New BMW logo

Two-dimensional car brands

Introducing the visual identity of Audi, BMW and VW

Apple, Microsoft, Google and other leading global IT companies undoubtedly shape our visual environment with their products. Their widely used systems and products set trends with their visual appearance. Take a look at the appearance of their products and you will see the likely short and long term visual trends.

Besides these IT companies, the leading automotive brands are also very important parts of the world economy. And they also play an increasingly significant role visually. For decades, Audi, BMW, GM or Toyota were only dominant from the aspects of their products and design. Recent developments, however, have shown that the automotive industry and IT are getting closer and closer, and the line between the two is blurry and disappearing. A key sign of this is the growing popularity of the Tesla cars, which, with a bit of an exaggeration, are ‘computers on wheels’.

Why am I writing about this in a blog about graphic design and branding? Because automotive giants are refreshing their visual identities in response to the changes mentioned above: the car is not a ‘machine’ any more, it is software, where UX and UI designers have an increasingly important role. Digital user interfaces are displayed on bigger and bigger screens in the vehicles, or you can use apps on your phone to control your car.

We can see the same trend in the UX and UI of digital products and in the visual appearance of car brands—there is a shift from the 3 dimensional, skeuomorph design to the clean, no-frills visual world of flat design. I took a look at 3 brands and how their visual appearance has changed over time.

Audi logo before after

The trailblazer: AUDI

If we don’t consider Tesla a traditional automotive company, it was Audi that first started to view itself differently. The four rings are not shiny and glossy anymore, the symbol is now 2-dimensional and follows flat design. The brand has also realised that the user interface in the interior of the car is a key part of its visual identity. It is not only through advertisements and the usual marketing channels that the brand communicates, but also through the digital displays in the interior that are gradually replacing buttons and switches. Accordingly, Audi’s 2017 Corporate Identity was not a conventional brandbook, but a publicly available website which had a special focus on motion elements and the usage rules of UI elements.

A separate chapter discussed UI, which here includes UX, responsivity, UI components and animations. This was the first time that a car manufacturer dealt with UI elements in such detail.

Audi UI interface

They even designed a unique icon set to make the car easier to use and to make sure that every element has the DNA of the Audi brand. Anytime you drive your car and glance at the headlight icon, that tiny visual detail will also make sure you know you are driving an Audi. (Interestingly, Toyota interiors still had some switches and icons in the 2010s that were the same as the ones used in the 80s. Of course, Toyota is also moving ahead now.)

I won’t discuss all the changes in the automotive industry in this post, I’ll only focus on the events I find interesting. The second change that caught my attention was the VW refresh last year.

VW logo evolution

The people’s car getting closer to the people

In the autumn of 2019, on 12 September, Volkswagen introduced its new, refreshed visual identity. Usually the history of car brand logos (also) goes back a long way and it doesn’t often happen that the established visual appearance of a brand is fundamentally changed. VW followed the trend other car brands did from the 90s, namely that chrome and gloss was a part of their visual appearance. The core of the VW symbol, the letter V on top of the letter W, was already present in the first symbol introduced in 1937. Over the years, more and more effects were added creating visual noise. This has now come to an end. However, the change wasn’t a fundamental one, either, they got back to the roots and got rid of all the decorative elements. The new logo is characterised by flat design without any styling whatsoever.

If we take a closer look, we can see a change in the core of the logo that we haven’t seen before: the two bottom vertices of the letter W has been moved away from the frame and the distance between the two letters has become more evident and prominent. With this, the logo has become more open and breezy, the thin lines make the look and feel friendly and fresh.

It was not only the logo that has changed, but the whole communication style, too. Just like Audi did, VW focused mostly on digital platforms when refreshing its visual identity: the new visual language is characterised by icons, animations and bright colours. And the voice of the brand is now a female voice in the advertisements.

Moving Frame element

The ‘moving frame’ branding element was introduced as part of the visual identity. It is basically a frame around the topic presented, and the logo is also a part of it: the circular logo is inserted in the broken line of the frame. This is a dynamic visual identity system that adapts to content and format.

n the technical side, it is interesting that globally the company needs to replace the logo on 70,000 surfaces, including the logo on the top of their headquarters, which weighs 8 t and has a diameter of 7 m.

BMW

The third German carmaker that had a noteworthy visual refresh is BMW. It revealed its new logo a few days ago, and like VW, it builds on traditions and has moved towards flat design. The change in the BMW logo came after 23 years. The logo introduced in 1997 used delicate light and shadow effects and was displayed on the cars in a 3D form.

The new logo is fundamentally different. The new, 2D effect is used in graphic materials, and it was also a flat logo they used on the recently revealed i4 concept car. The colour black is no longer used and the typography has also changed: the crotch of the letter M and the apex of the letter W are farther from the baseline, which results in a classic feel. No details have been provided of the other elements of the visual identity yet, I’m looking forward to learning about them.

New BMW logo

Developing technology, developing communication

Interestingly, all of these three brands are German. As opposed to IT, where the US leads the way, in the automotive industry German designers set the trends. Another thing to note is that AUDI started this process 3 years ago and VW and now BMW have followed suit. It will be interesting to see how dominant this trend set by the three large brands can become and whether car brands in the Far East and the US will fall into line.

It is clear that car brands must respond to change. We can’t deny that a revolution is going on in the industry, and currently it is environmental consciousness (see: the diesel emissions scandal, the future of the internal combustion engine) and electricity that are in the focus. In the not too distant future self-driving cars will be reality. Brands must adapt their visual appearance to these changes, too, they can’t use the existing visual platforms linked to the combustion engine anymore. The changes we see now are the first steps in this direction. 💛

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Peter Sher
Studied Architecture, started running his own design studio, called zwoelf. With 20+ years experience, laying the fundaments of brands and building their visual.

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