From the last 12 years, YouTube’s logo has been a pair of anachronisms covered inside each other. “We have the tube word placed in a tube,” says Christopher Bettig, the head of YouTube’s creative department. “This is weird. Nobody knows what exactly its meaning.” Tube is slang for a television set, which is made from vacuum tubes. But neither TVs nor tubes are middle to the world’s largest video service, which has now reaches over 1.5 billion people each month, streaming to approximately all screens with an internet connection.
So, today the brand is getting its biggest aesthetic makeover. YouTube’s logo is being revived, changing the emphasis away from the word “Tube” and onto the familiar play button which has already become iconic shorthand for the company. The service is also getting a new typeface, colour scheme, and a lot of major changes in the look, feel, and functionality of its desktop screen and mobile app.
Though today’s logo transform is the most significant in YouTube’s history, it’s not a complete transformation, like the morphing of Uber’s silver U into a backwards C. “It’s an evolution, not a revolution,” says Bettig. But the company is also using the moment to publicize a hamper of new features, planned changes, and ongoing experiments like YouTube Go. The new logo is a ribbon that ties these moves together, highlighting the company’s broader shift from a singular website to a family of diverse apps that broaden across multiple platforms.
The challenge facing YouTube’s user interaction design team when they launched the redesign two years ago was how to tie together a host of products with very diverse audiences. That is started in 2005 as a video sharing platform built for desktop internet users now exists on their phones, tablets, game consoles, and, yes, television sets as well. What’s more, YouTube is no longer a single brand. Over the last few years it has spawned a family of services: YouTube Kids, Gaming, Red, TV, and Music.
Bettig, a Frenchman who joined Google six years back and has been with YouTube for the past three, led the charge to about turn the logo design. Since YouTube was sprouting into an entire family of services, and since it has bespoke to fit each screen and video format, Bettig and his team experimented with a vibrant brand. “We had a symbol that was loosely significant of a Y, but it would be always changing, animated, and pulling color samples from the video you were watching. It could potentially pull the profile picture or header design from the channel you were watching. So you have these dynamic rudiments that would all be intersecting.”
This move towards well when the designers had mocked up on a white wall in their studio and in simple prototype apps. “Then as soon as we dropped it in product it was like, oh yeah, that’s not going to work,” said Bettig. “It’s pure chaos.” In the end, the creative department decided to keep things simple. They would put a new spin on the logo, but rely on iconography that had, over the years, already come to signify the brand. “Over the years, organically, that play button, that UI element that is front and centre on every video, became a brand ambassador, unofficial shorthand.” In user research, the team found there was slight difference in recognition between that icon and the word YouTube itself. “This thing has taken on a life of its own.”
Once they had decided to keep the play button and word mark, the team has set about modernizing them. “The old logo has a font from 1903, alternate gothic number two, and it’s been manually tweaked, so there are strange design nerd things that are off. The U in Tube is not the same as the U in You, so if you get them and overlay they don’t exactly line up,” said Bettig. The same in the case of play button, whose four corners weren’t all rounded the same way. These were recognizable for those who have a keen eye, that design had taken a backseat over the years to scaling the product. There was no art department at YouTube until Bettig started it three years ago. Now the team had the chance to clean up things.
They decided to ditch the original typeface and design on their own. They experimented with fonts based on styles from classic television and the VHS era as well as more contemporary looks. At the end, they went with something that retained the spirit of print. “We wanted to keep the history, and the strain of a media typeface that was made in 1903 to be typeset manually with a digital platform that reaches beyond than any newspaper of the time could ever visualize of.” For the play button’s updated colour, the team tried to find grounding in the medium. “Looking at reds, we wanted to go for something that would tie to video,” Bettig mentioned. They settled on #FF0000, “a really pure red that goes to the RGB of videos.”
The new font, color and logo are rolling out today on YouTube’s desktop and mobile app. The goal is to work them into the entire family of services the video giant currently offers. “As we depart from the main product, how do we grow but clearly communicate, even to casual users browsing the app store, hey, this is a YouTube product,” says Bettig.
Along with a new logo, the desktop and mobile app both updated to bring them in line with the Material Design aesthetic that extends across Google’s ventures like Android, Search, and Docs. “We’re a high density website, so that makes Material a great base to build on,” says Robert Thompson, the design lead for video presentation and navigation. Moving to Material means there are fewer shadows, boxes, and forms on each page. “It helps make the site feel more comfortable and readable, and brings the content to the foreground.” Like the new logo, the move to Material helps to interlace a common design language across an ever-growing universe of apps.
YouTube is working to bring feature parity to dissimilar versions of its service. Starting today variable speed playback, a popular feature on the desktop, is arriving on mobile. And while it hasn’t happened yet, the user interaction design team says well-received features from mobile may soon migrate over the desktop. Mobile has a mini-player that allows you to continue watching whatever video you have in progress while also browsing for the next clip you want to see, and YouTube is testing a version of that for desktop web browsers.
If Bettig’s challenge was how to unite the look and feel of YouTube’s ever growing family of apps, the goal of the product team was to ensure that users got the best experience out of YouTube, even as the number of ways they might use it continues to grow. “We started with a website and SD video,” says Manuel Bronstein, the vice president of product management. “We’re in a planet where people are watching HD videos on portable devices, and streaming on TVs. We have to be capable to adapt the experience to best suit the devices and context in which people are consuming it.”
Catch something as simple as the video format. When YouTube started, it had one option: horizontal rectangles. But these day’s videos uploaded by the average creator are just as likely to be vertical or square. And that often meant a awful experience, with a vertical video taking up just a portion of the available screen“ the things, we all collectively hated was the black bars,” says Bronstein, YouTube’s VP of product management. “A small picture and the black bars”
Like Bettig and his team, the first impulse was to make something dynamic, allowing the context to guide the best design. They played with a parallax effect, where you could move your phone to scroll up and down inside a vertical video. “This idea did not carry on the first contact with users,” said Bronstein. Instead, the team settled on a player that gives almost the entire screen over to the vertical video in its native format, leaving just a small block at the bottom for controls, and allowing users to dismiss that if they want to go full screen. The player adapts on the fly. If a vertical video ends and the next clip is horizontal, square, or even 360, the format will automatically adjust according to screen.
YouTube knows that it has to move cautiously to avoid upsetting the millions of creators who make a living through their videos, and whose bottom line might be impacted by even a small change to the layout or functionality of the service. While they aren’t as theatrical as a shiny new logo, changes like this are arguably more reflective; moving YouTube towards a mobile’s native experience that matches the way to majority of their audience now interacts with the service. The ultimate goal for YouTube, of course, is to get you watching more videos for longer or consistently visiting some social network. And the more intuitive feature is, the more widely it’s likely to be used.
Take a new feature introduced in February of this year that lets users rewind or fast forward by double tapping on their screen. There was a small percentage of people who double-tap the player to check the remaining time of the video, and they hated when this new feature caused them to skip ahead. “We had no clue about this until we ran the feature at scale and all we heard some complaints, but no positive feedback,” says Thompson, who leads design for video navigation. “When we turned off the experiment to tune some things, we were buried under rush of feedback demanding that the feature should be turned back on. That’s when we knew we had something successful.” The gesture is now used billions of times every day, and has quickly surpassed the scroll bar for navigating through a video.
YouTube is now experimenting with an advanced mobile browsing. Simply swipe left and the service will cue up a new video based on its suggested algorithms, offering an infinite smorgasbord of possible entertainment. Skipped something but decide later it actually seemed interesting?
Just swipe right to find it again, finding gestures that reverberate with their audience is the best way for the team to bring cohesion to a service used by 1.5 billion people across hundreds of countries and dozens of languages. “We’re trying to create a common language across all our apps, to use design to give them an element of consistency,” said Bronstein. “We are always striving to make it feel more human.”