Undesign. The what, why and huh?

Undesign. The what, why and huh?

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You may have noticed a bit of a trend in both logo and UX design recently. Or due to its very nature you may not have noticed it – in fact it may not even be a trend! I’ve digressed far too quickly there. Let’s get back to it. Or just to it, as there’s nothing to get back to yet!

Anyway, undesign. What do we mean by that? The example everyone will be familiar with is the latest Google logo. The search giant has been updating its logo regularly for years, from dropping the bevels, gradients and drop shadows to barely perceptible kerning tweaks. The latest version represents a significant shift in digital design. A huge simplification, stripping back to the fewest possible elements or design flourishes. We’re calling this undesigning.

It’s not just Google; it was relatively late to the party. Almost all the major brands have been at it over the last couple of years – look at the new MasterCard logo, or Ebay, or Microsoft, or Instagram, Marvel, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Starbucks, Expedia, Airbnb, Coors Light, USA Today, The Premier League and on and on and on.

So what’s going on here? Every company will have its own reason – Ebay doesn’t want to be perceived as an online car boot sale anymore; Microsoft is fighting to stay relevant to the iPhone generation; Airbnb needs trust and credibility as a new type of hotelier. But across the board is this just a visual trend? There may be more to it than that.

It’s a complex world out there – visually speaking there’s a lot going on. Distilling a brand to its simplest form, so it can be recognised with the least amount of cognitive processing, should be appealing to us all – there’s something very comforting about simplicity amongst all the noise. Plus, if you need to get your logo recognised as a 32 pixel icon on a smartwatch, simplicity is pretty useful.

The internet has moved through its lawless infancy; the early days were great at the time, but seem like some kind of hilarious migraine in retrospect. We used all the effects, but now we’ve calmed down, we’re more wise, we all know how to use a button, so the gloss texture and shadows and strobe flashing aren’t necessary anymore. The real benefit of this of course is speed, which has increased exponentially thanks to better technology and better use of it.

Look again at that Google logo – the simplicity of circles and rectangles means the descender on the lower case g is the only thing that can be considered even remotely complex. This logo can be achieved with a file size of just 290 bytes – yes bytes. That’s practically giving bandwidth back. This is an extreme case and Google is probably just showing off, but it makes you think.

A final point, and perhaps the most important, is that a stripped back design language can lead to broader appeal. Take a look for example at brands like Quiksilver or Monster Energy – clearly they will appeal to the extreme sports crowd who want some sort of adrenaline-stained life near the edge of a white knuckled… forget it, I took one look and realised it’s not for me, but that’s fine – it’s not supposed to be. In that respect it works. But what if IKEA did that, by positioning themselves facing one particular niche group? A simple brand means everyone is welcome.

Put simply, simplification leads to diversification. Actually I could have simplified that – simplicity equals diversity. Actually, I’ll try again, less is more.