Written by CalArts MFA graphic designer, Tim Belonax.
On October 4th, the sky was blue. Birds were singing. Babies were cooing. Dreams were dreamed. Limits were nowhere in sight. Families sat down to dinner. On October 5th, the clouds came in, billowing overhead. The crisp blue sky shifted to a dark indigo. Alarms rang out. Sirens filled the air. Primal howls of dogs were drowned out by the shrieks of innocent babes. The Earth shook and fire poured from the heavens. Anguish, all-consuming, burst through every orifice, human and digital. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Gmail were overwhelmed. Our modern world couldn’t save itself from the injustice, the horror of such a catastrophe. On October 5th, the Gap launched its new logo.
Shock of “the new” was quickly overwhelmed by the disgust of many. The gag-reflex of design and advertising blogs immediately spewed bile upon the logo, clogging the comments section of websites. The backlash, growing by the Tweet, was soon covered by mainstream news sources, officially christening the situation a fiasco. What had this maelstrom wrought? Which event was the focus—the Gap’s new logo or the design community’s tantrum over it?
Before this moment, the Gap garnered little attention for its life-in-khakis attitude. They produced cute commercials and billboards with celebrities hawking sweaters and scarves. The Gap wasn’t as alluring as American Apparel’s eroticism or Diesel’s stupidity. Their style had become boring—neutral, on a good day. The move away from their current logo signaled an important shift in the future of the company. This was a long-term decision, not the season’s latest fashion.
Logos for enormous brands aren’t designed overnight, even if some judge the final form to appear as such. The qualities of a logo should be defined by the company it represents. In the case of the Gap logo, the mismanagement of its creation and dissemination defined the piece as a failure. By kowtowing to online ridicule, the Gap weakened its own brand more than a single ugly logo ever could. The Gap’s knee-jerk reaction to the online uproar confirmed the company’s lack of social-networking knowledge and design ethics. Contrary to popular belief, companies don’t own their brands. Those exist within culture, defined by how people perceive a company. Other institutions have weathered such public aesthetic backlash. The Eiffel Tower was deemed a monstrosity at its birth in 1889. While not technically a company, the architects, engineers and policymakers that birthed the Eiffel Tower stood by their creation. It became such a symbol of Parisian pride that its planned disassembly in 1909 (it wasn’t meant to be permanent) was reversed. The monument is now the most visited in the world. Most recently, London’s logo for the 2012 Olympic games has been called many things worse than “ugly” (“seizure-inducing” being one). London’s Olympic committee as well as the mark’s designers, international branding agency Wolff Olins, backed their design with courage and pride. Since its release in 2007, Wolff Olins continues to define the look of the Olympic Games for London’s future. How could a logo representing the pride of an entire nation be received with such hatred yet still survive? No one said you needed a backbone to work in design, but should such a request need to be made?
To those in the design community, the fervor over the Gap logo marked the continuation of an online trend, both powerful and embarrassing. The harsh critiques of design in blogs can boarder on rabid. For every thoughtful, well-thought piece of criticism, there are one-hundred-times the amount of unreadable responses. A recent redesign rejected with the aid of the design community belonged to Tropicana. In 2009, the juice-maker released new packaging designs. The clean, European-inspired carton with orange-peel emulating cap immediately caused an uproar online. The move was dubbed “bad design” for the cartons mishandling of information, cold aesthetic, and a further laundry list of “design” infractions. The momentum online spilled over into the grocery aisle. Tropicana’s sales dropped off after the new cartons were placed in stores—consumers had spoken. The new designs were trashed and replaced by the originals. The Gap wasn’t so lucky.
Before the logo could be utilized in any way, shape or form, it was deemed unacceptable. Similar to Tropicana, the negativity originated from the web. Designers fought back through blogs and other online venues, even going so far as designing new logos for free. Surely a designer, lacking any brief from the company or knowledge of its internal structure, could create a more appropriate mark and do it all within a set of design ethics. This pompous air of designers was only overshadowed by their whining antics. A Twitter account personifying the logo was even created, bringing their childish bullying to a new, self-reflexive low.
Our actions online and offline reflect us. The anonymity of the web grants a level playing field to comment (almost) without repercussion. It doesn’t preclude many from participating without forethought or manners commonly used in face-to-face interactions. This behavior isn’t unique to designers online, but when the spirit of a profession questions its own place in business or society, it should consider how it represents itself and whether it deserves to be regarded as anything more than what it releases into the world. There are far greater lessons to be learned from the Gap’s latest logo than those of aesthetics, but it’s a place to start.