Critique the system, not the logo

Main illustration: Zach Halfhill

Every time a company updates their logo the verdict from the design community is swift and vicious.

As soon as the “publish” button is hit on any rebrand, a multitude of blog posts are hastily written, Twitter is lit up with hot takes, and Dribbble is full of designers showing how they would have designed the logo, only better.

Design criticism is an important part of our profession. Discussion prompts progress and action, and without feedback we don’t grow or learn. But the insistence on only scratching at the surface of a brand’s identity is pushing the craft of design backwards.

Design criticism must be done within the context of the success or failure of the brand system as a whole. The logo serves only as one of the most visible and repeated elements of that system.

The logo’s role

For a brand to connect to its audience, it must be able to communicate its worth via visual means – through imagery, typography, color etc. The choices we make when selecting these elements and how they work together define the tone of voice we wish our brand to speak in. A great brand system is about attitude and emotion, not pixels. It’s not necessarily what we say, but more how we say it.

Kneejerk reactions are missing one fundamental element – context

The most recognizable element of any brand’s system is the logo. A great logo can communicate so much of what a brand stands for, and transmit a feeling and an attitude to anyone who sees it. But the logo is just the start – an entry point for the viewer to go deeper and discover more about what the brand stands for, and the role it can play in the viewer’s life. Over time, the logo moves aside to reveal a larger system.

Take the logo designed for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign by Michael Bierut, launched to plenty of internet snark in April 2015. It was certainly a very different take on the standard stars and stripes based campaign logo and one that split opinion. Predictably, there were many comments that centered around the logo’s simplicity, that it must have “taken the designer 5 minutes” or that it looked like “it had been designed by a 7 year old”.

The system emerges

But as the weeks and months roll by we saw the system grow and develop as localized ads and graphics appeared, specific events referenced it, and merchandise was made available.

As we can see, a brand system rarely reveals itself fully on launch day. It reveals itself over time, as it’s being used in different ways and different environments.

That’s because a great brand system is modular and adaptable. It can move and shift to align itself with the requirements of the problem being solved. A great brand system is a playbook that can be referred to over a period of time to build equity.

Therefore it is impossible to adequately critique a brand system on day one. Clarity and consistency do not appear instantly and prestige only comes with distance. But the internet needs an instant stream of memes and hot takes so we attack the logo, the easiest and most obvious target.

The need for context

These kneejerk reactions are missing one fundamental element though – context. They ignore the months spent on many iterations, the false starts and wrong turns, the heated discussions and compromises made to get the system in place. They just don’t have the full set of insights from the process to be able to fully construct a conversation around the success or failure of the brand system.

The next time one of our favorite companies rebrands, I hope we can all take a breath and wait for the system to reveal itself before we cast our judgements. That way, we can fairly critique the system as a whole, not just the logo. Thoughtful and appropriate criticism is one of the most valuable aspects to design. Let’s all try to play a part in moving the craft forwards.