The Internet is supposed to be the cradle of innovation. So why do four out of five dot-coms have virtually the same logo? Yes, it's true. A tireless investigation by TheStreet.com reveals that most Net companies -- you know, those groundbreaking birthplaces of revolutionary ideas -- behave like sheep when it comes to designing the graphics that represent their corporate identity. Start looking at the bottom of full-page ads in The Wall Street Journal, or check out your handy-dandy collection of Internet executives' business cards, and you'll see It. And you'll see It again and again.
What exactly is It? Call up any graphic designer, and he or she will tell you. Ask Richard Lubbers, of Web-logo designer HitSpring, for example, if he notices any, um, common element among Internet logos. Without any prompting, Lubbers instantly identifies It. It's obvious to him. Painfully so. It's that arc you see everywhere. That partial ellipse. That space-age boomerang. "It's either kind of a Nike swoosh or an orbit kind of a theme," he says. "It's such a cliche." Lubbers says clients request this peculiar curve all the time for their logos. "But I try to steer them away from that, if possible," he says, "because the look is so saturated." Yes, the swoosh is everywhere. You got your swooshes on the left.
You got your swooshes on the right.
You got your swooshes up on top, too: to the right...
...up and perfectly symmetrical...
...and back and to the left.
You got your planetary orbital swooshes.
You got your double swooshes.
And you got your swoosh oddities. The bouncing-ball swoosh...
...the dotted line...
...and the looks-kind-of-like-a-cross-between-a-ticker-tape-and-the-devil's-tail swoosh.
So what is it that all these firms find so appealing about ellipses? Well, it all comes down to the purpose of logos, or marks, as they're sometimes called. Like AT&T ( T) with its globe, like CBS and its stylized eye, a logo is a distinctive, memorable company identifier -- one that, preferably, hints at what a company does. In an economy built on information and speed, this streamlined boomerang shape fits right in. "What it's generally meant to communicate is the flow and transfer of information and ideas from one point to another," says Jonathan Taylor, creative director of Brand Farm, an Internet incubator. "People like arcs. ... They like to see a certain fluid movement." Though he's antiswoosh, Lubbers does see its power. "It looks like the future," the designer says. "It has almost a space race look to it. Anything having to do with space and satellites; it all connotes a high-tech look. And it's so well understood by the public that it's an easy way to make your company look like it's cutting-edge. ... It's almost too easy." In fact, ellipses have looked cutting-edge for decades, ever since people started using them to represent the atom.
And it's likely Internet companies will gravitate toward ellipses for decades more. Jana Anderson, who heads graphic-design firm studio A in San Francisco, says the reason so many Net companies fall back on the swoosh is that it is so hard to represent the Internet graphically. "There's nothing to grab onto. There's nothing there. It's space," she says. "The visual metaphors tend to be very cliche because of that." Companies that use curves and arcs to represent their Internet connection, says Anderson, are being too vague, logowise. "The focus is sort of in the wrong place," she says. "They're designing the mark for the medium, not necessarily what the product or service is." But try telling that to companies with swooshy logos. Talk to representatives of any company with an elliptically themed logo, and they'll tell you the same thing: It's a cliche when everybody else uses the shape, but when we use it in our mark, it's a brilliant, meaningful, unique incarnation of what makes us special. As Michelle Wu, CEO of incubator China Internet Group, puts it, "A lot of companies have this... thing. But it doesn't mean much. For us, it truly represents what we do. ... I like the logo a lot."
But others are growing disenchanted. "It's worked well for us," says Joe Michaels, chief marketing officer of e-commerce firm Nexchange. "But the next time we create a corporate identity package, we're going to seek something that's more distinctive."