Last month non-profit software brand Mozilla made an unusual announcement, releasing seven possible branding routes for the public to decide its new look. The project is being led by Johnson Banks, which announced the plans for the public to shape the design process back in June.

At first glance it seems like yet another wince-inducing move away from definitive, decisive design. But while Mozilla and Johnson Banks are seeking public opinion, a key difference here is that they’re not seeking the public’s designs. Michael Johnson, Johnson Banks founder, says: “People are getting confused about the difference between calling for designs and open-sourcing for commentary. Some people have even been sending in logos. It’s not a free pitch.”

The designs for the Mozilla project’s “concepting phase” are open for users to view on the Mozilla Open Design blog. Visiting the site enforces one of the central aims of the redesign: to make users understand the brand better, and to see that it’s much more than simply the company behind Firefox.

In recent years we’ve seen many high-profile branding competitions. In the case of the Tokyo Olympics logo—for which the first designs had to be shelved over plagiarism claims—the contest to create a new logo was opened to the public, much to the dismay of the design community. Another similarly surreal move was seen earlier this year when New Zealand opened a competition to design a new national flag to anyone who wanted to have a pop, only to decide at the last minute to stick with the one they already had.

So why are clients and designers alike taking this approach? “This behavior allows consumers to feel that their opinions matter,” says Bella Towse, creative strategist at branding agency Bulletproof. “Plus, it’s like free consumer research. The results won’t be as controlled nor as deep in quality, but the quantity of responses may be all that matters in understanding whether an innovation is likely to resonate. It also allows brands to fail quickly, and often without too big an outlay.”

Johnson Banks’ project has found another positive: the comments they receive have alerted them to similarities with existing trademarks, avoiding any potential discrepancies sooner rather than later, when change might be impossible.

The pitfalls, of course, are many. For one, a rebrand or a new identity is not just a new logo, it’s a holistic look at what a brand or organization is now and where it needs to go in future. That’s something that the public isn’t likely to know (or care) about. “Designers are trained to think about a demographic or a mindset of needs. Users will commonly think purely for their own needs, which may not be relevant for the wider consumer group they are part of,” says Towse.

The Mozilla project, though, is a far cry from the callouts for Tokyo and New Zealand’s designs. For one thing, the designs weren’t created from an open submissions project, they were generated by a design agency as part of a far wider, strategic identity redesign. Seeking the help of the public isn’t so much a gimmick, but part of Mozilla’s wider philosophy as a brand that advocates open-sourcing.

Johnson says, “We’re being transparent and opening the process in the same way Mozilla does coding. But you’re opening yourself up to criticism too, which can be very painful. It’s our job to have a rhino-thick skin.”

Whatever you think of the seven designs fielded so far, there’s no denying that the process by which they’re being released is fitting. Bob Young, creative partner at graphic design studio Alphabetical, says, “The Mozilla branding is being developed and crafted between the agency and the client, and they’re trying to reflect the nature of the brand by gauging public responses as they go.

“They’re taking what the public says on board, but it’s not gospel—it’s a great way of testing a design on an audience. When you’re a designer who’s visually led, sometimes you believe a message is coming through clearly, but it might be misunderstood by a non-design literate audience. It’s a very clever move that goes back to a design team really understanding the client, and using the public as a platform for development.”

In this way, the Mozilla project’s openness has different motives to the much-deplored Tokyo Olympics competition. For the commissioning body to have suffered the humiliation at launching a design into the world, then having to retract it, it felt as though they needed to claw back favor in the most public way possible. “It felt like a political move,” says Young. “With something like the Olympics, the amount of money spent on an identity is often dragged across the headlines, and that’s where a public backlash begins. When you open it up to the public it says something to the design community. Olympic buildings are always created by world-class architects, but for some reason the logic changes with the graphics.”

Asao Tokolo, Tokyo 2020 Olympics logo
Asao Tokolo, Tokyo 2020 Olympics logo

Back in 2013, Yahoo famously approached its redesign by launching 30 logos in 30 days. At a time when worryingly cheap “instant logo” sites, like 99 Designs, were coming to prominence, it sent an alarming message that a logo was just a logo—something quick and easy—without any acknowledgment of its place in a wider identity system. It would surely be a stroke of pure luck if an icon sourced in such a way was a hit with the design community, the wider public, and lived on as a celebrated symbol, like Pentagram’s V&A logo or Wolff Olins’ London 2012 Olympic Games identity.

Young says, “Wolff Olins’ design got so much criticism at the time, but looking back it was so distinctive and memorable. It wasn’t a generic Olympic symbol, and it’s stood the test of time. That’s testament to it not being crowd-sourced, but created by someone professional and entirely on-brief.”

As is frequently the case with online commentary on design projects, many reactions have been knee-jerk responses to a logo or a typeface, and many more have veered into trolling territory. “We didn’t enter this lightly,” says Johnson. “Online it’s open season, but we’ve gotten used to that. People aren’t looking at the design scheme as a whole.”

Mozilla’s rebrand process has put the spotlight on public misconceptions about branding as a discipline, but also demonstrates a fundamental of human nature.

“One thing you will always be up against with a rebrand is that the public fear change, and they’ll often be instantly cynical. That same design will become the norm once it’s been used for a year,” says Young. “That instant public perception of design as being overpriced and something everyone can do needs to change.”