Photo by Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images.
Recently, San Francisco-based type designer James Edmondson noticed something unsettling. Google, Spotify, Airbnb, and Pinterest—companies that had blossomed from nimble tech startups into multi-million dollar giants—had all gradually abandoned their distinctive logos for rebrands so similar, they could have come straight off an assembly line.
Turns out that the new look for big tech is flat, bright sans-serif and essentially interchangeable. It’s the typographic equivalent of walking into your Airbnb in Cologne and realizing it’s decorated identically to your Airbnb in Seoul: different site, same aesthetic.
Edmondson, who spends his days designing offbeat typefaces for his one-man foundry OH No Type Co., evidently struck a chord. His tweet comparing the twinning logos went viral. Type nerds ended up embroiled in a spirited debate; Fast Company Design turned to branding experts for their reactions.
For his part, Edmondson does not view this trend as a positive one.
“These typefaces are ubiquitous, and they lend an air of legitimacy to whatever is being presented,” Edmondson says. “The problem is we don’t always want to perceive corporations as legitimate if they’re not legitimate, or as friendly if they don’t actually have our best interests at heart.”
Arguably, there’s a parallel between the current geometric sans-serif takeover and Helvetica’s domination of corporate branding in the 1960s. Out with the old, in with the new. Tech companies who resist the trend may do so at the risk of appearing old fashioned. Edmondson cites the pared-down Pinterest logo, which abandoned its playful ligatures for a grotesque sans-serif (“grotesque” refers to a simple, classically-proportioned typeface, similar to Helvetica). “You understand why they’re making the shift from a warm and whimsical look to a more straightforward approach,” he says. “They’re just trying to be like the other big boys.”
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.
Casper Subway Campaign, illustrated by Tomi Um. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Vit is careful to emphasize that even if a logo is found to be boring—or is outwardly despised—those reactions to the design itself are less important than how the logo functions in context. Vit admits that even though he initially hated the Wolff Olins redesign of the Metropolitan Museum of Art logo from 2016, he came around when he saw it on banners, maps, and t-shirts at the museum. “You forget that eventually the logo appears in a place or on a thing, and it’s that place or thing that you’re attached to, not just a logo on a blog.”
Logos are rarely seen alone. This is especially true now, as the rise of simple tech logos has dovetailed with an increasing emphasis on illustrations, color palettes, and patterns to reflect the spirit of a brand. When Casper, the online mattress startup, blanketed the New York City Subway with its ads, the focus wasn’t the logo, but playful scenes by the illustrator Tomi Um, featuring Casper mattresses being enjoyed by sexy koalas, sleepy vampires, and even a Bob Ross-type painting happy trees. “You’ll read the logo, but it’s all the stuff around it that differentiates one brand from another,” Vit concludes.
Vit has been critiquing logos for over a decade, long enough to see countless trends come and go. His biggest takeaway from many years of care and attention is that it’s hard for us to sustain our outrage for long. “Even if we hate a new logo in the beginning, we get accustomed to it very quickly,” he notes.
“People say things like, ‘Oh, it’s been a year, and now it doesn’t look that bad.’ Guess what? It still looks bad—but now you’re used to it.”