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The Apple of My Eye | Microsoft’s ‘Me Too’

By Drew Letendre

It was entirely predictable that the new Microsoft signature would be a lightning rod for design critiques and would unleash a torrent of words from designers, design journalists and branding pundits, indeed, from the branding establishment itself. And it has. And so, at the risk of kicking a dead horse, here are my thoughts — all but given away by the title — on the re-identification of Microsoft.

Promises, expectations, and delivery of change seem to be out of sync. Barack Obama promised change and many think he failed to deliver it (even those who voted for him). In the case of Microsoft, the makeover of one of the world’s most identifiable brands (whose antagonist is the world’s most identifiable brand), would lead one to expect something dramatic, even where it wasn’t really promised. But that didn’t happen. Microsoft’s new signature may be different than what it was, but it is built from ‘recycled’ or softly plagiarized materials: a rigid variation on the Windows brand symbol for one thing, and a  too-close ‘family resemblance’ between apple’s Myriad Pro font and MS’ Segoe for another. ‘Recanting’ the old Microsoft italic, only underscores this similarity. And, finally and most decisively, in the spirit of its clean visual program, it pays clear and obsequious homage to apple. Despite the differences, this impersonation is just too close for comfort.

Soft Plagiarism, Squandered Opportunity
Tony Spaeth, in recent reviews, floats the theory that the new signature was internally inspired by Brian Collins’ 2009 sub-brand riff for the ‘Microsoft Store’. That may be, but the inspiration, in turn, for Collins’ design probably provides the deeper — and disappointing — key to what really motivates ‘change’ at MS. Both the fact and the form of change is Microsoft’s desire or need (huffing and puffing) to play catch up to its nemesis, apple — which continues to set a standard that MS would rather ape than overthrow. Even if the Microsoft Store ID ‘inspired’ the new Microsoft master brand ID, the very concept of a ‘Store’ is torn straight out of Steve Jobs’ playbook. After Job’s death, I saw a recorded conversation between him and Bill Gates. When Gates was prompted to say how he wished he was like Steve Jobs, Gates replied, “I wish I had Steve’s taste.” Well, wishes do come true: now he does. This should be a wish that Bill Gates wishes he never had, because it may have cost him an opportunity to step out of Steve’s shadow and break new (or other) ground.

Redeeming Merits
Yes. The blending of a brand symbol that is the emblem of the company’s product lines — and, arguably, its face to consumers — with a corporate word mark, is an apt visual artifact for communicating an integrated offer (not to mention, a tactic that gives a customer-friendly lift — or face lift — to a monolithic corporate identity). It should also be said that the transformation of the Windows symbol is an improvement, as generic as it may seem. It’s been literally reframed as the image of a window from its former incongruous treatment as a billowing banner. At a deeper level, the linkage of brand marks amounts to a combination of assets that may add up to an increase of equity. And then finally, there is a sort of ironic honesty about this identity. It says ‘We want to be like apple; that’s what we aspire to. We’re content to compete on their turf, by their rules.’ It says ‘We’re still Microsoft, but more integrated. And it says, “even though we’re still boring, we’re boring with an innovative twist — we’ve remained boring by emulating and replicating those who aren’t.”

So, what are your thoughts on Microsoft’s new brand identity? Please share.