Co.Design

Why Yahoo's Purple Logo Rubs Us The Wrong Way

In a sea of blue Internet branding, Yahoo’s color choice stands out for its relative originality. So why does it seem to run counter to the egalitarianism of the Digital Age?

In late April, Yahoo released a gorgeously designed new Weather app for iOS: a minimalist treat of meteorology that CEO Marissa Mayer said represented the second phase of the company’s attempt to reinvent itself by "building beautiful products and executing well against our business strategy."

Pretty much everyone loved the new Yahoo Weather app, except for one thing: the purple logo.

"Officially the ugliest icon ever," said one Twitter user in response to the update. "Its icon isn’t home page worthy," said another. Some used their available Twitter character counts to criticize the icon with even more ruthless efficiency: "That icon is ass."

The icon was such a bust that less than a month later, Yahoo made the extraordinary move of replacing the logo with one that was even uglier. Despite this, the new mark was widely hailed as an improvement. Yet just last week, Yahoo updated its official Weather app again, and surprise! The original logo is back, with not a whiff of controversy.

What is going on here, not just as far as Yahoo’s strange design schizophrenia is concerned, but with the public’s inexplicable abhorrence--and just as sudden acceptance--of having a purple icon on their home screens?

Yahoo’s association with the color purple is so well known that when Tumblr was bought earlier this year, Tumbr’s CEO David Karp could just say "We’re not turning purple" and everyone immediately knew what that meant: Tumblr wouldn’t be subsumed into Yahoo’s corporate biomass. Instead, it would continue to be run like an independent company.

But it’s an interesting turn of phrase that says a lot about the cultural history of the color purple. Ever since ancient Phoenicians first figured out how to grind up rare sea snails to make expensive Tyrian dye, purple has been a color that is associated with kings, priests, politicians, magistrates, and wealthy autocrats. When Karp said that Tumblr wasn’t turning purple, then, he was also saying that Tumblr wasn’t joining the establishment. Tumblr would keep its indie cred.

This an important (and subtle) point for Karp to have made. Purple is a distinctive, vivid, and fun color; it’s also chronically under-represented in the depressingly blue palette of Internet branding (look at Facebook, Twitter, and, to a lesser extent, Google). But for thousands of years, we’ve been culturally associating purple with wealthy, out-of-touch dynasties. We don’t want to think of our favorite Internet companies as kings or priests. We want to think of them as scrappy, revolutionary upstarts, tearing the kings and priests down and putting everyone on an equal footing.

That’s the problem with purple, and part of why Yahoo’s allegiance with the color is such a polarizing decision for many. To Yahoo, purple represents imagination and innovation, but to many of us, the color rankles against the implicit egalitarianism of the Digital Age.

From that perspective, it’s obvious why Yahoo changed its Weather app icon so quickly. Its new Weather app was one of Yahoo’s first tries at reinventing itself as a scrappy Internet company that placed a premium on design, yet the conversation kept on centering itself on the gut reaction people felt looking at the very purple icon. The replacement icon was even less attractive--a real throwback to the design hallmarks of Windows XP--but at least it was an uncontroversial shade of blue.

While Yahoo might have caved initially, it was obviously a decision that probably couldn’t stand forever. For better or worse, the company has strongly identified its brand with purple; to reject purple is to reject Yahoo itself. Yahoo Weather might have "gone blue" in some weird fit of self-loathing during the existential crisis of reinventing itself as a design-first Internet company, but it couldn’t do so forever.

And, as it turns out, people might be a little more accepting of purple now than they were a few months ago anyway. It’s surely no coincidence that in the intervening months between Yahoo’s weather icons, Apple has unveiled iOS 7. It’s a flatter, frostier operating system that speaks the language of colors in a much deeper way than any Apple operating system before it … and it just happens to feature big dabs of purple in the new Photos, Game Center, and iTunes icons.

Jony Ive is the kingmaker of design, and with iOS 7, Apple has signaled that the color of kings is cool again. Is it any wonder that suddenly the “old” purple Yahoo! Weather logo is starting to look a lot more modern and a lot less hideous than it once did?

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26 Comments

  • Brandon Moore

    i dont think the problem is people associating purple with royalty. thats a very old connotation of the color that is almost dead as of 2013. i do believe purple is the hardest color to work with in design though. and Yahoo's particular swatch is a bold, jarring attention grabber that's not so easy on the eyes. its best used in a very minimal amount, so making a whole icon in that color can obviously be a risky choice. but that said, i do like the purple icon. at least im not ashamed to have it on my phone like the blue/real cloud one that looks horribly cheap and dated

  • jimsilverman

    "The original logo is back, with not a whiff of controversy."

    this is not the orginal logo. the purple gradient has been reversed and toned down, the graphic has been refined, and the Yahoo! logo is flat. it's a much better icon than the original.

    the purple was not the problem, the execution was.

  • cglode

    Of course, the icon change had no measurable impact on the actual popularity (i.e. daily download rate) of the application, meaning that the decision to change it, and any subsequent analysis of it is either premature or not really that meaningful in terms of the things that actually matter in business.

  • Johannes Henseler

    it is also that the iOS 7 weather app actually looks much like the Yahoo app — data is comming from Yahoo. The yahoo weather app would have no reason to be on iOS 7 if nobody changes something.

  • RicoRich196

    I wish you would've shown the 3 different icons. While this 3rd iteration is back to purple it is in fact more refined than the 1st icon. The shade of purple is much more muted, the yellow of the sun is slightly different and the gap between the sun and cloud has been removed. The newest icon is clearly the best one.

  • bbuc

    Meh- I don't think Yahoo's purple logo is too egalitarian. I just think it's too garish these days. What ever your statement, with bright purple it's probably too loud.

  • bbuc

    I would add that like all strong things, it can certainly be used to effect, but very carefully.

  • AndreiSlobtsov

    I love the purple Yahoo logo. The cloud was a response to a mob and I'm glad they went back to the original design. Making statements like "officially the ugliest logo ever" is just offensive.

  • Christian Hermann

    Just replace all of FastCo's writers and hire true journalist who can compose something with substance. Just reminds me how other publications go down the drain as well. We don't want news from la-la land!

  • larrikinpost

    Maybe purple signifies the royal establishment elite, or maybe it's just not a great colour.

  • Jerrymdax

    It's definitely the world's ugliest icon.  I wish they'd kept the blue cloud one. Sure it's not very interesting or original, but the purple one looks even more dated.  People associate Yahoo! with the 90s, or their 60 year old Dad's browser full of useless toolbars.  A little re-branding (losing the purple) wouldn't be a bad thing.

  • Dan DiGangi

    Always loved their use of purple personally but the logo design itself is pretty weak...you'd think they'd at least give it a few more updates.

  • PrunellaV

    That particular shade of purple has always looked garish and juvenile to me. I think "children's cable channel logo" rather than "royalty."

  • Shaya L.

    I think this article misses the point by focusing on the psychology of royal purple and monopoly of Internet blue. There are many beautiful purple iOS app icons out there (iTunes among them), and many gorgeous non-blue icons out there (Clear, ScoutMob, Soap.com for example).

    It likely comes down to the fact that people choose Yahoo's weather app over others *because* it is as beautiful as it is functional, and in the icon is an affront to the very senses that appreciate the app.

    If flat, light, elegant design is good enough for the app itself, why isn't it good enough for the icon?

  • Jonathan Robinson

    there has to be more going on in the design world... we're talking about the color purple? really?!