23 september 2012

When less isn’t more

THE LESS-IS-MORE DICTUM is having a comeback in graphic design. Braun’s design master of minimalism, Dieter Rams, seems to be the subject of every second magazine or newspaper article these days, and Rams-inspired ”good-design-is-as-little-design-as-possible” solutions are popping up all over the place.
We see the tendency within web design. A lot of websites which used to be very complex, and look complex, are now designed with the small screen of a smartphone in mind – which means that they will appear simple, often to the point of crudeness, on a regular computer screen. In many cases however, the ”less” is nothing but a facade which will in fact only force you to make a few extra clicks before you get to the ”more”.
Simplicity is also the common denominator of three remarkable logo redesigns which were launched this fall: the new logotypes of Microsoft, eBay, and USA Today. All three of them stirred a debate, and the returning question was: Is this even design? Does it make sense at all to talk about a logo when what you see is just four squares, or some coloured type, or a circle?

THESE CREATIONS MAY NOT LOOK LIKE A MILLION, but I am pretty sure they have cost one (and probably more) as they bear the signatures of some of the world’s biggest names within branding and graphic design. Pentagram’s Paula Scher designed the Microsoft logo. EBay’s new identity was created by US-based brand strategy and design consultants Lippincott. And USA Today has been working with Wolff Olins which must be getting used to having their work scrutinized as they were also the masterminds behind the branding of the 2012 London Olympics, including the Games’ much-discussed symbol and typography. A design concept which was not characterized by its simplicity, but rather by its diversity:

A LOT OF THINKING has obviously been done and an awful lot of words must have been used to convince Microsoft, eBay, and USA Today – three mammoth companies with worldwide reputations to safeguard – that following a path of extreme simplicity would be the right way to lead their invaluable brands into the future. Some of these words have probably been about the abundant opportunities for putting the simple shapes into use, like how the Microsoft squares can be animated, or the endless variations on the circular form which USA Today’s designers will now be expected to exert.
Sure enough, it can be a great thing for a design element to be simple and versatile. Just think of the Absolut vodka bottle, or the Nike swoosh, or – sorry, Microsoft, but the comparison is inevitable – the Apple.
However, what’s important is exactly what distinguishes the three examples I just mentioned: The shape has to be recognizable – and unusual enough to not easily be confused with other shapes.

I believe this is the main problem with the Microsoft squares. Thumbs up for the software giant’s ambitions of creating a whole visual universe which consists entirely of squares put together in different combinations, live tiles and all. It’s certainly a bold and interesting strategy. But I am skeptical as to whether a square made out of four smaller squares – a window, if you will – will be a characteristic enough shape to make people automatically associate it with a particular brand.

I HAVE SIMILAR RESERVATIONS about USA Today’s circle … which, one could fear, may be looking forward to an even more complicated existence than the Microsoft squares since the USA Today branding concept, as conceived by Wolff Olins, dictates for the circular shape to be interpreted in all different kinds of ways (thank you, Charles Apple, for the above examples). An alluring idea, but like TV host Stephen Colbert predicts in this hilariously funny clip, having to generate meaningful variations on the circle theme every day can become a nightmare for USA Today’s graphics department (even though the designers seem coy and optimistic at the moment, as illustrated below … and yes, that is Colbert to the left).
Moreover, the ironic paradox is that all these variations might eventually dilute and dissolve the so-called ”logo” until it is no longer recognizable.

THE FOUR COLOURED LETTERS that form the new eBay logo seem less controversial, partly because this redesign appears to be just surfing the Dieter-Rams-wave rather than trying to be unique and original, but most of all because a logo is probably not that important to a company like eBay. The old one was fun and cheap (a bit like the old Microsoft logo, by the way), and that’s certainly two good things to associate with eBay, and qualities which the new logo is lacking … but I find it hard to imagine that this redesign has the potential to scare away anyone looking for a good bargain.

COULD THIS LESS-IS-MORE REVIVAL be related to some kind of megatrend in our society, some new puritanism or even prudishness? I think we see many signs pointing in that direction, and if I’m right, I find it rather sad. Life should be fun. To quote one of our gurus from my academy years way back in the eighties, the American architect Robert Venturi, who has devoted his career to putting fun into architecture (one of his books is called Learning from Las Vegas):

”Less is not more. Less is a bore”.