Illustration by Laura Thompson

During the First and Second World Wars, German U-boats menaced Allied ships. Large silhouettes on open flat terrain are difficult to disguise, and with the tell-tale smokestacks working away, torpedo attacks were relentless. Various camouflage approaches were put forth and found lacking (yep—even ships disguised as floating islands) until a reserve lieutenant in the Royal Navy named Norman Wilkinson made a proposal: “dazzle camouflage.” As it turns out, covering the ships in highly active patterns had a confusing (or dazzling) effect on U-boats targeting enemies through their periscopes. Just a small degree off in the trajectory of a torpedo could result in either a complete miss, or a strike in a less-crucial section of a vessel. 

“Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool,” Edward Wadsworth, 1919. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Public domain.

Dazzle ships were graphic design wonders. Very modern. Very bold. Very strategic. And today, their deflective abilities seeded in misdirection very much correspond with a certain newsmaking rebrand.

On October 28, Mark Zuckerberg released a video announcing Meta, the new master brand for the group of entities previously known as Facebook. Containing WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, Oculus, and more (all branded with “From Facebook”), Facebook itself had arrived at several inflection points that would spur an overhaul of its entire brand. The first, and most commonly known, was the result of social and governmental attention after five years of increasingly divisive content—fueled by a toxic combination of Russian disinformation, and algorithms that transformed outrage into advertiser dollars. The second was a gradual decline in users, due to challengers like TikTok and the general sense of the platform’s stagnation. 

The company’s answer to these two issues arrived in the form of Meta’s brand architecture. Over the past week, it’s been pointed out how this internal reshuffling now offers Zuckerberg more protection. Instead of one target—i.e., Zuckerberg—there is now a fleet of dazzle ships for legislators and critics to take aim at. If any government wants to investigate a product’s destructive effects on the mental health of young adults, or the tampering by foreign elements in national elections, the as-yet-unnamed leaders of Instagram, WhatsApp, or Facebook—the latter now demoted to just another app within the portfolio—will take the heat. The short attention span of the public will be satisfied, and the pain will be minimized.

Brand architecture at large tends to be more social engineering than master planning. A company grows over time, adding or acquiring other lines of business, and eventually finds everyday business to be too complex, with conflicting POVs between divisions and senior staff. (Consider Facebook/Meta’s other properties dubbing the association with the social network a “brand tax.”) The brand architecture exercise requires one to research the company, interview stakeholders, and then come up with a plan that will often require months of socializing before achieving total buy-in. After that, the company hopefully finds itself with more efficient production, fewer redundancies, a more unified culture, and a structure that helps both employees and customers navigate its offerings.

Brand architecture at large tends to be more social engineering than master planning.

With that being said, let’s break down common reasons why rebrands happen—and why Meta is different. This isn’t comprehensive, and some companies may appear in multiple categories, but it does offer food for thought. 

Sometimes, internal initiatives may be clearer to employees than customers, and a visual refresh is intended to signal “different and better” beyond the company walls. Mailchimp rebranded as part of an internal growth strategy beyond just email campaigns. Yahoo! used their most-recent identity to reflect a new strategic focus on the platform as an “amplification brand.” Dunkin’ dropped the “Donuts” as they leaned into coffee and other offerings. And Dropbox wanted to focus outwardly more on creativity.

As the market shifts, sometimes a brand simply needs a facelift. Call it fashion, or a desire to remain relevant, but the rebrands of Mastercard, Taco Bell, PayPal, Adobe Creative Cloud, Kodak, Turner Classic Movies, and Comedy Central all seem to fit that bill. But companies also get pretty before entering into more complex scenarios like a merger, acquisition, or public offering. Spotify rebranded before their IPO. AOL rebranded just after spinning off from TimeWarner. And DoubleClick (full disclosure: I was involved in that project) rebranded moments before being acquired by Google.

The Facebook rebrand exists outside these standard explanations. Theirs is a shell game, where the rebrand functions as a metaphorical dazzle ship in hopes of throwing off external pressure and scrutiny. It’s not unlike Philip Morris’ attempt to disguise their connection with tobacco via a rebrand to “Altria.” Or Uber, which, after the debacle of the Travis Kalanick era, publicly announced a shift toward a more people-centric focus and rebranded. Still, Uber continues to ignore local regulations, stash revenue offshore, and refuse to consider drivers and delivery people employees. 

The Facebook rebrand exists outside these standard explanations. Theirs is a shell game, where the rebrand functions as a metaphorical dazzle ship in hopes of throwing off external pressure and scrutiny.

Meta is our most dazzling rebrand of the current era, in that it deflects attention and blurs accountability.

Yes, the new Meta brand structure allows for the acquisition of a wider range of innovative companies working in a future version of the internet known as the metaverse—where the border between the real and digital becomes even more blurry. But perhaps the most motivating point behind the creation of Meta is that Facebook’s products are, to a degree, at the mercy of Google and Apple. Both control their respective operating system and app distribution system. Both control the amount of user data that is accessible. And both get a percentage of any financial transactions made through their platform. 

He doesn’t lead with this tidbit, but halfway through the video announcement for Meta, Zuckerberg states his case by saying, “Building products isn’t enough. We also need to help build ecosystems.” The solution to “living under the rules of other platforms” is to build your own—an idea that goes back as far as his June 2015 memo titled “VR/AR Strategy and One.”

The Meta announcement video itself is quite a piece of brand work—over an hour long, technological wonder after wonder, and promise after promise of a clean, frictionless experience where we will (capital ‘C’) Connect with others for work, and leisure. 

There is a section of the video where two friends, currently on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, share the experience of a Jon Batiste concert. At one point, passes to a metaverse afterparty are offered. We then see their avatars walking through a rather tame event, past a human-giraffe hybrid, past a human chatting up a dinosaur, then stopping to view NFTs and virtual merchandise. One buys a cap for their avatar, the other a sweatshirt.

So what then are we connecting with? What are the values of Zuckerberg’s metaverse? Right now it seems like the folks at Meta are building a new marketplace on a new platform. And we’re being further dazzled into strapping on a headset before going shopping. There are still a thousand issues to be designed and resolved before we float into this new dreamworld—latency, rendering, motion, units of currency, etc.—but it’ll still just be a shopping mall.

What really are the roles that designers play in all this? The general story in design is that we’re solving problems, helping our clients, and so on. But when we rebrand a company before it is acquired, or in the instance of Meta, are we really just acting as complicit, uncritical tactical “hands” for a company more interested in market share? If people like Zuckerberg are king, are we more court chef than master strategist? And how does that all sit with the increased attention toward the social utility of design?

All of the rebrandings mentioned above were done by the most gifted designers in the profession. The level of talent on display is absolutely astounding, if not (forgive me) dazzling. But there needs to be more to design and branding than cleverness and aesthetic skill that does little to “contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.” (That last phrase, by the way, comes from Ken Garland’s First Things First manifesto, a valuable reminder that recently saw a fourth iteration.)

If your social media feed is anything like mine, you see continual self-promotional posts  on every platform. Here’s our new logo. Here’s our new identity system. So proud to be a judge on this panel. Yes, that is part of the job. But the cumulative effect suggests that designers continue to celebrate the clever rhetoric of what we mistakenly think is our tradition of (lowercase ‘p’) problem-solving, while our clients’ activities contribute little to the larger Problems of climate crisis, fractured politics, and social inequity. 

With the Meta brand, Zuckerberg claims he wants “to serve as many people as possible.” But who, in the end, is being served? The artist Richard Serra did a video piece in 1973 titled Television Delivers People, in which he proposed that it was the audience that was served up to advertisers and their clients. 

To serve people.” 

Yeah. Feels about right.