With the impending release of our new product Notebooks, we embarked on a brand refresh to align our brand with our new mission to help design teams gather and share context, track and assign work, tackle feedback, and ultimately deliver amazing products. While a brand is never quite done, we wanted to share the intentions and process behind the decisions we made to carry us into a new chapter of Abstract.
The history behind the brand
When we launched Abstract 2017, our goal was to bring the tools and methodologies developers use to version their work to design. Early on, we focused on setting up an overall aesthetic that we could use in marketing and in the app: color, typography, and a logo that informed other graphical elements. We leaned heavily on geometric shapes and their assemblage as a metaphor for the work we do as designers. The honest truth is that we were so focused on getting the app built and ready for scale, that when we launched we just used what we had at our disposal—and it worked for us until it didn’t.
As designers found value in version control, our vision grew and we wanted to bring this way of working to all different types of designers. We embarked on a rebrand to reflect this new vision and brought in Devin Jacoviello and Adam Ho to work alongside our internal team to elevate our brand and make it something new and unique that would appeal not only to product designers, but graphic designers and illustrators alike.
Fast forward to 2020
As was the case for most companies last year, we experienced our fair share of change. Early in 2020, Kelly Watkins joined as CEO and we refocused our efforts on how Abstract can best support modern design teams. With the evolution of the design landscape and the rise in remote work on our minds, we built Notebooks, a design-specific platform where cross-functional teams can gather requirements, review designs, and continuously measure what works and what doesn’t.
As an established brand that’s launching something new, we needed to take time to reflect on how our visuals fit into the larger story. While we had a fondness for the previous brand, the dense visuals sometimes mirrored the highly technical nature of our Versions product. Git can be a little hard to grasp at first, which is why we made a brand video series explaining the concept. At this point in the process, we knew the brand refresh should address concerns that Abstract could be a simple and easy-to-use tool.
Diving into the process
Determining goals and principles for the refresh
As a part of this brand refresh we wanted to:
- Signal the start of a new chapter for the company and product
- Increase brand recall and shift overall brand perception
- Add clarity to our new dual product offering
- Create a brand that would be easy for any Abstract designer to pick up
Before we got too far ahead of ourselves, we had to develop new first principles for our brand.
- Abstract is for everyone involved in Design
- Abstract should be welcoming and approachable
- Abstract is a storytelling tool that spends a lot of time with drawing and collaboration tools
- Abstract is growing up: We are more confident
- Abstract should stand out in the market, but also be appropriate and familiar
- The new brand should be easy to reproduce in-house with a small team
- The new brand should have a clear link to the visual design of the product experience
Scoping for a startup
This project was more of an evolution of our brand than a full rebrand. The scope was limited by both time and resources, so we focused on creating usable guidelines which we will continue to implement across print, web and in-product in the coming months.
We wanted to use the typefaces we've already licensed (GT America and Vesterbro) and keep the Abstract name and logo the same. These two decisions were easy because these fundamental parts of our brand have served well as a solid foundation so far. The typographic system, color palette, illustration, and iconography style is where we focused our work.
From brand principles to finalized guidelines, we spent 4 weeks on this project. Then spent 8 more weeks designing and building the Abstract brand touchpoints you experience today. Needless to say, we were moving fast and learning on the fly.
After aligning on goals and scope, Vince Joy, our Staff Brand Designer on this project, and I both spent time apart exploring options for the new direction. Because we were working with many constraints, we had to be very intentional about what we should build and how that would be able to grow and adapt with the team.
After a couple of weeks of exploring many ideas, we brought in one of Abstract’s original co-founders Frank Chimero for a fresh set of eyes. He helped refine a lot of our ideas and brought in a few of his own. This is when we really solidified the motifs that you see in the new brand.
Documenting our brand
As we started to refine our brand, we took to documenting it in two ways: brand guidelines built in Figma paired with an easy to digest Notebook that we could easily keep up to date with our new plugin. By using Notebooks to document this work we were able to review the work with stakeholders, but also provide useful feedback to our product team that influenced the product you see today.
The design process can be frustratingly messy, but that doesn’t mean that you should lose confidence in the work. That mess can be surprisingly insightful, productive, creative, and energetic. Ideas can come from every direction. They can multiply, diverge, and converge. This is Abstract.
Our mark is the main point of interaction with the Abstract brand. It’s “abstract,” but always pointing and pushing forward. The Abstract icon is made up of a circle and arrow forming a lowercase A.
We didn’t change our identity — it’s still who we are as a company. The industry knows us, knows Abstract. We’re simply working to expand that reach.
Our new type system is based on subtle changes that pack a huge punch. We are still using GT America for our main body typeface, but now we’re bringing it into titles as well. To help support GT America we are adding GT Super, the serif, to the family. We use a combination of the two to create a unique typographic style.
Remember when I said we were on a tight budget? The team was very conscious to use the fonts we already had licensed to reduce cost. But after pairing GT America and Vesterbro together in the same sentence, we saw there were some inconsistencies in the type pairing.
We decided to use GT Super Book as our serif in headings and titles. We made this switch because of the familial characteristics that allowed GT America and GT Super to pair so well together.
All type is set in GT America by default, and we selectively add GT Super to headings for subtle emphasis, clarity, or wherever the sentence naturally breaks.This is intentionally not taking the place of an italic.
To reinforce the idea of Abstract as a context layer on top of design, we use the visual language of annotations. These annotations can show all the stages of the design process: reviewing work, suggesting changes, asking questions, and ultimately making decisions.
We use a handwritten font to reveal the human side of working this way. This font was created by Vince using his own handwriting in the iFontMaker app for iPad.
Our new color system is still based in black and white, like the previous Abstract brand. We have updated our classic yellow, green, and brown to be more bright and friendly and added two new colors: pink and blurple. Abstract has a long history with the color blurple and we even had hints of it in our app icon until the release of our new Big Sur icon. Many of our color decisions were made based on internal and external feedback around the brand having an opportunity to improve in friendliness and approachability.
The Abstract color system relies on black and white initially, but that doesn’t mean a lack of color. The primary colors use a mix of functional dark and bright colors for type and backgrounds, but there is also an extended color palette with distinct ‘core’ colors and their accompanying shades. In-product we use a few supplementary colors that support positivity, success, and accessibility where brand colors fall short.
In order to create a structure with our new brand, we have a few motifs to lean on.
Sheets are a nod to our new product Notebooks. Sheets come in all shapes and sizes. They usually have two rounded corners and two hard corners. The radius of the corners have a range of scales to fit a wide variety of contexts. Sheets could be pages from a book, sticky notes, or something in between.
To build an extra layer of depth to these sheets, we build a system of guideline grids. These can be helpful but aren’t required. When it comes to these grids we use various styles and sizes, from dots to lines and even rulers.
When building collages of our brand elements, we always try to find alignment. Not all elements need to have firm alignment, but there should be a noticeable direction in which you’re leaning. Abstract is focused on helping product teams be aligned in the work they are doing, so it felt natural to bring this into the brand.
We use tables to help organize information, making it easier to digest. Tables should help add hierarchy to your design, but not be used as simply a decorative element. Think of the table as a cousin of the spreadsheet. “Cells” can have their background color changed to highlight their contents.
Previously, Abstract brand's human connection was mostly made through our brand videos. In the spirit of keeping the work human, we feature photography in the new brand starting with the characters for our brand videos.
We use photography to center the diverse range of people who use our product. Since we created this brand during a pandemic and with a small budget, we repurposed stills from the brand videos we produced back in 2019. While they aren’t perfect, our cast of characters are holding their own in still form.
Abstract has four types of illustration styles to help support written communication. They are not meant to be used simply as decoration. These tiers of illustration go from sketch icon, to three-dimensional spots, to isometric editorial, and finally to two-dimensional abstract illustrations.
The icons and spots have a place within our brand and product, however, the two editorial types will be seen more on our website and blog. We created this range of styles in order to plan for the fast-paced work that comes with being a startup and knowing we would not always be able to create full isometric illustrations.
Bringing the brand to life in our product
In the past, our product and brand have never quite felt related. We had a big opportunity during the build-out of Notebooks to bridge this gap. Our new web app allows us to do things like bring GT America to the product, which was previously not possible due to licensing. We also brought our new color palette into the app and helped our product team expand the palette to meet their needs. Our sheet motifs, brand characters, and handwritten annotations also may make an appearance in the product as well.
The tip of the iceberg
A brand is never done. If anything, creating these guidelines was just the beginning of our new visual identity here at Abstract. Our team is continuing to build upon this brand every day. We are learning what works well, and where we have room to improve. We launched the refreshed brand earlier this year, and you can see it throughout our website and in our products.
Want to talk about the process or ask me some questions? Send me a tweet at @dainal.
This project was a huge team effort. Vince Joy was my partner in crime throughout the creation of the brand, and Tim Gilligan came in to help bring the brand to life on our website. We also had help from Frank Chimero to help shake out our ideas and Joanna Ławniczak with some of our bigger illustrative pieces. We also couldn’t have brought this to life without the Webflow skills of Alex at Finsweet, and the emotional support from our internal team members Alison Harshbarger and Sarah McIlwain.