In 1927, the governor of Washington presented the students of what was then Washington State College with a live cougar cub to keep on campus as a mascot. (The cub was named Butch after Herbert “Butch” Meeker, an underdog football star of the time.) It was this live cougar that inspired art student Randall Johnson in 1936 when he created the first version of the iconic cougar head logo.
At the time, Johnson was earning tuition money by working the summer as a sign painter for the Department of Buildings and Grounds, and one day his supervisor remarked that campus could really use some kind of trademark. They agreed that it should use the initials WSC and a cougar if possible. Johnson was nervous when he showed his idea to his boss the next morning, but soon it was made official by the college administration.
In 1959, when Washington State College became Washington State University, Johnson revised the logo to transform the “C” into a “U.” In that same year, Johnson signed over the creative rights to the university for a symbolic $1. WSU now uses variations of the original logo, and it’s widely considered one of the most recognizable of all university logos.
Not every logo is so successful — and redesigns involve even more risk, because a brand’s identity is at stake. Here are case studies of some recent logo redesigns that successfully updated the brand, and some that flopped or became controversial.
In October 2010, Gap unveiled a new logo that replaced the clothing company’s navy blue, all-caps logo with black Helvetica text and a blue gradient square off to the top right.
What the company was going for: “Our brand and our clothes are changing and rethinking our logo is part of aligning with that. … We chose this design as it’s more contemporary and current. It honors our heritage through the blue box while still taking it forward.” — Company president Marka Hansen
How people reacted: Almost immediately, social media exploded with negative comments from people who thought it might be a joke. Professional designers called it “nameless and faceless” and pointed out that Helvetica is such a widely used font that it’s not distinctive. Designer Jason Santa Maria described the problem: “It’s kind of like combining a bunch of zombie elements that are all bad. Or throwing together three different flavors of vanilla, hoping you’re going to get chocolate somehow.”
What happened: Gap responded by announcing the company would crowdsource additional ideas, but ultimately reverted to the original logo a week later. The current version seems to show some subtle adjustments to the proportions of the letters and serifs.
In 2008, Pepsi unveiled a logo known as “Pepsi Globe” that updated the red, blue and white circle with more spherical proportions and a slim, lowercase font. The redesign reportedly cost $1 million, even before the cost of replacing all existing signage.
What the company was going for: A clean, contemporary look with the white band in the middle of the logo changing in size on different products to represent a smiling mouth. “The intent is not a singular message. It’s what the smile means to you. It’s an iconic graphic that’s also happy. We created a hybrid between what Pepsi is and its new attitude, the inspiration of a smile.” — Peter Arnell of Arnell Design Group, which created the new logo
How people reacted: Designers praised the simplicity, but were otherwise underwhelmed, calling it “static, empty, vaguely bland.” Many people felt that the circle appeared unbalanced and disconnected from the brand name, and others pointed out the lost opportunity to carry on the strengths of the brand’s previous logos the way Coca-Cola has done with its script text. Los Angeles Times columnist Dan Neil wrote, “It looks like some strange foreign knockoff of Pepsi — Pipse, maybe. I’m pretty sure I hate it.”
What happened: Pepsi has continued to use the new logo, with some minor updates across product lines. The company also continues to use older logos from its history on “throwback” soda products made with sugar instead of other sweeteners.
In July 2014, Airbnb introduced a new logo and symbol resembling an “A,” which they named the Bélo. The company facilitates house-sharing and short-term rentals, and wanted to signal the shift from a scrappy startup to an established, community-driven business with a completely new visual identity.
What the company was going for: “For so long, people thought Airbnb was about renting houses. But really, we’re about home. You see, a house is just a space, but a home is where you belong. … Belonging has always been a fundamental driver of humankind. So to represent that feeling, we’ve created a symbol for us as a community. It’s an iconic mark for our windows, our doors, and our shared values. It’s a symbol that, like us, can belong wherever it happens to be.” — Founder and CEO Brian Chesky
“Part of our goal was to design a marque anyone could draw – something that transcended language and formed the foundation of the new brand. The marque, named Bélo, encompasses values of belonging and is imbued with four meanings of People, Places, Love and Airbnb.” — DesignStudio project brief
How people reacted: A number of reviews were initially supportive. The logo was called “playful, unpretentious” and “visually beautiful,” with the Bélo lauded as a “deceivingly simple icon that is easy to reproduce, recognize, and propagate.”
But the overwhelming reaction on social media was that the symbol’s shape and color resembled a rear end or some sort of genitalia, and debate ensued about exactly which body part it evoked most. Designers asked to comment without context guessed that it represented a breast cancer organization.
What happened: Airbnb acknowledged the criticism on social media and in subsequent interviews (they also made a cheeky infographic about it), but never wavered from supporting the new logo.
In 2012, the NBA team previously known as the New Jersey Nets revealed its new identity as the Brooklyn Nets, complete with a logo designed with the involvement of part owner Jay-Z. The new version dropped the red-and-blue color scheme used since the team’s inception in favor of black and white.
What the company was going for: The logo was inspired in part by New York’s subway system signage, and Nets CEO Brett Yormark called it “the new badge for Brooklyn.”
“The boldness of the designs demonstrate the confidence we have in our new direction. Along with our move to Brooklyn and a state-of-the-art arena, the new colors and logos are examples of our commitment to update and refine all aspects of the team.” — Jay-Z
How people reacted: Critics called the logo “technically worthless and embarrassing” and “uninspired and drab.” The text within the shield was described as “somewhat painfully squished.” Some complained that it was trying too hard to reach Brooklyn’s hip-hop and hipster demographics. Paul Lukas, who writes about the aesthetics of professional sports teams, said: “I’ll say this much: I’m impressed that such a minimalist design was able to make it through the pipeline without being gussied up along the way. But this is one of those rare cases when less feels like less.”
However, merchandise sales indicated that many fans liked the logo (or liked the team enough to not care). The franchise sold more gear on the first day of sales with the new branding than it had the entire previous season.
What happened: The franchise stuck with the logo — and now it looks like they were ahead of the curve for professional basketball teams. Since then, the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers have rolled out new logos that drew comparisons to the Nets logo for their use of flat, simple shapes and high contrast.
In 2012, three decades after USA Today was first printed, the newspaper got a new logo as part of a complete visual rebranding of all the company’s platforms. The logo pairs text with a blue circle, which is used in different colors and variations for the paper’s different sections.
What the company was going for: “USA TODAY’s logo was redesigned to be as dynamic as the news itself. The logo will be a live infographic that can change with the news. … Representing the pulse of the nation, the logo will be used as a platform to express USA TODAY’s editorial spirit – fun, bold and impactful.” — USA Today press release
How people reacted: Reaction was largely positive, if somewhat perplexed by the idea of the dot changing each day. Most designers agreed that the old logo looked so dated that it was smart to go with a bold reinvention. Comedian Stephen Colbert joked about the new logo on his show, pointing to the blue circle and saying, “Serendipitously, this is also a pie chart showing the percentage of people confused by the USA Today’s new logo.”
What happened: Responding to some early feedback, designer Sam Ward wrote a “Cool Balls manifesto” about the purpose of the circle motif. The paper has carried out what he envisioned, using the circle graphics creatively in the print edition.
Logo revisions can be bold, if organizations are looking to make a new statement. Many other logo revisions are subtle, because companies want to look more modern without losing the value they’ve built with the previous logo. Here are some additional examples:
Starbucks: In 2011, Starbucks decided the brand’s ubiquitous logo no longer needed to be labeled with the actual brand name. Instead, the logo is anchored by the distinctively green siren who’s been part of the brand’s logo since the beginning.
IAVA: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy organization, was founded in 2004. In 2011, after substantial growth, IAVA switched to a new logo that turns the group’s acronym into a bold graphic element.
Olive Garden: The restaurant chain revealed a new logo in 2014 as part of a larger visual rebranding effort. Though the new logo received some negative criticism, it successfully reflects recent trends toward flat, simple designs that scale well across all media and feel less “heavy.”
Instagram and Mailchimp: In 2013, both Instagram and Mailchimp updated their respective text-based logos to clean up the lettering without changing the overall style. In fact, many users probably didn’t even notice. Making the logos more readable at small sizes was a goal in both cases.