Everyone’s asking: Why are logos suddenly getting simpler? The real question should be: Why did they ever grow complex?
It’s a little baffling to see a much plagiarized and reposted online “logo trends report” list the following—minimalism, geometric shapes, crisper angles, classic, black and white, and typography—as “2013’s new trends to watch.” Whaaaaaat? New? Trends? These are more like basic tenets of logo design.
Those of us that stayed focused on the design principles of brand identity: communicating key aspects in clean, simplified forms with maximum brevity, meaning, and impact never really left the room. To the rest, a warm welcome back from wherever you were.
It’s true, though. When you look at the compendium of logos out there, you see that there seems to be more of a mass movement from complexity back in the direction of being simpler, more distilled, more symbolic, and more unitized. I’ll talk about why I think that is, here, and leave the subject of chasing design trends and which trends have value for a future post.
So, why have things shifted?
When you look at trends, some things seem to be cyclical and some seem to be pendulum swings. I think there are many forces that are starting this particular pendulum rapidly back toward simplification. Here are eight:
(1) Complexity, simply for complexity’s sake, has run its course.
I think there was a very long stage of “because we can” in design. As technology made it easy to incorporate and assemble complexity (think filters, gradients, transparency, lighting effects, desktop 3D rendering, exploding type libraries of retro and historical typefaces) many designers wanted to explore it in all its layers and gratuitous wonders, whether it added essential meaning or not. They did it because they could and because they’d always wanted to, not because it was warranted.
However, anyone can push a button and add an effect. And they did. (And they were legion.) And it’s not over by any means. But, now if you want to stand out from the crowd…well, that’s the crowd.
(2) We have limited brand-width.
The proliferation of these exuberant and embellished logos requires increased concentration and engagement. And guess what? People don’t have the time, attention, or RAM to spare. We’re natural filterers and that’s one of the things logos allow us to do: scan, filter, assimilate, and store information. We are oversaturated and overwhelmed.
A simple, bold, clean and distilled logo can cut through the noise and can easily be filed away for recall. A complex logo frequently requires too much attention and engagement and so we choose to pass over or ignore it. Simplicity helps to increase recognizability in shorter time periods and gets information across quickly. There just isn’t time to “see” everything we scan.
(3) Simple sells in a complex world.
Look around. We crave simplicity right now. As our lives, technology, and environments get more complex, we want our lives to be simpler than they currently are. We want simpler reservations, simpler doctor visits, simpler recipes, simpler-to-understand insurance coverage, simpler phone plans, and simpler interfaces. (Why does the remote have fifty buttons when five would do?)
Visually associating your app, medical practice, dishwashing soap, or cab company with the idea of “simple” can be an instant added value and a sigh of relief. Better though, if you can actually provide a simpler solution in some way.
(4) Wisdom comes with age (and a changing economy.)
The dot-com era inspired rapid innovation and a start-up culture that made the entire economy more comfortable with the idea of transient and iterative technology, business structures, and even visual style. In the Internet Age it was all flexible and “updateable.” In the new, new economy there is still a healthy respect for being agile, but we’re also looking for authenticity, trust, and a renewed value of the potential for longevity. We want to know there’s something “there” behind the hype and marketing (or smoke and mirrors.)
Simplicity speaks to confidence, authenticity, solidity, and a certain sophistication. It’s interesting to watch many of the success stories of the dot-com era mature and move in the direction of brand and logo simplification themselves, slowly subtracting glows, bevels, and drop shadows.
(5) Maturity brings mid-life crises.
It’s not just the once-young guns simplifying and looking more grown-up. On one blog, I saw a great comment from a poster: “It’s like these companies have finally gotten out of their wild college party years and are trying to be mature adults now.” Interestingly, “these companies” he was talking about were not Internet startups, but mature brands like Nickelodeon and Pepsi.
We see longstanding global brands taking the reductionist route to very distinctive logotypes, cleaning up lines and removing bounding boxes; sometimes losing their symbols altogether. Many major rebrands are refreshes and “housecleanings;” essentially just a simplification of the existing brand identity. These mature brands want not just a rejuvenating facelift, but the holy grail of becoming iconic.
(6) We’re getting wiser about web.
I think we’re moving beyond the millennial influence of “web design first.” As the influence of our company’s websites grew, many started to think of their brand in web terms first. While fundamentally important, few companies’ websites are their brand. So brand platforms got upended as people tried to harness the power of the web and their online presence by designing their websites first and reverse-engineering their brands and logos. It was the cart before the horse.
Don’t get me wrong; there are excellent digital agencies that are doing true brand strategy and brand identity design. But an awful lot of the current challenges came from companies saying, “Can’t you just do a new logo, too?” to their web developer. You honestly think they were going to say, “no?”
The fascinating thing to me in this arena of web being a big driver of branding, is that the current focus on mobile and responsive web design is typically influencing things to be even simpler, “flatter,” and more modular to accommodate all of the breakpoints, scaling, and adaptability required. For many of us this “new” trend in web design toward simplicity is a huge relief…much like the “current web trends for 2013” toward typography and white space, as well as minimalist pages and big photography. Sounds like classic design principles to me.
(7) Digital needs distillation.
Whether it’s responsive web sites, apps, or social media, digital platforms potentially provide richer and deeper content, but they’re frequently doing it on smaller screens and with less “curated,” more user-controlled interfaces. That means you have less control and your logo is jockeying with buttons, icons, and other UI elements. And to play well with others, simpler and stronger is better.
(8) It’s the signature; not the saga.
My personal feeling is also that the 90s focus on brand “storytelling” and, still later, experiential branding influenced or directly caused a lot of logos to go in a more detailed illustrative direction. And this opinion seems to be supported by a lot of other designers and blogs.
The fact is, the logo wasn’t meant to tell the story, as much as to serve as shorthand for all of the knowledge behind it. (More on that in a related post.) As we have even richer and better means of truly telling the backstory (think web-based video and social media) the logo simply needs to symbolize it and encompass it; not to try to illustrate it literally. Brand storytelling hasn’t gone anywhere; we’ve just seen that the logo is returning more to its simple and symbolic state, with clear recognition that it’s only one piece of the story.
The Case for Complexity
Even with my penchant for what I call “distilled” logo design, there is still a place in branding and logo design for detailed, illustrative logos and marks. There are aspects of formality, artistry, craftsmanship, intrigue, or playfulness of a brand that may highly recommend or demand it.
The question becomes its essentiality to the brand. Is the complexity meaningful? (To potential customers, not just to you.) What does complexity add to the equation? How is it essential to the business’ value proposition? Can you afford the additional time for potential customers to see and engage with it? Will it be in venues that support that careful consideration or competing out in that oversaturated general media environment?
Complexity can be meaningful. But for the majority of businesses, I think it’s safe to say that intentionally added complexity in a logo is the exception, not the rule.
For some additional practical help, stay tuned for next week’s post, “10 Tips to Simplify Your Logo.”