Dropbox Gives Life Outside The Box A Try

Entertainment By Elena Boaghi |

Dropbox’s original premise, when it launched in 2007, was that it was invisible. Rather than confounding people with confusing metaphors like “the cloud,” Dropbox offered simple online file hosting through a familiar token: another folder on your desktop. It was a simple digital box to store your digital crap. Its branding helped to explain the company’s then-esoteric technology through that simple metaphor: The logo that was a literal box, accompanied by all sorts of simplistic cartoons that explained the idea in pastel tones and line drawings.

But today, a decade after its launch, online file sharing is not just common, but commoditized. Dropbox as file sharing now has competition from a wave of bigger companies, including Apple, Google, and Amazon. In turn, Dropbox is shifting its own approach. Last year, the company launched Paper–an online collaboration tool aimed at creatives that looked toward the future of the company, which is said to be planning its IPO. And today, it’s rolling out a brand to match that new approach. Rather than being about storing files in a box, it’s about what you do with that box–and how people come together to make something new.

[Image: courtesy Dropbox]

Dropbox’s new logo may underwhelm at first glance. The logo, which is part of the rebranding effort led by the consultancy Collins, appears to be nothing more than a flattened version of the original, with the wordmark rendered in Sharp Grotesk. In fact, it’s a bit more clever than that. The flatter design is built upon an isometric grid, giving it a pseudo-3D presence when it’s animated. That animation can transform it from the logo for Dropbox to the logo for Paper in an instant–or, it can be used to indicate behavior inside Dropbox, like signaling that the app is thinking. “We keep the equity of a box, but can animate it, use it with things like color, to have a broader sense of expression,” says Nicholas Jitkoff, VP of Design at Dropbox.

[Image: courtesy Dropbox]

The colors, which play out in the logo and across the branding, add what Dropbox Creative Director Aaron Robbs dubs a “tension.” Rather than blue, white, and black–the stock colors that corporate product designers adore–the new brand celebrates millennial pink, lavender and violet, mint and forest green, and mustard yellow. These colors are always strategically paired together in a soft clash. “The overarching [idea of this brand] is by bringing two unexpected things together, and you get an interesting, extraordinary thing together,” says Robbs. “When you get two people working together . . . how does that play in the [brand] system?”

Every part of the new identity represents a mashup of two components. Within the app, in many screens, you’ll see illustrations that are a mix of line sketching and materials. So a cartoon alligator floats in the sky with a patchwork quilt balloon. These images are cutesy, but intentionally rough around the edges. The idea is that, if you’re working on something inside Dropbox, you don’t want to be surrounded by polished products. You want to see other works-in-progress, like your own.

[Image: courtesy Dropbox]

The mashup approach continues from the app layer into the high-end articulations of the identity–for imagery used in places like billboards and videos. Here, Dropbox mixes two unrelated photographs and illustrations to create a single image–like a person’s face, half photographed, half painted. “It’s still people coming together,” says Matt Luckhurst, co-founder and CCO at Collins. “[Now] it’s about two artists coming together . . . enabled by Dropbox.” And in this case, Luckhurst means that literally, because all of the art is licensed from Dropbox’s own user base.

For more down and dirty uses of the brand–quickly-producible banner ads, for instance–Dropbox will use templates in which typography-based frames are split into two parts, rendered in two different colors, with Sharp Grotesk depicted in two or three different weights. Again, it’s about the tension and unexpected harmony of mashing up two ideas, even though it’s all just type. “Even if we don’t have time for production, or space to execute, this will give the same feeling,” says Jitkoff of the typographical treatments. “They can feel like the other ads without being as complicated.”

[Image: courtesy Dropbox]

Now, Dropbox has plenty of brand guidelines that go along with this entire system. But you don’t have to look very deep into these early examples to see, how in the wrong hands, the new approach could go terribly wrong. While some brand systems are almost suffocatingly strict in how you can use colors, imagery, and logos, Dropbox instead is counting on the taste of its own design teams to create mashups that look creatively invigorating rather than straight-up garish. Only time will tell how this unboxed graphic strategy will play out over the years. 

“We wanted a system that would allow us to experiment, elevate over time, and interpret it through our lens,” says Robbs. “We had a big appetite for allowing us to work with this system over years and years, rather than have something we’d have to enforce like brand police.”

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