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?