Design controversy is a relatively new phenomenon: more and more consumers are in touch with a brand’s visual identity than ever before, and more aware of the design elements within it. As a designer, I think this is great news, to see that the general public is aware and engaged in design, and are making the case for good design with their wallets: good design sells. Design shouldn’t be a purely academic discipline—it lives and breathes on the shelves, on the screens, and in the hands of everyone, and its fantastic that we’ve all become more aware of this.
However, this newfound engagement, when coupled with the tremendous megaphone of the interwebs, means that the customer is no longer a passive spectator, forced to grumble—but ultimately live with—poor or unpopular design decisions. Customers and brand loyalists can easily leverage tremendous power to change and disrupt when it does not agree (or understand) the new directions that its beloved brands have taken.
While this voice can drive design forward in positive ways, it can also restrict a brand from taking a bold step forward, into a space that the public isn’t quite ready for, which really is too bad. Sometimes we all need to be dragged forward by a bold innovator into new territory that we’re all uncertain about. Nervous CEO’s have buckled under pressure from its customer base and quickly retracted rebrands that, I believe, would have been accepted if given proper time for the public to catch up with the change. Although, sometimes this retraction has indeed been for the better.
Below are 5 examples of redesign controversies from the past 5 years:
The Whitney Museum
Recently the Whitney Museum revealed it’s new brand identity, created by the studio Expiremental Jetset in Amsterdam. It’s strikingly bold & clean, and leverages a current design paradigm that’s permeated web & UX design: responsiveness. The “zigzag” is an adaptable, responsive shape that will change and respond to its context. It’s disarmingly simple, but leaves the Whitney’s in-house team (who will handle all execution of the new Identity) with an endless amount of possibilities for usage across print, web and environmental contexts.
As is the case when bold, simple design is released into the public space, it has quickly been met by much praise & criticism – and much discussion. The identity was unveiled a few weeks ago, so it’s perhaps to new to call this a “design controversy”, but it certainly has caused much discussion in a short amount of time. Also, The Whitney Museum, being an art institution, probably has more leverage to be bold & experimental with its image than the average consumer brand.
To their detractors, Experimental Jetset had this response:
“Generally speaking, minimal structures offer a lot of space for interpretation. They require something from the viewer — an active eye, an active mind… you can only get something out of it if you are willing to put something in it.”
I completely agree.
This one dates a few years back, but was an absolute disaster, and is a retraction that I completely agree with. The Gap redesign is a good example of how a redesign can potentially erase decades of brand equity with one misguided decision.
The Gap decided to reinvent its look by reimagining its iconic blue box, no longer a grounding element and now suddenly a strange, floating square, coupled with a typeface choice that seemingly makes no connection with its heritage and authenticity. It was such a strange blend of minimalism (Helvetica, in an uninspired context) and fussiness (a blue box with a needless gradient, positioned just so), that it left many people scratching their heads, and ranting across the blogosphere.
The results caused such an uproar (as well as countless websites with suggested redesigns), and was cheekily dubbed “Gapgate”, that the Gap wisely withdrew the redesign (but not before offering a “crowd-sourcing” solution into the mix – that’s a topic to rant about on another day), and stuck with its previous, nothing-wrong-with-it logomark.
University of California
When the university of California relaunched its brand identity, they decided to extend the visual language to not only include a revamped & modernized university seal, but also a new logomark that can be used to compliment and extend the identity. The new logomark was simple, bold & clean – evoking California culture in a decidedly modern fashion—and of course was met with large amounts of pushback from students, faculty & alumni.
Unfortunately, much of this derision is based in misunderstanding: the new logomark does not replace the classic seal, it is used in concert with it, as a new addition to the brand’s overall language. The seal itself received a very light refreshing, keeping much of its classic imagery inplace, and simply bringing it into a modern context.
Sadly, Cal buckled under pressure from students & alumni, and withdrew its use of the new mark not long after it was unveiled.
The Arnell Group was brought in several years ago to redesign Tropicana’s packaging, as part of a corporate-wide re-imagining of all of PepsiCo’s brands. The new packaging was the type of redesign that designer’s & marketer’s love: clean, simple, and just a bit heady (no need to show an orange! We’re capturing the essence of the orange! Even the cap can be squeezed like an orange!) However, the public strongly disagreed, and the vocalizations were so strong that the package was quickly pulled from all shelves and the previous one was reinstated.
This was less a case of bad design (the package design was well done), but more of the it ain’t broke, don’t fix it type. Customers were connecting well with the classic packaging, and now couldn’t find or recognize their beloved Tropicana on the shelves anymore. Perhaps sales had flatlined and PepsiCo wanted to inject new energy into the brand, but clearly it didn’t do the market research needed for this type of bold redesign, and instead it came of as a design-for-design’s-sake debacle that cost millions of dollars, both in design & implementation costs, as well as lost sales.
To mark its 40th anniversary, Starbucks rolled out what could be called a refresh of its iconic brand identity, simplifying it down to its core elements: a green circle, with its recognizable mermaid icon. That’s it: no “Starbucks” “coffee” etc. needed to communicate what the brand is to its audience. I love this sort of bold move, and surely Starbucks has the brand equity to pull something like this off.
While they did receive hundreds if not thousands of complaints of the new branding, Starbucks stayed true to their decision and kept with it, and now the logomark is widely used and accepted throughout Starbucks stores.
This is a great example of iterative redesign, brilliantly exectured by the Starbucks in-house team. It wasn’t a radical change, and it didn’t need to be: Starbucks wasn’t in need of a bold new redirection, but wisely chose to iterate its current logo into one that is at once modern and timeless, and will undoubtedly be used for years to come. The company heard the complaints, but assured its customers that they were making the right move, and the decision proved to successful: customers finally came along for the ride.
For further reading: Michael Bierut, of Pentagram fame, has a fantastic article that delves into the phenomenon of customer-based design controversy, on Design Observer – highly recommended reading.
What do you guys think? Any other recent examples you can think of?