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Most of us have come to accept the new Uber redesign as normal–after all, it has been a whole two weeks since its reveal. Nevertheless, it is well worth examining this prime example of both design and managerial dysfunction.
The justifications for the Uber redesign were many, the primary being a matter of improving the company's PR. It is widely known that Uber is publicly struggling with the visibility that comes with unicorn-level success.
Uber frames it slightly differently. According to the Wired report, Uber has in recent years "matured" and now offers UberX, UberCommute, and UberPool, which they describe as "egalitarian offerings." People apparently need to see the new and improved Uber, so a redesign was determined to be appropriate.
Uber's CEO, Travis Kalanick, is in many ways emblematic of what critics of Silicon Valley deride most about tech. The writers at Wired, whose ostensible mission was to promote him in their puff piece, could not help themselves but accuse him of being a "rich, white guy in California." They even described him as "elitist" to boot. This perception had to go, especially given that Uber is a mature and egalitarian company.
Kalanick further explained the necessity to rebrand: "Have you ever looked at someone’s hairstyle and thought 'oh my, you peaked in the 1990s?' Well that’s a bit how I feel about Uber’s look today." Kalanick is hardly the only one who thinks that brands over three years old are 'outdated' and require an exorcism.
As you will come to see in this exploration of the Uber brand rollout, Uber's redesign contained an unprecedented level of micromanagement of the design team by Kalanick, for whom it was a personal passion project.
Countless themes were explored by the team, each clashing with the previous one. Take Kalanick's description of the brand as "at once more grounded and elevated," a contradiction in terms. Perhaps this is an allusion to their 2011 redesign in which Kalanick questioned: "Is it luxury? Well, not quite, but maybe 'grounded' luxury (you get it? 😉), or what I call 'vulnerable luxury.'" You can be excused for not understanding what any of this means.
One cheery theme Uber promoted was the upcoming obsolescence and unemployment of all Uber drivers due to automation and driverless cars.
Uber appealed to their audience's affinity for their mothers, and cute animals like cats and dogs. The implication of this marketing is that anyone who loves moms or animals will also love Uber.
This cute marketing is not a one-off gimmick for Uber. Pando reporting found that "Leading up to the Super Bowl, Uber’s Twitter feed was all puppies." Kalanick's own Facebook profile picture is of Uber puppies on demand.
The team admitted that it took them eighteen grueling months to come up with the brand's core values. That should have been a warning sign. But for Kalanick, the time flew by. Kalanick reminisced about the experience, "This change didn’t happen overnight, but it sure feels like it did." One can be sure that Uber's Design Director, Shalin Amin, and the team would disagree with Kalanick on that. Indeed, Amin explained that he "basically gave up understanding what your [Kalanick's] personal preference was."
It remains unclear why Uber allowed Wired to publish this statement, but it is telling: "Truth be told, Amin and Kalanick didn’t fully understand what they were trying to do."
In general, it is not a great idea to put the brand of a company valued in the tens of billions of dollars in the hands of people who readily admit they don't know what their own intentions are.
Uber tore through and rejected the proposals of half a dozen external agencies and eventually made the decision to rebrand internally. From Wired:
Kalanick is not a designer. He’s an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Yet he refused to entrust the rebranding process to someone else…he studied up on concepts ranging from kerning to color palettes. “I didn’t know any of this stuff,” says Kalanick. “I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.”
On the logo alone, a designer from Google was brought in to make over 200 variations–and despite that extensive process, the logo was picked impulsively by Kalanick during a design review. According to Amin, "The design review took ten minutes. He [Kalanick] was like, 'that's good.'" Talk about efficiency.
Bits and Atoms
The primary two metaphors for Uber, outside of cats, dogs and moms, were the bit and the atom, which Amin saw being represented best by a square and a circle.
◾️+⚫️— Shalin Amin (@shalin) February 2, 2016
These abstractions may seem unrecognizable to your average user, but for Uber, they were profound. The argument goes that Uber, being an app that connects both meatspace and cyberspace through the car and app, should eschew more recognizable metaphors like cars and hood ornaments, in favor of bits and atoms. Perhaps the thinking over at Uber is that the drivers and passengers are as significant as bits and atoms are small.
While the logo is important in its own right, the touchstone for Uber users is undoubtedly the app icon. It is the app icon that people see on the dashboard stickers when they walk outside to get in the Uber cars. Despite their previous icon not being particularly inspired, it was straightforward and recognizable.
For Amin however, this clarity in their previous icon presented 'major problems': "the company had two logos—one with a U inside a box on the Android app, and one with a U and no box on the Apple app." Amin knew that the U just had to go.
The team went on to sketch hundreds of icons–forcing Amin to convene an icon design retreat at his house for an entire week. According to Wired, "He challenged the designers to develop not just an image, but a concept. Anyone can draw an icon, he told them. What’s the story behind it?"
It is no wonder the icon design process was a major source of frustration for the team–Amin had a complete lack of respect for the craft. It is demonstrably untrue that "anyone can draw an icon" as Amin says. If that were the case, it shouldn't have taken his team hundreds of iterations to realize that you are generally better off doing some conceptual research before you put pen tool to canvas.
Animation to the Rescue
The team's fatigue around the icon was finally solved with the magic of animation by designer Bryant Jow, who "went home and began animating the shapes." When he returned the next day, he "presented the idea to Kalanick, who loved it."
Uber offers a profound lesson for all designers–if your client or boss will not budge on a particular design, assume they are a drooling idiot–animate that graphic and they will instantly be hypnotized into approving it. You will be seen as some sort of creative genius, despite the fact that 99% of the time the graphic in question will be seen by users in a static form.
Drivers and Passengers
The iconic U icon is not something trivial to be discarded on a whim. When used as a sticker on the outside of an Uber vehicle, it needs to be totally visible in all lighting conditions. Unlike a marked taxi cab where there is a sense of safety, getting into a stranger's car requires users to have some sort of overtly legible marking that indicates security. This oversight is a massive failure that affects Uber's customers. But it also affects the drivers. If a passenger cannot find the car, that is lost gas, money and time for the driver.
For Amin, none of this mattered. When asked why the Uber U on the icon was abstracted, he made the following argument:
@dustin great q. We certainly explored that but creating an icon that was based on an English character didn’t make sense for a global brand— Shalin Amin (@shalin) February 3, 2016
This should be a wake up call to all international companies: ignore that English is the lingua franca of the world. Accordingly, banish all references to the Roman alphabet in your branding.
Despite making progress on the logo and icon, the team still found themselves at a standstill due to Kalanick's shifting sensibilities. According to Wired,
It felt wrong for Uber’s global and local brands to revolve around the color preferences of a rich, white guy in California—even if that rich, white guy in California is the CEO. “We walked out and we were like, this is crazy—we’re designing a brand for Travis,” says Amin.
A brilliant idea hit Amin–what better solution to their PR problems than to invoke multiculturalism? Amin immediately set out to "celebrate the people, cultures and the cities we serve." The team would do this by designing unique color palettes for each region that Uber operates in.
The brand guide explained:
We want people around the world to feel like Uber was born in their city, so a conventional brand system simply won’t work. You can’t have the same look and feel in Chengdu as you do in Charleston and expect to be embraced by both cultures.
The team has doubled down on this beautiful concept, as evidenced by their press release, "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 overtime [sic]."
Sure, this ploy might add an enormous weight to the clearly stressed design team, but you really can't argue with diversity. I, for one, look forward to the new trend of brands adopting patterns from around the world. It is 2016 after all.
The virtues of animation are unparalleled in making a convincing rebrand. Near the end of the process, Uber realized that they just did not have enough visual material to work with, so the team reproduced, sometimes frame by frame, the animations designer Ash Thorp and his team had developed for the FITC Titles project. Thorp, informed me that "Uber never contacted me, consulted with me or paid me."
It wouldn't be a public design discussion without an associated anti-think piece, which seems to conveniently crop up every time a new corporate redesign emerges. These articles implore designers to close both their eyes and their minds and to never criticize design.
I always aim to acknowledge excellence in anti-think piece writing. This time, we look to an article courageously penned by designer Justin Mezzell.
In this instance, apologizing for Uber's rebrand, Mezzell told would-be critics the "7 Things You Can Do Instead Of Ripping Apart A Logo Redesign You Didn’t Have The Brief On." In this title alone, he's exhibiting the classic appeal to context. Obviously designers have no right to comment unless they were in the room with the Uber designers during the design process.
Mezzell seems to have a pattern of writing such pieces, his last was entitled, "Let Bad Work Worry About Itself."
All in all, it is remarkable that the Uber team produced what they did given the circumstances–truly a testimonial to the patience of Uber's Design Director Shalin Amin and former Head of Design, Andrew Crow, who not so inconspicuously departed the company immediately after the redesign.
One would hope that the integrity of design teams is not often compromised as it was here. Unfortunately, Uber's redesign is in many ways just a slightly exaggerated example of the way design is handled more generally. By trying to be everything to everyone, Uber has lost its recognizability as a brand.
There have been some historical marks similar to Uber's, notably one mark for Carl Cristiansen Construction Co. by Werner Hartz and another for the State Bank of India by Shekhar Kamat (1971). In the case of the Carl Cristiansen glyph, the orientation at least makes some sense. It can be read as a "C" (which could stand for "Carl," "Cristiansen," "construction" or "company." For the State Bank of India, the mark apparently signifies a keyhole. But any design expert will tell you they are both hardly recognizable in comparison to Uber's bit and atom glyph.
Moreover, The overlap with historical marks is to be somewhat expected given the banal shapes involved. What is somewhat more interesting are the similarities between Uber's mark and two modern counterparts closely related to Uber itself.
The first notable overlap is between Uber and Spot. Spot's glyph features a map pin, which is particularly evocative when placed in the wordmark.
Strangely enough, Spot and Uber have a shared lineage–they both are part of startup incubator/VC Expa, which is run by Uber co-founder, Garrett Camp. One wonders why Camp didn't let Uber know not to launch a glyph on their icon that was almost identical to Spot's. Surely Camp was notified about the launch ahead of time.
It also turns out that there are striking similarities between Uber's glyph and the glyph for The Collective Podcast. This host of the podcast just so happens to be Ash Thorp, the designer responsible for the very animation that Uber had so flagrantly aped.