Return to flatland

With many well-known logos saying goodbye to gradients and bevelled edges, why is there such a desire to be flat?

The world is a little flatter than it was 12 months ago. Logos have been seen shedding their highlights, gradients, shadows and app-inspired twinkly corners like copies of the Daily Mail on a bus through Islington.

Take YP, the largest Yellow Pages service in the US. Formerly two AT&T companies, YP claims to drive over $200bn in transactions a year from its print directories, website and app and has been named one of the top 50 digital media companies in the world.

Despite its major mobile presence, YP has just scrapped its polished yellow ‘app button’ logo. In its place Interbrand has installed a new, flat, modernist aesthetic, liberating YP’s sans-serif lettermark from its amber trap to create what it calls “a timeless mark”. As if frolicking in flatness, Interbrand has also come up with a stream of Isotype-style symbols to denote everyday tasks that YP helps you get done.

‘The new way to do’, runs the YP tagline. As far as logos go, flat is very much the old way to do. But for brands today, it’s the way to go. Three years ago, Google dropped the drop shadow from its wordmark. A few weeks ago, it completed the glacier-slow flattening of its logotype with the unheralded introduction of a version with all traces of shading removed from its letterforms. The move lines up the logo with Google’s new, flatter design policy for its products and other iconography, which includes the YouTube logo.

It also coincides with the launch of iOS7, whose flatter, non-skeuomorphic interface marks Apple’s recognition of users’ maturing relationship with digital devices. No longer do glass buttons have to reference physical objects and textures, or mimic the appearance of real, 3D buttons. Other digital brands have also ditched the Web 2.0 look. Skype did away with bevelled edges and gradients on its logo, LinkedIn lost its self-important glass tabletop reflection.

But the return to flatland is far from an entirely tech industry phenomenon. Neither are 3D logos and skeuomorphism anything new. In 1900, General Electric applied a highlight to its monogram that turned it into a rounded badge. Around the same time, Shell registered a mussel shell as its trademark (and, four years later, its more familiar scallop shell). The company wasn’t alone in twigging that recognisable objects and creatures could appeal to consumers and open up a relationship with them, which was especially useful when your product was an uninspiring commodity or obscure piece of technology.

In contrast, the last 15 years have seen such businesses commit to every kind of abstract symbol, convinced that morphing them into an extra dimension with powerful new design tools would give them meaning and gravitas. Telecoms companies, insurance groups, banks and property developers that failed to find anything unique about themselves were badged by the dozen with shiny swirling spheres and ostentatious but vapid ribboned globes.

Consumer brands have honed the glossy, 3D aesthetic in their logos and now they’re planing it off again, mindful maybe of how they should appear in the age of austerity. Like many others, Pepsi pushed the look as far as it would go, maxing out with a Pepsi Globe that swelled into a sweating red-white-and-blue orb; today, the ‘globe’ is a circle. Symbols were re-rendered in three dimensions to conjure the illusion of depth, and convey values like integrity, stability and approachability. Respected and classic symbols that had lasted decades were lost in the rush. Paul Rand’s ‘parcel’ logo for UPS and Saul Bass’s design for AT&T instantly spring to mind.

Maybe the return to flatland will see these gems revived. Probably not. What we can hope for, though, is that the flat renaissance signals a return to the kind of timeless symbol-making that Rand and Bass exemplified; that design gets ‘out of the way’, as Jony Ive has said of iOS7, and that major corporations invest more in ideas with longevity and indulge less in 3D wizardry and gloss. What their symbols lose in visual depth maybe they’ll gain in intellectual depth. Flat isn’t flat. Flat is deep.

Michael Evamy is the author of Logotype, published by Laurence King., @michaelevamy

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