Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Selling the Brand's Soul

While companies large and small redesign their logos and brands to keep up with contemporary design, they are falling short of what gave their identities character in the first place.

It is inevitable that companies will change their identities. It is human nature; personalities, motives and goals are constantly shifting, and that movement builds and extends into large organizations. When a lot of people want to change something, then that something gets changed.

I find it odd that the design community resists the idea of a large corporation updating their visual identity. No logo is truly timeless. As a facet of culture, design is subject to the whims of taste; what was popular in the mainstream yesterday is completely different than what is popular today. Even subtle changes can do big things; witness Canon, whose simple bolding of the typeface in 1955 completely altered the perception of the brand.

Everyone’s favorite martyr, of course, is UPS. Paul Rand’s famous box and shield debuted in 1961 and was replaced in 2003 by the now ubiquitous 3D shield (sans box). Of course the design world went all up in arms. Paul Rand was a legend, a logo god, a creator of timeless branding.

Yeah right.

Paul Rand’s logo was great for 1961. It was clean, sharp, memorable and somewhat clever, but more importantly, it gave the growing UPS a foothold on which to build its massive brand machine. But updating the logo was the right decision. Though many people won’t admit this out loud, Rand’s design is dated. Futurebrand created an emblem that not only takes advantage of today’s printing technology (gradients and subtle bevels), but paid homage to the original shield motif while dropping the part that looked most dated—a string-tied box that bears little resemblance to any package shipped today.

Good design can last. Rand’s logos for IBM and ABC (much better because they don’t use any period imagery like the string-tied package) are still going strong but I would bet serious cash they’ll be “updated” in the future. Just because an industry luminary crafted them does not make them immortal.

What is depressing is how companies with well known marks are trading in their identities for shallow replacements. While UPS’s new logo is nice—and works—it lacks … something. Soul. Character. In the comments on Typographica’s website, Joe Vanderbos summarized this feeling:

The old one was stale, but it reminds us of a time when quirkiness and personality were still allowed into the world of commerce. The new one expresses absolutely nothing, and quite well. It’s the perfect emblem of this age.

Other prominent corporate logos have undergone cosmetic changes.

  • KFC’s recent update is only a small enhancement (less wrinkles on the face and now bearing an apron), but really modernizes the Colonel’s look. I consider this a success, and an appropriately conservative move.
  • The Arizona Cardinals introduced a new team logo in January, the first update since 1960. A little more drastic than KFC, it streamlines the illustration. My only beef is the logo now looks like every other NFL bird logo—angry and predatory, which I suppose is the point. (The Eagles do the bird thing best, although I still think the Broncos have the best logo and uniform in the league.)
  • DC Comics’ recent unveiling demonstrates everything that is wrong with corporate branding. Gone is any trace of Milton Glaser’s originality, replaced by the über-cliche swoosh and an over eager slant that looks like Batman and crew have gone into the washing machine business.

The brevity of the changes varies, as does the success of the redesigns. The only definitive similarity is that each logo looks unmistakably more contemporary—bolder, more colorful and more complex, all while paying some tribute to the original design.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with breathing new life into a brand, and all of these companies made a good decision to update their logo. Sadly, none of the new designs—from the subtle enhancements to the complete overhauls—capture any kind of new mystique or show any kind of design innovation. It would be a far more interesting story if a company like DC Comics had challenged themselves to design a mark as unique as Glaser’s original; instead, they opted for a generic and uninspired swoosh-and-slant that only looks better but doesn’t feel better. It’s as forgettable an imitation as Britney Spears covering Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.”

Maybe it’s a cultural litmus test. It is the innate nature of design to evolve, and designers need to accept that “classic” logos will be updated, enhanced or completely thrown out (remember when Apple’s logo wasn’t silver?), but has the corporate world become so focused on the mega consumer brand that they’ve lost all guts when it comes to brand innovation? Are designers willing to take the easy path toward a comfortable logo rather than truly design an identity that means something?

commentary + criticism

Sam Royama

wrote the following on Thursday May 26, 2005

Great commentary on recent(not-so-recent?) trends in logo design. I very much agree. Design trends have become increasingly skin deep. It’s like we are infatuated with the visual effects that our ‘hot-new’ software so readily provide us with. It’s as though the production techniques are taking center stage – lens flares, bevels, drop shadows, metallic surfaces…

But as Vanderbos said, it’s a perfect representation of the age. What else do we expect from ever-shortening deadlines and software that will practically create a logo for you in a few keystrokes?

Hmmm…perhaps it’s not the lack of solid design, but the infusion of software-empowered ‘designers’ that are diluting the marketplace with mediocre work. Not everyone is a Paul Rand.


wrote the following on Thursday May 26, 2005

Companies used to trust designers. Now, they dictate what they want.

Designers are no longer artists, they’re drawers.


wrote the following on Thursday June 2, 2005

Love the Google ads that show up with this article…Logo = $150, Make your own logo…don’t seem to fit real well!


wrote the following on Sunday June 26, 2005

Here’s another one just released:

Sprint’s New Logo