It used to be website redesigns that saw the web rise in uproar. These days it’s the company rebrand that sees users everywhere reach for what Charlie Brooker once termed the pitchfork icon.
In the face of similar criticism, Gap backtracked and within days reverted back to its original logo. By contrast Airbnb stood fast in the face of widespread trolling (and comparison of its logo to assorted body parts). Coming out the other side, its rebrand was broadly seen as a success, and Airbnb won respect for sticking to its guns. Could the same happen with Uber?
An Asshole Turned on its Side
Perhaps the whole process of public revolt against design changes has become magnified by mobile. In what is an intensely personal medium after all, even moving from a broccoli green to a more piercing Hulk-esque hue can bring on the haters, as Spotify found last year.
Perhaps it’s the lack of warning around such changes that sets people off – and our instinctive disgust when a familiar icon on our home screen is replaced by one, in the case of Uber, described as an ‘asshole turned on its side’ by one commentator.
Amid all the hate, the company should at least be applauded for trying to do something radically different in this update. Maybe in its own way Uber was even trying to do an Airbnb – launching a new logo that would both distinguish it as well as create an instinctively recognisable symbol?
But if reports of Founder and CEO Travis Kalanick being intimately involved in the whole project, and even learning about kerning in the process don’t send shivers up the spine of designers everywhere, the three year timespan involved probably will.
Pacman with a Toothache
Of course, it’s all too easy for armchair commentators to shoot down a brave new logo, and obvious comparisons to the taxi hailing firm new identity ranged from pacman to various banking identities.
But none of this would matter if for one thing: If the sense or feeling it conveyed served its cause. And that of course would stem directly from the concept behind the design – normally a keen match with the values/mission/culture/story of the business.
And what is the concept behind Uber’s rebrand? Well, to start it is clearly one that leans strongly towards its identity as a tech firm, rather than one that speaks to consumers. It is one that will appeal to its techy staff, investors, and the wider tech community perhaps – but may well leave everyone else cold.
Compare Uber’s pacman with Google’s san-serif, fridge magnet-esque rebrand, which alongside its Alphabet children’s building blocks, sought to turn up the charm by making a tech titan seem disarmingly cute, childlike and in all ways friendly and non-threatening.
Half Man, Half Machine, All Flop
You can certainly question Google’s motives, but not so much the execution. With Uber, you can only wonder what meaning your average punter, or driver for that matter, will draw from the ‘bits’ and ‘atoms’ concept behind the rebrand. This thinking, if not also look (as another commentator pointed out) bears more than a little resemblance to the ominous Omnicorp business in Robocop.
Unfortunately, the similarities with OCP don’t end there – Inc has referenced the growing discontent among Uber’s workforce - and the similarity may only come back to haunt it when the next story emerges about its treatment of staff (‘Oh I see, we’re all just so many atoms?’) In short, Google and Facebook’s branding focuses on the consumer and what each service can do for them. The tech disappears into the background. But here we’re seeing Uber going full tech, full Robocop - and the human element is lost.
While on some level you have to take your hat off to the sheer singlemindedness of this rebrand, it raises more questions about the Ayn Rand-Silicon Valley-Singularity world of its founders than it answers. Especially for a business that is apparently only employing people as an interim measure before self-driving cars are finally legal.
And when that happens, perhaps we’ll see some real pitchforks come out, not just the usual trolling and comparison to various body parts that seem to accompany every major rebrand these days.