• Akshayta Rao

The app icon (out)rage


There was a time when brands would change their logos and the design community would lose its mind. A myriad of trained eyes would scrutinize every space, every pixel to tear it apart and then, like anyone in this world with a moderately informed opinion, they would go online and share their thoughts. This practice was generally left to experts because the common person did not have the requisite knowledge to identify the misgivings in a design.


Cut to today, where everyone feels they must share their opinion on everything, we see people trash new designs as if they’re paying out of their own pockets for the change. We saw this originally happen with Instagram, and more recently with Google and Amazon. Billion-dollar valuations and they can’t get a simple app icon right? Shocking! What most people were evaluating the new designs on was their instant reaction to the visual change. And we all know how much humans love change.


“Why does Amazon’s new logo pay homage to Hitler?”


“Google Suite looks like a rainbow gone wrong.”


“Why fix what’s not broken?”


So afraid are brands of their customers’ outrage that Amazon went and updated its icon to look a lot less like the German dictator. To those who hated on the new designs, I ask – Why do you think these companies spent millions on changing their icon? Are they just looking for new ways to be in the news? Or could there be a deeper reason behind this seemingly wasteful effort?


To answer the questions above, let’s understand what an app icon is meant to do.

Task 1: Grab your phone and without typing the app name, open Whatsapp. Easy enough?


Task 2: Now pick up the phone and again, without typing the app name, open any app that you use to book flights.


Notice how both tasks are essentially the same but one took longer than the other to achieve? This happened because there are some apps we use more frequently and some that are specifically need-based. If you’re the type of person that has more than one app on your phone to book flights, you might’ve taken a second or two longer to select the right one. What’s happening here is that you’re making a choice based partly on your experience and partly on what you see in front of you. For apps that have stiff competition, this extra second that you take to make a click can be life-changing. While companies must invest a lot more in designing a delightful experience, a visual change to the app icon is easier to achieve but can yield amazing results.


Now, let’s go back to the Amazon example. Can you draw the old Amazon icon from memory? Can you draw the new one? Which other e-commerce app on your phone comes in a light brown colour? What Amazon has done here is taken an already established brand and created a new association in your mind, one that didn’t exist in the industry thus far. While it may take some learning, over time, users will start to associate the app with its signature light brown, and this could potentially make it much easier for them to make a choice when given many options.


For Google, however, the situation is slightly different. When you have as many offerings as Google does, it becomes more important to be recognizable as one entity, than to be a leader in each space. While the visual treatment looks like a hotchpotch of lines and overlaps, the colour choice, in fact, is a brilliant move to develop strong connections between the parent brand and its individual offerings. Where Google massively faltered here was not effectively distinguishing one app icon from the other. Those who group all their Google icons together found it extremely irritating to spend that extra second reading the app name versus making a visual association and going “click”. So, for now, users must rely on their muscle memory to identify the right position of the app on their screen, rather than receive any visual help from Google’s design. But for those who don’t group their Google apps together, the experience is generally positive, because they make visual associations with Google’s signature colours and needn’t expend more energy when making a choice between a host of similar apps.


In the past, brands like Facebook and Zara have undergone visual changes, with no tangible alteration in their business outcomes. They reduced branding to a marketing gimmick and were lauded by those who thought the updated designs looked fresh. So, the next time you see a new design, try to steer clear from reductive conversations around how it looks and focus on what it needs to do before you form an opinion. If you still hate the design, well then, you always have the internet to let the world know what didn’t click.


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