Michael Bierut: “Slack knew 95% of people would hate the change”

We speak to New York-based Pentagram partner Bierut about creating a more “consistent” identity for collaborative working tool Slack, retaining the “playfulness” of its beloved hashtag, and why the public loves to hate new logos.

Design Week: Why did you feel Slack needed a rebrand?

Michael Bierut: I’m a Slack user, and I liked the company’s overall design and look. With the hashtag logo and the beloved transparent plaid pattern, which formed when its two colours of four parallel strokes intersected, Slack had managed to retain a quirky look and feel, tone of voice and a conversational relationship with its users. I had never scrutinised the brand identity and I didn’t initially feel like I needed to pick something apart – on the contrary, I asked “Why, what’s the problem?”.

But as the logo was made of eight, transparent colours, that means eight colours needed to be managed every time it was applied to something. It was difficult to superimpose that coloured logo on top of anything else, like a background or a photograph. To mediate this, Slack would revert to a one-colour version; but the problem with this was that it then looked like a generic hashtag that could belong to anyone. There was inconsistency in how it was presented.

Iterations of how Pentagram considered transforming the hashtag shape

DW: How did you retain the “quirky” nature of the brand?

MB: We started by addressing issues that were technical, such as consistency, but that went on to more ephemeral issues – like, how do we retain that inherent playfulness of personality? Collaboratively with the Slack team and founder Stewart Butterfield, we did a whole series of design explorations based on the original geometry of the hashtag; two sets of parallel lines, now dissected at a 90-degree angle rather than a slant. Instead of having the lines overlapping, we looked at a break in the lines, which implied the graphic lines were literally weaving together like fabric.

This had a more metaphorical meaning relating to how Slack works as a platform – the process of weaving is to do with consolidation, and strength gained from mutual interaction, as the pieces of fabric come together. We came up with something that was a bit more formal than the previous symbol but stayed with that intersecting geometry and kept its liveliness and colourfulness.

DW: How did you come to the decision to move away from the hashtag symbol?

MB: Some people would argue that Slack owns the hashtag. Others, like myself, might say that the hashtag really acquired its first live profile on Twitter. Either way, Slack has never claimed the hashtag as a unique invention of the company. We [Pentagram] would consider what we’ve designed as an updated hashtag – though I’m sure not everyone reads it that way.

DW: Hashtags are an integral part of the Slack platform – do you feel that moving away from that symbol takes away from its identity?

MB: Every organisation has a choice, which is to stick with the status quo or to change. Some designers’ response to a project is to instantly assume that change is necessary. I’m of the opposite belief – you need a case for change rather than assume that design is all about newness and novelty.

For instance, I recently worked on the evolution of the Mastercard logo, which has now dropped its name, but kept its two, overlapping circles. The company has had the same logo for 50 years but at no point did I think it was tired and needed to be replaced.

Slack is just five years old and has grown really quickly – from five to 1,200 employees – and the company felt it was time to make a change as they enter a new phase of growth. It was time to take the hashtag to the next stage.

With products like Slack, which people encounter every day and are so engrained in their lives, changing the branding is bound to cause dissonance and backlash. Slack was completed prepared for this and anticipated that 95% of its audience would hate the change because they love Slack so much. Based on how sensitive people have been to user interface (UI) changes to the platform in the past, the team knew the rebrand wouldn’t be greeted with masses of enthusiasm. It’s the same as when a football team changes its crest – fans always ask, “why did you do that?”.

DW: What are you hoping the rebrand will do for Slack as a platform?

MB: There was something inherently inconsistent before in how Slack presented itself. It was meant to be about Slack and its famous hashtag but on my phone, the icon for Slack wasn’t a hashtag at all – it was a letter “S” superimposed on a plaid pattern. With something like Slack, what we want is effortless consistency and simplicity. At the end of the day, it just needs to work. By having an identity that can be used consistently all the way through, this should reinforce people’s understanding of it as a product.

Read about the design detail of the rebrand here.

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  • Valerio Lauri January 23, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    My Dear Michael,

    I love your projects but, with all the respect, I don’t think you are pointing the issue.
    We use and love Slack because we LOVE the change…..what we don’t love is your gross rebrand.

    Saying that we don’t love change is a deep lack of professional responsibility, very evident if said by the most famous brand designer in the world.

    • Andrea January 26, 2019 at 9:23 am

      Hi Valerio,
      I’m pretty sure that what he says about how the users reacted to the change is based on quite a few pages of research, numbers, and stats.

    • Steve Wilkinson February 3, 2019 at 4:00 am

      No doubt… maybe the reaction is due to really poor design work, too. LOL

      I’ve certainly seen rebrands I haven’t liked. But, some of the more recent ones are just bad. This one takes the cake in that regard.

  • Grow up, Valerio January 26, 2019 at 8:08 pm

    “Saying that we don’t love change is a deep lack of professional responsibility” is absolving the public of their dumb, knee-jerk reactions to every single rebrand. Both Pentagram and Slack had to know what would happen and went ahead anyway because they are professionals and understand the landscape they’re working in.

    • Valerio Lauri February 5, 2019 at 9:30 am

      That’s not true. Twice.
      1. Nobody never react negatively to every rebrand. Nobody said that
      2. Often, designers and accounts are constrict to do and send to printers what the client wants, just in order to let him pay the bill. If you would ever worked into an agency, you would know it….

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