Is rebrand bashing constructive, or counter creative?

Ben Greengrass takes issue with Design Twitter’s descent on the CIA, Burger King and General Motors rebrands, and thinks critics should take a step back.

Date
27 January 2021
Reading Time
5 minute read

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Protesters have stormed the US Capitol. American democracy is in tatters. A pandemic rages unchecked. And, oh, a government agency royally screwed up its redesign. This month has already been a big month in news, to be sure; but some of us, nevertheless, can’t stop complaining about how the redesign of the CIA rips off Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures LP cover.

Of course it’s also a big month for rebrands. The buns of Burger King now are rounder but minus the shine. The GM of General Motors dropped to lowercase and got illuminated. The CIA changed everything except the circular logo lock-up. Almost on cue, and within hours, Design Twitter had sorted each release into good, bad and ugly, and labeled them either too lazy or underwhelming. As for the CIA’s brand refresh, it was met with the kind of criticism hatched to send its creators straight into witness protection.

The plain fact is, we’ve seen it all before. As with every new major rebrand rollout, designers and self-appointed experts play a game of fastest-fingers-first and race to make the funniest comment on branding news sites or the wittiest take on Twitter. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for humorous critiques. But it’s a problem when the conversation doesn’t progress beyond cheap one-liners.

As designers, it seems, we just love to dole out opinions on rebrands with apparent ease but without real consideration. That’s why I’ve always steered away from any upfront, unwarranted, opinionated ‘slamming’ of a new rebrand.

We all know, or bloody well should, that a brand is much more than a logo. There are clients, briefs, business goals, budgets, research, systems, applications to think about. You get the picture. But our critiques often divorce the look and feel from the strategy that inspired it and the problem it’s trying to solve. You can take potshots at a rebrand all day long. What’s harder to do, though, is answer the following: If you got that brief, what would you have done differently?

“I’m all for humorous critiques. But it’s a problem when the conversation doesn’t progress beyond cheap one-liners.”

Ben Greengrass

Rebrands are downright scary. No agency or designer wants to be at the helm of a big company rebrand when it gets dragged onto social media. Clients already are risk-averse enough – and understandably so. After all, it’s their reputation that’s on the line. So think before you try to rack up points in the Twitterverse or whichever platform you prefer to use to gain clout.

My philosophy has always been to take a beat. Things look better in the morning. For instance, take the 2012 London Olympics brand by Wolff Olins and the backlash it received not only from the design industry but from the public at large. In hindsight, many were gobsmacked at how impactful it was both in its system and effectiveness. That widely reported hefty half-million quid the firm collected wasn’t merely to do a logo but to blow it out into vibrant applications that made the brand work as a cohesive success and contributed mightily to the triumph of the event. Another logo that took an initial beating upon its launch was Volkswagen’s, which ended up working extremely well once you saw it across its many touchpoints, especially in digital. Or consider Airbnb's new corporate logo in 2014, which sparked endless controversy on social media for looking like a vagina. But guess who was laughing all the way to the bank when the company went public last year and soared to a $100 billion valuation? No logo change necessary, I reckon. These rebrands have proven to become much stronger once they had time to live and breathe.

So here’s a novel idea – don’t comment at all. Maybe I’m feeling this way because a good chunk of my time these days is spent coaching, uplifting and rallying designers and newcomers in the design community. I go back to my mother’s favourite phrase: “‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Let’s have more empathy in our industry and just do the work. We’ve got bigger fish to fry. As designers, why aren’t we ready to hold ourselves to higher standards? Let’s face it; in these times of upheaval, uprising and world chaos, our design arrows can be sharpened to take aim at more important issues.

“Our design arrows can be sharpened to take aim at more important issues”

Ben Greengrass

What, then should young designers make of these brand bashings online? We get so hung up on whether something looks good or not that we’re missing camaraderie, empathy and unity within the business. An open forum for critique may sometimes be a good thing, but it can hurt creativity and perhaps make designers create to please Design Twitter instead of their client or, more importantly, their audience and their consumers. Don’t let the fear of criticism cramp your style. If something goes wrong, you can handle it.

In our own staff meeting, our lengthy discussion of the CIA rebrand led to a deeper dive into design’s messy intersection with politics; whether typefaces can be liberal or conservative; what does it mean for someone to have designed Punisher’s “skull” logo and the other symbols of hate that were paraded inside the US Capitol. To me, these conversations prove way more valuable than self-congratulatory takes on pure aesthetics. You’re far more likely to learn, provoke and challenge design culture than if you’re chasing likes with comments made in jest.

I doubt this column will lead any designer to stop bashing design on Twitter, but I do hope we at least stop to consider how our response to major developments in business, politics and culture can shape the perception of our own community.

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About the Author

Ben Greengrass

Ben Greengrass is the creative director of ThoughtMatter, a creative design agency that believes in using its skills to elevate issues that they deeply care about by helping businesses and institutions learn from and engage with the people they serve in more meaningful ways.

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