Last week after Slack introduced a new visual identity, I believe that it was a good design but terrible branding. After receiving many more views, comments, challenges, and agreements than I ever thought possible, I thought it might be appropriate to do a longer post critiquing why this re-design represents terrible branding and the steps that had they been taken might have made it better.
Let’s start by getting straight to the point.
The problem is not that the new visual identity is poorly designed or aesthetically displeasing. The problem is that it’s conceptually weak in a way that commoditizes Slack relative to competitors and does not appear to provide a clear path toward meaningful integration of the new identity across their total experience.
In terms of the task, Slack and Pentagram partner Michael Beirut identified consistency of execution and the generic nature of the Slack logo-symbol as the underlying problems that needed to be solved by the re-design process.
This means Slack had both an executional problem and a conceptual one. An identity that needed to be easier to execute, and an identity change that required new conceptual foundations upon which to base the design, because the # had been deemed too generic.
With this dual task in mind, what fundamentally limits the new identity is that these problems were not resolved with equal care. While the # was eliminated for being too generic, a more compelling conceptual foundation does not appear to have been established prior to solving for the executional issues of design consistency. Leaving us with a new identity which indexes high on consistency of execution and low on being meaningfully unique to Slack.
Michael Beirut has stated that the process consisted of exploring visual metaphors representative of what Slack does. The problem with this approach is that you are likely to end up with something visually generic to the category in which you operate, as by definition you are visualizing the category rather the company. Sometimes you can resolve this by executing in a novel fashion, but in general category level metaphors tend to constrain rather than liberate. In Slack’s case, this resulted in a conservative use of chat bubbles and pills draped in the color scheme of their largest enterprise competitor. A strange choice when the stated reason for eliminating the # was that it represented a generic symbol. As a result, Slack have swapped one category generic visual metaphor for another, and now look as if they are a part Microsoft rather than an alternative to it.
What every brand should understand when considering a re-brand like Slack, is that what you do does not make you, you. It simply reflects the category within which you operate. To visualize your brand effectively, you must first distill the qualities that make you unique into a conceptual idea that you can then design against.
There could be many reasons for Slack and Pentagram relegating the need for a new conceptual idea to the background of their process. Perhaps they were locked by tight time and budget constraints, perhaps conceptual uniqueness was deemed less important than executional consistency, perhaps the team felt it was already provided by the chat bubbles and pills, and perhaps it was simply an oversight.
With the benefit of 20:20 hindsight, I’d suggest that perhaps Slack and the Pentagram team might have created something more uniquely meaningful to Slack had they stepped back and asked themselves three important questions:
- What is the ambition of Slack?
- What makes Slack different?
- Why do people love Slack?
The first question establishes what the ambitions are for the Slack business, brand, customers and employees. It gets at what Slack wants to be and where it wants to go. It helps us to understand how progressive the identity might need to be in order to support this ambition, how much it should stand out (or fit in), and how willing (or not) Slack are to push the boundaries. This question sets the context for what the brand identity should be like, and what it should represent.
The second question gets at the underlying DNA, what makes Slack different, what makes the culture the new identity must reflect unique, and the experiences that others cannot replicate easily. The secret-sauce of Slack if you like. This helps us identify the unique personality the new identity should visually characterize. It also includes looking at the competitive visual landscape in order to see what would cut through, identifying which of the existing approaches should be avoided as being too commoditized, generic or already ‘owned’ by others.
And finally, why do people love you? Slack is a brand upon which users confer much emotional value. If you ask people who use Slack what they think of Slack, you get a broad array of emotional, responses. Slack is a pirate, a symbol of corporate counterculture, a slice of quirkiness in a beige enterprise world, Slack frees me from the office, Slack chains me to work, I live on Slack. Asking this question helps us to understand the emotional equities that people confer upon Slack that we can build from. It shows how people emotionally characterize Slack, and as a result helps us to understand how the new identity needs to make people feel.
By asking questions such as the above, you gain the opportunity to distill the essence of the Slack brand into a new conceptual idea that the identity can then be designed against.
In the case of Slack, by not asking these questions, conceptual meaning was treated as an afterthought, leading to an unfortunately commoditized solution.
Now, I know some people like the new work and think it looks great. That’s OK, I’m glad you like it, even if it has major conceptual issues as described here. Others will think I’m over-thinking a logo and that logo’s don’t matter. That’s also fine. I think they do matter as symbols of what a brand represents, as visual frames for how brands are presented, as critical business assets, and as something that people see and touch on a daily basis.
However we may think of it from the outside, the challenge for Slack from here on is probably quite predictable. The new identity is built on weak foundations, and as a result of its lack of conceptual depth, will be hard to translate into a compelling overall experience (beyond color, type and logo placement). I certainly don’t see the Slack product using chat bubbles anytime soon (but hey, I could be wrong). In marketing communications, the small amount of the overall identity system that has been shown looks too constraining and unlikely to last in the form we’ve seen beyond perhaps a campaign or two. Most likely, the logo will become increasingly relegated to an old-fashioned placement, bottom left, upper right etc while Slack figures out what a more comprehensive and compelling identity system might be. And finally, I suspect the whole thing will probably be re-designed within the next 18-24 months anyway. Not because of consumer or competitive pressures, or because it was poorly designed this time around, or becuase people like me say it’s terrible, but because the internal community that works for Slack rejects the bland camouflage of this category generic re-design as not being adequately reflective of what truly makes Slack special.
All in all, while this is a big opportunity missed for Slack, it is also an opportunity for others not to fall into the same trap. Conceptual rigor matters at least as much as design craft when developing a new brand identity.