Letting the Gears of Innovation Turn


Sometimes a change in logo is necessitated by changes in market conditions; other times, a new logo is needed because the business that it represents is changing. In more unfortunate circumstances, the logo must be changed because the old one is a giant logo design fail.

The Smithsonian Institution, which is not a nonprofit like many museums but rather a government entity, recently opened a Department of Innovation, which examines “…people and ideas that likely will shape the way we will live one day.” Ignore the overly lengthiness of that sentence and focus instead on the idea behind it. It is ironically naming for a government organization, because most of associate not innovation, but gridlock and ineffectiveness with the people who rule us.

Speaking of gridlock, look closely at the cogs in the ‘Before’ logo. They are locked together, with no way to turn. Because this is the image that we usually associate with government organizations, this is an unfortunate oversight. It reinforces a rather negative stereotype that many people hold.

The new logo design has removed a tooth on the cog so that the gears can move. I wish this resolved all of the issues with this logo, but unfortunately there are still problems. The yellow is a bit hard on the eyes, although that is by no means the most offensive part of the logo. The five stars are juvenile and do not seem to fit well with any other part of the design. Worse, the image of cogs was simply a poor choice for any department with the word ‘innovation’ in its name. Most modern innovations focus on technology, medicine, chemistry, and other techy fields. Very few of the more useful innovations of our times are mechanical. Cogs and gears are a leftover from the Industrial Revolution, ones that are slowly being phased out of most technologies.

As if the shield were not enough, there is a long version of the logo with the shield placed next to the name and tagline of the operation. The O in innovation, sadly, has been made into a cog. It does not work well when combined with the official feeling print, either in style or in effect. It feels gratuitous; moreover, the cog shape is too thick to work well with the rest of the lettering even if there had been a stylistic compatibility there.

This logo is accidentally accurate, which is the problem. Out of date, juvenile, mired in the past, Victorian, inappropriate—these and other negative adjectives describe the US government lately. Removing ‘gridlocked’ from that list does not magically create a good logo, merely a less negative one.

On the other hand, if this logo design was perfect in every way, we might expect the government agency it represents to be effective. This logo sets the bar extremely low, which is probably exactly where it needs to be. To put it bluntly, even though the gears can turn, the design is still unmoving.