Slack, the workplace chat company, showed off a new logo on Twitter just last month — five minutes later, it was turned into a swastika. Others described the new symbol as “4 tiny squirting dongs,” “several dicks going in opposite directions,” and “horny.”
The Slacklash continued throughout the day, and some implied that the company and its agency Pentagram, led by design legend Michael Bierut, had made a mistake. “I know people at Slack, and I know they're smart, capable and caring people,” tweeted designer T Carter Baxter. “But once you hear ‘swastika made of dicks’ it's kind of over for the new logo.”
Slack’s original plaid hashtag logo:
Slack's "new octothorpe" logo:
Outrage over design changes isn’t new. When Gap changed its logo in 2010, the new design was so reviled online and in the press that the company retracted the rebranding effort after just one week.
But the internet in 2019 is a fundamentally different place than it was a decade ago. Misinformation and harassment are no longer mostly siloed away in online forums or personal websites — now, they thrive on mainstream platforms. Slack’s logo launch was a lightning rod for all of it: Twitter’s outrage cycle, symbols of white supremacy, and, generally, people’s inability to say nice things on the internet.
Over the past five years, designers have started strategizing about how their imagery will travel on troll-infested platforms, in front of millions of people, where any logo will almost certainly be compared to human genitalia or symbols of hate. In other words, a big part of the design thinking process has become How will people twist our idea into something hideous or hateful?
Pepe the Frog, once known as the star of the comic book Boy’s Club, was twisted into a rallying symbol for the alt-right, completely against the wishes of its creator. It’s an example of the way design manipulation by online communities can have ramifications beyond being used to mock a person or a company. It can be a powerful tool to further a movement.
Several practical reasons motivated Slack to redesign its logo. The company said that its app’s original icon, a plaid hashtag with 11 different colors that was rotated at precisely 18 degrees, was “extremely easy to get wrong.” The new logo (which is referred to as “the new octothorpe”) will “work better, in many more places.” Slack declined to comment on this story, but pointed to a Pentagram blog post explaining the change, which revealed that the new logo’s “thirst droplets” were actually inspired by speech bubbles. That context, however, was lost in the conversation that exploded online last month, with hundreds of tweets per hour. (Despite the jokes about its logo, Slack confidentially filed for an initial public offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Monday.)
Mike Monteiro, cofounder of Mule Design and author of the forthcoming book Ruined By Design, said Twitter encourages that behavior: “If I can say something that pits half of Twitter, against the other half of Twitter, that’s a winning tweet. … Twitter profits from outrage. If everybody was nice to each other online, Twitter would have zero business model.”
The anger over logos, which largely comes from other designers, is misplaced, according to Monteiro: “You can find a swastika in any grid pattern you want. ... Who gives a fuck? We’ve got actual Nazis running around on Twitter. If Slack redesigns their logo, all of the sudden, [designers are] capable of outrage.”
“Within the past five years, this phenomenon of rapid-fire design discourse has elevated to a level that no one expected. Designers weren’t subjected to such scrutiny 10 to 15 years ago,” Jesse Reed, founder of the design firm Order, told BuzzFeed News.
Reed, along with Pentagram’s Bierut, worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign logo in 2014. The campaign’s creative team was acutely aware of how any design would be received. “We all had this conversation that was very clear about how people will not like it. When you’re dealing with politically charged subject matter, they don’t like it because they don’t like the candidate,” said Reed.
The campaign team worked for three months creating the design, an arrow going through an uppercase H, before handing the logo off to a separate group for a weeklong stress test. The result was what the team called a “murder board,” a five-page PDF that showed all the ways the logo could be spun into the presidential campaign’s worst nightmare. Images portraying herpes, hell, drones, 9/11, and Monica Lewinsky were transposed onto the logo. The team ultimately knew that there was no way to design something that was completely troll-proof.
Threat modeling the logo prepared the campaign for the critiques and jokes, but didn’t prevent people from seeing what they wanted to see. “You can only have so much control,” Reed said.
Slack is just one of many logos that have been crudely sexualized in recent years. The Trump–Pence campaign design was widely mocked for what the “T is doing to that P.” In 2014, Airbnb unveiled a new logo, a bubbly A shape called “Bélo.” Users immediately likened the design to all sorts of human genitalia: a vagina, butthole, a pair of balls, and even truck nuts. Airbnb stuck with the logo, which remains prominently featured on nearly every page of the company’s website.
In 2016, Uber introduced a new icon for riders, a small square surrounded by a circle. A Gizmodo reporter quickly noted that, when turned 90 degrees, it looked like an asshole. Others agreed. Last fall, Uber scrapped it for something entirely different.
“When we were going through the work, we definitely thought about [what people had said]. We, of course, ran the new solutions by customers,” said Peter Markatos, executive creative director of brand at Uber. But, according to Markatos, the positive reception to the newest design had more to do with the perception of the company, rather than the logo on its own: “A lot of it has to do with how the company has genuinely changed from the days of [former CEO] Travis Kalanick to the days of [current CEO] Dara Khosrowshahi.”
The knee-jerk criticism from other designers is the result of short-term thinking, Reed says: “In one day, you don’t see the full picture. We really think about how the client shouldn’t have to change the logo in less than 10 to 20 years. Time is such a factor in the success of anything.” But, according to Reed, startups seem to be redesigning their identities more frequently. This is, perhaps, because consumers are more aware of what brands look like, and companies are increasingly sensitive to the way consumers now publicly broadcast their reactions.
Part of public redesign recoil comes from people’s instinctive distaste for sudden change, said Debbie Millman, host of the podcast Design Matters and the School of Visual Arts’ chair of master's in branding. “The good news about all of this, is that over a short period of time, people forget about their outrage,” she told BuzzFeed News.
For companies, consumer contempt for redesigns can have immediate financial consequences. In 2009, Tropicana’s packaging redesign caused a public uproar, forcing executives to discontinue the design and revert back to the previous packaging, created by Millman, which featured an orange with a protruding straw. “There was some backlash online, but it wasn’t as volatile or vitriolic as it is now. There was, however, an immediate impact to Tropicana’s market share,” she said. Sales dropped 20% after the rebranding.
Millman said Tropicana’s turnabout was not necessarily because the classic packaging was particularly good. It’s just what customers were used to. “People might not think they care about Tropicana packaging. But when something becomes integrated into the daily ritual of a person’s life, when it becomes embedded in the neural pathways of their brain, and then when it changes, that uncertainty is always met with negativity, dread, or dislike,” she explained.
The aversion to new things partially explains Twitter’s immediate allergy to Slack’s updated pinwheel. A change to an app icon, especially one with central placement on millions of homescreens and desktops, can be jarring, especially for people who are required to have it installed for work.
That, coupled with how Twitter encourages — and amplifies — dunks and hot takes, is how Slack’s rebrand became a conversation about a “swasdicka.”
“Anger and hatred are so much more prominent in our society today than it was just a few years ago. … If you don’t like something, what better way to express that with some of the most heinous symbols you can think of?” said Millman.
She added, “In general, people seem to have a lot less tolerance for any kind of difference, whether it be a difference of opinion or in policy.”
Tech companies have faced increasing scrutiny over various missteps: aggressively collecting user data and failing to protect it, creating engines of abuse and harassment and neglecting to police them, marketing facial recognition technology to law enforcement out of the public eye, and recommending content created by a designated hate group to its users. This means that designers today will need to threat model more than just what trolls will do to their logos. “Being a designer in 2019 means that when you’re designing shit, you need to think about all of the horrible things that can happen, whether it’s going to disempower people, or whether the ad network you’re building is racist or sexist,” Monteiro told BuzzFeed News.
During the height of the backlash, Slack’s official account tweeted, “We know change is hard, but we’re hoping as things settle things will become comfortable again.” The conversation around the updated octothorpe has quieted, though that may be because there’s another new logo distracting design Twitter.