From start-up to grown-up

Yesterday, eBay unveiled its new logo. Gone is the quirky irregular type that signalled ‘here’s an exciting new company that wants to do things differently’. Instead, eBay has become the latest digital brand to signal its new-found maturity with a simpler, blander mark

eBay follows similarly straightlaced rebrands for the likes of Aol, Microsoft and even Twitter which rationalised its mark earlier this year.

Microsoft logo from 1975

1975-1987

1987 – 2012

2012 –

 

Wikipedia charts the progression of the Twitter logo

 

It’s a familiar pattern, but one that seems to apply particularly to tech start-ups. Typically these companies are started up by friends in garages or college campuses. The task of branding the new business will most likely be handed to a friend of a friend who ‘is good at drawing’ or perhaps a university colleague in the art department. Google’s original logo was drawn by its founder Sergey Brin before his Stanford colleague Ruth Kedar created the version we know today.

The evolution of the Google logo from Neatorama which has a good summary of tech logo development here

Before Apple enlisted the professional help of San Francisco ad agency Regis McKenna, resulting in its rainbow-striped fruit, its original logo was a hippyish drawing of Isaac Newton sitting under that famous tree drawn by co-founder and engineer Ronald Wayne in 1976.

As the company grows and investment flows in, so does the pressure to appear more ‘business-like’. Jeans are exchanged for business suits (although, famously, not in the case of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg), garages become glass and steel office suites in some Californian business park and, eventually, that quirky, idiosyncratic logo becomes a slick, shiny ‘brand identity’. Time to put away childish things and act like a grown-up.

But wasn’t it their child-like, inquisitive, disruptive nature that made these brands so exciting in the first place? In their idiosyncrasies, logos such as eBay’s signalled outsider status. As a result they attracted huge followings from customers who believed they were not just using a service but were part of a movement.

For brand identity designers, this is quite a conundrum. How do you maintain the values that built the business in the first place while recognising that, today, the organisation is a very different animal? How do you get Wall Street to take you seriously while also implying that you’re still the loveable rebel you were in your younger days? And can you set aside your natural designerly aversion to the founder’s ‘unique’ way with a free graphics package and recognise that if you make a mark that strips out all the weirdness, you end up without a personality. In fact, are designers guilty of anaesthetising the tech world, sucking all the fun out of their visual expression in the search for conformity and ‘good design’?

Wolff Olins’ Aol rebrand can be seen as an attempt to reconcile these competing pressures. The mark is sober and plain, but the imagery that sits behind it, commissioned from young artists (such as those from illustration collective Peep Show, above), is meant to convince us that the brand still retains some funkiness.

It’s a little like an ageing rock band. The fans know that they’re all now mega-rich pensioners living in Surrey mansions, that the hotel room TV is more likely to be used to catch up with the business news than for the purposes of defenestration, but they still expect a whiff of danger.

The notable exception to this blandification is Google. It’s had a little wash and brush up over the years, but the basic mark and particularly its use in Google’s famous daily doodles retains the geekiness of the start-up days. Now that Google is a multi-billion dollar concern, how long before it too reaches for the suit and tie?

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