Do you ever feel like when it comes to redesigns of logos we know and love, it's all too easy for the entire Internet to secretly agree to hate them, kind of like one big digital pile-on? Okay, I admit it. I piled on, too. But after I was offered a sneak peek behind the Internet Curtain to see the innerworkings of AOL's new branding strategy created by Wolff Olins, I emerged impressed.
And not just because they're time travelers who have returned to the present day with a brand from the future. But more on that later.
AOL began working with Wolff Olins in July. It was just two months after new CEO Tim Armstrong came on board, but it was thanks to another new hire: 27-year-old ex-Google employee Maureen Sullivan, who, as AOL's chief-of-staff heard the right answer from her future creative team. "We got a lot of advice from people who said to scrap it and start over," says Sullivan. "The Wolff Olins team said to keep it." Head of strategy at Wolff Olins, Paul Worthington, was part of that decision. "A lot of people are saying why didn't you change the name," he says. "The simple answer in the world we live in today is that's the lazy consultant answer."
Besides, user connotations to AOL were actually not all that negative, says managing director Sam Wilson. "We had to make it relevant for consumers going forward," she says. "From our perspective, that's what made the challenge so exciting. We make big changes and big impacts on products and their employees." And AOL's employees—a third of whom were forced to accept buyouts before the spinoff—were the other reason this relaunch needed to hit home. "What hasn't been covered is that part of the reason we decided to do this is for our employees," says Sullivan. "People don't understand where we're headed. We needed a visible way to show the direction of the brand."
Quickly, the designers agreed on one curious truth of their strategy: It was impossible to show the depth and breadth of the brand—including plenty of properties people didn't know existed—in a single image. So they turned to an arsenal of imagery. "We wanted to start something that feels like it's alive and can grow as a company," says creative director Jordan Crane. "It's more about an engagement with the brand." Engagement that will eventually include contributions from "the public and employees, artists, writers, creators to help bring the brand alive in a way that makes sense," says Crane. So the idea is that you might be able to upload or create your own AOL logo image—and that the images released were more like a starter set for the audience. "It's not about it being 1000 logos, it's that it's a consistent wordmark that's consistent and clean," says Sullivan.
Oh yeah...about that wordmark. That sound you heard when it was released? A million English majors screaming out in pain. Wolff Olins stands firm: If it was in ho-hum uppercase, it wouldn't look nearly as interesting—or have made such an impact. But lowercase, and then a period? A one-word, unpronounceable sentence? "As time goes on, aesthetics change," shrugs Crane. "The handbooks that have been written in the past are changing. With this direction, it suited the whole experience to have something very contemporary."
The one place where the wordmark really shines are in the beautiful, dramatic videos produced by Wolff Olins. It's here you can really get the sense of what the designers were trying to do: Stunning imagery slides through the white space, and it's only when it intersects with the white wordmark that the AOL becomes visible at all. I get it: It's the content behind AOL that counts. But it's a shame that the images have to be static at all, I say. Well, not really, says Wilson. Brand identity is changing. "It's not a sign outside the door, or the corner of a business card, our idea of brand is a deeper vision than that." Sullivan notes that AOL actually has no signage in their own office: "It's all video screens." Crane is even more coy. "Maybe in the future all logos will be in motion."
Wait. Has AOL just created the first completely user-contributed, 100% flexible, invisible logo? Where all that matters is what animates around it?
Suddenly it occurs to me that Wolff Olins is somehow privy to the future of branding, and we're just the snarky naysayers stuck in the present. Maybe their London Olympic logo, which was so despised, so seizure-inducing today, will be so of-the-moment in 2012 we'll hit ourselves over the head with a giant magenta "2"? That the NYC logo will become so timeless, so beloved, it will take its place in the history books alongside Milton Glaser's I HEART NY?
I pose that question to Wolff Olins, who are so totally nonplussed by this suggestion that it's like someone asks if they have a flux-capacitor-equipped DeLorean in their garage every single day. "The funny thing about the future is that someone needs to make the future happen," says Worthington, enigmatically.
Think about it. Then let's all agree to meet back here in ten years to look at AOL's logo again.