Published on
Published in
Brighton, England

Several people are outraged

The new logo for Slack.
The new logo for Slack. Image: Pentagram.

Slack has a new logo, and in a society fuelled by outrage, everyone hates it.

Before addressing the relative merits of the logo, we should applaud Slack for how they introduced this change. Their announcement was clear, concise and avoided the usual post-rationalisation that accompanies such an unveiling. Who could forget how Twitter announced their new logo in 2012 (emphasis added):

This bird is crafted purely from three sets of overlapping circles – similar to how your networks, interests and ideas connect and intersect with peers and friends. Whether soaring high above the earth to take in a broad view, or flocking with other birds to achieve a common purpose, a bird in flight is the ultimate representation of freedom, hope and limitless possibility.

Dear God. 2012 seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?

Slack avoided grandiose statements and stuck to the facts: the previous 11-colour logo was too complicated and easy to get wrong, and the alternative versions they created weakened the brand. While some redesigns are undertaken purely for the sake of change (due to new leadership, a period of bad press, or sometimes both) the reasons Slack gave seem entirely plausible.

However, for some, the new logo provoked a degree of anger. In their mind, the distinctive plaid pattern shouldn’t have been ditched, and the revised icon departs too far from the original octothorpe.

In his initial comments regarding the announcement, John Gruber noted:

I guessed before this blog post even revealed it that their new identity was done by Pentagram. What Slack needed was a refinement of their existing design. Identify what was good, fix what was bad. What Pentagram seems to do these days, though, is throw babies out with the branding bath water. They only build new identities; they don’t tweak existing ones.

I’ve often had the same experience as John. A company reveals a new logo that provokes feelings of despair or indifference; I suspect Pentagram’s involvement and am soon proven right. He cites Pentagram’s work for the Library of Congress, but I would add their rebrand of John Lewis to the list of thrown babies as well.

Could mine, John’s and others reaction be attributed to confirmation bias?

Each of these projects was led by a different designer (Paula Scher for the Library of Congress, Harry Pearce for the John Lewis Partnership, Michael Bierut for Slack) and it was only six months ago that I included Pentagram’s work for American Express in a post about subtle brand refinements. Looking through their portfolio, I notice they designed the logo for nearby University of Sussex, for which I’ve long appreciated its ‘US’ ligature. As this project never faced a barrage of opinion on Twitter, it never featured in my understanding of Pentagram’s output.

8 design concepts for the new Slack logo.
A range of possibilities Pentagram explored for the new identity. Image: Pentagram.

In a second post, John reviewed the range of alternative possibilities Pentagram display on their overview of the project:

If I were on Slack’s marketing team and Pentagram showed me these proposals, I’d look around the room for hidden cameras, presuming that I was being pranked. If I weren’t being pranked, I’d be furious, because this is the oldest trick in the designer’s book – making one real proposal and then a bunch of throwaway garbage proposals to create the illusion of multiple directions for the client to choose from, and assuming the rube client will happily accept the real one and consider themselves smart for knowing which one was the best.

I don’t entirely disagree with John’s assessment. Slack’s announcement mentioned they wanted to evolve their existing logo, so who was the audience for these alternatives? Cynics would have you believe Pentagram created them to help Slack part with more of their cash, but maybe these were the result of a divergent design activity and quickly discarded. Unfortunately, we don’t know how much importance we should give to these proposals, or what role they played in the design process.

John’s criticism reminded me of Paul Rand’s comments to Steve Jobs on presenting the Next logo. When asked what it was like working with Rand, Jobs said:

I asked him if he would come up with a few options, and he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people.’

That’s not to say Rand didn’t explore alternative options, he just kept them to himself. The problem is not that these alternatives exist, but that Pentagram presented them without sufficient context. In a society seeking greater transparency – yet all too quick to dismiss the work of designers – we ought to be more mindful about how such artefacts are communicated.

I also wonder if John’s familiarity with Slack’s CEO Stuart Butterfield meant he felt the pain of this change more keenly than he would have done otherwise. Butterfield’s previous product, Flickr, is noted for its irreverent personality and a brand strong enough to avoid an afternoon redesign by Yahoo’s Marisa Mayer and then survive a period of ownership under Verizon.

But Slack is not Flickr. Looking to trade publicly and facing competition from Microsoft, Slack’s customers are primarily within the enterprise market. Like Twitter’s bird losing its cute quiff forced us to recognise its aspirations to become the next Facebook, early adopters of Slack need to acknowledge that it’s just another technology company, albeit one with a well-conceived tone of voice.

The most disappointing aspect of Slack’s new logo is that it looks like that of every other technology company. Having shed their glossy bubbles and esoteric typefaces, most have now settled upon a combination of primary colours and a stark geometric sans with simple, open letterforms. A broader critique would ask why technology brands tend toward such a childish and infantile appearance.

You've Probably Heard of Slack

With its bright colours, simple shapes and short sentences spoken slowly, this introduction to Slack wouldn’t look out of place on an episode of Sesame Street.

Combating software’s reputation for being difficult to use, it’s understandable why designers reach for familiar and straightforward forms. Given customers have little interaction with the people behind these products, an approachable and friendly appearance can help these faceless companies appear more human. But at a certain point it becomes condescending. Then again, when people resort to comparing logos to Swastikas or genitalia, treating us like children seems like an entirely reasonable response.

With thanks to Jon Roobottom for feedback on an earlier draft of this post.