Skip Article Header. Skip to: Start of Article. New mid-century modern illustrations are part of Uber’s new brand.
Today, millions of people around the world will turn on their smartphones and scan their screens for the black-and-white Uber icon, only to find it missing. Instead, they’ll see a colorful geometric shape—hexagonal if they drive, circular if they’re a rider—surrounding a small, bit-like square. The colors and patterns will vary from country to country—red in China, turquoise in India, dark teal in the United States—but everywhere, the app will open with an elegant, patterned animation, welcoming users to the new Uber.
Go check for yourself, if you haven’t already. Does it work? Do you like it? Are you freaking out? Be honest.
Because right now, on the fourth floor of Uber’s cavernous offices in downtown San Francisco, the company’s pugnacious founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, is waiting to hear what people think. He’s probably pacing; it’s what he does when he works through problems, and this is a problem he’s been working through for more than two-and-a-half years. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he tells me five days before launch. It can take time for people to come around to something so new, he says, “but I feel that it’s going to be good.”
Uber, the transportation and logistics unicorn many private investors consider more valuable than Ford Motor Company or FedEx, rebranded today. The company updated its logo, and new rider- and partner-app icons reflect the individuality of Uber’s local markets. In place of black, gray, and blue, Uber is embracing bright colors, and lots of them. Each of 65 launch countries will receive a toolbox of new brand assets that include tailored colors and patterns, new midcentury modern illustrations, and guidelines for photography. Uber hopes to develop a more flexible brand that can grow with the company as it develops new products and attracts new customers.
The story of how Uber came to replace the ubiquitous ‘U’ logo is about more than a corporate rebranding effort. It’s a coming-of-age tale.
The story of how Kalanick and his design team came to replace the ubiquitous “U” logo is about more than a corporate rebranding effort. It’s a coming-of-age tale. It’s about Uber’s attempt to transform its purpose and cement a new reputation—to change not only how it is perceived throughout the world, but how it perceives itself. Back in 2010, Uber’s founders launched an app that let wealthy bros summon BMWs and Lincoln Town Cars at the push of a button. It was an elegant, elitist way for Kalanick, his friends, and people like them to “roll around San Francisco like ballers.” This, of course, was before Uber ran afoul of regulators and got hit with lawsuits alleging it misclassifies drivers as private contractors. It was before Kalanick raised more than $ 10 billion—valuing the business at close to $ 65 billion—on the promise that it would become the future of logistics. And it was before the launch of UberX, UberCommute, and UberPool—egalitarian offerings that feel decidedly un-baller. “The early app was an attempt at something luxury,” says Kalanick. “That’s where we came from, but it’s not where are today.”
Today, you’ll find Uber in 400 cities in 65 countries. Almost two-thirds of its 6,000 or so people have been with the company less than one year. That kind of hypergrowth has a history of causing startups—Blackberry, Palm, and Twitter among them—to lose focus. When most of your employees fit in your living room, it’s easy to communicate your plans. But now that task is exponentially harder. What’s more, Uber is a global and a local brand—the Mumbai market is very different than, say, the market in Lagos. Uber’s rebrand, says Kalanick, is about helping every person in its ecosystem—riders, partners, and employees—grok the company’s culture and ambitions.
Here’s the thing, though. Kalanick is not a designer. He’s an engineer by training and an entrepreneur by nature. Yet he refused to entrust the rebranding to anyone else. This was an unusual decision. Most CEOs hire experts—branding agencies that specialize in translating corporate values into fonts and colors—or tap an in-house team. Not Kalanick. For the past three years, he’s worked alongside Uber design director Shalin Amin and a dozen or so others, hammering out ideas from a stuffy space they call the War Room. Along the way, he studied up on concepts ranging from kerning to color palettes. “I didn’t know any of this stuff,” says Kalanick. “I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.”
Kalanick’s involvement makes more sense when you understand the rebranding was personal. “There’s an evolution here, for the founder as well as for the company,” he says, “because really, they’re very connected.” During Uber’s early years, Kalanick came across as a bellicose bro, a rebel-hero always angling for a confrontation—with regulators, the taxi industry, and competitors. Reflecting on this, Kalanick says it was all a misrepresentation by the media. When you don’t really know who you are, he says, it’s easy to be miscast—as a company, or as a person. For Kalanick, who turns 40 this year and has gained a few more shades of silver in his spiky, salt-and-pepper hair, this rebrand has been an act of self-exploration. It is his attempt to define who he is, and to give himself the flexibility to evolve alongside the company he started.
As for Amin, he wanted to rebrand the company from the day he started in the spring of 2012. A wiry designer with black-framed glasses and a very light beard, Amin, 37, and Kalanick had worked together six months earlier, on a contract project to redesign the rider app.
The way Amin saw it, Uber’s branding problems were manifold. For one, the company had two logos—one with a U inside a box on the Android app, and one with a U and no box on the Apple app. The letters in the UBER wordmark were too widely spaced, and the U had an unsightly twist on its left prong. What’s more, the lettermark—the stylized, upper-case “U”—looked awkward beside the wordmark. “It read U-UBER,” says Amin, “like ‘Oooober.’”
Kalanick knew there was a problem, but he had a long list of more pressing matters. Uber had cars in fewer than 20 cities and a mere 50 employees, only two of whom were designers. “I was a startup guy; I had a business to run,” says Kalanick. But in July of that year, the company launched UberX. UberCommute and UberPool would come later, but Uber had become a different company within a matter of months. By the end of 2013, the company had decided it was time for a refresh. They started talking to agencies and interviewed more than half a dozen. Nothing seemed right. Either an agency would have great ideas and poor execution, or its designers wouldn’t understand what Kalanick and Amin wanted to do.
It took a year and a half to agree on five pillars that best described the company Uber aspires to be: grounded, populist, inspiring, highly evolved, and elevated.
Truth be told, Amin and Kalanick didn’t fully understand what they were trying to do, either. They realized they needed to understand not only the thing they no longer were, but also the thing Uber was at the time, and what it was likely to become. Working with a few other designers, Amin and Kalanick started trying to articulate new brand pillars, company principles they could distill into simple words and phrases. They did traditional card-sorting exercises and considered images, testing terms to figure out what resonated best. It took them 18 months to agree on five pillars they thought best described the company Uber aspires to be: grounded, populist, inspiring, highly evolved, and elevated.
By last spring, they’d stopped looking for outsiders to freshen the brand. The company had, by that point, assembled a more complete design team, which had grown more confident in its own ideas. They decided go it alone. And they’d made great progress. A Brazilian designer named Roger Oddone arrived from Google to work on the typography and came up with some 200 new fonts to replace a logo many found hard to read. He narrowed it to two—a tight, blocky font and a thicker one with rounded corners. By combining the best elements of each and adjusting the prongs of the “e” in Uber, he came up with a wordmark that is easy to read.
Any design process has a way of dragging on as designers make endless small adjustments in pursuit of perfection. Not this one. Even now, Kalanick strides over to the poster board bearing the new logo and points to it, then lifts all ten fingers to his mouth and squints his eyes. “Mmmm!” he says. Amin nods and says, “The design review took ten minutes. He was like, ‘that’s good.’” But the logo introduced a bigger problem; beside it, Uber’s old brand assets looked tired. Forget a refresh—it was time for the company to rebrand entirely.
When Uber’s design team gets really stuck, they take a trip to Amin’s house. It’s a three-bedroom condo with a chalkboard wall, located at the edge of San Francisco’s hip Mission neighborhood with a Blue Bottle Coffee on the corner. In June, after sketching hundreds of icons without landing on a good lead, Amin invited them over for a week-long retreat. He challenged the designers to develop not just an image, but a concept. Anyone can draw an icon, he told them. What’s the story behind it? As they sketched on the wall and sifted through materials, the group began to focus on a blog post Kalanick had written, in which he described Uber’s culture as the combination of bits and atoms. Bits represented the machine efficiency involved in Uber’s mapping and dispatch software. The atoms represented people.
The concept stuck: Bits and atoms gave the team a frame on which to hang the redesign. They returned to the war room with this conceptual framework for building a toolbox of materials. The old branding materials were nearly nonexistent—black, gray, and blue colors and a few small design elements (a grid, a dot, and a line) that Uber’s marketers could use to put together ads and promotional materials. This bits-and-atoms framework provided a north star as the team started considering new colors, patterns, photographs, and illustrations. At least once a week they’d invite Kalanick to the war room for jam sessions that could last up to four hours.
Meanwhile, a set of patterns emerged organically. The creative mind behind these was Catherine Ray, 28, a communications designer who was puzzling over themes when she found inspiration in the small square tiles in her bathroom. Their grid formation echoed the bits aspects of their bits-and-atoms theme. She began playing with the idea, sketching ovals and lines, and then printing 50 options that she affixed to a display. She stared at it. The team stared at it. Kalanick stared at it, slapping red Post-Its on his favorites. She marked the problematic ones—ones she felt were too squished up, or too busy—with yellow Post-Its. Eventually, they agreed on the pattern that would represent the global brand.
Choosing colors was much tougher. The existing palette of black, white, and blue was steely, and resisted being incorporated into promotional materials for, say, Halloween or Valentine’s day. Kalanick became engrossed, evaluating pixels and colors according to what he euphemistically calls his “unique” set of preferences. Light smirks ripple across the room. “I basically gave up understanding what your personal preference was,” Shalin tells him. “I was like, ‘He’s got this pastel thing going with, like, bright colors.’”
They kept getting stuck. The problem was that even Kalanick realized he shouldn’t be controlling everything. It felt wrong for Uber’s global and local brands to revolve around the color preferences of a rich, white guy in California—even if that rich, white guy in California is the CEO. “We walked out and we were like, this is crazy—we’re designing a brand for Travis,” says Amin. At some point, Amin realized the process would be easier if the group established a set of principles other designers could follow. That’s when they hit on the idea of designing different color palettes for different regions.
Ebi Atawodi is the general manager of Uber Nigeria, in Lagos. She tells me that some 21 million people live in a city renowned for horrendous traffic, and 40 percent of them have smartphones. Atawodi, 29, hired away from a local telecom operator last year, is tasked with expanding the Lagos market. Uber may be a global brand, but it is a local business. To succeed, Uber must build driver networks in cities worldwide, and each city is unique. In Lagos, for example, Uber riders can pay cash. In Colombia, if you’re drunk, you can summon an UberAngel to meet you on his bike and drive your car home for you.
A brand can be a powerful convening force for people like Atawodi, who can use it to create locally themed promotional materials, driver handbooks, and ads as they attempt to expand. Amin and his team decided to create colors, patterns, and images that were specific to each market, allowing Uber employees more autonomy in crafting messages for their own cities.
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Caption: A mood board for India. Uber
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Caption: China. Uber
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Caption: Ireland. Uber
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Caption: Mexico. Uber
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Caption: A mood board for India. Uber
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Caption: China. Uber
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Caption: Ireland. Uber
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Caption: Mexico. Uber
The designers mocked up mood boards for individual cities, regions and countries, piecing together images representing architecture, textiles, fashion, and art, among other things. Then they met with people like Atawodi in their local offices via video conference to help edit the boards. “We shared it with driver partners, friends, aunties—everyone—just asking, if you were to describe a symbol of Nigeria, what would it be?” says Atawodi. They landed on the bright colors of the traditional Nigerian fabric, approving of the navies and reds and yellows the team in San Francisco had selected, and bringing them images to inspire their work. The result is a set of colors that are specific to each city. Atawodi says the office will be able to use them “to create the materials we want to create.” At launch, Uber’s redesign will offer 65 country-specific color- and pattern-palettes and five global ones.
By November, the team had a final design for the icon—a badge so visually connected to the concepts they’d developed that, in describing it, Kalanick once again narrowed his eyes and lifted his fingers to his mouth in a gesture of supreme satisfaction. But they had to kill the idea at the last minute; the icon looked too much like one belonging to an app launched by the State Bank of India. The design team returned to the war room.
Within a month, they had a final-final design—a bit (or basically, a square) on a patterned background. A few days later, Kalanick questioned whether it was really done. The team worried it was too minimalist—a user wouldn’t make the connection to the larger Uber brand. They decided to sit with the idea for a couple of weeks.
Bryant Jow came up with the concept for Uber’s new icons.
In mid-November, everyone returned to the war room once more for a brainstorming exercise with very clear objectives. By the end of the week, they were going to decide whether to keep the icon they had or land on a new, better concept. Someone ordered Indian food, the scent of which persisted into the evening as they sketched ideas on a white board. A young designer named Bryant Jow drew five boxes and popped a geometric shape around each. It just sort of worked. “We’d made this assumption that one app could represent Uber,” said Jow, 27. “But Uber had already changed; we weren’t really just one app anymore.”
Jow went home and began animating the shapes. He brought it to the group on the second day and they put their pencils down. They had it. The design incorporated Uber’s bits, a nod to high tech, and different shapes, each of which could represent a different product, and beneath them, patterns and colors that could change in local markets. Jow presented the idea to Kalanick, who loved it. By Christmas, the team had nearly finalized the icons for the rider and partner apps. In early January, while Kalanick was traveling in India, he jumped on the phone with Amin to talk through the last of the app’s refinements. “If you don’t hear from me in 48 hours,” he remembers telling Amin, “We’re good.” Amin watched the clock and his email box alternately for 24 hours, and then locked down the final-final-final design on January 19.
I met with Kalanick last week, on the same day Apple approved Uber’s new apps for the app store. There was no going back. Two-and-a-half years after Kalanick began thinking about how to help Uber’s brand grow up, its new apps were ready. He, Amin and six others spent more than two hours guiding me through the choices the designers had made along the way, and the various points at which they’d wrestled with the question who exactly are we?
It’s a question Kalanick is beginning to answer for himself. “The warmth, the colors, those things,” he says, nodding to the new brand. “That happens, when you start to know who you are.”