Uber app on mobile phone

How Wolff Olins Used Speculative Design For Uber

When designing for an unknown future, it’s vital to use optimism and curiosity–and to work with those who believe that the notion of “normal” can be reset. Because when creative expression expresses something bigger than itself, it’s entirely powerful.

Forest Young, global principal and head of design at Wolff Olins, spoke at Adobe MAX—The Creativity Conference in Los Angeles about designing for the future and creating for everyone.

“A strategy that may surprise you, when pointed toward the right people for the right reasons, has a high chance of being successful, but not without turbulence,” Young said during his packed session, “Future of Design, Creating an Equitable Tomorrow.”

Young spoke of his work with Uber, a client that, in the midst of a new leadership team, wanted to shift from a “rideshare company” to a “multi-mobility platform.” When starting the project, Young asked the key decision-makers at Uber two questions: what the shift meant to them personally and what it meant for the business.

“The marriage of those two answers determines the success of a project,” he said. "If not, it’s fraught with uncertainty.”

When work began, Young and his team helped Uber through a series of transformations. The first: changing Uber from operating primarily as growth-focused to a people-first organization during a time when employee morale was decreasing.

Also part of the transformation was creating a “beyond simple” brand, focused on color, patterns, and type-kits that could be universally understood across multiple countries and languages.

Global expansion and localization was also on the agenda. Of high importance was progressive enhancements vs. graceful degradation, as the brand expanded globally to 13-plus countries. Making the product accessible worldwide was a must, as was layering on enhanced features for advanced browsers and markets. One example: the availability of Uber Lite, an app that takes up just 5 MB of storage space. This solved the common problem of users in developing countries downloading and then deleting the app after each use to save space on their devices.

Rounding out the list of transformations was moving Uber out of the automotive space and into the tech space, taking a collegial point of view and appealing to a universal clientele.

Young and his team also had an “ a-ha” moment: While viewing a video in a status meeting, they noticed the white space formed a “U” around the story being told. This inspired them to tell driver-centric stories utilizing the “U” composition.

“The power of a logo is less and less the actual branded aspect and more about a compositional or kinetic signature,” Young stated.   

For the brand to have an iconic identity, Young proposed the idea to Uber of investing in a wordmark, not a symbol, and using color meaningfully in the product experiences with agreed upon global and visual accessibility standards, such as “Safety Blue,” denoting moments and touch points of care and connection within the Uber app(s), handbooks, and guidelines.

Although the future is uncertain, using new approaches and philosophies and looking ahead to speculative design can be mutually beneficial for all. 

“You have to be able to see what you like and what you’re working on from the beginning, even if it’s not always evident to everyone else,” Young said.

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