How Do You Compete With a Billion Dollar Logo?

How Do You Compete With a Billion Dollar Logo? NEWCOWLESSIGNER.jpgBy Andy Cowles
andycowles.com

Buzzfeed
is now considered one of the world's most innovative news organizations. It's value is currently over $1b, getting close to the likes of The New York Times ($1.28b), and dwarfing other digital news sites. So it's no surprise that more start-ups want a slice of the pie.

American news site Vox is early out of the blocks, launched just three months after founder Ezra Klein left the Washington Post. He claims that Vox will "Explain the world" but the site is already creating a stir, as evidenced by this rant from a senior Facebook executive complaining that "Someone should fix this shit."

He was referring to Vox's story about how you should "Wash your jeans instead of freezing them," with the complaint was that they were not delivering  "A new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native."

When it comes to content, you have to make your intentions very clear. Which is why design is central to a users understanding of what to expect. Can Vox persuade readers that it's a real heavyweight political commentator? Can Buzzfeed change horses midstream and let us believe that they too should be taken seriously?

In short, what does the design of these two sites say about trust?



Buzzfeed's logo is a functional sans; with an almost child-like feel created by the big lowercase Proxima "ee." By contrast, Vox's serif "V" on their twitter icon is huge, and when spelt out has a sophisticated flourish. It feels high end, a bit like The Atlantic, redesigned by Pentagram's Luke Hayman not so long ago.

Newspaper-logos.pngLikewise the color means very different things. Not for nothing are serious newspaper logos black, and tabloids white out of red blocks. This visual language is impossible to deny: red means urgency, black is just inert. It has no opinion. (Although Stern has managed to have their cake and eat it). But what does yellow mean in this equation?

Buzzfeed has built both traffic and reputation on spectacular viral techniques, listicles, cat videos, engaging headlines and their killer franchise, the online quiz, proving that content most people are interested in are stories about themselves.

But now they now want to do serious journalism. Reuters reports that they have boots on the ground in Ukraine, are publishing in-depth articles on Chinese dissenters and have had some big, breakout stories. But can Buzzfeed ever be regarded as a serious news site, when their key visual signature looks like this...

Buzzfeed-Logo-lol.pngOr more precisely, LOL, in black type within a yellow circle. The use of yellow has vexed media designers ever since CMYK was invented. It's the brightest color, but has the lowest tonal value, which means it has the highest level of visual cut-through.

US-small-covers.pngNowhere is this more apparent than weekly celebrity magazine covers, where yellow is the number one technique for getting words to stand out. For some in this set, relying on yellow can cause real problems, as illustrated by the case of People, the world's biggest and most profitable magazine brand. It costs a dollar more than several of its rivals, but because the whole category looks similar, People looks cheap by association.

Moreover, in the world at large, yellow is often used to deliver marketing messages and price tags, which has taught us that when we see yellow, we're being sold to.

Buzzfeed-desktop-home.pngIt all comes down to how it's used. Like a celebrity news magazine, Buzzfeed use bright yellow to draw our attention to comments, or small pieces of content that we may otherwise overlook.

It's effective, but combined with a red logo, lemon tint panels and bright blue headlines, the combination of these colors creates a tabloid environment more akin to a Screwfix catalogue, than a premium destination for serious journalism.

Buzzfeed-mobile-article.pngAlthough to be fair, at the more important mobile article level, the presentation is cooler, with the color focused on social sharing buttons.

Grazia-magazine.pngVox have taken a different tack. By making yellow the only color, they've managed to retain effectiveness, but without tarnishing the delivery. This is exactly what Grazia did in the UK magazine market. By using no color other than yellow, the palette looked like a fashion statement, and made the rest of the weekly market's use of red obsolete overnight.

Vox-desktop-article.pngVox then go further by teaming yellow with grey, delivering a sense of sober authority. And in an unexpected twist, instead of black headlines, Vox use a very dark grey. When I first saw this in the "V" of theirT witter icon, I though it was an error, but this approach is consistently deployed in many places all through the site, particularly on mobile. The content can look pale and washed out, but it does prevent the words looking like sales messages.

Vox-mobile-HOME.pngLinks are understated too, with a cool grey-blue, as opposed to Buzzfeed's more eye-popping style. Typographically, Vox has a cultured approach to their content. As any fule kno, there are only two fonts in the world, plain and fancy. Vox use both, with italic serif call-outs, traditional gothic headlines and modern sans text fonts. The feeling is sophisticated, although the small sizes create a somewhat pale reading experience.

Buzzfeed's headlines and text are primarily in the highly legible and good-looking Proxima Nova. But with bits of Helvetica and other random fonts creeping in, there is a slight low-fi feeling and a lack of brand consistency.

Like Buzzfeed, Vox's appeal is driven by virality of the headlines. Here's a super-snarky story from Forbes, attempting to dismantle the thinking behind headlines such as "The Simpsons predicted the Ukraine crisis back in 1998."

VOX-desktop-homepage.pngBut Vox are also using content curation as a way of building a content mix, as this homepage shows. Here, they pair a super-dull Russia and China story (good for credibility) alongside an orgasm story (good for clicks). Overall, I sense the desire to have a slice of Vice's now very substantial content marketing pie.

Buzzfeed-mobile-HOME.pngBy comparison, even on mobile Buzzfeed go flat out for volume. Everything's turned up to eleven, all of it looks fun, but there's not a serious item in sight. And to the frustration of UK editors, deploy the American style of capping up every word in a headline: "A Naked Woman Has Made The Alphabet Out Of Human Hair."

Vox use a more measured upper and lower-case European approach: "How conspiracy theories explain political parties." This typographic technique has less urgency, but a lot more conversational intimacy.
 
Overall, the Vox design direction is somewhat dull. But it's undeniably modern, with yellow keeping the site just inside the pop culture canon. From a business point of view, they have set out to claim the journalistic high ground, and go viral from there. Buzzfeed are attempting world domination the other way round, by taking the lowland masses first, and then attempting to scale the higher peaks.

vox-native-advertising.pngLike Buzzfeed, Vox's business model is based on "native advertising" or any other term used to describe ads that look like a bit like editorial. However, unlike Buzzfeed, it's really hard to see which posts are 'sponsored', and which are not.

Political authority and influence may be the motivation behind the site, but aside from the click-bait headlines it's hard to detect any real sense of tone in the content.

Unlike established news sites, I don't yet know what Vox believe in, other than an enthusiasm for Obamacare. We may be conditioned to it, but when it comes to politics, readers need to know what the brand believes in order to work out the true color behind the journalism.

This is a problem Buzzfeed just don't have. What you see really is what you get. It's not pretending to be cool, there's no attempt to seduce with the presentation. Which makes me trust them all the more.

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