Earlier this month, HP grabbed headlines and nods of approval with the introduction of its strikingly thin Spectre 13 laptop. But it wasn't the premium new machine that drew most of the adulation, as people were instead attracted and delighted by the sharp-looking minimalist logo adorning the 13's cover. Four diagonal slashes forming an abstract version of the HP insignia stood proud atop the new Spectre, signaling a company on a mission of renewal. This logo will now be featured across HP's Envy and Spectre laptop lines, serving as a premium hallmark. It represents dramatic and forward-looking change, precisely the thing HP was unwilling to embrace back in 2011 when the mark was originally devised.
The story of HP's new premium logo began in December 2008 when the American tech giant commissioned British creative agency Moving Brands to redesign its entire corporate identity. Today Moving Brands has branches in San Francisco, New York, and Zurich, but back then it was just a single London studio that was fortunate enough to have been noticed by one of HP's higher-ups. I spoke to Moving Brands CEO Mat Heinl, who served as the creative lead on the HP brand redesign, about the challenges of the assignment and how his company worked to overcome them.
"We got going very quickly," says Heinl. "Less than two weeks. For the scale of this work, that is very rare; this type of engagements can sometimes breach a year just to get going." It may have been an auspiciously rapid beginning, but Heinl and his partner Hanna Laiko, the consulting lead who'd previously worked at Nokia, soon confronted the full spectrum of HP's enormous global hierarchy and bureaucracy.
Everyone from the CEO and board of directors, through the marketing chief and executive vice presidents, down to regional bosses and design and marketing leads was considered a stakeholder in the redesign. Listening to Heinl describe an endless litany of meetings with "somewhere in the hundreds of people" at HP, I'm impressed that his team at Moving Brands was able to accomplish anything at all. And Moving Brands was only the lead agency on the project — HP had also hired a lot of other external help, whose wishes and advice had to be taken into account.
"Let’s not bullshit, it’s hard. It’s very, very difficult" to balance internal HP requirements and other external agencies, admits Heinl. But somehow they did figure out a way to make it work, even on HP's global scale, and in the end they produced "hundreds of thousands" of graphical and physical representations of a holistic new brand that could be used worldwide without being either identical everywhere or as fragmented as it had been.
Redesigning its brand meant redesigning the way HP did business
Spanning two and a half years of work, HP's brand reinvention was most impressive for its level of comprehensiveness. Absolutely everything associated with the HP name was reconsidered — from recurring user interface motifs to the retail experience to consistent industrial design principles — and brought in line with a unified vision of a tech company for the future. Consider that HP was manufacturing 100 million devices per year and had in excess of 47,000 different models on its books at the time of this proposed reorganization. Redesigning its brand meant redesigning the way HP did business. It wasn't a simple matter of picking contrasty colors, fancy fonts, and a lovely logo.
Emerging on the web in late 2011 as a design study, the Moving Brands HP redesign was universally lauded by outsiders who found it cohesive, bold, and refreshing. This was an especially positive bit of feedback for a company that had grown synonymous with soulless printers and shabby PCs, and was trying to woo consumers with the mobile webOS products it had gained from its Palm acquisition. 2011 was the perfect time to flip the switch and revive the brand's tattered image, but instead HP was too busy flipping CEOs. "We had three CEOs during our tenure," notes Heinl, before adding the classically British understatement of "that's unusual." Mark Hurd, Leo Apotheker, and Meg Whitman each had "a different background, skills, style, and team." HP was a company in the midst of great upheaval, and the fundamental change proposed by its brand overhaul was apparently deemed too dramatic to put into action.
Aside from HP finding some leadership stability, the big thing that's changed in the past five years is the recent split of the company into the businessy Hewlett Packard Enterprise, headed up by Whitman, and the consumer-facing HP Inc, which is now led by Dion Weisler. Without the imperative to appear suitably boring to be accepted in corporate environments (see the refreshed HP Enterprise logo to know what that looks like), HP's latest CEO has felt free to dust off the handsome four-line logo from HP's archives and put it on his company's new line of premium laptops.
Gaze upon the HP Spectre 13, argues Moving Brands' Heinl, and you'll see more vestiges from the original 2011 redesign project than just the logo. The particular use of materials and forms, and the close consideration of how the device looks from a distance and feels to the touch "can be traced back to the work we did in 2008-2011." When it disclosed its reasons for not changing logos in 2011, HP did note that it was employing some of the design elements exhibited in the Moving Brands design study, and what we're witnessing now is the gradual proliferation of even more of those ideas as the company seeks to once again renew and rejuvenate its image.
"Need for a visual identity that lives across a diversity of devices"
It's impressive to see just how well the minimalist "HP" logo has aged, losing none of its original incisiveness and understated appeal. This is the outcome of a deliberate effort within Moving Brands to generate a mark that is timeless — fitting into the current context, but not bound by it. "If you create something that is entirely appropriate for today," explains Heinl, "you might be setting yourself up for trouble down the road." He also stresses "the need for a system rather than just a logo, a visual identity that lives across a diversity of devices." Google recently simplified its multicolored logo precisely with that purpose in mind, highlighting a wider trend toward making logos more scalable and legible. Even in this respect, the 2011 HP logo was ahead of its time.
There is one peculiar distinction between the Moving Brands redesign and the new HP logo debuting on the Spectre 13, and it's a matter of degrees. Heinl and his team took the 13-degree slant of the original 1941 HP logo as their inspiration and as a foundational principle for their designs (such as the awesome 13-degree-tilted ink level indicators above). The new HP has decided to increase that angle to 20 degrees, which the company says "refers to the world of computing by recalling the forward slash used in programming." Other than their small angular disagreement, both companies see the logo as representing the spirit of human progress with its positive upward direction. HP is also embracing the Moving Brands concept of making the logo a design motif throughout its graphic language, product design, and UI.
Four slashes of human progress
If there's one thing I've learned from the designers of HP's brilliant logo, it's that to create a good logo you have to set out to design a whole identity and not just a nice graphic. And you have to heed hundreds of voices and consider thousands of variables. Even the seemingly simple act of slapping the logo on a laptop can be problematic. Writing out "Hewlett-Packard" with individual embossed letters on each and every laptop was a great idea to thwart counterfeiters, but it required complex tooling and machinery. The four slashes are significantly simpler and cheaper to produce, which actually grows into a significant saving when you're shipping tens of millions of machines every year.
HP's decision to revive the 2011 logo that it initially rejected is a triumph of good taste and sense. Positioning it as a premium marque that would be distinguished by the unmatched quality of its hardware also avoids any threats of cheap copycats. It's rare for me to offer any company an unqualified commendation, but in this case, HP deserves it for correcting an old mistake in the best possible way.