Mozilla, Fedora, and the risky fun of open branding projects
About eight months ago, Mozilla (the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox web browser) announced the intent to update its visual brand using an open, collaborative process. Since the project kicked off, the process has been playing out in the open, with regular opportunities for the Mozilla community to provide input along the way. A few weeks ago, after several iterations, the final Mozilla logo and visual identity were revealed.
I’ve been involved in open, collaborative branding efforts for quite a while (and I even wrote a book on the subject based on our experiences building the Red Hat brand). So it was cool to witness a high-stakes project like this carried out completely in the open from a spectator’s point of view. My hope was that if this effort was successful, it would inspire more organizations to consider opening up their branding efforts.
With a diverse and raucous community like Mozilla, I’m sure not everyone was pleased with the final result. But from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like the process itself and the result were both big wins. Congratulations to the Mozilla community for successfully navigating through complex and ultimately rewarding waters.
A few days ago, the Mozilla team published a post-mortem discussion of the process, which makes for very interesting reading. Here’s an exchange where Mozilla Creative Director Tim Murray and Michael Johnson (founder of Johnson Banks, the agency that led the work) reflect back on the process and the final result.
Tim: So here we are. Looking back at this makes it seem a fait accompli somehow, even though we faced setbacks and dead-ends along the way. You always got us over the roadblocks though, Michael, even when you disagreed profoundly with some of our decisions.
Michael: Ha! Well, our job was and is to make sure you stay true to your original intent with this brand, which was to be much bolder, more provocative and to reach new audiences. I’ll admit that I sometimes feared that corporate forces or the online hordes were wearing down the distinctive elements of any of the systems we were proposing.
To me, this exchange illustrates the pain and the gain of an open branding process well.
We have a proverb here at New Kind, “If you want people to embrace the destination, invite them on the journey.”
And certainly the Mozilla team invited A LOT of people on the journey. They heard a lot of opinions along the way, and probably had things start to go sideways at times based on the ideas and strong beliefs of community members.
There is sometimes a blurry line in open projects separating “passionate community” from “bloodthirsty mob.” Surfing that line and keeping the project moving productively forward is the most fun and challenging part of the experience. In fact, reading this post reminded me of my first experience with an open branding project involving a passionate external community, which was about 12 years ago.
The Fedora brand identity project
In 2003, Red Hat made the decision to split the much-loved Red Hat Linux brand into two distinct brands: Red Hat Enterprise Linux and The Fedora Project.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux was a product designed to appeal to people who were looking for stability and reliability. Fedora was a freely-available project, designed to appeal to people who wanted the latest, most bleeding-edge open source code available.
Fedora was a true open source project, run by a passionate community of volunteers, some of whom worked for Red Hat, but many who did not. In September of 2005, we decided it was time to design a new, professional-quality brand identity for Fedora.
Because of the way the open source community worked, we knew that the traditional “behind closed doors” brand identity development process wouldn’t work for Fedora. So instead, we decided to run the project completely out in the open—which is the way every other part of the Fedora project was run. I wasn’t aware of many others who had tried to do this before, so we were definitely learning as we went.
We started with a public conversation that looked pretty similar in design to the one Mozilla used to kick off its project (although this was so long ago that the conversation happened on an old skool mailing list).
We began by asking contributors to describe the core attributes of Fedora in their words. We followed this with a series of open sprint experiments where we looked for branding concepts and even potential logo designs from community members.
The logo design bit in particular was an interesting lesson. I specifically remember suggested designs including a puppy in a box and a goat (I wonder if anyone still has those images?). Our lesson from this part of the process, which we’ve since institutionalized, is that input and feedback are the best roles for the community, while synthesis, invention, and decision-making should be led by an experienced project team. Last year I wrote a series of posts for opensource.com with further detail about what we’ve learned about running projects openly.
In the Fedora case, one designer, Matthew Muñoz, who is now my business partner at New Kind, took the lead on synthesizing the diverse inputs. Eventually we distilled the community data down to four core traits, which we called the Fedora Ideals: open, free, innovative, and forward-looking.
We even documented the whole process online, which wasn’t nearly as easy at the time as it is now. In fact, you can still find one of the original presentations we used to share the identity concept with the Fedora community in the Fedora archives.
I’m not as involved in Fedora now as I once was, but as I understand it, over the years the Fedora community has continued to develop the brand in an open, collaborative way, even beyond the visual identity.
One example I do remember: in 2008, Fedora project leader Max Spevack hosted a session at a Fedora conference (Fedora calls them FUDCons) with the goal of improving the clarity of the Fedora story and creating tools to help the story be told more consistently around the world. Based on the discussion that began at this FUDCon session, and using the original project for inspiration, the Fedora community members created a simplified version of the Fedora story based around Four Foundations: freedom, friends, features, and first.
Again, as with the original project, everything was run out in the open, on mailing lists and wikis where anyone who was interested could contribute and many people did. I’m sure there have been many more examples of open collaborative brand-related projects with Fedora since.
Today, over 12 years after its creation, the Fedora logo and brand identity are recognized and embraced by millions of contributors and users around the world.
Which organizations are best suited for an open branding approach?
Over the years, I’ve learned that a completely open branding approach is not a good fit for every organization. Fully 100% open branding projects that expand beyond the company walls like those run by Mozilla or Fedora are fairly rare. These projects can be beautiful, but they are also messy, complicated, and can easily go off the rails if they aren’t facilitated well or the lines between meritocracy and democracy aren’t clearly articulated.
They work best with organizations that require complete transparency or have the need to fully engage a community of important external contributors. Beyond the technology world, open branding projects can also be a great choice for nonprofits and other organizations that rely heavily on the passion and contributions of engaged volunteers.
But whether or not a project goes fully open, open principles can inspire any branding project—even if the open, collaborative aspects mostly occur behind company walls. We run these collaborative projects every day at New Kind, and have seen amazing results.