Tom VanAntwerp

Uber and Lessons in Design

Uber recently revamped their branding. It’s…perplexing. I mean, I watched the video with the bits, the atoms, and the sexy people not doing much and having affairs. I understand what they’re trying to say with the new colors, patterns, and iconography.

But, frankly, their branding says nothing.

Uber's New Icons

The new icons look like the logos of an evil megacorp in an 80s sci-fi film. The colors and patterns don’t convey anything, except that it’s going to be another 15 seconds of standing in the cold and wet before this app opens and lets me call a car. And why are there different colors for different markets? Afraid Americans won’t like apps that come in anything but red, white, and blue?

Uber’s new brand is an important lesson in design–that is to say, how to get it wrong.

Mistake #1: Your Designers as Human Pens

From Wired’s story about the rebranding effort:

Kalanick is not a designer. He’s an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Yet he refused to entrust the rebranding to anyone else. This was an unusual decision. Most CEOs hire experts—branding agencies that specialize in translating corporate values into fonts and colors—or tap an in-house team. Not Kalanick. For the past three years, he’s worked alongside Uber design director Shalin Amin and a dozen or so others, hammering out ideas from a stuffy space they call the War Room.

Kalanick became engrossed, evaluating pixels and colors according to what he euphemistically calls his “unique” set of preferences. Light smirks ripple across the room. “I basically gave up understanding what your personal preference was,” Shalin tells him. “I was like, ‘He’s got this pastel thing going with, like, bright colors.’”

This is the reason that I no longer do freelance graphic design. The trouble with design is that you can see it. It seems simple, even obvious, to those who have never really had to do it before. So it’s very tempting to hire people less for their expertise at design, and more for their expertise with Adobe Creative Cloud. Push this pixel here, bend this bezier there. It’s just micromanagement.

This is like hiring an architect, handing him a sketch you made on the back of a napkin, and telling him to make a house according to that sketch. Do not expect this strategy to end well.

I understand that Kalanick wants to be involved. It’s his company. He should have a say. But he should also be able to delegate this to designers and give them clear indications of how to proceed. The designers should come back with something that they have to justify. That justification has to be more substantial than “You, the CEO, like talking about bits and atoms, and you also like pastels, so here it is!”

His is the job of direction, and theirs is the execution.

Mistake #2: Less is More

Il semble que la perfection soit atteinte non quand il n’y a plus rien à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher. (It seems that perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to remove.)

-Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Kalanick and his designers spent two and a half years building a new brand that is bafflingly weighty. Uber’s previous brand may have been imperfect, but it was straightforward: the color is black, the icon is a “U”. Today, there are 65 different color palettes and two icons, neither of which communicate “Uber” unless you happen to already know what you’re looking at. They’ve made their identity clear as mud.

A brand is like a joke. If you have to explain it, it’s not very good.

Mistake #3: The Quest for Meaning

Again from Wired:

Truth be told, Amin and Kalanick didn’t fully understand what they were trying to do, either. They realized they needed to understand not only the thing they no longer were, but also the thing Uber was at the time, and what it was likely to become. Working with a few other designers, Amin and Kalanick started trying to articulate new brand pillars, company principles they could distill into simple words and phrases. … It took them 18 months to agree on five pillars they thought best described the company Uber aspires to be: grounded, populist, inspiring, highly evolved, and elevated.

Two-and-a-half years after Kalanick began thinking about how to help Uber’s brand grow up, its new apps were ready. He, Amin and six others spent more than two hours guiding me through the choices the designers had made along the way, and the various points at which they’d wrestled with the question who exactly are we?

It’s a question Kalanick is beginning to answer for himself. “The warmth, the colors, those things,” he says, nodding to the new brand. “That happens, when you start to know who you are.”

My wife, after watching the rebranding announcement video:

I don’t know what they’re talking about. And I don’t care, either.

You’re overthinking this, Uber.

A brand is an identity, yes. But it’s not a “who I am on the inside” kind of identity. Nor is it a “my place in the universe” kind of identity. It’s more like a mask from ancient Greek theater: a quick and easy way for spectators to figure out which character you are. You build brands to promote rapid identification by the consumer, who you hope will associate that identity with positive ideas and emotions. Who you think you are is irrelevant.

Compare Uber’s new brand to the brand of their chief rival, Lyft. When I think “Lyft”, I think of a hot pink moustache. It’s an absurd image, but it does the job. When an unrelated startup moved into the same building where I work and painted their whole floor hot pink, I thought it was a Lyft office. That kind of instant association, which any company should want, is only possible with a simple and unified brand image.

Uber’s users don’t know or care about this bits and atoms nonsense. They are A) customers with B) needs who want C) fulfillment of those needs in D) a timely and cost-effective way. The brand they deserve is one that reminds them, “Oh yes, I just tap this little ‘U’ on my phone and away I go!” That’s all it is for them. That’s all it has to be.

Branding is not transcendence, so don’t pretend that it can be.


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