So, when did this trend begin? Armin Vit, graphic designer and author of the popular branding blog Brand New, pegs the emergence of the trend to Airbnb’s rebrand in 2014—by the London-based DesignStudio—which switched the logo from a bubbly script to a restrained sans serif.
Google’s facelift, done by an in-house team, followed soon after, losing the logo’s old serif typeface in favor of a custom-designed, geometric sans-serif called Product Sans. “I don’t think Google copied Airbnb, but they just went a similar route, shedding those pesky serifs in exchange for simplicity,” Vit says. After seeing these logos in action, other brands followed suit, and a trend was born.
However dull, these simple wordmarks do have one advantage over complex scripts and elegant serifs: They look better on screens. Geometric sans-serifs scale well—they’re as crisp at small sizes as at large ones. For a tech company, having its logo pop even in miniature is essential, particularly when it most frequently appears just a few pixels high on a phone screen. The original Airbnb logo failed this test spectacularly. “If you tried to reduce their old script logo it turned into mush. It was unreadable,” Vit notes. “If a company is supposed to represent the best of digital technology, but their logo looks bad on screen, that’s a problem.”
Another reason for this brand-by-brand revamp is the fact that tech companies tend to launch and achieve wide visibility quickly, and crafting their visual identities isn’t always a top priority. “Young companies launch with a crappy logo because that’s what they can afford,” Vit explains. Often in the case of startups, the founder or a friend of the founder designs the logo, under the assumption that if the company is successful later, they’ll update with a slick rebrand.
Users have grown accustomed to tech companies rebranding after only a year or two, and it’s rarely a surprise when a new logo pops up on our phone after the latest software update. “Most people have come to expect that tech company logos will change, whereas when your favorite retail store or snack food rebrands, it can be a little jarring,” Vit says. Compare the lack of fanfare that followed Airbnb’s new identity with the brouhaha when Gap attempted to switch to Helvetica in 2010. Criticism was so fierce that the company reverted back to its earlier logo, the classic white serif type on a navy square.