Suppose Uber —to pick a random example of a distinctly digital-era company—had been founded in 1909. Obviously it would have had a different business model (not involving a smartphone app), but let’s say it involved efficiently moving people from place to place. What, in those days, might have been this firm’s visual identity—its logo?
Perhaps just the company name, which would likely have been fussier: the Uber Personal Conveyance Concern, rendered in some rococo style along the lines of Coca-Cola’s script. Or maybe a densely detailed lithograph-style depiction of its headquarters, suggesting industrial might.
In reality Uber was founded in 2009, and by then the thinking about the meaning and purpose of a logo and other elements of a brand’s visual identity had evolved quite a bit. More remarkably, that thinking has changed dramatically since 2009, which was two years after the debut of the iPhone ushered in the age of the smartphone.
For starters, a logo isn’t just a name or an icon or other visual signature on company letterhead or a billboard or other promotional venue anymore. Take that device out of your pocket or bag and swipe through the screens, as you probably do many times a day anyway. You now carry dozens of brand icons wherever you go. “People are literally, physically interacting with those symbols in a way that they never did,” says Michael Bierut, partner in the prominent design firm Pentagram. For the Facebooks and Airbnbs and Snapchats and Ubers of the world in particular, he continues, that means “their customers are having a really, really intimate sort of relationship not just with those brands, but with the symbols that represent the brands.”
And by now, this reality transcends digital-centric companies: Almost any consumer-facing business, however analog its products or services, must reckon with a communication environment partly defined by app buttons and Twitter avatars. This is one reason that brand identities—as designers and their clients refer to the larger set of visual and verbal signifiers that include a logo—have become ubiquitous and embedded in our lives.
At the same time, the digital era has helped make the identity systems more volatile, with frequent stylistic updates or outright branding do-overs, often drawing levels of public response that earlier generations of designers would have found unfathomable. The changes that led to this moment happened gradually, and then seemingly all at once. As a result, the stakes for the modern corporate logo have never been higher.
Visual communication is as old as the caves of Lascaux, and you can trace the design of symbols to represent groups to aristocratic family crests or the red cross of a Crusader. In early commercial contexts, a unique mark helped customers distinguish one maker’s wares from another in increasingly impersonal and far-flung marketplaces. That basic notion accelerated through the industrial age, influenced by new technologies from lithography to color printing. Bass Ale’s red-triangle mark is often credited as the first commercial logo, trademarked in the 1870s (and famously visible in Édouard Manet’s 1882 painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère).
Around the mid-20th century, the rather practical notion of a trademark morphed into a more abstract idea of “corporate identity”—positioning the logo and other aspects of a company’s visual communication as both capturing the essence of a brand and adding value to it. This was partly a function of a more professionalized design community that embraced modernist aesthetics executed with quasi-industrial rigor. And that era produced a startling number of now-iconic logos, many created by a handful of firms and individuals.
Raymond Loewy is best known for breakthrough industrial design (Studebakers, the Sears Roebuck and Co. Coldspot refrigerator, the Greyhound bus, and many more)—and for convincing his clients that, as he once put it, “good appearance was a salable commodity.” This belief in the bottom-line payoff of design and style carried over into graphic work from the Lucky Strike box to the livery of Air Force One, as well as logos for Shell, Exxon, and the U.S. Post Office. Saul Bass (also famous for movie-poster and title-sequence work) created lasting logos for Bell Telephone, the Girl Scouts, Minolta, and United Airlines, among others. Chermayeff & Geismar designed durable identities for Mobil, NBC, PBS, Chase, and others. And perhaps the most celebrated figure of this corporate-design golden age, Paul Rand, created scores of logos for the likes of IBM, UPS, Westinghouse, and Yale.
Even today, many of these logos seem “pretty much indestructible,” says Jerry Kuyper, a designer who worked with Bass on the AT&T globe icon that replaced the Bell logo in the early 1980s and has since designed identities for Cisco, Cigna, and others. That era essentially codified logo-thinking: distinct, memorable, flexible, simple. “There were no gradations, no fine lines; they really looked like they’d been created with a Magic Marker—and many of them were,” he says, laughing. “At least the initial sketches.” There were practical reasons for avoiding a mark that depended on lots of colors, gradients, or intricate detail: It would need to work in low-quality black-and-white printing such as the phone book, classified ads in newspapers, or a fax.
Of course such contexts hardly matter now. Creating or reproducing multicolor gradations or complex effects is no problem in the digital environment, observes Bill Gardner, the president of Gardner Design in Wichita. (For 15 years he has operated the popular site Logolounge.com, obsessively tracking business identity changes and trends, large and small.) Thus, for example, the chromatic color field that makes Instagram’s current icon pop on your phone.
That’s just the latest manifestation of how changing technology has influenced identity design. A couple of decades ago, when computers allowed designers to easily add shadows and highlights and dimensionality to logos, they did—revising, for instance, Rand’s flat UPS logo with 3D sparkle. A shift from print-oriented color processes (responding to external light) to screen-oriented color (lit from behind, and thus more intense) enabled tricks like transparency and gradients. MSN.com’s early 2000s logo, a butterfly with complicated color overlaps, raised eyebrows among designers at the time, who pointed out how hard it would be to print. “But Microsoft was saying, ‘We’re not going to print it. MSN lives in an entirely digital world,’ ” Gardner says.
Sagi Haviv, a partner in the firm now known as Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, says designers there still make initial sketches in black and white, with pen or pencil on paper. For all that’s changed since the days when his partners founded the business, he argues, certain fundamentals—simplicity in particular—have not. Many of their logos, shaped partly by the constraints of mid-20th-century production, “thrive in digital media, in applications that they could have never predicted,” Haviv says.
Still, he concedes that much has changed since that first heyday of identity design, which involved a particular mix of artistry and corporate-style exactitude. Back then, whether a logo was simply a “wordmark” (like Rand’s IBM, distinctly constructed of stripes) or involved a symbol (like Chermayeff & Geismar’s abstract octagon for Chase), the designer would also produce a thick “standards manual,” painstakingly delineating the precise details of how the mark could be used. For instance, one IBM manual specified, down to the pica, the proper placement of the mark on an internal mail envelope. “That was so part of that era,” says Dan Boyarski, a professor in the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University. “You went to the standards manual to learn the dos and don’ts with this logo and with this identity system.”
These manuals may have been particularly important in an era when rolling out a new logo was largely associated with massive logistical feats such as repainting thousands of trucks or airplanes, or replacing signage on gas stations from coast to coast. Standards of course persist, but these systems are generally more flexible today to deal with a constantly changing media landscape. (The manuals have become a curiosity. In fact, a recent Kickstarter campaign raised money to reprint the 244-page Chermayeff & Geismar 1977 visual standards guide for the Environmental Protection Agency.)
But perhaps the manuals were also a side effect of a harder-to-quantify characteristic of that era: the design agency as quasi-shamanistic problem solver, offering expertise in a nascent field its clients were just beginning to grasp. (“Good design is good business,” IBM president Thomas J. Watson Jr. declared in a 1973 speech that designers still love to reference.) Rand in particular was notorious for presenting a single solution, the way a doctor presents a diagnosis and treatment. “I asked him if he would come up with a few options,” one 1980s client later recalled. “And he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me … If you want options, go talk to other people.’ ” Rand got the job and was paid $100,000 to design a logo for personal-computer startup Next, which that client, Steve Jobs, accepted.
Few designers could get away with that even then, but it’s a fair bet that none could today. As a point of contrast, consider the logo of one of the most talked-about tech companies right now: Snapchat. The founder drew the ghost symbol himself, and reportedly chose its background color by simply scrolling through the app store and noticing there weren’t many companies using yellow.
One of the brands credited with breaking down those strict prescriptive hierarchies and setting up a different sort of future for the logo in the digital age is Nike. But this wasn’t really about its famous Swoosh symbol, which Nike founder Phil Knight famously had a lukewarm reaction to the first time he saw it, argues Debbie Millman, chair of the School of Visual Arts’ Masters in Branding program and host of the podcast Design Matters.
“It’s not the mark,” she says. “It’s the marketing.” The Swoosh would not be so recognizable without millions of dollars of creative firepower poured into advertising and promotion over the decades. That, Millman continues, is what allowed it to attain the holy grail for a commercial symbol: an ability to stand on its own outside the usual “logo lockup” pairing with a company name, yet remain recognizable and meaningful.
The rise of increasingly sophisticated branding turbocharged and reinvented something the modernists had believed—a logo, in icon form or otherwise, acquired meaning only from its associations. Haviv, of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, says the chairman of Chase “hated” the blue octagon abstraction the firm designed in the mid-1950s: “He said, ‘Well, what the hell does it mean?’ ” But six months later the chairman was wearing Chase octagon cuff links.
“It had become the representation of the bank,” Haviv says, “and he felt a sense of ownership.” The symbol doesn’t mean anything until that association forms. Ask people to name a favorite logo, and they’ll answer with the names of companies they patronize or respect, such as Nike, Apple, FedEx, or Amazon. “They’ll never say Enron,” Haviv concludes, “even though Enron had a great logo, designed by one of the most famous designers.” (The ubiquitous Paul Rand, in fact.)
Digital culture, from the early web days on, has heightened both the challenges and opportunities of crafting a distinct corporate identity, even (or perhaps especially) one that involved a purely abstract symbol. On the one hand, it’s easier to train a consumer to recognize a wordmark that includes a company name; on the other, a longer name or complex logo may be hard to recognize or even discern when it’s crunched all the way down to a three-eighths-inch square on an app or a social media avatar. Some can resolve this by using an element of a wordmark—Facebook’s lowercase “f,” on its famous blue background, is familiar enough to pull this off. But if you look at your phone, you’ll probably notice quite a few symbols, many of them pretty abstract. “Every one of those things is an attempt to invent a new letter of the alphabet, in a way,” says Pentagram’s Bierut.
This is a project that normally takes years, if not decades, but it also has distinct payoffs for expansive or global businesses. Starbucks’ most recent redesign, in 2011, dropped all words from its logo in favor of a more stylized version of its long-standing mermaid figure; in theory, that frees the mark up to work more easily anywhere in the world—customers don’t need to be able to read Western letters—with associations no longer limited to coffee. Pentagram’s recent update of Mastercard moved the company name off and below its familiar interlocking circles, opening up possibilities for using that symbol outside the lockup.
Given the reality that there are only so many abstract shapes and colors to work with, it can feel almost as if “you could hand out these things at random,” as Bierut puts it. He mentions Airbnb’s redesign in 2015, which many people mocked on social media for resembling genitalia. “I don’t remember them ever saying that was supposed to look like something,” he says. “I think they said, ‘Here are the values we stand for, and from now on this is the flag under which we will march on our way to promote those values.’ It could almost be anything on the flag.”
Digital technology has brought something else to the corporate-identity process: the crowd. Those modernist design giants never had to contend with the kind of Internet-fueled backlash that can turn a redesign into something curiously close to a pop culture event. No brand, for instance, wants to endure the Tropicana debacle of 2009. In an attempt to “evolve” the juice brand “into a more current or modern state,” as the company’s designer put it at the time, a redesign dropped Tropicana’s longtime orange-with-a-straw-in-it logo in favor of a somewhat abstract image of juice in a glass and a sans serif font. Complaint emails poured in, sales plunged 20%, and the un-modern logo was promptly restored. A year later, Gap withdrew a planned redesign just days after announcing it, when it was roasted on Facebook and Twitter. (As Vanity Fair put it at the time, “The logo passed after a brief and ignominious battle with stage IV banality.”)
By now any company pushing a new logo knows that the design will be widely scrutinized. And that may be acutely true for a digital-dependent company like Uber. “There’s a personal relationship that people have with their phones,” says Shalin Amin, Uber’s director of design, product, and brand. “What they put on their home screen vs. the second screen—it’s almost like somebody’s house, where you place your furniture. And all of a sudden somebody comes in to change your couch.”
In its eight or so years of existence, Uber has cycled through a couple of logos, essentially varying treatments of the letter “U.” But the identity scheme it unveiled in 2016 is meant to be “something that better suited us for the next 10, 15 years,” Amin says. Basically it’s a small rectangle within a circle, the two geometric elements connected by a thin line, a pure and simple symbol the company hopes will work in global markets where the U letterform has no resonance.
In contrast to the mid-century scenario in which an outside agency presents a solution with a decisive “ta-da,” Uber followed what has become a more typical approach for Silicon Valley tech-centric firms in particular: a long, iterative process, spiked with extensive user research, and led from within. “We live and breathe the brand,” Amin says. The Uber glyph, he explains, is an extension of the internal concept of linking bits and atoms: The rectangle is a bit; the circle is the physical world.
Does any user get that? That’s probably the wrong question. Amin readily agrees that the new mark’s fate will depend on how it’s filled with meaning over time. What Uber stands for (visionary convenience or blithe ruthlessness) may be up for debate at the moment, but the business’s future does not depend on the logo. As in 1959, or 1909, it’s the other way around.
The shift to more internally driven redesigns is a reflection of a broader trend in Silicon Valley. “Design is so fundamental to the way these businesses actually operate,” says David Turner, cofounder of San Francisco design agency Turner Duckworth, which created Amazon’s now 20-year-old logo, and has updated the identities of brands as venerable as Coca-Cola and Levi’s. “They build really robust internal design teams. And they can pay them a lot of money. I know, because they’re always trying to poach my people!”
Turner points out that more purely digital companies can actually revise their logo schemes much more easily than ever. If you really rely on a particular app, and its visual presentation changes radically (as, say, Instagram’s did), you’ll soon adjust. And this may reflect a more significant shift: Many tech companies aren’t just design-centric, they’re interaction-design-centric. They focus heavily on the graphical user interfaces that shape the way we interact with computers, the Internet, mobile apps.
In an information-design environment, clarity rules. A few years ago, for instance, Apple thoroughly revised the icons in its mobile operating system to do away with “skeuomorphs”—symbols that mimicked analog-world contexts, such a wood-shelf “newsstand” or a yellow pad for “notes”—in favor of flatter and simpler images. You can see the influence of this shift in Instagram’s logo, which switched from a fairly detailed depiction of an instant camera to the more abstract version it uses today.
Applying interaction-design thinking to identity design results in logos that can be “highly logical, very stripped down,” Turner says. “But I think what’s starting to happen is you’re starting to lose personality. You’re losing what brands are all about, which is connecting to human emotion.” And yet, you can see why interaction-design trends would influence logos now: We interact with them. For a digital-centric company, a simple, clear, easy-to-memorize symbol isn’t just a potentially valuable branding element. It’s actually functional.
The digital environment is not the only place soaked in logos in the 21st century. We now expect every coffee shop, indie band, microbrewery, food truck, or two-person tech startup to have a cool visual identity. And that’s not just in the U.S. Sixty years after the logo revolution his partners helped lead, Haviv says, it’s harder to come up with something truly original. His firm is reminded of this every time it turns a new creation over to the legal department to search for similar marks around the globe, and the lawyers find a slew of possible precedents. “It’s a humbling moment, for any designer,” he says.
Years ago, says Logolounge founder Gardner, designers studied one another’s work in thick printed annual roundups. Today, through design sites or social media, a big-shot designer can see the latest identity innovation from an up-and-comer on the other side of the planet, and vice versa. Logolounge alone now offers a virtual library of more than 265,000 logos. “It’s hard to even say ‘This is a trend,’ ” Gardner continues, “because things become old hat so quickly.” And because identities “tend to look dusty faster,” as SVA’s Millman puts it, there’s even more temptation to change, update, or revise them more quickly. This cuts against one of the elements that helps us see any particular design as truly iconic: the passage of time.
But it’s not just designers and their clients who see and interact with more logos and brand design than ever. It’s the rest of us too. And in what may be the most surprising development in modern identity design, Millman suggests we’re increasingly learning how to do it ourselves—“using the tenets of branding that have been established in professional circles, to create symbols for movements.” She points to examples like Black Lives Matter, the Peace for Paris symbol that went viral after terrorist attacks in that city, and even the pink pussy hat, which got a lot of attention for its prominence in the women’s marches that occurred after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
“Those are all logos,” she argues. “They’re symbols that telegraph a movement, that bring people together who share values and a vision and a mission. And that’s all branding.” Perhaps this is like hearing another language so frequently you start to pick it up by osmosis. “Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” Millman says, “it’s just a consequence of our times.” In fact, she names the pussy hat as the most potent “brand” symbol of the past year. “It was a new shape. It was a new form. It was utilizing a color. It didn’t have any language,” she says. “It’s sort of a perfect mark.”
A version of this article appears in the June 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline "The Most Important Quarter-Inch in Business."