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Friday, October 29, 2010

Gapgate and brand equity

Much Ado About Nothing (Or: Contemplating GapGate)

I’ll start by getting it out of the way immediately: I’m not a fan of what was the redesigned Gap logo. There, I said it… alongside about a gazillion others.

We’re all very upset

Fact is, I wasn’t a fan of their new approach to three letters and a square. Nope—just not feeling it. I do want to stress the critical importance of this whole thing, though. You see, we’re serious people, and we take serious things like this seriously. (Seriously.) Google “Gap logo” and you’ll find many, many other serious people with serious opinions on this newsworthy, and serious, issue.

Upon being asked for his opinion on this grave incident, Armin Vit (of Brand New) exclaimed, “Choosing Helvetica in 2010 is inexcusable.” And right he is! Helvetica has become so terribly gauche it’s hard to not feel pummeled, assaulted, and even outright violated in its presence. He continues, explaining that the typeface is “as bland as grilled chicken without salt and pepper.” True dat… true dat… I gotta say, though, those are fighting words,’vetica. You really going to take that?

Vit, and the many who are onside in castigating the new Gap logo-majig are quick to throw out insults from “bland” and “absurdly ubiquitous,” to “disastrous” and “lazy.” Fine enough; such aesthetic criticisms aren’t entirely off-base. Meanwhile, there’s little more gratifying than being able to disparage whatever new visual direction a major brand unveils.

Not to say we shouldn’t be talking, but…

The problem with all of these criticisms is threefold. First is that, when it comes to issues of taste, everything is subjective. Sure, the form is a little pedestrian, I’ll give you that. Let’s get real, though, it’s not like it’s a silhouette of Mother Teresa performing fellatio on the devil or anything. It’s just a utilitarian typeface next to a square.

The second thing that seems to be largely missing from all of this “discourse” is what boils down to pointless sentimentality around popular forms. Anything the Gap would have released was likely to cause some consternation. But as we witness with every Facebook redesign: the populace is as quick to forget what they once screamed “bloody murder” over as they are to initially share their colorful opinions.

“Let me tell you what I think about that there logo”

The other concern I have with these sorts of criticisms is that they’re largely uninformed. In spite of the many logos I’ve helped design, I have yet to find one that simply gets put into use, without being forced to endure the “insights” and passionate feedback of well-meaning CFOs, office administrators, aunts, uncles, second cousins and neighbors who had no involvement in the process up to the unveil. It seems that design criticism has met American Idol and, as a result, almost everyone readily lends an opinion in spite of lacking any explicit, or tacit, knowledge.

I recognize that this post is being housed on the AIGA site, and this suggests you, my dear reader, are likely a designer and therefore quite visually literate. But I feel inclined to ask: Did you read the brief for this logo? Are you aware of the strategic challenges Gap wanted to address in reworking it? Have you examined the plan for its integration in brand collateral?

My suspicion is that you probably didn’t read the brief. I’m also going to bet that you aren’t that sure of what they had hoped to achieve, or how they intended to roll it all out. Don’t worry; I’m not blaming you or anything. I too recoiled upon first seeing this logo. My point here is that we should all know better than this. Seeing any branded element out of context leaves us poorly equipped to pass judgment.

Gap’s serif logo (left) is here to stay after the redesigned version in Helvetica (right) was heavily criticized.

What if it had worked?

In spite of it not being my cup of tea, the redesign of the Gap logo was more legible than the previous incarnation; meanwhile, its slightly wider footprint might have lent some adaptability. Also, let’s not forget that the folks at Laird and Partners likely weren’t just “chucking shit around.” Their body of work indicates a strong sensibility, not to mention trust from a number of major brands. Could it be that they actually knew what they were doing?

Yes, the use of Helvetica felt a little staid, but it does harken back to the brand’s roots. Also, upon considering the brand’s nature: plain, practical and utilitarian, one might argue a certain suitability to the chosen treatment. Khakis, denim, plain T-shirts… these are all the domain of everyday basics. What more suitable typeface to align these items with than the “2x4 of typography”?

This, of course, says little of the implementation and rollout, which never got beyond its infancy. Given time it could have been integrated quite successfully into the brand, even in spite of its lack of “pizzazz.”

Bending to the collective will

I’d like to take a brief tangent and consider some other recent logo “disasters” that have resulted in so much media attention. Given a little distance, perhaps we can better examine the responses they met, and how they fared thereafter.

I don’t know Peter Arnell, but from the few articles I’ve read, I am left with the strong sensation that the dude spent a little too long sniffing the office Sharpies. (Alternately, he may just have a keen sense of how to get journalists to write about him.) My point here is that, once again, it wouldn’t be accurate to describe me as a “fan” or anything.

Arnell’s relatively recent approach to the Pepsi logo leaves me uninspired; yet, in use, it seems to function quite effectively. I say this in spite of the rather hysterically nonsensical “leaked” design document (link to PDF), which accompanied the new logo. Forgive my cynicism here: I simply can’t help but see this as much more than a 27-page publicity stunt masquerading as “creative genius.”

The notion that I find interesting here isn’t limited to the negative consumer reaction we see to these treatments and the attention generated in the press. I’m amused by the urgency with which these corporations have pulled back on their new directions. While Pepsi’s new approach just managed to escape the guillotine, and the associated hubbub has largely died down, the rebranded Tropicana box of 2009 didn’t fare quite as well. The company succumbed to the negative press, and killed the initiative rather hastily.

Excerpt from a document explaining the gravitational pull of the Pepsi logo.

Getting scared

The actual story in all of this, in my opinion, relates to the conservatism of both corporations and the general populace when it comes to design. You know, I hate to be the one who has to bring this up, but Arnell’s taking the cute little orange off a box of Tropicana isn’t exactly an international incident.

It’s easy to share one’s opinion in the digital space. (Whether such opinions are of much consequence is an altogether different discussion.) Nevertheless, here we find the masses online feeling the desperate need to opine on some subject—but preferably not one that might require any of that pesky “thinking” that real issues tend to demand. Social media has enabled us to “point and mock” en masse, but in this instance do little more.

This lambasting of logos (which I really think we should call “logo-basting”) is so fast, easy and fun that it’s almost becoming a digital pastime of sorts. “Hey Bob… look at how I changed the new AOL to read ‘LOL.’ Har, har, har… Isn’t it a hoot?” It only takes a few moments in Photoshop and a couple of snarky tweets, and we have a new meme on our hands.

Sadly, much like nerdy adolescents in high school, corporate decision makers seem quite sensitive to such criticism, in spite of how inconsequential these collective ramblings may be. Tropicana puts the stupid orange back on the box; Sun Chips takes the “noisy” biodegradable bag out of production, and Gap calls a mea culpa, making things altogether worse by proposing to crowdsource the whole deal.

Fury over Tropicana’s package redesign (right) prompted the company to go back to the orange-and-straw version.

We’re visual sissies

The now-old new Gap logo is milquetoast, but I wonder if that’s actually perfect, given that the populace is too: “Don’t take away our orange with a straw in it… we love our orange with a straw in it!” or, “If you keep that blue gradient in your logo, I’ll start a Twitter account to make fun of you, silly corporate dummy-faces!”

It’s not so much that the logo is aesthetically unexciting (or perhaps awkward) that’s the issue; it’s that we’re collectively a bunch of visual sissies when it comes to anything that might challenge our precious sensibilities and need for pretty, quaint, and traditional, packaging.

As designers we needn’t carry on about the overuse of Helvetica. It’s just not a big enough issue. Instead, I ask if we might challenge the populace to expand their visual sensibilities and ready themselves for a braver and more adventurous and challenging visual landscape.

(added because I had to)

My new logo

Somewhere in this, I wonder if we’re all missing something bigger… like the millions of dollars of publicity PepsiCo has generated by launching and retracting new logos and noisy chip bags. The folks at Gap certainly shouldn’t have to miss out on this party, and from the way they’re playing this, I get the feeling they aren’t.

Come to think of it, I don’t want to be left out of this either. It’s time to get out some paper, pencils and a copy of Illustrator, and redesign our agency’s logo too. Given how scared everyone is about a little Helvetica and a blue box, I figure I can get the front page of USA Today for our version.

What do I want in our new logo? Swastikas, aborted fetuses and rocket launchers. That’s right… rocket launchers.

About the Author: Eric Karjaluoto is a founding partner of the digital agency smashLAB and his work has been recognized by Time, the Lotus Awards and Icograda. In 2007 he spearheaded Design Can Change to unite designers and address climate change. smashLAB has also launched communities such as MakeFive and undrln. Eric writes about design, brands and experience at ideasonideas.com and has spoken at events for AIGA, SEGD and GDC. He recently released his first book, Speak Human: Outmarket the Big Guys by Getting Personal(www.speakhuman.com). He lives in Vancouver with his lovely wife and two delightful little boys.