Everyone Has An Opinion
The past couple years have been fun as a designer. Lots of big, important corporate rebrands have been unveiled, some to more applause than others. For the design community these are great opportunities to discuss the ever evolving design landscape, give feedback on nerdy details, and hopefully gain some insight into how different professionals solve complex communication problems.
Lately, however, I have been struck by how fraught the conversation has become with the trollish, uninformed design critiques that seem to permeate the rest of the internet these days. And it isn’t just poorly monitored comments sections stinking up the place; tech rag Gizmodo gave this elucidatory review of the recent Uber brand update. More recently the internet has been in an uproar over the new Instagram branding, so much so that even the New York Times gave space to marvel at the firestorm.
As discussions about design and branding become fodder for the breakneck pace of content creation demanded by the public, we designers are becoming confronted more and more with armchair designers that sometimes take the form of our clients. Design has always been subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect, the cognitive bias where unskilled persons overestimate their expertise in a subject, but it’s amplified through the echo chamber of social media and the blogosphere.
A Closer Look At Design Critiques
Let’s deconstruct one of the most common “critiques” I’ve noticed with regards to many recent logo updates. A person looks at a new logo on Twitter and says, “This is bad because my 4-year-old could draw it in 5 seconds.” The implication here is that a simple logo is easy to make, therefore it required little skill, thus it holds little value and is Bad. By that logic, Moby Dick is only a good book because it has lots of pages. A professional designer or marketer knows that simple marks are incredibly effective in branding. Simple is elegant, timeless, easy to reproduce, and, most importantly, easy to remember.
Let’s look at the new Instagram icon, the most recent brand update to hit the net and possibly the most controversial. You’ll note that I said icon, not logo, because indeed this is not the Instagram logo, nor was the previous version. The new icon has drawn criticism along these same lines; too simple, doesn’t look enough like the old icon. On its face, most designers disagree with this critique. It IS simpler, and that’s a good thing, because it becomes easier to recognize quickly and at smaller sizes. The previous one relied heavily on skeuomorphic design, a trend which has some merits but has fallen rather dramatically out of fashion. The icon needed a refresh, and now it falls much more in line with how Instagram sees itself moving forward; as more of a utility, an indispensable tool for connecting and sharing.
There is a caveat, however. While the “it’s simple” critique offers little to the overall design discussion, it offers some important subtext that we designers need to queue into when trying to have…
Honest Design Discussions With Clients
It is our job as designers to educate everyone we work with on design because everyone, from project managers to clients to sales reps, influences design. And because we are in the job of connecting people and of communicating ideas, when someone says “it’s too simple” we need to step back and try to be objective.
With Instagram, most users experienced the icon for the first time when they updated the app on their devices. In this context, the new icon blends with the rest of the UI more than the previous icon, especially on Apple devices. So while a designer may disagree that it’s too simple, when looking from the users perspective we can see how it feels a bit ‘samey’.
So here is where we see one of the strengths of the old icon; it had a very unique look. But uniqueness is not the only consideration when building a brand, and as designers we are tasked with balancing many, many requirements for a project. The team at Instagram had very specific goals with this redesign, and most of us in the design community agree that they got it pretty much right. Time will tell how effective all the changes will be.
Having frank, open discussions with clients is critical for identifying possible issues with a new identity like the ‘sameness’ of the Instagram icon. It’s also critical in helping give a client a more holistic view of the project, giving them a better insight into the design process and how a solution like this solves more design issues than simply being cool looking and unique. As the design process becomes an increasingly public discussion, it is more important than ever to work to educate our clients and ourselves. Every design decision needs to have a reason. Without a reason, it isn’t design, and we open ourselves up to being trolled on Twitter. The worst of all fates.