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This drives me crazy.

What makes design look old? How subjective is this? Who decides?

Look at this Bell logo:

enter image description here

It's from 1969. And boy, does it look that way. It's simple and minimal, but.. it looks old.

Take a look the this BP logo:

enter image description here

Old. And not too pretty. And yet.. someone thought it's a good idea.

And something I find ridiculously curious: the old Chrome vs the new Chrome logo:

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I remember when I first saw the new icon. I thought it was pretty bad. It lacked something. Today, I look at the old one and smile, thinking "aw, that was ugly. In a cute way, though".

This doesn't only apply to logos that have been improved, I think:

enter image description here

Sorry, Nike. I love the brand, but that logo looks like you paid $35 back in '71 for it.

Now let's go for something else, though a bit off the real logo-esque topic:

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I'd believe if someone told me this was a 2013 model. I want one, by the way.

Take a look at most cars from the 90s. 80s. 70s. 95% look horrible. 4% are nearly classic, 1% are so ugly they have their own cult.

What drives the way we perceive "new" vs "old" design?

Look at the web. Flat UI is becoming more and more popular, making gradients look old.

Why? Who the hell decides?

How much of this is taste? How much of this are trends?

I mean.. you couldn't slap the old, rainbow-colored Apple logo on the back of every MacBook out there and make it look good today, could you?

... could you?

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Loosely related question/answers over at UX.SE: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/33197/… –  Anonymous May 9 '13 at 10:52
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I assumed modern cars deliberately had a quickly dating design that followed trends, so that the new car you bought 5 years ago looks old compared to the shiny, trendy new models in the showroom. A sort of planned obsolescence. I really would be surprised if this isn't the case. –  Will Hardy May 10 '13 at 8:50
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A logo is only as good as the brand. Everything else is subjective. –  Jin May 10 '13 at 19:36
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"Sorry, Nike. I love the brand, but that logo looks like you paid $35 back in '71 for it." -- classic :) –  Scott May 21 '13 at 8:25
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Frankly, I find the Bell logo from 1969 looking much more "modern" than all the others in your question. It's as "flat" as possible, which is perfectly in fashion / trendy right now. –  Xavier Jun 8 '13 at 7:01

8 Answers 8

The general principle: styles come in and out of fashion (sometimes due to technical limitations changing, often just because of whimseys of fashion). When a style goes out of fashion, it becomes associated with the era when it was in fashion, making things done in that style look of that era (therefore, dated).

The halo effect of being in fashion can also mask problems and limitations with designs and styles. When the halo has gone, these flaws leap out, and the design looks dated: "Why did they do that?".


So, for example, the 'Skeuomorphic' styles vs 'Flat Design' styles shift (as linked to by Anonymous) explains the Google Chrome example: the mid/late 2000s logo follows skeuomorphic design in that it mimics real-world textures and implies real-world physical interaction, and was made in a time (2006-2011?) when that was in fashion. The new logo is an example of 'flat design' with its very very soft muted shading from a time (2010-2016?) when that style is/was in.

The old design already looks dated because it's of a style that is slipping/has slipped out of fashion. In a few years, it'll look 'so 2000s' in the same way that Cooper Black looks 'so 70s'. The same thing will probably happen to the new logo in the mid/late 2010s.

Illustration from nmmr.nl of "so 2007" skeumorphism vs what may be considered "so 2012" flat design:

enter image description here


I'm no design history expert but you can find a design trend for each 'dated' looking style, and/or, some practical or technological reason why that style was popular for a period then abandoned when it was no longer necessary.

For example, the Bell logo reminds me a bit of the IBM logo (1972, based on a 1960s design)...

enter image description here

...which Wikipedia tells me was heavily influenced by the desire to avoid the technical limitations of, first, photocopiers, then dot matrix printers: one colour, avoiding large blocks of colour, avoiding too-fine bands or details.


The old BP logo reminds me of some things which in the 20th century would have had positive associations for British motorists: for example the badge design of british carmaker Rover, the styling of iconic UK haulage firm Eddy Stobbart... The particular shade of green is close to what is sometimes called British Racing Green, harking to mid-20th century motor racing.

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

Once, this sort of style would have been re-assuringly classic - but with Rover and other similar companies going badly bust in the 1990s, and BP and motor racing going international, styles moved on. The look arguably went from being associated with the golden age of British motoring, to a parochial, dirty, inefficient era of highly polluting old bangers, oily petrolhead bores and doomed industries.

Then there are practical considerations. The old design would be constricted by the need to stand out very clearly in headlights regardless of dirt, grime or soot on the sign. The new BP logo looked very modern and fresh when it first came out - no other petrol stations had a logo so intricate. I'd be surprised if this wasn't influenced by some change in materials (more reflective, more resistant to soot?) that made this practical.


For any dated-looking design, there's usually some explanation like this. The types discussed above:

  • A style was popular in X era until the style went too far and/or people got sick of it (e.g. skeumorphism and the old Chrome logo)
  • A style had positive associations that soured (e.g. BP)
  • A style was driven by a workaround to some technical limitation. Then, when new technology made new things possible, those new things looked like a breath of fresh air and everything done within the boundaries looked of the earlier era (e.g. Bell / IBM and maybe also BP).

Then there's also the flipside:

  • A style was a reaction to another style on its way out. At first, this new style seemed bold, modern etc - until it became clear that there was a good reason why things weren't done like that before. After a brief flash in the pan, the style dies, forever associated with (and literally "dated" by) that brief period when it was popular.

Most fashion statements (think 1980s shell suits) fit in this 'rebound' category - "Hey, we can do this now!" followed shortly by "Why are we doing this?!?!!". An example of a rebound style we're going through now might be super-thin low contrast type on digital devices - a reaction to the possibilities offered by high-pixel-density screens, but which brings practical problems of its own.

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While the IBM logo had technical reasons for designing it the way they did, that wasn't something the consumer would necessarily have a connection to. We could argue that the slab serif dates it (slab serif were in heavy use at the time) but given that IBM is still using the logo, and it has immense brand awareness, and still 'feels' like a technology logo, I don't know that everyone would necessarily say it's dated. –  DA01 May 9 '13 at 16:08
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@DA01: I'd say sufficient brand presence can overcome the fashion effect. When I see a logo with slab serif capitals and horizontal striping, I don't think "that looks so 70's", I just think "that looks like the IBM logo" (even though there certainly were plenty of other tech companies with similar logos in the 60's / 70's / 80's). Same for the Nike "Swoosh"; I don't associate it with any specific period, I just associate it with Nike. –  Ilmari Karonen May 9 '13 at 17:50
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@IlmariKaronen I like that phrase. "sufficient brand presence can overcome the fashion effect." Well stated! –  DA01 May 9 '13 at 17:55

It probably has to do with how we perceive our state of technology and major trends that drive our society. Does it make sense? Sometimes, I suppose ...

Look at the evolution of the BP logo. Throughout the year an outline and colour was added. Today it resembles a yellow and green sunflower probably referring to the customer's desire to purchase more environmentally friendly products.

enter image description here

The Coca Cola logo transformed from being strict black and white to incorporate a strong red in the 60s. It is likely that people got to accept to be more and more surrounded by colours (colour TV became somewhat widespread in the mid 1960s). In the early 2000s it communicated some sense of action (waves and bubbles), for my understanding the period of increased awareness of health issues and doing sport. The logo never lost it's characteristic tails, important for brand identification.

enter image description here

The chrome logo may be one example how we perceive technology. Today computers and the Internet are used by everybody in their daily life but some fifteen years back this whole story still was perceived as something futuristic, complicated that came along with curved architecture and spaceships. Well, the logo was only changed in 2011 so this may not apply here ..

The preference of simple, flat design may also arise because we got used to think in logos as abbreviations for simple actions. It is also more suitable to present on mobile phones, which became essential in our daily life, than complex shapes with multiple colours and shadows.

So why does the bell logo look so old? For me it does because of the edgy shape and the somewhat faded blue, maybe technical constraints at that time.

To conclude, I think many company logos try to address concerns of public opinion relevant for their market (which, today, would be our environment for the energy and car industry) while other logo design may be influenced by our perception of technology.

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The Coca Cola logo is an interesting case where it's always purposefully wanted to remain dated. It's meant to have a classic nostalgic feel. And because they've never veered to far from that, it's now perhaps one of the most timeless logos on the planet. –  DA01 May 9 '13 at 16:09
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I wouldn't mind finding out what happened at Coca Cola in 1890-1. –  Will Hardy May 10 '13 at 8:45
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@WillHardy There is a small paragraph about it at coca-cola.co.uk/125/history-of-coca-cola-logo.html but it doesn't reveal much. –  Stockfisch May 10 '13 at 10:03

The Bell Logo looking "old" is an opinion that I don't think is universally shared. Many would call Saul Bass's work timeless. Yes, it is rooted in a particular era, but not overly so. One could take that Bell Logo and stick it in a book of 80's logos and it would fit just perfectly. One could upload it to Dribbble today and it'd fit right in.

Why? Well, it's iconic. And by that, I mean two things: 1) like an icon, it's a distillation of a bigger concept. It's simple, clean, easily identifiable. Icons tend to last longer than highly stylized logos. 2) It's iconic in that it's well known and broadly seen. That isn't something a logo designer can predict necessarily, but brand awareness goes a long way towards making a logo timeless as well.

I mean.. you couldn't slap the old, rainbow-colored Apple logo on the back of every MacBook out there and make it look good today, could you?

Yes, I think you could. It, like the Bell logo, is incredibly iconic, immensely identifiable, and worked perfectly in the context it was designed for. The reason it was changed was more about overall brand identity/marketing/pr, however--not necessarily that the logo itself was dated. It was changed during an immense reorganization of the company, and the new logo helped mark that point. (Small aside: the rainbow logo was also very expensive to produce due to the number of colors, which was likely part of the decision as well...)

To get to your specific question as to what makes a logo design feel dated, it's a variety of things:

  • typography used - Type, like a lot of design elements, goes through style trends. The more ornate the typeface used, the more likely it will feel dated at some point. The sparser the decorations, the more likely the type will hold up over decades.
  • Aesthetic style - As per your car example, all design goes through trend phases. You don't see large fins on cars anymore. That was an aethetic trend that had its day. Some trends date themselves quicker merely through over-use. Take for example the early-internet era of 'bubble type sitting on a reflective surface'. It feels very dated now because it was used so much during that time that it's now forever associated with the last turn of the century.
  • Level of detail - this isn't necessarily a universal rule, but broadly speaking, one of the more noticeable design trends over decades is the rise and fall of detailed elements. late 60s/early 70s: Logos and ads and such were sparse. Geometric. All using Helvetica. By the 90s they were messy, grungy, drop shadows and textures. Same goes with UI design such as your example. mid 2000s: everything was highly detailed with buttons with shadows and gradients and reflections. Today: You're more likely to see a button rendered as a flat rectangle. (To avoid this trap, try and strip down logos to their bare essences. If a logo depends on gradients and drop shadows and textures and other rendering tricks, it may have a shorter shelf life)
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I would say that there are two main factors at play.

1. Perception of the technology to create the logo The logo that was possible in the 1920's compared to what became possible in the 80s, 90s, and today due to innovations in printing technology, digital tools, etc will influence what can be built and our subsequent perception.

For example this black and white logo from Wells Fargo could have been made in the 1800s with the technology of the time. All they needed was a metal press and some black ink. old wells fargo logo

But this this next version could have been printed with technology as early as perhaps the 40s. wells fargo

2. Current Trends - What do we currently see? Is it prevalent? For example, at this current time a flat metro UI is considered in style.

Microsoft is the most known for implementing this design aesthetic Microsoft metro icons

Many have criticized that it is a step backwards because the technical skill required to make a Metro UI is noticeably less than if you had to create gradients and shadows such as their previous icons

previous icons for Windows Office

Some people think it was created by Microsoft and is something new. The design principles are far from new and were inspired by many graphic artists before such as those at Lufthansa. Lufthansa Graphic Design

So yes, there are some principles around the technology necessary to create the icons. But the remaining factors are very subjective according to current trends.

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To offer a different perspective on "the technical skill required to make a Metro UI is noticeably less than if you had to create gradients and shadows" - I'd say knowing how to use gradient and shadow tools is one of the less significant challenges in this kind of icon or logo design: software fluency is usually just expected. The real challenge is making something that communicates the message simply, quickly, reliably - and that's harder the more constrained your stylistic palette is. Designing a good two-tone logo or icon for something non-trivial can be a serious creative challenge. –  user568458 May 11 '13 at 18:46
    
@user568458 You have a point that, "Designing a good two-tone logo or icon for something non-trivial can be a serious creative challenge." However what I was pointing out is that the actual execution of a metro icon is very basic and could be accomplished in a minimal number of layers with basic shapes. –  JGallardo May 13 '13 at 17:31
    
I agree with user568458. Complexity of construction does not make for "good" design. Minimalism often takes far more effort than the mere 15 minutes of construction time. –  Scott May 21 '13 at 8:22
    
@Scott Seems we might be having two different conversations. I was not talking about "good or bad design" I was referring to the perception of how more simple designs are usually not perceived to be as modern as designs that obviously use more modern tools and techniques. –  JGallardo May 22 '13 at 15:25
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And to reinforce your point about perception, the full color Wells Fargo logo was given a twist of the 21st century by using HF&J's martha stewart font for the tag line. The smallest details can make all the difference. –  plainclothes Aug 5 '13 at 16:01

There are lots of great answers here but I'm an impatient person and I suspect there may be others like me. So, getting to the point ...

It boils down to two main factors:

Technology

What means of production and distribution are expected, new, exciting, dominant, impactful, etc. There is a perceived temporal quality to the visual artifacts of those technologies. Crude hand-painted indications of animals are associated with the Stone Age. Engraved illustrations are associated with the Industrial Revolution. Bright chrome screams mid 20th Century US (or modern day Cuba).

Fashion

Fashion takes a lot of cues from technology but goes beyond that to introduce arbitrary matters of taste. These factors are largely decided by the taste-makers of their day and are quickly dated and tossed out. It's disposable style. There's green and then there's 70s avocado. When you see that color, it just feels dated. Until fashion decides to repeat itself.

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I can agree some logos look old AND / OR there are some logos or designs that you get tired of after some time, but my point here isn't to tear down on every logo out there.

I agree, but if I had "a better idea" I would like to use it

I don't like how some people think everything these days has to be "big bold shiny / 3D" . I have to work within my limits and I want people to appreciate the value of simplicity. Yes, SOME things look old but it also has to match the theme, mood or atmosphere of what it is or for. I'm not being specific here AND I'm not saying everything has to look old. Depends what it is.

I think what matters is the originality and captures the main theme or idea behind what it represents regardless of how 3D OR simple it looks, or how many or how little it has in detail or lighting. Of course you're going to have a specific look by the end but it's all about the feel of the brand.

Simplicity itself can still have value.

Doesn't matter if it's just 2 colors, or "simple design" as long as it captures "the right look and feel of what it represents". Where you have no specific idea for a look, there has to be "significant feeling to it"

Apart from my point on simplicity, it's all about the big picture. My point wasn't to say simplicity is the only way to go but it can still have value.

I'm not saying every logo has to stay the same. I'm not saying details never count. I'm not saying 3D always sucks and I'm not saying I hate it all the time

But 3D is not what I work with. The most I might do is give it some texture unless I want to keep it more simple.

I'm just saying SIMPLICITY CAN HAVE VALUE.

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I think in most cases with logo's familiarity breeds contempt. The more you look at something, the more you want a refresh. The very fact that we find very old things "cool", like the Mercedes, reinforces this as we are not used to seeing them every day. I didn't personally see the Bell logo as "old" as I am UK based and do not see it often.

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Nobody knows what a bell is or sees bells on a phone. That logo doesn't make any sense today. There's nothing wrong with the drawing of it--that's like something rom an icon font, there's probably an HTML code for it. What's wrong is that it is an icon of something that nobody thinks of when they think of phones.

On the other hand I don't think that the Chrome logo changed. The picture of it just changed. If it were trying to fit in on a dock bar where all the other icons were 3D and had lots of details, then it would go back. There is another logo for Chrome called Chromium:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromium_(web_browser)

It doesn't have much color, but it's the same pattern. It looks like it might be a zoom into the blue circle of the Chrome logo.

If something is timeless it is to be able to change but you still know what you're looking at.

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Logos don't have to match the product. In fact, the better ones often don't. Yes, people don't equate phones with literal bells. They also don't equate computers with literal apples. :) –  DA01 Sep 4 at 1:01

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