity acts like your window into the internet. There might be a million and ten web pages out there but you can trust perplexity will be the place to make it all make sense.

The Wordmark

From there, we dove into the wordmark. We knew we wanted to use a grotesk that had just a smidge of character. Didn’t want to go purely Massimo on this one. We are Smith & Diction after all, so we gotta make things a tiny bit weird. We landed on FK Display which has the absolute perfect amount of personality. The little cuts on the edges of the “X” match the points of the symbol. But there’s also these really tiny hints of softness on the intersections of the p, t, & y. They are almost like pinched ink traps which nods to a bygone era of printed phonebooks and encyclopedias. Will anyone notice these things? Probably not. But the overall feel is also so nice, and hopefully people will notice that.

Logo sizing recommendations

We also opted for a lowercase “P” which was a discussion that we had for longer than I wanted to—but when people type into their search bars, they usually aren’t using capitalization or grammar or English at all. So we wanted to kind of nod towards that in the identity itself. Also uppercase P’s are a bitch for kerning, you always end up with that terrible gap underneath that throws the balance off of everything.


From there we moved on to type, this was a big deal because 99% of this product was type. It’s a search product after all. We needed to find a typeface that was not only easy to read but also worked globally. Perplexity has a huge international presence so we needed to make sure it worked in as many languages as humanly possible. So we used FK Grotesk for the brand, since it fits the Scandi subway vibe perfectly. It’s a large family with some really beautiful alternates and most importantly it works in a ton of different languages. It also comes in FK Grotesk Neue which works wonders for legibility of body copy—it has a few less frills but when you’re reading walls of text, you’re not really looking for too much decoration.

Color & Product

This one was tricky because the colors needed to almost be completely invisible. People don’t want their searches to feel over branded. It’s basically like dark mode & light mode with an accent for buttons. BUT YOU KNOW I COULDN’T JUST DO THAT. COLOR IS ENTIRELY MY SHIT.

First we built out some mockups of the product to see just how often we’d be using color. It turns out it’s basically just on links only lol. The team mentioned that they wanted to get away from the traditional reflex blue vibe but they wanted to just elevate it ever so slightly. They really really didn’t want to seem like a flash in the pan DTC brand. No wonky vibrating colors. This brand needed to be taken seriously.

Original UI
Our mockup for updating the UI

After we developed a palette that had the dark mode and light mode at it’s core, we expanded beyond the traditional product-only vibe that most UI designers get caught up in, and added in some warm tones that just brought things out of the traditional “tech” territory.

Perplexity brand palette + accents

We’re not typically UI designers, but this project had us elbow deep in conversations like “What happens when there’s too much content? What should we do with the side nav then?” This got us thinking and we landed on a really simple but really effective collapsible nav idea. I know we’re not reinventing anything here, but it felt like a missing puzzle piece finding it’s place. It made everything make sense. After we presented this to the Perplexity folks they implemented it to the current site in under a week. I’m not joking these folks are on fire over there.

A mockup to show that collapsible left nav
A mockup showing the uncollapsed left nav
A mockup of how nav collapsing as content expands

Brand Elements

Building out brand elements for a brand that’s meant to not stand out was tricky, but we couldn’t help but think about the surprise and delight moments that people might get when interacting with the brand outside of the product itself.

The first thing we did was build a grid system that they could use on their marketing materials and pitch decks. Anyone that’s been in this field for long enough knows that pitch decks secretly run the entire world so you gotta make sure you’re looking fresh in the keynote/google slides arena. Hell the only thing that Fyre Festival and Anna Delvey had were cool pitch decks.

From there we took the grid and brought some slanted cuts into the mix, working on ways to bring motion into a typically static field.

We made some very pretty posters that don’t really have a practical use case but they sure are nice to look at! And here’s a booklet that is also not real, but extremely easy on the eyes.

As we were working through the brand, we kept trying to find a “style” for icons and things like that, but it all felt so forced. It was like trying to put the internet into a box—it’s just not possible. So we had this idea that we should just lean in to the anti-style. Why not just kinda make it a little bit of everything? Just like the internet. We put together this collage-y poster that the perplexity folks could hang in their office to be like “We’ve got a little bit of everything, we are a company that is the internet.”

We also built out a series of art-deco-ish patterns constructed from the logo which was a really fun easter egg. We just needed something that they could use as backgrounds on social media and things like that.

We made a lot of fun extras that may or may not see the light of day so they might just live on here. But in the process of making the icons for the poster we made this really fun microchip face that nods back to the Susan Kare apple era. We call him the “AI Guy” and Henry was like, let’s make a background that is like all of those weird desktop backgrounds from the 90’s with oddly beveled wordmarks and whatnot. So here’s the AI Guy as a desktop background just for fun.

Full team effort on this one:

Symbol & Brand — Summer McClure
Wordmark — Hanna Karraby
Animation — Justin Lawes
Brand — Dayan D’Aniello
Art Direction — Mike Smith

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