A few weeks ago, VH1 quietly unveiled a new brand identity, designed by a small team at New York agency Gretel. The network’s old logo, a multicolored gradient confection with a squiggly tilde crown, has been replaced with a thick sans-serif logo rendered in deep purple, tagged with a plus sign (+) that grows from the H.
It’s the network’s first new logo in a decade, but the change was noted by relatively few online. According to VH1 President Tom Calderone, that was the idea. “We did this with a bit of stealth,” he told me during a phone interview. “The idea was to let it happen organically.” After all, for every high-profile corporate rebrand, there’s a high-profile public backlash. But more than that, the new logo is meant to fade into the background of the network’s content–a visual bridge between topics and shows, rather than a representation of VH1 itself.
“The plus became the connective tissue for the language,” says Gretel’s Keira Alexandra, “a language of short textable bursts, of search terms and tags, of endless streams of hyperbolic, enthusiastic, obsessive cultural knowledge.” On VH1’s website, it functions as a header for each piece of news: Taylor Swift’s New Boobs gets the double tag “Gossip + What The?” A Rihanna interview gets “Interview + DGAF Attitude.”
The plus sign is actually a fairly modern invention. It’s technically a logogram symbolizing et, the Latin word for “and.” Most scholars place its first use around the 16th century as a shorthand for “more than.” For VH1, its vagueness had an obvious appeal–it was a way to connect their increasingly divergent properties without having to generate thousands of iterations, as with their old logo. “The last thing you want to do is hand over a burdensome brand guide,” says Gretel Principal Greg Hahn. “Instead, you want to provide a sensibility that allows people to say, ‘Oh, I get it, I know what to do, I know where to take this,’ without having to look back at a giant binder of dos and don’ts.”
But the plus sign’s visual clarity might be more important than its syntactic clarity. VH1 has seen a huge ratings spike over the past year, and it owes a lot of that success to the Internet–the online chatter generated by snarky recaps, tweets, and posts about their reality lineup. But the old logo was suited for televisions, not smartphones. “It wasn’t designed for anything digital,” Calderone says. Forget about making it a favicon; even on computer screens, the old logo looked messy and loaded slowly. The plus logo is designed to look as good at 10 pixels as it does at 1080. “The new logo pops more on mobile platforms,” he adds.
The plus doesn’t have what Pentagram’s Paula Sher recently called “gradient colors and gee-whiz sparkle” for which many online brands are opting these days. Instead, VH1 and Gretel opted for a logo that acts more like punctuation, while the content–Rihanna et al.–becomes the brand.