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What The Hell Is Going On With Yahoo’s Design?

An independent designer accuses Yahoo of stealing his designs. He’s probably right, but that’s not even the biggest crime.

In September 2014, Yahoo unveiled an iPad version of News Digest, a slick iOS news app that only three months earlier won one of Apple’s coveted Apple Design Awards.

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Now, Bloomberg is questioning the originality of the iPad app’s design. In a piece published last week, Bloomberg points out that many of the app’s pages–for categories such as Sports, Politics, and more–appear to have been lifted wholesale from the mid-century, Swiss-inspired style of Mike Joyce, a New York graphic designer who publishes redesigned rock band posters on Swissted.com.

Yahoo denies having stolen Joyce’s work, saying instead it was “inspired by the famous 1950s Swiss modernism movement.” Bloomberg talks to designers, such as Pentagram’s Paula Scher and the School of Visual Arts’ Michael J. Walsh, who basically just shrug their shoulders at the theft. Here’s Scher, hand-waving away the similarities:

“Most designers and other young artists begin by copying something,” she wrote. “That’s how they learn. It’s hard to really know what the source of the Yahoo thing is, as Helvetica Swiss Modern revivalist style has been popular with youngish people since the end of the 1990s.”

No. I’m sorry, but we shouldn’t let Yahoo off the hook.

Copy Better
First of all, it looks like a pretty blatant ripoff to me. The colors, shapes, and patterns are absurdly similar. Note:

Mike Joyce/Yahoo

Sure, there’s some variation. if Yahoo uses the shapes from one Joyce poster, it matches them with the colors of another Joyce poster.

Mike Joyce/Yahoo

The problem isn’t so much that Yahoo stole. Plenty of big companies steal from other designers. Apple’s Jonathan Ive took cues from Dieter Rams. Ikea allegedly copied a chair Norman Foster designed for Emeco. The problem is that Yahoo stole something that kinda sucks. And the problem is that the theft reeks of a mismanaged design process at best and micromanagement on an epic scale at worst.

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Let’s rewind a bit.

Joyce’s Swissted work is itself a misuse of Swiss modern style. He’s making posters for rock bands. What does the rigid order of mathematical grids, pastel-hued geometric shapes and clean sans-serif typefaces have to do with Sleater Kinney, Iggy Pop, or The Stupids? But at least he created the work. When Yahoo mindlessly applies those same colors, shapes, and patterns to news category pages like Sports, Politics, or Entertainment, it’s not just a design non sequitur. It’s a creatively bereft design non-sequitur.

Let’s look at Yahoo’s Sports page in the News Digest app, which is essentially two overlapping circles with different colored hemispheres formed by the intersection of a diagonal line. It appears to be a mash-up of three different posters by Joyce. What about that resonates with “sports?” Nothing. Same thing with the two interlocking red and green squares on Yahoo’s politics page. I suppose you could say it’s somehow symbolic of a two-party system, but that’s a stretch. It doesn’t really have anything to do with politics. It’s totally abstract.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Swiss Modern-style graphic design can be used in highly emotive and evocative ways. Look at the work of Josef Müller-Brockmann, which Swissted studied so carefully, or the Swiss-style graphic design work for the 1972 Olympic Games by Otl Aicher. These posters are said to be a huge influence on Apple’s flat design approach to iOS 7. In theory, all the design principles are the same, except that Aicher wasn’t afraid to actually make his designs reference sports. His posters are filled with Olympians running races, doing pole vaults, rowing boats, or doing the butterfly. The point: If you’re going to steal, steal from the greats. If you’re going to counterfeit a painting, counterfeit a Rembrandt. Don’t copy a painting some random dude with paintbrushes did when he was bored.

Mike Joyce/Yahoo

So What’s Going On At Yahoo?
If I had to guess, I would say that Yahoo’s design theft reeks not of a designer gone rogue, but rather a non-designer telling the creative teams, “JUST DO IT LIKE THIS!” No designer–and Yahoo has hundreds of them–would so wantonly copy the work of another, must less such middling work. The idea of some executive charging into a room full of designers and telling them what to do actually makes perfect sense in Marissa Mayer’s micro-managed Yahoo.

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Since 2012, Yahoo has positioned itself as a design-minded company. And yet, CEO Marissa Mayer advocates for apps that observe her three golden rules of design. Those rules are obvious at best, and oblivious at worst. Looking them over, they all refer to small-bore patterns in user experience–and they all try to stuff the messiness of countless problems into a neat set of prescriptions. You don’t have to understand design to get the rules, you just have to follow them. Which sounds exactly like the sort of bone-headed approach that an engineer masquerading as a design guru would advocate.

This isn’t the first time that Mayer has emphasized order over actual problem-solving. When she worked at Google, she once noticed that the company was using two different shades of blue on different pages. Instead of just making a decision on which blue to use, she ordered A/B testing on 41 different blue variants before settling on one. She seemed similarly clueless when it came to redesigning the Yahoo logo back in 2013. In a blog post explaining how she used survey data to create the the widely reviled new wordmark, Mayer wrote: “We wanted there to be a mathematical consistency to the logo, really pulling it together into one coherent mark.” That was right after the part where she crowed about “rolling up her sleeves,” “diving into the trenches,” and tinkering with every detail of the design, hand in hand with her professional designers. How awful does that sound?

Occasional Fast Company contributor Glenn Fleischman hit the nail on the head when he said why Mayer’s remark bothered him:

If there is one sentence… that tells the whole story, that is it. This shows that not only does she lack an understanding of design — which is fine, it’s not where her strengths lie — but that she also doesn’t know it; that designers consulted were unable to disabuse her of this ridiculous notion; and that the final result pleased her, when it is obviously flawed in this regard.

Mike Joyce/Yahoo

Mayer famously aspires to be like Steve Jobs. You know what? Steve Jobs’s graphic design instincts sucked too. He’s the guy who filled Apple’s operating systems with faux leather and wooden textures. It wasn’t until Steve Jobs died that Jonathan Ive was able to stage a coup and update Apple’s adherence to outmoded ideals.

Does Mayer have to leave Yahoo for stuff like this to stop happening? Does Yahoo need a new CEO for its graphic design chops to become as good as its engineering?

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