Betaworks is known as a hip, media-focused company out of New York, which probably made it sting when somebody on Twitter equated the company's logo to a coffee stain. It was time to rebrand. After months of creative back and forth, when a new logo came in from creative agency Franklyn, it wasn’t love at first sight.
"We saw it, and we were like, 'Oh.'" explains CEO John Borthwick. "It wasn’t, ‘Oh my god, I hate that, that’s terrible!’ It was, "Oh, what is that?"
The logo wasn’t an ode to a basic geometric shape, like so many classic logos tend to be. It was a chunky, vague thing with several overlapping components. You could just discern an arrow, but aside from that, making logic from its lines was like lying on the grass and staring at a cloud: You could see nothing and anything.
"I had a strong reaction to it. Which is different from not liking it!" Borthwick clarifies—maybe hedging a bit in the 20/20 vision of hindsight. "My first observation was that I had a strong reaction, and that’s what pulls me back again to take another look. I wondered ‘What is this reaction I’m having?’ and I sort of worked through ‘Do I like this or do I not like this?"
Then he consulted Creative Director James Cooper and "this least likely candidate became the most likely fast."
In parsing this complex design, both Borthwick and Cooper realized that they liked the ineffable visual quality of it. The logo seemed to be built from a puzzle-like stack of shapes, with each shape being derived from a new custom typeface that Franklyn had developed for an accompanying wordmark. What was Betaworks, after all? An investment firm offers seed funding to startups, sure, but it also incubates products and handles design in-house, relaunching Digg as a reimagined media brand, and releasing a hit iPhone game Dots. It's a strange hybrid of a company existing in an era when technology, software, media, social presence, and financial investment are all tentacles on the same octopus.
The philosophy behind this logo—one of embracing a complex design over a simple one—could apply to the rapidly evolving, increasingly multidisciplinary brands beyond Betaworks. Not long ago, Ammunition built a brand identity for a cloud technology company named Mesosphere. Instead of building one logo, the company created a piece of software that could change the logo's angles, colors, and even animation. Simple? Not at all. These logos represent big thinking, not simple thinking.
"The more simple things are, the easier it is for you to like it. Your brain says, ‘This makes sense so it’s good!’" Cooper says. "A lot of [the early logo designs we reviewed] were simple, good, clean. They were all perfectly understandable in two seconds. Your gut reaction to that is, ‘That’s nice.’ But we wanted something more than nice. We wanted something that challenges people and makes people think about things."