A cursory glance at any app-packed smartphone screen will show more than just how reliant you are on a certain taxi service, that someone you swiped right on returned the favor, or just how into chasing virtual reality creatures you are.
From a design perspective, it shows how remarkably similar most of the little app icons are. Stylistically, they almost overwhelmingly share a friendly, curved typeface, a simple symbol and a bright, inoffensive single colour. As part of a wider identity design, there’s nothing wrong with this; but why do they all look so homogenous?
“I think there’s a visual vernacular that’s evolved for the startup scene where people hang around a few colours and a few geometric shapes and typefaces,” says James Hurst, executive strategic creative director at DesignStudio, which rebranded Airbnb back in 2014, and more recently created the identity for Stratejet, a tech-first way to book a private jet online.
He adds: “These phones have only been around for the last 10 years, so it’s still a very, very young market relatively speaking. Icon design has gone from being an afterthought to becoming a big question for new brands—‘which other apps do you sit next to?’ The digital calling card is going to become a much bigger thing.”
Lee Coomber is creative director for Europe and the Middle East for creative consultancy Lippincott. He sees a parallel between the designs of apps today and the pictograms we’ve lived with for decades. “Designing for screens has nurtured particular looks, so perhaps it’s no surprise that many company logos also now want to look more like pictograms themselves. Gumtree, Uber, Apple, and Airbnb are but a few examples,” he told It’s Nice That. “These companies want the feel of a utility fit for purpose, to be a tool as much as a company emblem.”
Alongside Airbnb, Gumtree is another brand that looked to a soft, curved little icon in a recent rebrand. Earlier this year it was redesigned by Koto, an agency led by ex-DesignStudio executive creative director, James Greenfield. The new branding was centered around a vastly simplified tree icon, formed as a single, soft, bright green line against a darker green background.
While Greenfield says the colour palette introduced in the rebrand aims to “retain the natural feel of the brand,” he concedes that many marques bear similarities to one another. “There’s a dominance of round sans serif and bright palettes right now in the world of digital, but these are no better than other type styles as such,” he says, “they just happen to be the fashion and in the main quite easy to execute.
“When the app store first exploded app icons often had elements of photography or more complex visual moments. Over time these have seen a reduction, and rightly so. The app icon screen on a smartphone these days is a cleaner, more refined item that works as a gateway into a brand experience. It would take a rare genius to convince me a photo is right on an app icon.”
Uber’s new design was unveiled in February this year and created in-house. Though it differs in its use of a geometric pattern, it shares the circles and softness of its app brothers and sisters. Instead of the “U” of its name, the icon was redrawn as a circular branding device. The design concept is based around “bits and atoms,” and in a roundabout way, inspired by the bathroom tiles of Uber’s communication designer Catherine Ray. The branding takes on different colours for different territories, such as red for China and turquoise for the US; there are currently 65 country-specific color- and pattern-palettes and five global ones.
So what will we see in the future of these little icons’ look and feel? “You’re going to end up having much more interactivity with that icon,” says Hurst. “In future they might react to things like night or day, or create visual representations around having 100 unread messages or a clear mailbox. Today they act as a flag or shortcut, tomorrow it could be another space for interactivity.
“I think the opportunity to be really bold is there. There are the established codes that have come to exist, but I bet we’re going to start to see a range of brands punching through.”
Greenfield agrees. “I do feel we are on the edge of a revolution where we re-introduce some layers into the brand to aid recognition,” he says. “All design, whether digital or physical, goes in cycles with the early adopters and new brands breaking in with leaps of imagination.”