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Earlier this month, TikTok user Emily Zugay uploaded a satirical video in which she made mock redesigns of famous logos. A week later, huge brands like Adobe, Tampax, Nascar and Tinder had left comments on the video, begging her to make crude reimaginings of their own marks.
She more than delivered, sharing more MS Paint-esque rebrands—some of which have been adopted by large companies in their social media avatars. The Detroit Lions printed theirs—which reads “Detriot Lines” set in Times New Roman beneath five straight lines—on tees, and had players unbox them in a video.
With no prior background in publishing design, Zugay has gone viral at a pace many creative agencies can only dream of. She tapped into a perfect formula: the meritocracy of TikTok, people’s love of logo discourse, and the kind of absurd and irreverent humor you often find in the embers of tired conversations.
A refreshing ‘rebrand’ conversation
Zugay’s ironic TikToks are the antithesis of carefully crafted rebrands. The kind that claim General Motors’ January refresh “evokes the clean skies of a zero-emissions future,” and profess that Calendly’s visual update in May is “fluid, animated and never the same twice — just like your day.”
They also parody the type of widely ridiculed carousel posts on Instagram that talk about logos like they’re every brand’s most essential asset. It’s a capstone moment in the dismantling of how we’ve thought about logos for many decades.
Logos, then and now
Beginning with 2,000-year-old cattle burns—the word “brand” comes from the Germanic for “mark with a hot iron”—to the potter’s marks of the Renaissance and the advent of corporate symbols during the Industrial Revolution, logos have historically been static.
When products were only sold in physical spaces, logos didn’t need to be anything more than shop signs and stamps on tins. Now that brands have hundreds of touch points, logos have a much bigger job on their hands keeping everything tied together.
Big brands using Zugay’s makeshift marks as their social avatars is indicative of companies becoming less precious about their logos. The flat design trend, it turns out, was a way for logos to transform into framing devices. Logos didn’t get demoted; their job description simply changed.
Nike’s logo turned half a century old this year. The Swoosh is as flat as logos get—just two curves forming a tick that’s become so iconic it has its own name—and that simplicity has given Nike endless freedom to collaborate with creators on artworks of all kinds, anchored by the Swoosh as the only consistent element.
It’s not just global conglomerates, either. In May, the National Gallery in Prague unveiled a sparse (but brilliant) monogram: the letters NPG with a square cut out of the middle. The new logo is being used as a literal framing device, layered over every brand asset—art pieces, food and drink packaging, gift shop merch, social posts—with the square cutout acting like a window through to the underlying visual. The logo is always at the forefront, becoming memorable by itself and in relation to every piece of media the museum produces.
MTV also just unveiled its first rebrand since 2009, another memorable example of logos breaking free to keep up with evolving media. MTV has had countless televised identities since the mid-’80s, ranging from mild recolors to surreal animated sequences. The 2021 refresh, ironically, curbs some of that freedom to make room for a different kind of flexibility: the outline of the blocky M becoming a responsive border for content across every MTV touch point.
So, logos now have a choice. They can remain static marks, or become complex systems that live, breathe and adapt to each new campaign. Both approaches can produce great work.
The logos you don’t see anymore
As Zugay’s TikToks drive another nail into the coffin of how we’ve previously thought about logos, we’re left with the question: What is a logo for? We obviously care a lot about them, given how social media ignites for a few days every time a well-known brand upgrades (or downgrades) its most iconic asset.
Perhaps Michael Bierut, senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art, said it best: “Logos are really like empty vessels into which you pour meaning.” Paradoxically, the most effective logos are the ones that do their job so well, we don’t even need to see them anymore. A curving white line on a red background is all we need to think of Coca-Cola.
Back in 2010, the Lemon Demon song “Redesign Your Logo” had the same anti-fluff attitude that fueled Zugay’s videos. One verse goes:
DNA is crucial, we must understand it
In the human genome we will find your logo
Everyone will see it, every demographic
If they fail to see it, are they even human?