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Yahoo: 30 Days of Logos, and One Huge Controversy

Posted by Rebecca Blake on September 23, 2013

Yahoo logo © YahooYahoo’s unveiling of its new logo unleashed a firestorm of criticism and scorn from across the board, from designers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, ad agency executives, CEOs, and just about the entire Twitterverse. To an extent, they asked for it; for the month preceding the unveiling, Yahoo coyly released a new logo redesign daily. The teasers were generally unexciting; as Kevin Farnham and Geoff Katz (the designers of the original Yahoo logo) pointed out in AdAge, “…some of them could have used a random font generator.” Mark Kingsley on RockPaperInk speculated that the 29 days of logos resembled the efforts of  “an inexperienced designer searching for the magic typeface.”

Even though the 29 predecessors set the bar fairly low, the final logo revealed on Day 30 failed to impress most (one of the rare exceptions being an enthusiastic review on Fast Company). Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer’s Tmblr post on the design process added to the ire. In her post, she described how, “one weekend this summer, I rolled up my sleeves and dove into the trenches with our logo design team,” evoking for many logo designers bad memories of micromanagement from clients with a knack for Adobe Illustrator.

She continued with a list of criteria she and her design team were striving to meet, including, “mathematical consistency,” and results that met their internal polling of Yahoo employees. Designer and educator, Christopher Murphy, described Mayer’s post as superficial and revealing an overweening hubris that completely underestimated the design process. It didn’t help that many designers felt a logo iteration by Yahoo intern, Max Ma, was not only far stronger than the final chosen logo, but didn’t even make the cut to be one of the, “29.”

The new logo is based on Optima, Hermann Zapf’s elegant humanist sans serif. The largest complaint from typographers is that the logo word mark is badly kerned. Additionally, the fuzziness of Optima at small sizes, the unsuitability of Optima as a tech company logo font, and the dated look of a subtle bevel applied to the letterforms were pointed out in article after article. A video rationalization of the logo, constructed as an animated blueprint, came under withering attack as nonsensical post-design justification, and was lampooned repeatedly.

The “mathematical consistency” heralded by Mayers was debunked by designer and educator, Glenn Fleishman, as a “ridiculous notion:” “The only type designs that are "mathematically consistent" are used for computer-readable purposes…All other faces…are designed for optical consistency.” Optima itself defies Mayers’ goal of “mathematical consistency,” since it was not designed for mathematical precision, but rather was based on Renaissance-era stone carvings.

Many felt that the real flaw in the Yahoo logo unveiling was less in the design of the logo itself, but in the strategy (or lack thereof) behind the brand development. Oliver Reichenstein wrote in his cutting critique, “Logo, Bullshit & Co.,” “Brand design follows brand management, not the other way around… For a brand like Yahoo there is something more important than spacing, kerning, colors... It’s gaining trust.”  Margot Bushnaq on Brand Bucket outlined several mistakes Yahoo made in taking a “lean branding approach:” they designed in isolation, overhyped the rebranding, got stuck in details, and thought too small. Steve Cody spoke for many when he described Yahoo’s effort as not letting the right people do the right jobs: “creative design specialists… not engineers.”

But is the Yahoo logo an unqualified failure? For some designers and business leaders, no. Armin Vit on Brand New described the logo as a disappointment after the expectations raised by the 30-day rollout, but feels that the word mark itself is “fairly nice.”John Maeda, President of Rhode Island School of Design, concludes that in a digital age, companies are distinguished by their product and experience rather than through brand identity alone, and commended Mayers for her visibility, making her, “the perfect living logo.” Mark Kingsley in his article, “Malcontent,” pointed out that Mayers and the Yahoo logo design team “did do pretty much everything more recognized designers would do” in designing the new logo. He speculates that the ire over the logo stems from “the fear that what we once thought as our special ability isn't so special after all.”

Perhaps the most thoughtful response came from UK designer Mark Collins on his blog, Pixxel. Titled “Be nicer,” the article laments the vitriol which the design community unleashes on design it deems substandard. Collins writes, “When commenting on design always try to imagine the designer(s) that created it is in the same room as you. You’re speaking directly to them; human-to-human.”

The article is something of a surprise coming from Collins; he rarely minces words in his acerbic, often funny, on-target articles. As he points out at the outset, he’s frequently guilty of what he preaches. But he nails the instinct to eviscerate when he states that, “the majority of those making negative comments are simply following the voice of the few in a bid to be accepted.” And as he concludes, ultimately only time will tell if a design is truly effective.

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