Uber Grows Up

In February of 2016, Uber launched its new brand identity. After a two year process, the firm announced a new logo, app icons, branding elements and core concept. Why change the brand at all? As CEO Kalanick explains, “it’s not just that we were young and in a hurry” during the last rebrand in 2010, it’s that “we were a fundamentally different company”[1]. The relationship between a company’s representation in the form of a brand identity and its financial, material and social practices is never simple. A graphic identity can never completely match, nor cover over, the reality. What is also clear, however, is that identity design is not simply an expensive exercise in creating an arbitrary system of forms, colours and shapes to slap on stationary and signage. An identity can be extremely powerful, as tobacco companies regulated into non-marked, plain paper packaging will agree. While Uber’s new identity has received criticism, it’s worth investigating the claims this design makes and the moves it attempts to make, not least because it was done in-house. While any brand identity is meant to reflect the company, most are done in collaboration with an advertising agency or graphic design studio. In contrast, Uber completed theirs with an internal design team comprised of the CEO himself. As such, a forensic analysis of the design provides an insight into the core values and objectives of this particular algorithmic ecology.

Uber had experienced the tangible effects of a brand identity very early on. In the heady days of 2010, with only five employees, the company was known as “ubercab”. The logo at the time was thus composed of two red letters, ‘U’ and ‘C’, with ‘ubercab’ written underneath. Used across the app, website, and other marketing media, the logo—like any logo—raised brand awareness, associating a particular group of products and practices with a wordmark. As a result, on the 20th of October the company received a “cease and desist” letter from the City of San Francisco, requiring it to shut down and fining it for every day it remained in operation. The complaints centred on the fact that the startup was “marketing ourselves as a cab company”[2]. The company responded within 24 hours by renaming the company, dropping the ‘c’ in the logo and leaving ‘uber’ remainding.  

Overall the new brand identity reflects some of the key changes in Uber. Between the 2010 and 2016 rebrands, the company has moved from scrappy startup to established corporation. At a glance, the identity reflects a much deeper financial investment crafted by design professionals. The 2010 ‘rebrand’ was little more than a new logo, complete with amateurish ‘red curtain’ graphic which revealed it. In contrast, the 2016 identity was launched with design guidelines, an explanation of the various identity elements, a series of animated movies highlighting inspirations, and mockups showing in-situ use (e.g. logo transitions within the smartphone app).

The 2010 brand was also decidedly amateur in quality, a criteria not as subjective as imagined. For example, the previous logotype was extremely thin in terms of its letterform weight. This is a fundamental and well understood issue in logo design. Logos must remain highly legible even at small sizes (e.g. letterhead) and across various surfaces and backgrounds (e.g. t-shirts, vehicles, glass panels). The logo was also very widely kerned, with large spacings between each character. The combination of these two qualities produced four floating and rather spindly glyphs with reduced legibility. In comparison, the type for the new logo is much heavier and has been tightly kerned, bringing it together as a weightier single unit that can be recognized at a glance.

A shift in tone also accompanies the more established Uber. The company  has dramatically expanded geographically from a startup in San Francisco to 400 cities globally. It has also expanded operationally with products such as UberPool (ridesharing), UberEATS (food delivery), Uber Cargo (package delivery), and most notably Uber for Business. Uber is thus vastly more ambitious as a corporation. Simultaneously however, it must become more conservative in look and feel, tone, and branding in order to be both credible and cross-cultural. The company is no longer transport but logistics, no longer English-speaking but international, no longer ‘ballers’ but a business-platform. And this required maturity is a distinct shift. Kalanick’s 2010 rebrand post described the logo as conjuring up words like “Luxurious, Quality, Service, Baller, Like-Woah”[3]. He went onto say that the brand was just a work-in-progress, because “another area that needs a bit of work is incorporating the Uber ‘winky-face’ into our identity”[4]. In contrast, the 2016 identity is a serious and seriously crafted affair. Elements such as the black square, the purposeful lack of English characters in the icon, the muted greys of menu interfaces, and highly gridded geometry all attest to an identity which must work much harder across an array of media and business cases, while simultaneously conveying notions of stability and trust to a range of new markets. But to really unpack the identity, we need to go deeper.

The Atom and the Bit

Conceptually, the new identity centres around two elements: the Atom and the Bit. For Uber, this tells their story of technology (bits) moving the physical world (atoms). In terms of design, the Bit is essentially a square, while coloured patterns underneath or alongside represent the world of Atoms, the ‘human’ side of cities and people.

(Talk about Bit, ‘the heart of our technology’ first?)

The patterns are Uber’s attempt to localize their products and services. After all, the company says, “if you’re going to be embraced as part of the cultural fabric, you certainly can’t have the same look and feel in Chengdu as you do in Charleston.”[5] The design team thus “spent months researching architecture, textiles, scenery, art, fashion, people and more to come up with authentic identities for the countries where Uber operates.”[6] A palette of greens and maroons emerges from the rolling hills of Ireland, for example, while the vibrant blues and golds for India seem inspired by fishing boats on the Ganges.

What’s strange about this approach to Atoms is that Uber wants it both ways. The design wants to push against the “black and white, distant and cold” notions associated with pure technology and previous brand incarnations, incorporating the warmth and vibrancy of the human. Additionally, the design wishes to adapt, taking on a particular flavour in each city with regional palettes and patterns. What’s immediately apparent, however, is how carefully controlled this infusion of the local and the human is. The grid for China, for example, uses two inspiration images. The first depicts a cyclist crossing a bridge during a misty morning. The mist serves to desaturate the image, removing extraneous colour and producing a uniform blue. The regular pylons of the bridge act as strongly repetitive visual elements, providing a kind of ordering mechanism. Curiously for a country with over a billion inhabitants, the landscape is almost entirely devoid of people.

The second Chinese image depicts a traditional Buddhist temple with hanging red lanterns. Like the bicycle image, the image is carefully cropped and corrected to highlight two specific colours. More importantly, like other architectural images in the identity, it is a facade. This makes it strongly flat and frontal, providing a direct mapping across to a flat colour and surface texture. This careful curation of inspiration images makes the transformation from photograph to pattern very obvious. At the same time, however, it represents a tightly curated (and it must be said, cliched) understanding of locality and culture rammed into a highly abstracted output. Messy life becomes manicured life.

In their abstraction, non-representation, and infinite repetition, Uber’s patterns are similar in many respects to form of Islamic art. Laura Marks points out these overlooked roots of contemporary information culture in her book Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of New Media Art. As generated and animated imagery which help establish the interface for the app, Uber’s patterns seem to perfectly fulfill Marks’ claim that “what we see and hear is often the end result of processes of information: databases and the algorithms that make them act.”[7] Uber’s patterns are flattened and abstracted, removing any vanishing point or perspectival cues. Glowing dots (Atoms) move from one point in the grid to another, indicating an informational or logistical network. Though not ‘live data’ as such, these animated patterns allude to the addressability of the Uber algorithm lying just under the surface – its ability to locate, track, target and predict. Thus, rather than ornamentation or decoration, we read these patterns as information. Thislinks with Deleuze’s claim, quoted by Marks, that “The screen itself, even if it keeps a vertical position by convention, no longer seems to refer to the human posture, like a window or a painting, but rather constitutes a table of information, an opaque surface on which are inscribed ‘data’.”[8] 

Patterns, seamless and endlessly repeated, are intrinsically linked to the infinite. The edges of the phone don’t so much crop as frame, indicating that this network stretches on infinitely. Like a Mondrian painting or an Islamic motif, what one can see “is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric.”[9] For Marks, Islamic Art presents a “qualitative infinity.”[10] The nature of God exhausts our attempts to describe him. The universe is comprised of unending variations. Depictions of nature (floral and vegetal arabesques) and the Qu’ran (calligraphy) may allude to but never capture this totality.

In contrast, information technology is a “quantitative infinity.”[11] Thousands of servers. Millions of CPU cycles. Billions of web pages. In place of God, we might try (and fail) to contemplate the sheer quantities of information that pass through our networks on a daily basis. For Marks, however, this is a “lame infinity”. Rather than enlightening through contemplation or uniting through interconnected experience, the infinity produced by information media is often “a dispiriting phenomenon.”[12] Like the motorway system, information infrastructures often simulate freedom while ensuring conformity. The vast space of ostensible freedom presented by the Internet shades quickly into a new terrain of targeted advertising and data-mined digital labor. One might also update this list to include the surveillance techniques made known by Snowden, a revelation which shifted the network from tool of liberation to one of domination for many in the public. One prime example of this ostensible freedom is the ‘filter bubble’ as coined by Eli Pariser. The bubble is the algorithmically tailored information that each user sees. Thus, while browsing the ‘wide open’ cosmopolitan spaces of the Internet, the user’s world view is reflected back at them in the form of curated feeds, custom results and optimized dashboards – reinforcing their particular politics and filtering out any contrary content.

However information technologies are not effortlessly totalizing and immaterial entities. Instead they must be continually performed via ecologies comprised of raw matter, labor practices, social protocols, political bodies, and so on. In order to do real work in the world, informational (or algorithmic) infrastructures are embodied in particular materials and performed by particular agents. In other words, “computer media enfold the world that produced them.”[13] Thus, for Marks, a more compelling and productive form of the infinite is located at the intersection between information and the everyday, between ‘pure’ software and the messy social, between abstracted logistics and sweaty labor. She writes that the infinite is to be found in “the billions of electrons that carry a voice from a call center in Mumbai to a caller in Vancouver; or the millions of tea leaves in the cups of tea the call center workers drink to stay alert.”[14]

Partners by Design

In October of 2015 Uber released a new app for their ‘driver-partners’. The app team operated with a human-centred or user-centred approach, which essentially denotes understanding the problem or the design opportunity from the end-users perspective. Thus, according to Wired, the team reviewed “copious amounts of research pouring in from around the globe. They’d sit in on focus groups and attend driver-led meetups to get a broader sense of what drivers wanted from the app. And, of course, they’d interview local drivers whenever they got in a car.”[15] 

Of course, human-centred design also entails negotiations. Which suggestions should be taken on board, and which may be discarded? Which users are ‘indicative’ of the broader group and which are ‘edge-cases’? Do drivers in one city warrant a localized variation in the application, or does consistency and universality trump regional challenges? Do rookie drivers offer fresh perspectives, or simply lack the experience to provide insightful feedback? The ‘user’ is thus a constructed entity, comprised of averaged statistics, formulated user-journeys, rewritten user-stories, and imagined user-characteristics (personas).

A specific configuration of user-requirements is selected by the design team in conjunction with other stakeholders and factors. Chief among these is the client and their particular objectives for the product, which in this case would be the Uber management and board which oversees the design team. The app, therefore, is not a pure materialization of user wishes. Nor is it even a ‘natural’ progression from construction of an ideal user to construction of an ideal app. Instead, the app itself must be seen as a kind of battleground, a contested space. The final mobile application thus embodies a series of negotiations between parties in the form of screens, behaviours and information which have been ‘signed off’, developed and launched.

Constraints and Solutions

Contested space is not meant as a metaphor. To understand this, we need to look at the Partner app as a designer would. The first thing she would note is that this design is for a mobile device. The mobile has a specific range of form-factors (physical dimensions) and screen resolutions (digital dimensions). In comparison to desktop or even laptop devices, it represents a drastic shrinking of screen real-estate. One of the most widely used monitor resolutions is 1366 x 768 pixels, for example. By contrast, some lower-end mobile devices are running resolutions of 320 x 480 pixels. Though more recent models support higher resolutions, designers cannot simply ignore a sector of users and their particular device without some serious justification. Whatever optimal or ideal device is chosen, therefore, the interface also needs to account for a lowest common denominator. This shift requires a vast reduction in the overall amount of information shown on screen. Design strategies like ‘mobile first’ begin from this highly constrained space, starting from nothing and adding on complexity, rather than stripping it away. Mobile application design must be highly attuned to both the physical and digital constraints of space.

The second thing a designer might notice is the primary navigation choice. The compressed space of the smartphone screen has led to a significant design problem. How does a design offer intuitive mechanisms for navigation while leaving maximum space for content? The sprawling drop down menus and left-hand navigation used traditionally for desktop interfaces are not viable options. Until recently, one of the most common solutions has been a concealed Sidebar menu denoted by an icon of 3 stacked lines, popularly known as the Hamburger. This seemingly elegant solution, however, has major drawbacks, cutting engagement rates and going unnoticed or untapped by high percentages of users. Many apps therefore have switched to a Tab navigation which displays the major sections as icons along the bottom of the screen. Tab navigation takes up more space but is always visible. Located closer to the thumb, it consistently produces a more engaging, or ‘stickier’ application in A/B testing.

The key proviso of a Tab menu as a design pattern is that only four items can be included. In portrait mode, the smartphone screen will only contain four icons with labels which are still readable and which remain wide enough to be tappable. In terms of mobile application development, we can begin to understand the connection between space and architecture. In other words, the menu makes explicit a connection between the ergonomics of the hand, the physical form-factor of the mobile phone, the screen-space available to the interface, and the architecture of the software itself—the arrangement of sections and services. Which information is buried or bundled? Which sections are prioritized or privileged?

Design makes decisions about what is included and excluded. As we’ve seen, in mobile application design, this is often based on the way that hard spatial constraints intersect with other sociotechnical factors such as network load times and conventional user behaviours. This is not nefarious but necessary. At the same time, however, these decisions have significant consequences. Design, like data in this sense, acts as a positive ontology. It makes some things existent and other non-existent, some elements visible and others hidden. Use is positively shaped by what is on-screen, available, tappable. Particular behaviours need not be banned, censored, or policed, but simply made not-possible via the application’s ontology. The Partner app’s decision to use 2 of their 4 tabs to expose Ratings and Earnings is therefore significant.

Visibly Rated

As one of the four menu items, Ratings are always visible and always one tap away. Ratings are mutual—both the driver and the passenger rate each other from 1 to 5 stars for each ride given. However much more is at stake for the driver, who will be barred from the platform if his rating dips below an average of 4.7. Design here provides crucial support for a company policy. Indeed, we could go further and say that the designed object performs the policy in a far more effective manner than a paper contract or an employee guidelines manual ever could. Rather than a contract which is quickly filed away, Ratings remain ‘top of mind’, appearing (whether as icon or fully in a tab) whenever the Partner app is running. Rather than an annual review, Ratings are instant—the design updating in real-time to reflect the driver’s latest results. Rather than a time-window available for voting or feedback, Ratings are always open to new data. An interesting side-effect of the Tabs system is that tabs are understood as ongoing processes which are simply hidden or revealed. Rather than ‘arriving’ at a new page or ‘initiating’ a new service, a tap on Ratings simply ‘tabs across’ to an operation which is always-on and always-computing.

Design thus performs a subtle prodding of the driver into a particular performance. This is the ‘service with a smile’ of affective labour theorized by Arlie Hochschild in her seminal study into airline stewardess work. Here, software reaches its limits. The driver performativities desired by Uber cannot be coded for technical reasons. More importantly, they cannot be coded for emotional reasons. Affective labour must always appear improvised. Spontaneous and sincere, it must seem to arise naturally from the heart. In short, it must be authentic, not automated. Uber doesn’t provide mechanisms for tipping, nor budget for ‘niceties’. In other words, there are no financial incentives for the driver. But given a rating slipping uncomfortably close to the 4.7 mark and staring at him from the smartphone screen, a driver might extend his social performance to open doors, offer mints or bottled-water, engage in cheerful banter or help with luggage. This subtle prodding via design carries out a form of Fogg’s ‘persuasive design’. Here the app exemplifies Fogg’s notion of the computer-as-social-actor, in which the computer offers social ‘support’ in the absence of humans peers.  

Earnings and Externalities

Earnings, like Ratings, are a core part of the Partner app and highly visible. Putting these figures at the forefront of the interface is a new development. Previously, the app contained no abilities to track earnings, forcing drivers to keep their own records, often simply a notepad stowed next to the seat. Earnings, then are a requested feature, driven by the user-centred approach previously mentioned. However the form this takes and the information made available are determined by a series of careful choices made during development. In other words, it has been designed, not simply dreamed up.

Like the design as a whole, a key concern here is what is made visible, knowable, countable and what is not. Earnings only displays the money that a driver earns directly from the Uber platform. Expenses such as fuel, toll charges, auto maintenance, on-road costs, meals, and the car itself are not accounted for. On a technical and business level, this makes sense. The phone display makes visible the information which Uber possesses: the ability for this algorithmic ecology to see ride distance, local rates and additional factors like surge which combine to form the final fare. So there’s no conspiracy here, no cover up.

At the same time, this particular parsing of Earnings is indicative of a wider paradigm. This is a company which bases much of its business case and shareholder earnings on a fine-tuned logic of separations, distinctions, and exclusions. Despite conforming to the Fair Labor Standard Act of having a significant “degree of control” over drivers and them being “integral to the employer’s business” the company has attested that drivers are freelancers.[16] Categorizing workers as Partners and not employees removes the financial burden of health benefits, sickness leave, and annual vacations. In addition, the company has argued for years that it is “nothing more than a neutral technology platform.”[17] As a tech, not a transport company, it bypasses the hefty regulatory requirements mandated on traditional trucking and taxi corporations. These strategic delineations remove much financial overhead, resulting in a startup-turned-unicorn currently valued at over 50 billion dollars. They also remove much human-resource and organisational overhead, providing the agility needed to rapidly expand into international markets. The lightness and lucrative qualities of Uber are thus made possible by externalizing a host of heavy financial, physical and environmental burdens onto other organizations, other people, other places.

One other example of this systematic externalization in the Partner app is the new maps feature. Maps have been updated to show surge zones continually, another requested feature. However these updated maps also show the locations of gas stations in the area “with the lowest prices.”[18] Of course, the pricing models for fossil fuels such as gasoline are in themselves a system of subsidies, indefinite deferrals and future colonizations. By visualizing the location of dirt cheap fuel, the application interface encourages drivers to continue Uber’s own strategy of externalization. At the supply source, so-called externalities might include the environmental fallout of fracking such as contaminated groundwater or the devastation of ecosystems rendered by off-shore oil accidents. At a local level these include the smog produced by petrochemical exhausts, the infrastructure pressures created by increased congestion, and the population health implications of private-motor transport.

In a similar fashion, the Partner app shows the way to public restrooms in the area. The cost of break-rooms and bathroom facilities are thus offloaded onto city councils and local government. These visual markers might be banal, but, like the Fuel Finder, they contribute in their own small way to the fantasy of an ideal Uber economy, a carefully composed sphere. On the inside, an architecture accepted and orchestrated as intrinsic—light elements like logistical operations and software structures. These flexible elements are always open to further enhancement, increased optimisations. They comprise “a positive economy… a theoretically ever-growing use of time: exhaustion rather than use; it is a question of extracting, from time, ever more available moments and, from each moment, ever more useful forces.”[19] On the outside, the messy materiality rejected as external—heavy infrastructures, expensive environmental effects, unpredictable driver behaviours. Unmalleable, uncontrollable, these elements are abandoned as dead weight that would only drag down the bottom line.

[1] https://newsroom.uber.com/celebrating-cities-a-new-look-and-feel-for-uber/

[2] https://newsroom.uber.com/take-ubers-new-logo-for-a-spin/

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] https://brand.uber.com/#our-new-look

[6] https://newsroom.uber.com/celebrating-cities-a-new-look-and-feel-for-uber/

[9] P. 60

Krauss, Rosalind. “Grids.” October 9 (1979): 51-64.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. p 20

[14] Ibid. p 20

[15] https://www.wired.com/2015/10/uberredesign/

[16] http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs13.pdf

[18] https://www.uber.com/drive/partner-app/

[19] D & P, 190.