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Paul Rand’s Ends

The 2003 UPS identity redesign is a good example of a bad trend: Identity design that cuts back on signal in favor of the safety of the noise.

In April of 2003, UPS released what has since become a very hotly debated brand update. Summarily, UPS retired Paul Rand‘s iconic 1961 package-and-shield logo and replaced it with “a two-tone, 3-D-look shield topped with a quasi-swoosh [and a wordmark] set in a customized version of [the common logo font] FF Dax…” (Source*)

* As evidence of how positively engaging this identity redesign was, the discussion on this article received its first comment April 7, 2003 and got its last one on November 9, 2007!

UPS' logo redesign of 2003
The great UPS logo debacle of 2003

The responses to this re-branding varied from declaiming FutureBrand, the New York-based designers of the new logo as glorified Paul Gaskills to flat-out declamation that “the new logo is better,” and subsequently that, “you typography/graphic/illustrator bullies need to relax.” (Ibid).

A couple of more gems from this really swell discussion, for your consideration:

The old one was stale, but it reminds us of a time when quirkiness and personality were still allowed into the world of commerce. The new one expresses absolutely nothing, and quite well. It’s the perfect emblem of this age.

The old one always reminded me of a face, and the package was like a hat with a little bow in front. It said “straitlaced efficient guys in uniforms delivering stuff.” The new one reminds me of a kid with the haircut I had in my skateboarding days. Coupled with the brass-badge look, it gives off a strange mix of incompetence and official self-importance.

However, for my money, the situation was best summed up preemptively (you heard me) by Susan Kare, most widely known as the designer of the Windows 3.0 iconography as well as for the infamous “smiling Mac” and MacPaint icons. In a 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine, she opines, “[a]t one point, some years ago, it seemed as if all the logos that had any personality – such as the winged horse of Mobil gas stations – were being replaced by death-star shapes that supposedly looked high-tech. UPS didn’t need to make that kind of update.”

Well it turned out some three and a half years later that they made it, rendering the question of whether they needed it or not immaterial.

Signal to Noise

Or so it would seem. As it turns out, UPS has provided the design culture with a rallying point against what I believe have become endemic behaviors on both sides of the design equation: Both designers and their corporate benefactors, when charged with the identity (re-)development process, too often take the “safe” road, phoning-in the de facto message-less identity (see above) instead of taking the opportunity to do some mental unpacking and come up with a better solution. What we lose in this situation is what Paul Rand stood for, the human parts of the design. What we get instead is assembly-line brands – brands with a very low risk of catastrophic failure, but also with an equally infinitesimal possibility of “standing out from the crowd”.

I believe this phenomenon to have flatly negative consequences for corporations, and I’m going to evidence that belief [quickly] with an appeal to information theory, and specifically with an appeal to the information theory formulation of the concept of redundancy.

Redundancy in information theory is the number of bits used to transmit a message minus the number of bits of actual information in the message. Informally, it is the amount of wasted “space” used to transmit certain data.

Gradients, lens flares, faux-3D elements, and overused fonts can, as a result of their relative overabundance in our design ecosystem, officially be classified as noise. This means that about 90% of the new UPS logo is “wasted space.” Whereas, with the Rand logo (and in this way, like much of his identity work), it’s all signal, baby.

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PaulDec 21, 2007

Comments on this post


I completely agree with you on this and it’s slightly depressing that people are starting to take notice after some of the great logos have already been butchered.

I truly feel that more and more identity systems are fitting a stylistic uniform; making them all but conceptually indistinguishable. Ironically, that flies right in the face of the goals of strong identity design.

P.J. Onori at 6:16pm on Thu, Jan 10th.


Why didn’t they just put all that drop shadow/lens flare bu;&shit on the Rand version and at least keep the Rand version in some form.

Daniel at 10:52pm on Sun, Nov 20th.


I think that the older design was better because it was to the point and it stuck out and didn’t blend in with the rest of the logos. The older version is an example of a better design because it shows exactly what the UPS does and it allows the viewer to relate the UPS to sending packages.

Blinda at 6:30pm on Tue, Jan 24th.


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