Why do all the big tech brands look so similar?

A weirdly familiar look seems to characterise the logos of digital companies.

9 Dec 2016

It’s almost impossible not to notice that internet companies appear to be following a fixed manual on their visual style: the play school primary colours and inoffensive sans serif type style have become ubiquitous.

That’s before the chirpy tone of voice which is similarly universally employed.

Google, Airbnb, Ebay, Skype, Spotify and Facebook are among the most famous to have either started with the stock Silicon Valley visuals or, perhaps most interestingly, rebranded at some point to fall in line with what has become the default look. Many newer and emerging app-based businesses are also adopting the same style guides.

Clerkenwell-based Design Studio also has an office in San Francisco and has managed the rebrands of Airbnb, Deliveroo and Nutmeg among others. James Hurst is its strategic creative director.

He attributes the culture of iteration in the technology sector to the frequent uniformity of how brands look. ‘The Silicon Valley gang tend to come from an engineering background which is based on best practise and is pretty conservative. When a business is successful, you see a bazillion startups adopt that colour or style.’

Hurst adds: ‘Trends crackle like wildfire. Three or four years ago, they [digital companies] were all using light blue and it became the startup colour.’

Deliveroo, a client of Design Studio, recently rebranded, changing its colour, typeface and iconic kangaroo image. The new identity was criticised by many in the design community for the ‘abstract’ and ‘soft’ new kangaroo image, and for treading the familiar ground of a lower case sans serif font. Others applauded how the new identity was built around its most common application – the uniform of its drivers.

Sahil Sachdev, strategy director at Saffron Consultants, a branding firm, believes Airbnb’s rebrand by Design Studio ‘set the tone’ which others have since followed, including Google. He says Silicon Valley firms have raised a broader question relevant to all companies: ‘When an industry that is used to building brands to last a decade meets a world where constant iteration is the order of the day, what does brand even mean anymore?’

Jody Hudson-Powell, a partner at Pentagram, also a branding agency, defends the uniformity in style as a code for accessing services ‘quickly and easily’. He says: ‘It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Simple brand identities, which are similar to others, creates a familiarity, which is appealing to potential customers. Tech is striving to be simple, friendly and human so I can see how they’ve all landed where they have.’

For firms like Airbnb and Google, which are now as much cultural titans as they are business ones, their strategies and identities have influence far beyond tech as other sectors look to the Valley for their cues. Much of it is also rooted in the belief that the ‘brand’ foremost functions in digital environments.

Hurst criticises the thought process where a logo is conceived solely to fit its use as a tiny app image. ‘We need to expect more,’ he says. ‘Tools will change, and even digital brands are having to express themselves in physical environments. Amazon is opening bricks-and-mortar stores, so their brand has to stretch beyond a 40×40 square on a smartphone.’