Love/Hate: Design Experts Debate The New Google Logo

CREDIT: Google

Google unveiled a new logo on Tuesday. It’s all very crisp and clean and easy to scale up or down. The new style maintains its essential Google-ness: The color scheme, the white background. What’s different? The big changes are that the text is now flat and sans serif, written in a schoolbook-inspired typeface, Product Sans. Gone is the blue, standalone “G,” and in its place is a new “G” with all four of the Google colors.

This change comes as, industry-wide, tech’s focus shifts from desktop to mobile and beyond; what works just fine on a big computer screen doesn’t necessarily pop on a phone or tablet. That little “G” matters more than it ever did; it is the conduit through which anyone accessing Google on anything but a desktop will get to the site.

The overall effect is one of approachability and friendliness — or is it? Maybe the overall effect is one of an evil corporate entity trying to look approachable and friendly. What do the digital design experts think of Google’s new look? Opinion, as opinions are wont to be, is divided. Read on for both sides of the debate.

Love: Jill Spaeth, president and director of design at Citizen Creative and member of the national board of directors for AIGA, the professional association for design

First, a breakdown: “The logo has actually three separate elements to it: The logo of Google, the G-o-o-g-l-e, then there’s the set of the dots, which relates to the curvature of the logo and the colors, and then there’s the monogram G. The application for that could be endless.”

In this way, “It’s not just a logo, it’s a system. They’re taking the elements of the logo — the colors, the round geometry — and they’re applying that to other aspects of the identity, so it’s 100 percent integral in however you use Google.”

Just because Google is a #brand doesn’t mean it can’t give you feelings. The new logo “brings a smile and delight to my face, which I think is important, because their challenge is digital interfaces are scary to the majority of people,” she said. “Creating an identity that makes people feel they’re more human and can enjoy the process of interacting on a digital interface.”

Why change now? The old logo “wasn’t something they could just shift into all the different interfaces they’re going for, and probably adjusting to ones we don’t even know about.” Exciting possibilities for the future abound; Spaeth speculated they could include “something tied into your car, some type of wearable, health-related products.”

Spaeth also pointed to Google’s unconventional marketing strategy, starting with the decision to introduce the logo on a Tuesday. “It’s not a noteworthy day, and the way they unveiled it was very put together. It wasn’t a fiasco. It was: Here it is, boom.” When she first saw it, “I was shocked. [I thought], ‘This is probably fake, I’ll get to it later.'”

The change, and the way Google treated its unveiling, highlights “an interesting shift in the way that designers are being brought into the strategic circle,” Spaeth said. “This is Google saying: We need to redo our system for how people interact with our identity. I think we’re looking at a fundamental shift in how designers are involved in systems.”

The logo has to be versatile, Spaeth said, as recognizable, clear, and pleasant to the eye on an app screen as it is on the website. And she doesn’t think Google’s “friendly” identity, or the attention they are drawing to it, is in any way a response to rising public concerns about the increasingly corporate vibes Google gives off. “I think they really unveiled their process to this, and you can tell it was a very thoughtful approach,” she said. “I think it’s more about them developing an identity that can really spread across different mediums.”

She seemed almost surprised by her own approval of Google’s new look. “I think designers, we have this attachment to old logos, and when a company wants to redo their logo, we’re probably the first ones to say, ‘I hate it,’ because you have an attachment.”

The G has the same flexibility as the Hillary Clinton campaign “H”: You could change the colors to celebrate or honor anything (as the “H” went rainbow for the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage) without losing its essential identity. “That’s the thing with simplicity,” said Spaeth. “The more simple you get, the more than it can be seen to relate to other things, which is kind of an interesting thing, because Google is a verb, it’s something we do and use.”

Spaeth and a handful of other designers were discussing the new logo in a group thread, she said, and one person “posted a photo of those alphabet letters you put on your refrigerator as a kid,” noting the similarity between those rainbow, rounded magnets and the new Google font.

“I think it’s perfect,” she said. “I think it makes total sense because you want to make people feel like they’re more human, and what’s more human that imagining a little kid playing with magnets on a fridge?”

Hate: Seth Ellis, assistant professor at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, University of Michigan

“I’m not impressed,” said Ellis. “I’m just bored. It’s not a very interesting redesign. It looks like pretty much any corporate logo. It’s the average of every corporate logo from the past 50 years.”

Even the attempts at difference, like the slanted crossbar in the “e,” “makes no sense,” he said. “It’s the only thing off-center now, so it stands out like Bigfoot’s footprint. It’s not actually doing anything. It’s the thing that says to me, ‘look at how quirky and fun we are!'”

Ellis reads Google’s redesign, in part, as a sign that the company “is struggling with its own history, both its early massive popular success and the more recent backlash.” As all the cool kids are reading The Circle, watching Mr. Robot, and asking questions about how much, exactly, Google knows about us — what we say in our “private” gchats and emails, where we go when we look up addresses on Google Maps, how we browse on Chrome — Google has to go to ever-greater lengths to assure users that they’re still “friendly and approachable… That’s Google’s ultimate challenge: How can they keep seeming like not just another faceless corporation?”

That we’re-all-buddies-here branding has been in Google from the start. “Just the phrase, ‘don’t be evil,’ it has a contraction in it. It’s something your friend might say. It’s a down-home goal. But as a corporation, you can’t really say that without sounding disingenuine,” he said.

Ellis thinks the new logo looks like it was “designed by committee to appear like friendliness.” It’s as if a focus group made entirely of people without friends asked themselves, what would a friendly logo be?. “It’s almost this fake, artificial intelligence, the machine trying to act like your friend. And when Google as a corporation tries to do that, they sound like an automated friend-bot.”

Google’s roots are clashing with Google’s reality: “There’s that early idea of Google being two Stanford grads in their imaginary garage, and then there’s the fact of Google being this massive life-controller running your emails in ways you can’t grasp,” said Ellis. “What kind of corporation has to remind you that they’re friendly? What kind of corporation has to remind itself to not be evil? There’s a public perception that Google is one of the big boys now; there’s nothing distinguishing them” from other, do-be-evil corporations.

Ellis added that the flat, sans serif logo is necessary for two reasons. “One is a very formal reason: Increasingly, a logo, has to be ubiquitous. It has to be at a tiny microscopic size in the corner of my phone, and a huge sign outside of headquarters. Things that are flat and have crisp edges are just better at that.”

Then there’s the emotional side, the idea that a “friendly, transparent corporate identity” requires a certain kind of aesthetic. “That has a lot of history, going back to the mid-20th century,” he said, as new fonts like Helvetica came on the scene and brands like Standard Oil evolved into Exxon, “turning themselves into an abstract name with an abstract logo” with a “clean” look. The new logo “could be a corporate logo from any point in the past 60 years,” said Ellis.

“Google is trying to have it both ways,” he said, as in, they want the beautiful simplicity of a brand like Apple and the utilitarian, we-get-it-all-done reputation of an Amazon. “They want to be the cool-looking — emphasis on ‘looking’ — visual culture, but also to be the widely-competent, vertically-integrated player in a number of different fields, which is a hard circle to square. I don’t think this logo is achieving that goal.”

Though the colors from the original Google logo remain in tact — which Ellis thinks is a good idea — he’s not sold on the notion that the average person would instantly associate that series of red, blue, green, and yellow with Google and not with, say, a box of Crayola crayons. “I would like to have my own focus group and ask, if you see these colors, do you think primary colors or do you think Google? and I think it would be an even split.” The colors don’t “feel like The Thing that makes it Google, the way there’s an IBM blue and a Coca-Cola red.”

The end result, he said, is “a version of good design that equates having no aspect of bad design in it.” It’s an achievement in inoffensiveness, not art. “Anything that’s well-designed is so because it appeals to some people and not to others. It’s audience-specific, and Google is trying very hard not to be audience-specific, so you have to rub off anything that would appeal to any specific audience. So you have a logo that is just about logo-ness. it just looks like a logo. And the trouble is, it doesn’t look like Google, it just looks like any corporate brand.”