Slack and the Infamous Rebrand

Written by Robert Lloyd
19th Jan 2019, 9 minute read
Also available on Medium and The Startup

Culture and the creative industry are both turbulent landscapes, and, after time, things that once looked great become ineffective or out of place. People grow bored towards design or companies outgrow them. So when it comes to the infamous rebrand, why are they so often met with the same vocal unease as finding a tattoo on your bacon?

Slack’s logo, a simple hash, is a character preceding any of their messaging channels but also denotes the ease of ability to tag users, subjects, include GIFs, emojis and a whole range of additional communication forms through simple text commands. It’s animation of four dots joining and spinning into this symbol tells a story of connecting people and showing the overlap of different channels (conversations) all in a playful tone. It’s simple in style because it reflects how simple it is to use. That however is what it was.

The #infamous rebrand still takes its cues from conversation by incorporating a ‘chat bubble’ mechanism to the brand. It retains the hashtag form to the logomark. It even keeps a familiar style of colour palette and sans serif typography. The issue however is that many find it a significant step backwards in the brand identity as it rolls out across the world.

The trending theme of critique appears to revolve around how the added complexity is counter intuitive of a rebrand. Essentially when a brand grows more established, its character is honed, becoming more confident and clear — in turn this should be reflected through a simpler, concise visual identity. Pentagram’s additional layer of complexity ties with other strong opinions of how the update has resulted in a more generic aesthetic which could apply to a variety of other brands. For example the hash, while there, is not immediately recognisable due to new negative space.

It seems more nebulous and less recognisable as a unique logo to me. It could literally have any word underneath it. ~ Sam Thomas

It went from a unique, quirky logo to something that looks like it belongs at your local pharmacy. Or maybe a Web 2.0 law firm or bank. Perhaps a summer arts program at the local middle school? ~ Napier Lopez

New Slack logo looks like it’s for a public swimming pool ~ @riklomas

… and all the interpretations which the negative space brings with it.

#Slack has a new logo that I’m pretty sure is actually four ducks sewn together in an uroboros human/duck centipede. You add eyes and you can’t miss it. ~ @HisRepMajesty

The negative space in the new Slack logo makes it look like a whimsical swastika. Thank you for coming to my TED talk about how the internet has ruined my brain forever. ~ @HeyHeyESJ

And brand new branding aside, the old logo really didn’t seem to need changing in the first place. Although after a little digging Slack’s fair intentions emerged clearer:

“Our first logo was created before the company launched. It was distinctive, and playful, and the octothorpe (or pound sign, or hash, or whatever name by which you know it) resembled the same character that you see in front of channels in our product.

It was also extremely easy to get wrong. It was 11 different colors — and if placed on any color other than white, or at the wrong angle (instead of the precisely prescribed 18º rotation), or with the colors tweaked wrong, it looked terrible. It pained us. Just look:

We developed different versions of the logo to compensate, which worked well for different purposes. But that meant that every app button looked different, and each one in turn was different from the logo.”

This reasoning I can somewhat understand, however logos typically will be misused by people — how many times have you seen the wrong Twitter bird, in the wrong colour, stretched and bastardised — and still I’m unsure in what ways this rebrand will significantly mitigate the issue at hand. The new hashtag will look even more disparate as a pattern, the copious negative space will make distortion more obvious, the addition of elements in the logomark provides greater scope for people to play with it however they please... Along with these changes I found the revised typography to be cleaner at the cost of falling devoid of personality and quite frankly forgettable. Then when the desktop app updated, it’s new colours seared mine and the rest of the studio’s eyes with how vibrant they were.

Now stepping back we should appreciate that design takes time. Let’s take Deliveroo for example, a relatively young brand but one with considerable urban significance considering the frequency in which you see their logo. Love or hate the nimble cyclists and their not so nimble boxes, the Deliveroo kangaroo icon and electric blue colour is hard to miss. But I’m not referring to the hard angled logo, I’m talking about the previous line art version.

As you might expect when rebranding this could easily have come from an intention to simply refresh their image away from clipart, and perhaps even re-align themselves in the market. What were the responses?…

The logotype is okay, but that mark is utter shite. I don’t care how meticulous the angles are.

I’m sure @Deliveroo couriers won’t be surprised that even their new #logo is sticking two fingers up at them…

This also looks like there were some lovely icon design concept done. Whoever made the call to use the final one has awful taste…

And while people clearly weren’t shy in voicing their opinions, others were slightly more eloquent and reasoned than others.

Something about the mark reminds me of the London 2012 Olympics logo. I think it might be the dissonant, aggressive form which has now become apart of our graphic language to communicate vitality (whether this is aesthetically a good thing or not is debatable). Nevertheless, this lends itself quite well to a delivery brand that predominantly relies on hardworking cyclists at its heart.

As for the logotype, I’m not surprised by the neutral solution here. It seems obvious that Design Studio have taken a similar approach to the visual identity of Premier League and Airbnb here. All of which have a variety of brands which sit under it, be it Football teams, Accommodation/Hosts or Restaurants/Food vendors. In all cases, it could have been counter-productive to design something that would overpower these aforementioned sub-brands.

These aren’t the only examples either — almost every rebrand I see gets slated in majority, with perhaps an agile 1% making it through the warzone of keyboard warriors and creative critics unscathed. That being said, there are countless launches and unveilings I have seen whereby the work is gorgeous but still receive a hostile intervention-esque celebration party. With each rebrand, the reactions descend further into a sense of polarising preference mob mentality. Ok, fine, admittedly I was personally not a fan of the Deliveroo rebrand at the time. It originally came off a little boxy and clumsy considering the flexible, speedy and home-comfort values of the brand. Every blog and search showed the reams of sketches and evolutions which the the studio had on the table, many of which appeared to have exciting potential.

Today, looking back at the difference between the old and the now, the rebrand is obviously a dramatic improvement between the two landmarks of the Deliveroo history. A lot of the resentment has passed due to exposure in out day to day lives and generally forgetting all the other logo possibilities. This is much like how Slack’s app colour change was shocking at first, but after using it for a day and trying the old version again, the revision was noticeably better — making the original look meekly drab in contrast. I can also see the mechanism of chat bubbles having potential albeit that the Slack app never shows messages via bubble shapes. Overall I try to stay somewhat reserved in my opinion giving it the benefit of the doubt as the mob mentality of the internet sets in, and while I don’t side with the rebrand route its ultimately not going to stop myself or millions of others from using the service. In the same vein as Deliveroo, over time we will become accustomed to the new look and direction of the brand, instead seeing the old route as preposterous.

Everything here comes under a scenario which rarely occurs with new brands, but reserved especially for facelifts and market shifts. I can only assume aside from any established notoriety, this happens from the fact that when a studio is handed a rebrand, they are being given an opportunity to better something which has already gone through a significant lifecycle; conception, breaking into the market, capturing people’s attentions and becoming a thing of familiarity. Re-imagining this is like tampering with people’s memory or experiences and perhaps even falling it into an uncanny valley of logo design, only made worse when we’re also afforded an insight into the drafts and concepts of what could have instead been reality.

Ultimately though these conversations are often had with other creatives. They are heated debates over nuance and the bigger picture, which are undoubtedly fascinating, but when had with people outside of the creative industry conversations like this tend to go about as far as most do on their first unicycle lesson (and just about as well too). So perhaps the slinging match of rebrands doesn’t go beyond our involved circle and when it comes to the all important customer, the cliché design trends, preferences and ways we would have done it just fall away into shaping each of our own styles as well as giving us frequent personal learnings. Then it becomes another evolution in the brand’s history, and in the end just another logo.