When Uber announced that they had redesigned their identity system, my initial reaction was interest. So many tech companies start out with logos that are quick and poorly thought out; then when they gain more funding and the company grows, they often hire a branding agency or design firm to help evolve their brand to reflect their clarified company characteristics. But Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick refused to entrust the rebranding to an outside design firm or agency. Of course, Kalanick is not a designer. He’s an engineer.
“I didn’t know any of this stuff,” he said. “I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.”
It took Uber’s internal team 18 months to agree on five pillars they thought best described the company: “grounded,” “populist,” “inspiring,” “highly evolved,” and “elevated.”
I always considered Uber’s brand quite invisible — in a good way. Their iPhone interface is clear and organized, not overly designed. Their app icon — an own-able, unique letter “U” — was conveniently filed in my organized-by-color iPhone grouping of white. The logo subtly represented the company’s sleek fleet of mostly black and silver sedans. The smooth “U” had curves and somewhat sexy glistening gradients. Everyone knew where to click when they wanted a black sedan to show up at their door, whether they were sober, drunk, or in a hurry. It worked well.
“This updated design reflects where we’ve been and where we’re headed,” Uber explained. “The Uber you know isn’t changing; our brand is just catching up to who we already were.”
Sometimes I see a site redesign or a new logo and I feel it in my heart and mind: I get excited. It challenges me as a designer and furthers my work. Other times I feel it in my gut: it makes me ashamed for our industry of design. When I saw Uber’s new “identity system,” I was baffled.
I immediately checked Twitter to gauge the fallout. I saw designers around the world expressing that bad gut feeling. Uber had gotten it all wrong.
Here are four reasons why the new Uber identity system failed.
1) The app logo is not own-able
The new icons do not relate at all to the new Uber brand characteristics, or even to what Uber does. When you have to release a 2½-minute video to explain what your logo means, you have failed. This poorly produced clip really could be for any company. It reminded me of the McSweeney’s spoof video “This Is a Generic Brand.” The icon visually evokes a financial institution or a petroleum company. It’s not a forward-thinking, highly evolved company logo. It feels like Chase, or the State Bank of India. I’d bet a Venn diagram of brand attributes with these types of companies would yield no commonalities with Uber. Another thing: the underlying pattern and the white symbol don’t relate to one another at all. They could have designed them to at least line up or directly interact with each other, layer to layer. But no: it’s just idea piled on idea.
2) Bits and atoms
Kalanick claims that the entire branding strategy was based around a single blog post he wrote that describes Uber’s culture as the combination of “bits and atoms.” This idea is not new. In fact, it’s a very common theme for tech companies, and especially engineering-focused ones. Instead of evoking a feeling of inspiration or evolution (from their pillars), the idea of atoms and bits is something consumers don’t care about. It’s the technology behind a brand but not the brand itself. Technology should be invisible. Engineers tend to focus on things that happen behind the scenes, whereas consumers relate to what happens in front. It takes an experienced design team to successfully convert this engineering language in order to visually relate to customers. And if you watch the Uber brand video, none of these ideas come through in the logo, the illustration, or the patterns. When I hire an Uber car, I am not thinking of bits and atoms.
3) Dated color palette and illustration style
Why was the palette changed from black, white, and silver? Because it was not easy to expand on for Halloween or the holidays. Seriously? I’ve never met a company that creates a core brand color palette around holidays! The colors in the new app icons seem like something from 1980s Silicon Valley. The dark jewel-tone blue and maroon don’t seem modern at all; they seem recessive and dark. These colors also don’t work well onscreen. They lack proper contrast to both bright acidic colors and to neutrals.
The illustration style seems amateurish and dated as well, and not in a good mid-century way. It seems like the product of someone who sat in a dark room using MacPaint for a few hours. If you search on any royalty-free/clipart illustration websites, you’ll see stuff like this: generic, flat, cold, lacking feeling. Is this the kind of style Uber thinks represents “inspiring”?
4) Disconnected patterns and imagery
The colorful patterns seem like a great way to expand on the brand. But they are totally out of relation to everything else: the logo, the brand, and the idea of “bits and atoms.” How were these ever conceived? (One Uber designer claims that they were inspired by her bathroom tile.) They are certainly beautiful patterns, but I fail to see how they connect to the overall Uber narrative. There’s also a great deal of architectural photography being shown in the branding press release, which has no relation to the flat vector illustrations or photographs of people. Overall, the system feels like a generic hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated objects. It’s almost like each team member at Uber designed one element, and then they put it all together without filling any holes.
According to the Uber press release, “This is just the start. Every city has its own character and our long-term goal is to have unique designs for cities as well as countries. This will mean adding hundreds more color palettes and patterns over time.” Does anyone else think this brand will eventually be very difficult to keep consistent and manage, with all these opposing elements?
In the end, I do hate that arguing about design has become such a public scene. It seems like every time a new company logo is announced there is an immediate online backlash because everyone has their own opinion. The unveiling of the AirBnb logo — and the immediate mockery — comes to mind, or the recent logo for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics that was scrapped due to plagiarism after an outpouring of public complaints. But on the bright side, this open dialogue about design might bring the emphasis of good design to the forefront. Perhaps more companies will see that people value good design, which will encourage them to talk about and debate design, and then invest in good people to see their design ideas through.
In the meantime, I will be glumly moving the Uber icon to my blue folder, which has more apps than any other color.