Losing a tooth, finding a brand

Erin Pinkley
Mar 24 · 5 min read

When I was 13 years old, I tripped, fell, and broke my front tooth. After a root canal and reconstructive dental work, I had what functioned as a tooth for many years.

Two decades later, a new dentist told me what was left of the tooth was dead. Dead teeth are very bad. The tooth had to be removed.

Meanwhile, I had just started a new job as a designer at Zendesk.

The company had grown from one product to seven, and the existing brand identity system no longer reflected what they had to offer.

Me vs. my dead tooth

Extracting a tooth is painful, but easy. With a dental hammer and about 30 minutes, my maxillary central incisor (tooth number 8) was gone.

At the time, Zendesk’s identity was built on a kind soul wearing a headset named Buddhy. He stood for peace and love. Buddhy was our dead tooth.

Extracting this beloved and charming mascot from a successful, 10 year old company was a bold move; some would even say contentious. People took it personally. They felt we would lose our soul.

My team called me Pinkley the Destroyer.

Even then, removing Buddhy was the easy part. In both branding and dentistry, the work is in rebuilding.

Replacing a tooth requires vision, precision, and a sophisticated bedside manner. You have to honor what exists, while designing a new smile that needs to last for years. All while selling a toothless lifestyle to a 33 year old woman.

At Zendesk, this was our brief:

  1. A new identity that would resonate both with the small companies who made us and with large companies who didn’t yet know we were what they needed.
  2. A flexible system that would identify our growing family of products
  3. Retire our mascot, Buddhy (and create something new that aligned with Zendesk)

Humbled and toothless, our creative process began. We were inspired by one of our founders, Morten, who says “we make tools for empathy”.

It’s not about the software: It’s about the relationships that the software makes possible.

Zendesk products are designed to help businesses navigate relationships with their customers. You know when you text your friend and also comment on her Instagram story, but your friend is still the friend you know across both channels? This is what Zendesk hopes to do for businesses. It’s less about wanting the company to be your friend, and more about feeling the company will deliver on what they said and come through for you if anything goes wrong. At the time, our tagline was Relationships are Complicated. Definitely.

Making Relationshapes

Our products are named based on the action they facilitate: Support, Chat, Talk, Guide, Message, Connect, Explore.

The marks are designed to represent both sides of a relationship. Made of two shapes, each is as unique as a relationship you might have in real life. They can do anything together: talk, walk, fight, agree, annoy, support, love. We call them Relationshapes.

The new corporate mark comes from the same idea. It is a collection of shapes, coming together to make a Z. It’s a simple concept that works well for a quickly growing company that will continue to expand its product line.

Me and my new teeth

We launched our new identity. Everyone was happy. We had a new identity that felt like us and matched our ambitions for the future.

And after 18 months, my new tooth was installed. I felt like myself again.

Only then our real work became clear. Zendesk was growing fast. The beauty of having a corporate mascot is that you can put it on anything, and you are very quickly “on brand”. Where previously we had pasted a Buddhy, we were now pasting shapes. Shapes on swag. Shapes on customer invoices. Shapes on investor presentations. Shapes on events. Shapes on offices we didn’t know existed.

But Zendesk isn’t about shapes. Zendesk is about a company coming through for you. Zendesk is about a great customer experience. And Zendesk does it with a hesitant, Danish charm.

Finding the shape of a new tooth is personal. It’s never bright white, straight, or smooth. The believability is in the imperfection. That’s the beauty of a smile that is real. It looks like you, and only you.

Brand is the same. The chairs we sit in, the badges we swipe, the emails we send. All of these are Zendesk. All of these objects and moments have the power to identify who Zendesk is, and reassure a customer, potential customer, employee or employee’s mom that Zendesk is still Zendesk.

The work we do on the Brand Team is ever-changing. Sometimes the work is selling a dream. And sometimes our work is about grace and candor. But the job remains consistent.

The job is to ask, “How would Zendesk do this?” The job is to remind Zendesk who Zendesk is.

Branding. Dentistry. Two humble professions on a crusade for character, stability, and truth. Here is what they taught me:

  1. That what doesn’t work has to go.
  2. More often than not, this hurts.
  3. That you must honor what is already there.
  4. That the magic, and the work, is in the reconstruction.
  5. That many things need to align, because who you are is in everything you do.
  6. That it has to be you, much more than needing to be perfect.

Congratulations. You made it to the end. Check out design.zendesk.com for more thought leadership, design process, and other creative musings.

Zendesk Creative Collection

We're a blend of art, copy, video, and product design. We come from different backgrounds, but we share one passion as the Creative team—making compelling work for Zendesk.

Erin Pinkley

Written by

Executive Creative Director @ Zendesk

Zendesk Creative Collection

We're a blend of art, copy, video, and product design. We come from different backgrounds, but we share one passion as the Creative team—making compelling work for Zendesk.

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