Lots of things made the news on June 6, 2012: the last transit of Venus for this century, the 68th anniversary of D-Day, the arrival of the Space Shuttle Enterprise at its new home at New York’s Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. But the biggest buzz in the digital realm concerned some plastic surgery done on an internet celebrity.
The Twitter bird had gotten a face-lift.
Working with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and creative director Doug Bowman, Todd Waterbury of agency West had tweaked the site’s previous blue-feathered mascot—clipping the tuft, reshaping the wing and moving the beak a few degrees to the north. The new bird was pretty cute, but savvy observers noted another transformation: Twitter had dispensed with its bubble typeface and “t” icon, shifting the brand’s entire identity behind a character.
As Twitter’s blog phrased it: “Twitter is the bird, the bird is Twitter.”
This was a big deal, and it still is. Why? Because Twitter’s bird isn’t just one of the most recognizable logos of our time, in just six years it joined the rarified ranks of brand icons so powerful they obviate the need for the brand names themselves.
According to Bowman, this had always been the goal. “We had the audacious thought back in our early days that we might, one day, be able to get away with only using a bird as our logo, similar to the way Apple and Nike are represented only by a symbol,” Bowman told Adweek. The trick was that the bird had to evolve to that point. Icons aren’t drawn, let alone made, overnight.
Twitter’s original mascot was an iStock bird by artist Simon Oxley whose rights were acquired for about $15. Soon after, Twitter dumped that bird in favor of one drawn by co-founder Biz Stone—a cartoonish fowl that management developed and evolved over the years, first changing it to a silhouette, then shifting it to a prominent place as the app’s icon. Finally, Bowman’s revamp furnished the right mix of whimsy and maturity, allowing the bird to signify the brand all by itself.
Which is not the same thing as explaining why the logo works. After all, Nike famously spent $35 to commission its swoosh in 1971, and it’s still perfect; while Pepsi dropped $1 million to refashion its logo in 2008, and the results were forgettable. How did Twitter’s bird find its perch in our cultural consciousness?
“The Twitter bird does more than simply represent the company with a visual shape; it also suggests the sound of the company name … [it] resonates on more than one level,” ventured Margo Chase, CCO of Chase Design Group. “The little bird, semiotically perhaps, represents human attributes,” added Perspective Branding CEO Simon Thorneycroft. “As we attempt to tear our faces away from our less-than-personal devices, this logo evokes the human contact and values that other tech brands have lost.”
But as Bowman sees it, the Twitter bird works because it’s both a symbol of what Twitter is and a metaphor for what it permits. “True to Twitter’s brand,” he said, “we viewed the bird as the ultimate representation of freedom and wide-open possibility.” It can view the world from high up or swoop down for a closer look.
And, of course, it can tweet.