is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
In advance of being spun off from Time Warner next month, AOL debuted new corporate branding yesterday, rolling out not just a revised logo but a visual system with a bit of a twist to it. Using a modicum of cleverness, the company’s new look is in fact a kind of visual randomizer in which a new, mixed-case typographic mark “Aol” (instead of the previous initialism “AOL”) is superimposed on top of various whimsical, silhouetted images.
Two at a Time
Even if it’s not particularly brilliant, the typographic/photographic juxtaposition achieves a nicely contemporary effect. The various images — a goldfish, a hand, a swirl of paint, among others — are cleanly shot, and the typography is mercifully free of the sort of drop shadows, gradients or textures that AOL has freely and egregiously abused in the past. Overall, the branding is certainly an upgrade from any of the company’s previous logos, most of which are about as painful to look back on as old prom photos.
Aesthetic merits aside, what I find altogether wrong about this new branding is the very fact that it’s happening at all while the company prepares to separate from its parent. Why distract from the event of a corporate separation with something as relatively inessential to the proceedings as a new logo? Don’t shareholders want management to focus on getting the details of this new world order right, instead of spending even part of their time worrying about color, imagery and typography?
Far be it from me to suggest that branding is a trivial matter, though. Which is why I think you can also look at it from the other perspective and suggest that this simultaneity is doing a disservice to the brand itself. Why let a huge accounting event dilute the effort and attention necessary to launch a truly successful new branding campaign? They’re two very different challenges, each deserving of their own attention. Doing both at the same time is practically begging to get at least one of them wrong.
Like many companies before it, AOL seems to both overestimate and underestimate the nature of good design. First, it’s very difficult for even the best designs to meaningfully impact the success of something as huge as a corporate spin-off. And second, it’s very difficult to get design right, even when you’re not undergoing a major organizational upheaval. Which explains, I suppose, why this new brand identity is so insubstantial.+