The design world is hastening to conform to a new standard of flat geometry and bright color as brand after brand comes to the realization that their logo must—and yet, does not—look like it belongs on an iPhone. A lot of this feels like knee-jerk design, undertaken automatically and without much detailed forethought as brands struggle to remain "modern-looking." But sometimes a screen-friendly update is quite thoughtfully executed, in a way that speaks to the brand's personality and positioning. Among the most recent brands to clean up a stale mark (bread pun) is Subway, whose new visual identity was revealed to the public earlier this month.
Now, I don't know about you, but I have Subway firmly pigeonholed in my mind as what I call, "utility food." That is to say, for a reasonable (if not often surprisingly low) price, one can obtain from one of their outlets a relatively nutritious, portable meal that can be customized to adequately satisfy just about anyone's personal taste. Nothing sexy about it; it just gets the job done. You know...like a subway. It gets me from hungry to full in an efficient, albeit unglamorous manner.
"But," someone in a boardroom at Subway HQ seems to have mused, "what if our brand could be both utilitarian and glamorous?" Hence sprung forth the lemon-limey burst of corporate freshness you see at the top of this post. I don't mean that to be critical. I'm actually a big fan of this particular brand refresh for a bunch of reasons.
The new brand references older iterations in ways that will have nostalgic significance to those of us old enough to recall the dim storefronts of yore, severely colored (no green, yet) and papered with reproductions of turn-of-the-century newspapers glorifying the advent of subterranean public transit. As a kid, I'd sit at one of those yellow booths, picking at my turkey sandwich and staring at those old subway cars with hardwood floors, upholstered seats and brass lamps packed neatly into a speeding tube. Utilitarian and glamorous.
Of course, the idea of beauty and utility being mutually inextricable is at the core of the design ethos. Subway's new branding not only reflects this ideology, but connects it to the company's role in the culinary landscape as an urban pit stop, a gastronomic counterpart to Starbucks, where customers the world over (Subway has more locations around the globe than any other restaurant chain) can get an unremarkable but perfectly adequate and entirely predictable fill-up that's tailored to their needs. Graphically, we see Subway embrace its own mass appeal by expressing its new identity in geometric minimalism that feels at home in the world of smartphones and apps, and is distinctly useful in the changing consumer landscape. The beautifully executed icon symbol developed in conjunction with the new logo is a testament to exactly this sensibility. At a time when people are interacting with brands on their phones and tablets more than anywhere else, it's easy to understand how a visual brand, in order to be useful, must optimize itself for the screen environment. It must work in a square. It must hold its own and remain legible and distinctive at small sizes. The print and environmental design will adapt well enough; the screen is what matters.
In any case, what's clear is that the Subway brand has fully eschewed any lingering hint of nostalgic warmth it may have been holding onto, and with this new identity, has taken a declarative leap fully into the glossy mainstream. Looking at the historical progression of Subway's visual brand, one can see a gradual slide away from charm and quirk and towards corporate refinement.
The new logo's aforementioned "glamor" comes from its neat, organized geometry and satisfying symmetry. The disposal of the sporty, outlined italics, which were fun and energetic, but had an overwrought, distinctly fast food feel, are gone. The new brand regresses to the upright, more restrained typography of previous iterations while enforcing the geometrical system evident in the U, W and A of the old, black oval mark more strictly across the rest of the letters, including the trademark arrow terminals, which are straightened and less eccentric. The color palette has been optimized for white backgrounds onscreen, brighter and less severe (dare I say, fresher?) with the yellow darkening slightly and the green made brighter, such that both read with approximately equal weight on a white field. This emphasizes the logo's playful symmetry, and allows for the creation of the wonderful, square S bug.
The modifications are successful on a conceptual level, as well. The distinctive arrows on the terminals of the S and Y were always designed to speak to a busy, urban population looking for a quick break in the middle of a hectic day. But now that they've been freed from the constraints of that heavy, green stroke and the sad, black coffin that was its predecessor, they seem to actually gesture into open space, to the world beyond the website or the sign board. They succeed more than before in describing freedom, movement and vivacity, all watchwords of the young, urban demographic Subway courts. Furthermore, the brand's digital-first optimization legitimizes it in the eyes of a generation that demands digital touchpoints and communicates primarily in a digital lexicon.
Whereas some companies have undergone forced and unconvincing rebrands in recent years (looking at you, Verizon) in attempts to make themselves seem more connected and relevant onscreen, Subway's new identity belongs in the digital world, and succeeds in carrying the brand, fully intact, across the threshold of the digital age.