"When we did the initial branding it was the usual garage startup story. We were building an app to do something cool, so it was all juicy colors and funny mascots—like Mailchimp."
Toke Nygaard is doing this best to explain the branding he created for the customer service software provider Zendesk back in 2007, in which a smiling Buddha offered customer service into a chat headset. It was a literal interpretation of the company name, and a way to cut through conventions of enterprise customer service with the motto "Love your helpdesk." But looking at it through the lens of 2016, it's hard not to see a bit of Silicon Valley cultural appropriation at best, and a needless religious parody at worst.
"The only problem we’ve had really are [people] offended on behalf of people who would be offended," says Chief Creative Officer Nygaard of the logo. But he admits that it’s proven limiting to a company that’s now swelled to over 1,500 employees, with multiple services reaching businesses around the globe. "We’d never want to animate him. We could never do much storytelling without offending a lot of people. Plus you’re in this world of cartoons, and stylistically you’re stuck with that."
In turn, Nygaard—who in a past life also branded "thefacebook.com"—has led Zendesk through an about-face makeover. With a team of 50 in-house creatives, Zendesk developed a quirky system of geometric shapes, each representing a different Zendesk service.
Explore, the company's analytics engine, is a tiny triangle summiting a bigger one. The Help Center is two arrows, one leading the other. Support—perhaps the most perfectly literal symbol of them all—is a tall rectangle that leans into a short square.
Alone, these shapes have their own animated personalities, and guide navigation in Zendesk’s backend. But together, they assemble and reassemble into a flexible brand. One moment, they can choreograph themselves into the new Zendesk Z logo; in another, they can scatter a zany tossed salad to embody the company’s new mantra: "Relationships are complicated."
The new aesthetic is inspired by the company’s Danish roots, and Nygaard’s own childhood in Denmark. "A lot of our inspiration came from toy blocks, and the wooden bits that formed a whole more than the sum of its parts," says Nygaard. The team also revisited works by Danish design legends, and you don’t have to squint much to see the inspirations: Kay Bojesen’s wood monkey, Poul Kjærholm's puzzle piece EKC logo, and Arne Jacobsen’s perhaps lesser appreciated textile prints.
"It helped going back and looking at how these old masters focused on simplicity, working with shapes, and whittling down to the bare essentials," says Nygaard. And in this sense, the Danish-inspired identity conveys a looser sense of zen through tasteful visual clarity, rather than placing a venerated religious figure behind a help desk.
[All Images: via Zendesk]