Google's New Brand Launch: Function Driving Form

What would happen if you created an advertising agency run by engineers?

You’d have Google. That’s what.

Last week, I was on the road. I went to Google something on my smartphone, and noticed the logo had changed. I thought at first it was a Doodle commemorating some famous typeface designer, so I didn’t spend too much time digging into it. But on the next day, when the new Google word mark was still there, I decided to see if this change was deliberate and permanent. Sure enough, Google had quietly swapped out its brand identity, in a move made in classic Google style.

I wasn’t a fan -- at first. But I was looking at it from a purely aesthetic perspective. I prefer classic serif typefaces. I love the elegance of the curvatures and strokes. Sans serif faces always seem to me to be trying too hard to be accessible. They’re like the puppies of the design world, constantly licking your face. Serif faces are like cats -- stretching luxuriously and challenging you to love them on their terms.



But the more I thought -- and read -- about the branding change, the more I realized that the move was driven by function over form. Google was creating a visual and iconic language with the change,  driven by the realities of maintaining an identity across a fragmentation of platforms and contexts. One can almost imagine the requirements document that had been put forth to the design team by the various Google engineers that decide these things: a logo that minimizes visual friction and cognitive load, scales well on all screens from nano to peta configurations (and eventually yocto to yotta), acts as a visual wayfinder no matter where you are in the Google universe -- and looks just a little whimsical (the last of these being a concession to the fine arts intern who was getting lattes and Red Bull for the group).

In the last month, Google has announced a massive amount of corporate change. Any other company would have taken the opportunity to mount a publicity event roughly the size of the Summer Olympics. But Google just quietly slipped these things into its weekly to-do list. The logo dropped on a Tuesday. A Tuesday! Who the hell rebrands themselves on a Tuesday? There was no corporate push from Google other than a fairly muted blog post -- but in researching this column, I found commentary on the change on pretty much every major media outlet. And they weren’t just reporting the change. They were debating it, commenting on it, engaging in it. People gave a damn, either for or against.

That’s when I realized the significance of Google’s move. Because function was driving form -- because engineers were dictating to designers -- the branding had to be closer to its market. The rebranding was being done to make our lives easier. It wasn’t there to launch some misguided agency-driven interpretation of an envisioned future, or slide Google into some strategic position in the marketplace. It was done that way because if wasn’t, Google couldn’t do all the rest of the stuff it had to do. Google didn’t tell us what we should think of the move. The company just did it and let us decide.

If function determines branding, then it’s living in the right place: the intersection between the market and the marketer.  I’ve previously chastised Google for its lack of design thinking, but in this case, maybe the company got it right. And maybe there’s a lesson in it we all need to learn about the new rules of branding.
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