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Is Dull the New Daring?

Much ado has been made about Yahoo's recent "rejuvenation" of its corporate identity: Marissa Mayer's talents as an appreciator of graphic design; the whimsical angle of its question mark; the depth of bevel... Yahoo is only the latest in a long line of US megacorporations to subject itself to a facelift: eBay, Microsoft, Motorola, Pepsi and Twitter have all tweaked and tuned their appearance since the recession hit. What's remarkable about these updates of identity is how safe and serious they all appear. Idiosyncratic logos have made way for more unexceptional, sober designs, which demonstrate "mathematical consistency". Functionality has displaced frivolity and fanfare.

It wasn't always this way.

In 1969, Saul Bass created a video for the American Bell Telephone Company (now AT&T). The video was designed to warn Bell executives about the danger of playing it safe and to demonstrate the importance of design in establishing Bell as an empathetic, eager participant in modern life:

Many of us here today remember when [life] was quite different. The pursuit of happiness had ground to a halt. Survival was the goal. Not just to have a job, but to have a job with security. That was the prize in 1933. How long a product lasted was more important than how well it looked. Wall Street had forgotten 'blue sky' and was now talking 'blue chip'.

Down to earth.

Safe was the place to be.

Customers were marvelling at the new technology. Ready to forgive imperfections... The telephone was still a marvel. The long-distance call an adventure. How did the Bell Company look then? We matched the styles, fitted the needs of the time.

We looked safe.



Part of the vacuum tube age.

Times have changed. Looks have changed. Has ours? Not enough. We still look as though we are responding to the needs of the past. When young people are looking for challenge in their careers, we seem to offer only security. When customers have come to expect technological perfection, we show up looking non-technological. In a fast-moving, competitive society, we look set in our ways. Am I exaggerating? Maybe. Just a little. Not much... Where's the look that connects us to today? Where are the visual signals that identify us as a pace-setting organisation? Is this the world's most advanced communications organisation? Or the motor pool of the quartermaster corps? How a thing looks today is as important as how it works. As never before, people are influenced by what they see. It's not just looking cleaner, or nicer, or more tasteful. It's looking a part of the society in which we operate. Advanced. We must respond to new needs.

Bass' response to these "new needs" was to introduce a design system that gave the Bell a "new ring". The company's new approach to design was introduced in conjunction with a new promise: "we hear you". As Bass pointed out, this design was more than a cosmetic improvement: it fundamentally improved the quality of customers' experience of the company. Public telephones were easier to see from a distance. Engineers were easier to identify. Within a year of its launch, more Americans were able to recognise Bell's new design than were able to recall the name of the President. Quite a staggering statistic.

The recent trend towards staid graphic design seems like the very opposite of the dynamism, hope and optimism so clearly articulated by Saul Bass. eBay's old logo contained overlapping letters and colours to convey a sense of community. eBay's new logo is more regular. Straighter. More business-like. Personality, humanity and community were sacrificed to evoke a greater sense of solidity and reliability. Possibly the most timid example of all, occurred in 2010, when Gap released a Helvetica-based, yawn-inducing logo redesign, which was described by Vanity Fair as a "despised symbol of corporate banality". A week later, the company gave in to the criticism and scrapped the new look. "Gapgate" has established a worrying precedent: that the way a company presents itself must be safe enough to be liked by the multitude of online armchair experts, rather than bold and specific enough to communicate that company's ambition - regardless of whether most people agree. The stick has become more important than the carrot.

We have been sapped of our appetite for "blue sky". We yearn for the relative comfort and security of "blue chip". Safe, durable and contemporary are once again good places to be. Society is still fast-moving and competitive, but we now understand that this can be risky as well as exciting. Online communities provide an overwhelming and instant tide of outrage if a company decides to poke its head above the parapet. The result is a troubling tendency towards innocuous, anodyne design.

Am I exaggerating?


Just a little.

Not much.

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