Five months before Steve Jobs published his “Thoughts on Flash”, WeTransfer launched its first website– built with Flash.
Yet I think we probably wouldn’t be transferring over one billion files for 40 million users this month if it wasn’t for this infamous browser plug-in.
In a time before WOFF, Typekit, and Google Fonts, this was pretty much the only way to have proper control over typography on websites. Something that vexed me for well over a decade.
When I wrote my master’s thesis on the shitty state of text legibility on screens in 1999, I wouldn’t have guessed that it would take as long as it did to have webfonts available to anyone.
In the 2000’s, I’d usually find myself settling for Verdana or Georgia, and trying to get at least some headlines set in a non-standard typeface, by using sIFR, and later Cufón. Web design was challenging. Hacking your way to something decent was just part of the job.
WeTransfer has never been about making something just ‘decent’. We want things to be great. Two key factors in our success have been the product’s ease-of-use and aesthetic appeal. A catalyst for the latter was the typeface selected by WeTransfer and its design partner at the time, Dolly Rogers.
Hello, Gotham Rounded
Flash made it possible for Gotham’s gezellige character to help shape the brand beautifully. For many it was love at first sight, with people feeling connected to the brand on an emotional level, before actually using the service.
Gotham is a fine typographical work horse, fit for any medium at any size. It just took the customizations of the w and e, and some minor spacing adjustments for the designers to land on the archetypal WeTransfer logo.
But by late 2011, the Flash-based website wasn’t sustainable anymore, and preparations started for a move towards html on a Ruby back-end. These technical changes would be accompanied by a revised premium plan (WeTransfer Plus) that demanded a redesign of the website.
While many foundries at the time were partnering up with services like Typekit and Fontdeck to make their fonts available for the web, one particular foundry stood out by holding out: Hoeﬂer & Frere-Jones (now Hoefler&Co), makers of the Gotham typeface.
The idea of their carefully crafted work being mutilated by bad rendering on lo-res screens wasn’t acceptable, leading them to build an advanced system that would serve specially tailored versions of their fonts, depending on the intended rendering size.
For months I made a habit refreshing the browser tab that promised to announce their forthcoming service at least once a day. Unfortunately, our time ran out and we went scouting for alternatives.
Moving to Museo
That’s when Museo Sans Rounded came onto my radar. This typeface worked great in the UI, with solid legibility at small sizes. What did not work was the combination of Museo and the logo, set in Gotham. It was an uncomfortable mismatch between two typefaces that looked sort-of similar, but not quite.
An exploration to give Museo the same visual treatment as the Gotham logo turned out surprisingly well. It had less of the original logo’s unpolished charm (which can either be good or bad), but it gained a slightly more energetic feel.
In hindsight I feel our decision to move forward with this was a rational one, rather than emotional. This is something we need to be especially careful about, dealing with a product like WeTransfer whose users invest so much emotional meaning in it.
I think that over the years our definition of we has shifted. In our early days, one tongue-in-cheek description we used for ourselves was “you send it, we transfer”. And although the user has always been put front and center in our thinking, this might be a good reflection of who we initially and very much subconciously considered to be we.
It’s now much more about you and us, together. We’re dedicated to creating the best damn products we can to enable people in their workflow. That started by making it dead simple for them to send their digital goods, and we’re now looking towards the future, exploring all possibilities to help the community get things done.
These two shifts are reflected in our new logo, with its focus moving away from transferring, and towards we.
The art of letting go
While exploring the consequences of this mini paradigm shift for the logo, it was clear that simply keeping the existing we-part of our logo wouldn’t cut it. Its roots in typefaces had worked well in the past, but out of context the we logo showed two wildly different characters sharing a stage. The balance was off.
When focussing on just two characters for a logo, good is no longer good enough. It needs to be perfect, all the way down to the tiniest detail. A basic black-on-white rendering should look well-balanced at any size, and always exude its unique character.
We started in-house, with our Creative Director Laszlito Kovacs drafting the conceptual framework and exploring the initial visual executions. We made good progress and quietly introduced an interim version of the logo last spring, while still working in the background on what would be the final version.
For this we decided to get Bold Monday’s Paul van der Laan on board, who was an absolute pleasure for us to work with– discussing the meaning and subtleties of shapes at a level that I didn’t know existed. The entire rationale was revisited during some pretty intense sessions and this helped to sharpen our ideas about the logo.
Starting with an empty canvas, our mission was to create a symbol that captures just the right personality, one that is technically well-executed, and can clearly be read as we.
The image below is just one page out of one round of explorations. Initially we stayed relatively close to the traditional we characters, but going way over the edge in several directions helped us get a better idea of the path to follow. A path that proved anything but a predictable, straight line, as we probably should have known.
Arriving at a point we felt was close, we continued to look in the opposite direction. It was crucial for us to validate walking down the right path. The truth can always be questioned, as they say.
Ultimately, and after numerous iterations, Paul really nailed the execution.
We aspire to match our level of creativity and execution to that of the greatest work that we feature as wallpapers and write about on WePresent, and to the amazing members of the creative class that choose to use WeTransfer — either in their workflow or to share the final output with their audience.
This is for us the time to push forward. The company has been gearing up for change and we’re now at a point that we are starting to deliver. We have a spanking new technical platform, a redesigned website, and a creative direction that feels just right. It’s a great place to be right now. Interested in joining us? Get in touch. 🔥