Uber’s Undoing Part I: Whipping Boy

By Eli Schiff

In the past couple years, there have been dozens of redesigns that have grabbed my attention, sparked a fire to write—and then subsequently fizzled out, never to be realized.

But this time is different. This rebrand won’t get away with escaping the blog, because this is about Uber—the most reviled tech company in history. As I put it previously, “If Uber didn’t exist, the tech industry would have to invent it. It’s the perfect exculpatory distraction for deflecting criticism.” Uber is, in other words, the industry’s whipping boy.

For the moment, ignore the scandalous reasons why Uber’s every move has captivated the masses. Even if Uber had never had a single meltdown, one would just have to look at their numbers to understand the company’s draw. Uber is worth 72 billion dollars, making it the most valuable privately-held company in the world. Compare that to its nearest industry competitor, Lyft, which is worth a mere 11.7 billion dollars.

Lyft and Uber’s valuations.

Not only that, but this is a critical time in Uber’s ascendence, as it is on the precipice of going public in 2019. A lot is at stake. In that context, it makes sense why several weeks ago on September 12, 2018, Uber played the classic PR-dampening move—launching a major brand announcement during an Apple keynote.

At first, I was distraught this strategically timed launch might mean the rebrand would go without notice. As Josh Topolsky exclaimed, “We need to talk about this.” I wholeheartedly agree.

The rebrand made a minor splash, but hardly the one it deserved. That calculated absence of intrigue is precisely why the rebrand warrants further study.

Icon Trajectory

What people think happened in the 2018 Uber rebrand given conventional reporting.

The reporting on Uber’s 2018 rebrand has been widespread, though plenty flawed. For one, it mostly consists of credulous praise for the company and its supposed newfound pure intentions.

Consider the analysis by Armin Vit, the design rebrand reviewer behind the site Brand New. Vit gushed about the new logo.

The new logo is a definite line in the sand that moves Uber into a more positive and accessible aesthetic that puts functionality and practicality first…At first glance, the new logo is… nothing. It is the most bare-bones rendition possible of a company name. It barely registers as a logo…You might disagree with me: but it’s actually perfect. It’s not a perfect logo. It’s a perfect logo for Uber — now…It may potentially also communicate an unwelcome coldness that contrasts negatively from the warmth and friendliness implied in the Lyft brand and its drivers but, as long as Uber and its drivers stay on the straight and narrow, the associations should become positive. …the logo is actually quite nice and as masterfully done…there is good deal of craftsmanship at work here that will serve this logo well in the long run.

As you can see, insofar as Vit was critical—and he most certainly was—he was sure to hedge every criticism of the brand by immediately turning negative attributes into virtues, and doing so with the most effusive praise possible.

I have to give credit where it’s due. Vit really knows how to uphold extremely friendly relations with design companies. That might be why Wolff Olins (one of the agencies Uber hired for the rebrand) gave him ”exclusive” imagery in advance of his review, as he bragged at his annual Brand New conference this September. Not only that, but his PR amplification didn’t go unnoticed by Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi himself, who tweeted out Vit’s review less than two hours after it went live. We’ll return to some of Vit’s thoughts on the rebrand in due time.

But more than the general celebration of the new rebrand, and at-worst, skepticism towards it, the reported story behind the all-important icon has been incomplete at-best.

The actual history of the Uber icon (iOS).

Most publications missed the patterned 2016 icon as though Uber’s prior rebrand had never occurred. But the remaining few writers who did cover any interim icon ignored that Uber has transitioned icons not once, not even twice, but five times between 2016 and 2018.

Out of the recent icon redesigns, the first and most controversial iteration came in February 2016, featuring a bit (rounded rectangle) and atom (circle) motif overlaid on a patterned teal base. This icon bucked the trend of flatness with a minor, almost-invisible dropshadow.

Only a few short months later, in November 2016, Uber did the unthinkable. They released the bit and atom (with slightly different proportions) on an icon with perceptible depth. Not only did the treatment have a visible dropshadow, but it also had a criminal inner highlight.

Just over a year later in October 2017, following a redesign of the application UI, Uber launched a third variation on the bit and atom, this time set in all black, and with a new set of proportions—and of course, it was flat. When reached out for comment, an Uber representative said “we simplified the app's icon to better match the look and the feel of the new app's design.”

Strange then that despite their newfound commitment to consistency between the app and its icon, they snuck the November 2016 dimensional icon back into the app in late 2017/early 2018. This would be the icon prior to their 2018 redesign.

Uber Eats

The Uber Eats icon trajectory. It’s not obvious, but Eat app (top row) is a different company entirely.

Also curious is the lack of public attention to the Uber Eats icon, which has had a similarly rough past several years. The Uber Eats icon started out as a stylized fork, but in December 2017, with little fanfare, Uber launched a new green version eerily similar to the pre-existing Eat app. Eat publicly mocked Uber about the icon similarities, and Eat designer Ismet Trako contacted Uber about the issue. Shortly after, Uber changed their icon, albeit only slightly. Uber would do so again prior to the 2018 rebrand.

Looking back on the February 2016 brand refresh, it’s funny to recall the prediction of then Head of Design at Uber, Andrew Crow, as he announced his departure from the company. In his announcement, referring to the centerpiece icon and brand, he said, “we created a beautiful new brand for the company that will lead us forward for years to come.” Replace ”years“ with ’months,’ and Crow would’ve been spot on.

Looking at the discontinuity in Uber’s icons, one wonders what insecurity could have led to such results at one of the industry’s few design powerhouses?

Shaky Foundations

Much of the dysfunction of Uber’s design team has been explored in Uber’s Atomic Meltdown, my criticism of the 2016 brand refresh. But in light of this major brand update, the story warrants an expansion.

Kalanick hanging out with some friends in Korea (via Bloomberg).

Since Uber’s inception, Founder and CEO Travis Kalanick has been plagued with an array of allegations against himself and his reports, including sexual braggadocio, paranoiac conspiracy theories about competitors sabotaging the company, illegally obtaining passenger medical records to discredit rape allegations against Uber drivers, anti-competitive action, opportunistic surge-pricing during natural disasters and terrorist attacks, wage gaps, “bro-enabling,” paying hackers off to hide a data breach, surveillance of passengers and journalists, career sabotage and infighting, over 200 claims of sexual harassment against employees, corporate karaoke escort bar visits in Korea, law enforcement evasion, annually cheating drivers of $500 million, profiting off of lazy background checks resulting in the rape and murder of multiple passengers, using “Boober” status to get laid, industrial espionage, fraud, breaches of fiduciary duty, and worst of all, Kalanick just not being a nice guy. And these are just a few of the things the company has been publicly accused of so far.

In accordance with such a diverse set of alleged misbehavior, Uber has amassed an ever-growing collective of enemies over the years—local, state and federal politicians, the cab cartel, domestic competitors including Lyft and Google, international cab companies like Ola, early investors and board members like Benchmark, female riders and employees, the #DeleteUber movement, and most viciously, the full weight of consensus journalism.

2016 design rebrand

Uber’s design leadership in 2016. Back row: Shalin Amin, Mirtho Prepont, Roger Oddone, Travis Kalanick (CEO), Catherine Ray and Bryant Jow. (Photo via Wired.)

As 2015 rolled around, in what seemed a looming wave of destructive possibility, Kalanick set out to leverage the power of design to the company’s advantage. He tapped then Head of Design, Shalin Amin, to lead the project.

But as Amin would soon come to find out, Travis was going to be the one in the driver’s seat. The 2016 rebrand would go down as one of the most micromanaged, and moreover, mismanaged redesigns in corporate design history.

As I explained in previous coverage, a lot was at stake for Kalanick—his reputation, and leadership. The rebrand was crucial to get right:

It was a personal passion project [for Kalanick]…Countless themes were explored by the team, each clashing with the previous one…The team admitted that it took them eighteen grueling months to come up with the brand's core values.

And you can only imagine then that when it came to execution, it took just as long. In previous coverage, I explained,

Uber tore through and rejected the proposals of half a dozen external agencies and eventually made the decision to rebrand internally. On the logo alone, a designer from Google was brought in to make over 200 variations–and despite that extensive process, the logo was picked impulsively by Kalanick during a design review. According to Amin, "The design review took ten minutes. He [Kalanick] was like, 'that's good.'" Talk about efficiency.

Design leadership is the art of making life unnecessarily hard on your employees

There were many flaws with the 2016 rebrand. But technical execution was not one of them. In fact, as far as technique went, the rebrand was excellent. Roger Oddone doesn’t get enough credit for his contribution—he was the designer brought in from Google to do the 200+ variations, only to have the result be flippantly determined by Kalanick.

At the time, my reaction had much more to do with the inexplicable pride of Uber airing the dirty laundry of their design, without least bit of self-awareness as to how bad it would look. Consider that Uber PR gave thumbs-up approval to this paragraph being written in Wired:

[Kalanick] refused to entrust the rebranding process to someone else…he studied up on concepts ranging from kerning to color palettes. “I didn’t know any of this stuff,” says Kalanick. “I just knew it was important, and so I wanted it to be good.” […] Truth be told, Amin and Kalanick didn’t fully understand what they were trying to do.

One has to hand it to Amin for taking such substantial public blame for the faults of a rebrand that was ultimately the brainchild of Travis Kalanick. And more so for his eternal patience, having stuck it out at Uber to this day. It’s therefore unsurprising that Amin took a conspicuously low profile on the 2018 rebrand despite being promoted to Director of Design: Product, Brand & Marketing.

Self-centered jerks

Unfortunately for Kalanick, the 2016 rebrand didn’t remotely solve his or Uber’s problems. In fact, it only exacerbated them.

About a year later, Uber leadership met in San Francisco for a strategic meeting. Executives were distraught with the state of the company. Performance and earnings were high as ever, but some things are just not so easily quantified. As Bloomberg reported, "his deputies argued that Uber’s riders and drivers viewed the company as made up of a bunch of greedy, self-centered jerks.” That language indicates that the dissatisfaction was in no small part due to Kalanick’s navel-gazing rebrand not having its promised effect on journalists. Because as we all know, the perceptions of journalists accurately reflect public opinion, and more importantly, a company’s future profits. It is essential that corporations placate them.

Journalists still hated Uber after the 2016 rebrand.

The executives blamed Kalanick—asserting that it was Kalanick himself, and much more distantly, the culture he had created, that was the source of all their ills. And who could blame them? A quick analysis of reporting during the period indicated (wrongly in retrospect) that only the forcible removal of Kalanick would put Uber back in journalists’ good graces.

Kalanick naturally disagreed with his colleagues on his personal culpability, and that of the Uber culture—arguing that “the company had a public-relations problem, not a cultural one.”

What happened next sealed Kalanick’s fate (via Bloomberg):

[Several executives] asked Kalanick to step into the hallway…They hunched over a laptop to watch a video…grainy, black-and-white dashcam footage of Kalanick in the back seat of an UberBlack…heatedly arguing over fares with a driver named Fawzi Kamel. “Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit!” Kalanick can be heard yelling at Kamel. “They blame everything in their life on somebody else!” As the clip ended, the three stood in stunned silence…[Travis] literally got down on his hands and knees and began squirming on the floor. “This is bad,” he muttered. “I’m terrible.” … [Kalanick] called a board member, demanded a new PR strategy, and embarked on a yearlong starring role as the villain who gets his comeuppance.

Kalanick should have known that it’s highly unbecoming of a billionaire mogul to argue with a peasant. While it may be proper to treat a technical employee such as a software developer as an equal debate partner, treating a service worker in this way is to renounce one’s nobility. As DC politicians demonstrate, when a peasant shrieks their perceived grievances at a noble, getting spittle in his face, he is meant to maintain a stiff posture, and then proceed to undermine the peasant’s interests from behind closed doors. New-money Kalanick would come to learn the unspoken agreement: having ‘fuck you’ money didn’t mean he could actually say ‘fuck you’ to a righteous peasant.

Bloomberg Businessweek in particular relished Kalanick’s downfall. (Illustration by Bloomberg).

So why did Kalanick prostrate himself in that hallway? Certainly not because he fundamentally regretted his behavior. No—he’d realized he, a billionaire, had just been scalped by a handful of apparatchiks at Bloomberg Businessweek, giving his board of directors all the leverage they needed to rid themselves of him and proceed to pull the company he founded out from under his feet—that no amount of apologizing would save him. And that was exactly what happened. Before he knew it, Kalanick ‘stepped down’ from the company. It was irrelevant to those who would usurp him that he was absolutely right that Uber’s problem was purely a matter of PR.

2018 Rebrand Impetus

With Kalanick out, and Uber under the leadership of a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, it was time to throw Kalanick under the bus. Bloomberg documented the reversal in their post-mortem:

Khosrowshahi was all that Kalanick wasn’t or couldn’t be: humble, a good listener, and a diplomat. In a pointed reversal of Kalanick’s mantra, he would say: “We don’t have a PR problem; we have an ‘us’ problem—we have behaved poorly.”

Saying there’s no PR problem doesn’t make it so. Not with a nightmare PR problem such as Uber’s. And thus Kalanick’s moment of defeat became the impetus for Uber’s 2018 redesign.

Uber partnered with four agencies on the 2018 rebrand. These are some of the companies the agencies have branded previously.

This time, Khosrowshahi wasn’t going to leave anything in the rebrand to chance. Unlike in Kalanick’s 2015 “passion project,” in 2018, Khosrowshahi left design to the pros at Wolff Olins (branding), MCKL (type), Ueno (development) and R/GA (development), in collaboration with the Uber Brand Experience Team. What was the advantage of leaning on external designers? Uber itself couldn’t be blamed for any bad outcomes.

In Part II of Uber’s Undoing, we’ll examine the sharp ideological divide between Uber’s 2016 and 2018 rebrands: is Uber truly a local, or a global company? And how has that affected its design?