Before we dive in, I want to give a bit of background on this project.
Uber’s Undoing is the definitive, unfiltered story of Uber Design, and is the culmination of almost a month-long research and writing process. Criticism takes an intensity of attention and time to write. For a while now, that energy has been going towards other projects.
Up until this point I have never charged readers for my design writing. Where it has been funded, it has been with the support of gracious sponsors (and no ad tracking). While that continues with this series. In the spirit of bringing back more design writing, with Uber’s Undoing, I’m going to test an experiment in the viability of sustainable design criticism.
For those who want to show support for my design criticism by making a contribution, I’m offering the complete book up-front as a downloadable ebook. To those who choose to get the eBook, your support is very much appreciated.
But the aim of writing is also to have a wide impact. So for everyone else, all three parts of Uber’s Undoing will be published for free on this blog. Non-paying readers will just have to wait a week each for the second two parts to be published in sequence.
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Part II: Local vs. Global
To anyone but a designer, it’s obvious that most modern designs can’t stand on their own aesthetic merit. Thus the primary service designers offer is not in ‘mere surface concerns,’ otherwise known as aesthetics, but in the narratives they tell to justify visual mediocrity.
This can be seen in the grueling eighteen-month period in which Kalanick and the design team came up with a mission for the 2016 rebrand. That process resulted in what they dubbed Uber’s Five Pillars: “Uber aspires to be: grounded, populist, inspiring, highly evolved, and elevated.” Of the five, the most striking is the inclusion of “populist.”
But by the time of the launch, the lodestar had taken on quite a different tenor. This discrepancy would seem strange, if it hadn’t been for the publication of how the team shifted process mid-redesign. As I documented in previous coverage,
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.”
Uber quickly rectified this error. By the time their 2016 press release was unveiled, they had changed their lodestar dramatically:
The number one cultural value at Uber is “Celebrate cities.” For us, that means doing everything we can to make people around the world feel like we were born in the place they call home.
It was in this spirit that the rebrand was christened, “Celebrating Cities: A New Look and Feel for Uber.” So what then does Celebrating Cities look like?
Picture a brand redesign from the imagination of a boomer couple traipsing around the developing world—the safe parts of course—collecting trinkets and patterned quilts in an effort to out-do their retiree friends back home. In essence, the ideology of the 2016 rebrand was cosmopolitan boomerism.
Kalanick left no stone unturned in capturing the local flavors of the dozens of markets Uber served. From the 2016 guidelines:
When we start designing for a specific market, we look at the culture holistically—art, architecture, tradition, old and new fashion, textiles, the environment—to create color palettes and patterns that are both fresh and relevant. We’re launching with 65 local color palettes and patterns, representing countries in which Uber operates. These colors and patterns are authentic expressions of the real world’s diversity, and they afford flexibility in our communications…But 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.
Having too few colors was a dangerous prospect, so the team didn’t settle:
Our limited color palette didn’t allow us to differentiate designs by audiences…Our color spectrum allows unique combinations that can speak to specific locations, holidays, and partnerships—inspired by the colors of the physical world, we created a broad spectrum: 22 different colors and 22 values, 484 unique hues in total.
In the early months of 2016, we occupied a different semantic landscape than we do today. At the time, it seemed perfectly acceptable to “Celebrate Cities,” and celebrate them specifically for their differences:
As Wired reported at the time,
The Mumbai market is very different than, say, the market in Lagos. Uber's rebrand, says Kalanick, is about helping every person in its ecosystem—riders, partners, and employees—grok the company's culture and ambitions.
Uber’s brand guide reiterated this message:
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…
It was a different time, as is demonstrated by the comments of Uber Nigeria’s general manager, Ebi Atawodi, as she explained their research process to Wired,
1 million people live in a city renowned for horrendous traffic, and 40 percent of them have smartphones…To succeed, Uber must build driver networks in cities worldwide, and each city is unique. In Lagos, for example, Uber riders can pay cash. In Colombia, if you’re drunk, you can summon an UberAngel to meet you on his bike and drive your car home for you…“We shared it with driver partners, friends, aunties—everyone—just asking, if you were to describe a symbol of Nigeria, what would it be?”…They landed on the bright colors of the traditional Nigerian fabric, approving of the navies and reds and yellows the team in San Francisco had selected, and bringing them images to inspire their work. The result is a set of colors that are specific to each city. Atawodi says the office will be able to use them “to create the materials we want to create.”
It’s natural to be skeptical of Uber’s motivations in the 2016 redesign. Perhaps they weren’t sincere in their progressivism. It’s understandable to see the collection of patterns as perhaps even patronizing or condescending. But we should acknowledge that they were operating in a different paradigm. In 2016, “local” meant multicultural and vibrant independent communities. It was in this context that Uber sourced their diversity of colors and patterns. They intended to diverge from the way they were seen, as a “global” company—where ”global” meant imperial, perhaps even colonial, dominating ambition.
As we all know, the events that have transpired in the past several years have caused a semantic realignment. Those words no longer mean then what they did then. Today, ”local” harkens back to Uber’s rejected lodestar, “populist.” “Local” now means isolationist, nativist, xenophobic, and chauvinist.
“Global” still signifies ambition, but this time around it is benevolent ambition, the ambition of appointed bureaucrats and corporate-citizens; people you can trust. “Global” means corporate social responsibility: doing good, being good and feeling good—all in a good day’s work.
Global corporate citizens aren’t idealistic. They believe in facts. For instance, consider the Uber company mission statement. In 2016 it was, “Make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere, for everyone.” Fact check: false. This is highly offensive to our fellow citizens around the world who still don’t have access to clean drinking water. As part of the 2018 rebrand, Uber’s design team consulted the experts, and updated the mission statement to “We ignite opportunity by setting the world in motion.”
It no longer makes sense to see the world as a series of borders, each containing a unique culture to be celebrated. It makes more sense to look at the world as follows:
The global shopping mall requires a fungible consumer. That consumer demands a universal product. And what is a universal product without a universal brand? No one is positioned better to globally homogenize than Uber, a transportation company.
Uber with a ”Global” face
Uber’s Rebrand 2018 starts with a section that hits on the key themes they wanted to embody:
A tech startup turned global mobility platform in eight short years deserves a holistic brand system that’s instantly recognizable, works around the world, and is efficient to execute…We set off to learn what the business needed globally during a period of transition. We used our learnings to drive our work of creating a brand that both served our business and engaged our audience.
Uber has dropped all pretense that it is your local transportation company. Khosrowshahi is not afraid that you know Uber is in the business of making cold hard cash. If anything, you should trust Uber more precisely because it’s a business. After all, woke corporations are now our global moral conscience. Under Khosrowshahi’s new vision, everyone’s money is green.
In the rebrand, the word “global” was used liberally:
Built from stakeholder input from around the world and tested on the ground with creative teams, our brand system is simple, flexible, and globally recognizable…Our icons are inspired by global transportation iconography…tight color palette, dominated by black and white, draws on the colors used in global navigation…Our global tone of voice focuses on the mindset we share with our users: we see the world as it could be and work to make it a reality.
As you can see, Uber has evolved their thinking. Wolff Olins elaborated:
Uber operates in 660+ cities globally. The brand needed to work around the world…Instead of pursuing a complex identity system, localized through color and pattern, we moved towards a universal ‘beyond-simple’ global brand…
Fast Co. documented Wolff Olins’ exploration:
[The team] began its exploration by traveling abroad to markets like India, to see how the Uber brand lived there. A story began to emerge. Uber messengers rode bikes in 100-degree heat, sweating through on-brand black uniforms. Many riders and drivers could not read–and the app icon was a confusing mismatch to that Uber wordmark. Vehicles would arrive and people wouldn’t know, is this my ride or not? Uber’s Silicon Valley branding didn’t scale globally.”
Notice the gaslighting in how Wolff Olins accuses Uber’s 2016 rebrand of being SIlicon Valley-centric when so many countless man-hours went into the rebrand being the exact opposite.
One also wonders why Wolff Olins had to conduct the same research again that the Uber team already did in 2016. Perhaps they needed the same evidence to come to the opposite conclusion. Maybe they wanted to travel on Uber’s dime, or maybe they just fucking loved science.
How then did the Wolff Olins team intend to scale the branding globally?
English is universal
In a globalizing world, local languages, patterns and colors no longer make sense. Thus the obvious solution emerged: turn to the universal (Western) grapholect and its Latin type. Just spell out the word ”Uber,” everywhere—in English.
As Armin Vit so aptly described the 2018 logo, “it simply states the name of the company in a way that is as generally accessible as possible.” Generally accessible? Perhaps to anyone who speaks English. Which everyone does of course in the global economy.
Young of Wolff Olins noted the importance of the new logo to the ever-pervasive issue of people not knowing how to spell “Uber,”
It makes the word “Uber” more legible to everyone, as it’s easier to read letters of different shapes and sizes–and crucially, it enhances the difference between the first and last letters of the word, which your brain scans first, and keeps words legible even when misspelled. Uber is trying to proof its logo against spelling mistakes.
One wonders how spelling would remotely matter to passengers who can’t understand English in the first place. But then they’ll remember that those people don’t exist.
Perhaps I should take more credit for this redesign. In Uber’s Atomic Meltdown, in response to Uber removing the “U” icon, I used reverse psychology to meme the Uber design team into their new logo:
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.
My strategy worked just as planned.
Removing the “U“
In all seriousness, there is something to the question of whether to use English in one’s logo or not—whether to use a symbol, either an abstraction or a Latin character, to represent one’s brand. Last time I explained a real concern for 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: We certainly explored that but creating an icon that was based on an English character didn’t make sense for a global brand.
Remember, Amin is still the leader of brand design at Uber. Something drastic must have changed between 2016 and 2018 for him to flip to the exact opposite position by adopting an anglophone-only icon.
Like I explained, ‘local’ and ’global’ meant different things back in 2016. But this time around, Uber was well aware of their communication issue. In fact, according to The Verge, after the 2016 rebrand, “Uber says it even found that some drivers turned the company-supplied decal inside out (since the name was on the flip side).”
Not only that, but Uber’s 2018 brand page noted that a major finding in their research was “people wondered where the U went.” And despite people clamoring for their “U” back, Uber is deciding not to give people what they want. Instead, they’re just spelling out “Uber.” Again, science prevails over user needs. They justify this by saying they are ”investing in a wordmark, not a symbol.” This is an empty phrase, but it seems to have worked on most reviewers.
For instance, take Armin Vit, who thinks this wordmark is sensational:
One of the best decisions in this redesign is NOT introducing a “U” monogram…This is ultimately what will cement the new logo in people’s minds. Take a moment to update your phone’s apps if they haven’t updated automatically, and seriously judge the new logo in that environment. It looks damn great…look at the immediate contrast the new logo generates next to all the other app icons that are trying to fill every pixel available. It’s easy to spot and it sits there with a new sense of sophistication that Uber never had.
Despite uncritically endorsing the forced merger of Uber’s typeface, logo and icon, Vit has a point. We should look at the icon in the context of the homescreen.
One of the main criticisms circulating about the 2018 Uber icon is its sole motif being an embedded wordmark. When placed in a homescreen UI, many complain that it leads to a feeling of redundancy above the operating system icon label. This unease is emphasized when the all-black icon is placed on a black homescreen.
In principle, it’s preferable to not have duplicate wordmark and icon label, let alone a pair of two words duplicated, as in the Uber Eats icon (“Uber Eats” above “Uber Eats”). However, a compelling wordmark that is sufficiently stylized is a justifiable exception. The Lyft wordmark passes this test. Uber’s does not.
There is a legitimacy to the claim that a standalone ”U” for the icon would have solved this redundancy problem—and that Uber would have done well to invest in both a wordmark and a symbol. But of course, that would require that the individual glyphs in the wordmark have character that could stand on their own in the canvas of an icon. And using the Uber Move “U” alone would just throw into relief its total lack of character.
But overall, the rationale for not investing in a symbol had little to do with maintaining consistency between the brand elements: typeface, logo and icon. It instead had everything to do with exorcizing any perceivable remains of the Kalanick era.
Rejecting the "U"
I should clarify, it’s not that Uber isn’t bringing back the U. They are bringing it back, they’re just doing it in a hidden place—the “U-frame.”
The “U-frame” is a good example of the type of trickery designers engage in when they want to poeticize the mundane. They might say that the “U-frame” ’makes visible the invisible grid’ (or some other cliché). As Uber explained:
Our composition system is elegant in its sheer simplicity of use — plus, it creates a subtle “U” wherever it appears. By defining the grid based on the logo the system stays flexible and beyond easy to apply.
And it’s also worth noting that the primary motif of the 2016 redesign, the bit, makes an appearance in the “U-frame.” This wasn’t entirely a slash-and-burn exercise as TechCrunch misreported—saying, “Uber has broken up with the bits and atoms logo it unveiled in 2016."
As I said, Uber is bringing back the “U,” you’ll just never notice it. And that is, in its way, the point. If a designer can’t renounce the past, the least he can do is disguise it. This presentism is also embodied in the logo, whose origins we’ll look at next in Part III, the conclusion to Uber’s Undoing.
Don’t want to stop reading? Curious about the rest of Uber’s rebrand story?
The eBook contains all three parts—Part I: Whipping Boy, Part II: Local vs. Global, and Part III: Redemption. You’ll find a much deeper dive on Uber’s philosophy, their icon, logo and typeface, and lastly discuss what this rebrand means for design more broadly.
Update: when you purchase the book, you also get access to Sketch files for every version of the Uber icon—drawn from scratch. Get a visceral view of what visual decisions were made in the icon construction. (Previous customers also get access on Gumroad.)