Saturday, 4 April 2009

The ugliest logo ever, but maybe it makes sense

Logo creation is a thankless task. Almost all of the interesting shapes and doodles were trademarked years ago. Unless you have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on artists and lawyers, and a lot of time, you usually settle on using your company name with no artwork at all.

Or you can take the approach adopted by the newly-formed Symbian Foundation, keeper of the Symbian OS:

Yes, that's really the new Symbian logo. I guarantee no one's going to sue them for it, unless it's the producers of the movie Juno:

I've already gone through a couple of stages of reaction to the logo. The first was horror. Not only is the font something out of 1974, but the color is one of the least popular in the world (step outside and count how many yellow cars you can see, or click here or here). I know I've seen uglier logos in the past, but I can't remember where, probably because I tried to block out the memory.

The discussion on All About Symbian has been amusing (link).

Once I got over my reaction, I reminded myself that the folks at Symbian are smart and very deliberate. Let's assume they have a good reason for choosing this logo. What would it be, and what would it tell us about the company and its business strategy?

The new Symbian is an open source software project. They need to appeal to open source developers, many of whom have a reflexive hatred toward slick and calculated marketing. After all, these are the sort of folks who, when allowed to choose their own logos, spontaneously chose a fat, stoned-looking penguin and a drunken ox:

The GNU Gnu Head and Tux the Linux penguin (link)
Tux drawn by Gnu head reproduced under the copyleft license (link).

To the open source community, Symbian has historically been kind of an antichrist -- controlled by some of the biggest tech firms in the world, bureaucratic, closed, and incredibly complex. If you're going to win over the open source crowd, you have to overcompensate by being excessively informal, friendly and "childlike." (That's Symbian's word for it, not mine.)

Here's how Symbian explains the logo (link):

It is a brand that’s human and playful and friendly, where you feel the human hand. A brand that enables you to discover unlimited creative possibilities, that wants to share and talk A brand that’s fun, that isn’t fixed, but free to constantly evolve. A brand that’s owned by all the people that create and build with Symbian. A brand that celebrates new ideas and creativity in all forms. A brand that’s truly alive and refreshingly different, because it is! A brand that’s human to the core and that underneath beats a human heart.

In other words, the slick and calculated marketing approach is to give the company the most artless logo imaginable. And from that perspective, I think they succeeded.

I am wondering, though, what they'll do when it's time to use the logo for something other than just decorating a website. OS logos are generally used as compatibility marks. In that role they need to be displayed on screen, and preferably printed on the back of the phone, to let the user know that he or she can run Symbian applications on the device.

Picture a meeting where the folks at Symbian try to convince a product manager at Nokia or Samsung or SonyEricsson that they should print that logo on the backs of their phones, or that it should be displayed prominently on the screen. I don't think it'll go over very well. And even if they did agree to include the logo, the tiny details in the lettering won't show up well when reduced in size. The logo just isn't designed to travel.

So Symbian app developers should ask how they'll be able to market their applications when Symbian OS users don't even know what their OS is. Symbian has never had a good answer to that, and I think the new logo doesn't move them any closer to solving that problem.

Maybe the assumption is that all Symbian phones will have application stores built in, so developers won't need to communicate compatibility. Maybe, but that will still put a big marketing burden on an application developer to explain model by model which phones their apps work on.

The bottom line is that any logo artless enough to please the open source community would be problematic as a marketing tool. As is often the case in marketing, you can't please all your audiences, so you can either be universally bland or you can optimize for one audience. I think the folks at Symbian decided that open source street cred is the thing they need most.

And maybe they're right.

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