Julie Scelzo’s first project at Pandora could hardly have been more nerve-wracking. As the company’s new executive creative director, the former Facebook creative strategist found herself on a team tasked with an absurdly ambitious goal: Overhaul Pandora’s brand, right in the midst of the busiest and most transformative year since the company’s pivot to streaming music 12 years ago. Not only was Pandora morphing from an internet radio app into an on-demand music service a la Spotify, but it was doing so under a new CEO: Pandora cofounder Tim Westergren, the closest thing a product or brand can have to a biological father.
Last week, Scelzo got a late night email from Westergren that set her nerves at ease. It contained only two words: “Fuck yes.”
For Scelzo and Pandora VP of Design and Creative Tony Calzaretta, Westergren’s candid sign-off meant that the project could soon be wrapped up and unveiled to the public. That was good news for them, because Pandora’s in-house designers have a ton more work ahead of them as the service undergoes its most radical changes yet in the months to come.
“With this revolution at Pandora happening, we wanted to do something revolutionary, not just evolutionary, when it came to what it looked like,” says Scelzo. The company did refresh its logo three years ago, but only in the form of a subtle, typographic tweak. This time, they wanted to rethink things entirely.
Dynamic Branding For A Company In Transition
Pandora’s new branding takes multiple forms. The first that most will likely notice is its new mobile app icon. The new icon, which will start showing up on users’ home screens today, sheds the dark blue, serifed “P” that has long served as the symbol for Pandora in favor of a new image: A fatter, sans serif “P” without a counter (typographic speak for the hole in a letterform). For new or returning Pandora users, the change may not even be noticeable. But for the millions of people who have stuck with Pandora over the years, it’ll be hard to miss. This is the first time that icon has changed since Pandora first arrived on the iPhone in 2008.
This new logo, which Scelzo says went through more than 1,000 iterations before being finalized, will also be anywhere else the Pandora brand shows up: on a new animated splash screen that loads when one launches the Pandora app, in marketing materials, and in the real-world concert environments that Pandora is increasingly involved in curating. And the branding will extend into new territory later this year when Pandora is expected to formally announce its Spotify competitor.
“This will help us transform everything we do,” says Calzaretta, who was originally hired as Pandora’s first product designer nearly 11 years ago. Back then, Pandora took one form: A browser-based internet radio service. It has since become a multi-platform music app that runs not only on phones and tablets, but on a wide range of hardware from smart speakers and television sets to cars. Throughout the years, as Pandora has evolved, its branding has not. That is, until today.
Capturing What Music Looks Like
Although the new “P” will appear everywhere in the same new, custom-designed and counter-less typeface, it won’t always have the same aesthetic. A major part of the new branding initiative was the development of a dynamic visual language that allows designers to present Pandora’s brand in a range of visual styles, each one pulling strains of influence from the very thing that Pandora is peddling to consumers in the first place: music.
Hunkered down in what Calzaretta calls a “war room” inside Pandora’s Oakland headquarters, a team of 12 designers from across disciplines toiled away creating dozens of variations of the new Pandora branding that each tried to answer, in its own way, one question: What does music look like?
“The truth is, music doesn’t look like one thing,” says Scelzo. “It’s pretty dynamic. It can be bold, it can be quiet. It can be colorful.”
So, while doing their best to steer clear of visual cliches like play buttons and imagery of vinyl records, the designers undertook a weeks-long exercise that sought to think of visual branding the way musicians think of songs. Just as music is made up of harmony, melody, and rhythm, Pandora’s designers tried to use form, color, and pattern to visualize what music might look like, all with the new, bulbous “P” sitting square in the middle of the canvas.
To help crystallize their thinking, Calzaretta and Scelzo tapped a resource that only Pandora could offer: a team of musicologists and music curators that spend their days tagging millions of songs with hundreds of musical attributes. This so-called Music Genone, which sits at the heart of Pandora’s music discover algorithms, could also be mined for descriptive insights into how to translate sounds into visuals.
“We definitely got into the geekier side of talking about the visualization music,” says Calzaretta. “We started digging deeper into our own genome and talking about the musical trait of timbre, which musicians refer to as the color of sound.”
The end result, or at least the first iteration of it, can be seen in a grid of 25 versions of the Pandora branding being unveiled today. Each one is visually distinctive from the next, from the straightforward (featuring the faces of musicians) to the more abstract (featuring ambient textures or an organic hand-illustrated look). These images, which vary widely in their color schemes, textures and overall stylistic approach, were inspired in part by the MTV logos of the 1980s, which often had different patterns and styles within the “M” of the network’s iconic logo.
“There are still guardrails around a dynamic brand like this,” says Scelzo. For instance, they didn’t want these images to be too literal (hence the lack of music notes and records) or too drab. One country music-inspired mockup, for example, portrayed the logo branded in old wood reminiscent of a Texas bar or a whiskey barrel. It was a decent concept, but it lacked the musical-seeming sort of energy they were aiming for.
“If we looked at something and you couldn’t hear music playing or it didn’t feel like sound, we threw it out,” Scelzo says.
“Not Too Hipster, Not Too Country”
Some aspects of the process did prove controversial. In the crafting of the new “P” logo and the accompanying “Pandora” word mark, the team made a conscious effort to differentiate the brand even further from that of the jewelry company by the same name. Concerns about confusion between the two brands has been an issue internally for years. For that reason, the new word mark uses a new, Bauhaus-inspired typeface with softer lettering and spells the product’s name out in all lowercase (until now, it was in all caps, like the jewelry company’s logo). Letting go of the old logo was hard for some company veterans, but the team was eventually able to make the case.
“Music should be welcoming,” says Calzaretta. “We always talk about Pandora being your friend that helps you listen to the music you love. I didn’t feel like the [old] brand was doing that. It felt a little like a financial institution or an online university.”
Softening up the core logo and word mark was an important first step, but in the end it was the multi-styled, music-inspired variations that stood out most to Pandora’s executives, especially Westergren, himself a former career musician.
“The way that the brand is dynamic got him really excited,” says Scelzo. “It doesn’t feel too hipster, doesn’t feel too country. It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.”