John Paul Titlow
The new Sonos brand identity puts a fresh spin on the look and feel of the brand, with a new approach to using colour, illustration, typography, and some new design tools built with the future in mind. Here’s the inside story.
There’s something almost unreal about the landscape in Santa Barbara. From the pristine sky that bleeds seamlessly into the ocean, to the watercolour mountain backdrops, there’s a surprising scenic diversity in this Southern California town—all of it peppered with palm trees and an eclectic floral arrangement. It’s the sort of scene most would expect to find on an inspirational poster or computer desktop wallpaper, rather than in their own backyards.
The unique shape and colour of the scenery is why people flock to Santa Barbara for vacation. It’s also one of the reasons that the founders of Sonos decided to set up shop there in 2002— opting to reimagine home audio against the backdrop of a sleepy paradise, rather than a bustling tech hub. Today, Sonos is a global brand with offices around the world, but Santa Barbara is the place that helped inspire the early inventions, designs, and decisions that made Sonos what it is today.
So when it came time for the Brand Design team at Sonos to refresh the visual look and feel of the brand this year, it was only fitting that they would look to that very same landscape for inspiration.
The new Sonos brand identity, which was crafted by the company’s internal creative team in collaboration with the agencies Anomaly (New York) and Instrument (Portland), consists of several revised design elements, such as the introduction of a seasonal colour palette, a new illustration style, and some changes to typography and the rules governing things like layout and the orientation of the company’s logo.
Sonos has also updated its brand voice, leaning into simpler, more enduring language that prioritises sound and the empowerment of listeners, whilst backing away from music-inspired metaphors and clichés.
“We approached this rebrand with a rigorous design process, system thinking, and most of all, a passion for the listener and their needs,” says Dmitri Siegel, VP of Brand at Sonos. “Through that process we stripped away the fluff and the metaphor and found the power in who we really are and what we do: the enduring beauty of our products, the magical simplicity of our software, and our signature commitment to quality and design.”
In early May, Sonos began rolling out this new brand identity and voice, starting with a new global brand campaign with ads in Times Square, Rolling Stone magazine and other prominent placements around the world–as well a design refresh of key digital touch points like the brand’s global Instagram account, customer emails, and a new, completely redesigned website.
“We had a unique opportunity to update our brand strategy, brand identity, and do a full website redesign at the same time,” says Siegel. “That almost never happens. The level of collaboration is a big part of what makes this ID so strong. We made sure it would work well on our website, which is our most complex brand experience.”
Using Colour to Cut through the Noise
Perhaps the most noticeable change within the brand’s new look is the introduction of colour. Rather than hinge the brand to a single, everlasting brand colour, the team decided to create a new seasonal palette of colours designed to adapt and scale as the company and its line of products—which themselves are typically designed in black or white—evolve and expand.
“We organically rejected the notion of permanent brand colour,” says Michael Leon, Global Creative Director at Sonos. “It felt like a dated concept”. “Once we freed ourselves of that, we were able to open our minds to more timely influences.”
The first iteration of this seasonal palette—consisting of colours named Sky, Rose, Sand, Rust, and Pine—was inspired, quite naturally, by some of the local scenery outside the company’s Santa Barbara headquarters.
“These colours are definitely a nod to our surroundings,” says Julia Jeanguenat, Art Director on the Sonos Brand Design team. “From the landscape, to the ocean, to the plant life, the palette is really inspired by the environment here.”
The colour selection process wasn’t driven solely by hometown pride, of course. “We did our research and were influenced by current trends to ensure the colours we picked for this first seasonal palette felt very of-the-moment,” says Jeanguenat.
Just as Sonos has grown and expanded to other offices, territories, and product categories, the colours utilised by the brand will evolve over time as well. Maintaining that flexibility was key in ensuring that the brand and its products retain a fresh look, including ones that were released years ago.
Over the last few years, the image of a sleek-looking black or white smart speaker sitting heroically on a shiny, clean surface has become ubiquitous in consumer tech. Even much of the language used to market such devices has become redundant. For Sonos, the shift to more colourful, flexible branding lets the company and its products stand out, Jeanguenat explains.
“We knew we needed to cut through the sea of sameness that you get when you’re walking through a place like a big box retailer,” she says. “Everything begins to look similar.”
To help the company make decisions about how colour gets used, Sonos formed what it calls the Colour Committee—a small panel of internal stakeholders from across the brand, hardware, software, and experience teams. Each month, this cross-functional group gets together to explore and understand how the brand is using colour in various places, discussing any potential conflicts or inconsistencies, and ultimately deciding what the next colour palette will look like.
“We have the ability to change the tone of the brand based on the emotion the palette delivers,” explains Leon. “That’s our way to keep the brand relevant without having to rebrand every three years.”
Illustrating Sound Experience, Line for Line
Sonos prides itself on delivering an effortlessly easy listening experience through a mix of hardware and software—a system of products that all work effortlessly together. But just because something is simple to use doesn’t mean it’s always easy to explain, especially in 2D visual media like photography—and especially when the most important detail, sound, is invisible to the naked eye.
For designers trying to visually articulate the Sonos product experience, concepts like multi-room audio, voice control, Airplay 2—and much of the magic that happens between software and hardware to make the Sonos listening experience possible—is much easier to explain verbally (or better yet, through using the product itself) than it is with flat pictures. That’s where creative uses of illustration come into play.
Under its new brand identity, Sonos makes heavier and more deliberate use of hand-drawn elements, having partnered with illustrator James Graham to develop a new house illustration style. Armed with this new illustration toolkit, Graham and other designers creating work for the Sonos brand can communicate some of the detail and nuance of the Sonos product experience in a succinct, digestible way without relying as much on written copy or other media like animation and video.
“Illustration helps us show what Sonos is, in a way,” Leon says. “We’re not trying to decorate the brand with illustration, you know what I mean? It’s really a tool, a utilitarian thing.”
Illustration can also help paint a more holistic picture of the Sonos experience when paired with other types of imagery. For instance, designers can more easily draw the connection between the hardware and software elements of the experience, thanks to a new, simple method of illustrating the Sonos app interface, which can be paired with other imagery, such as photography that depicts real-life listening scenarios.
“Adding illustration to showcase the app was a breakthrough in sharing the total experience of listening on Sonos,” says Leon. “Speakers are only one part of it, but up till now we’ve been attempting to share the experience with only images of hardware. The software is integral.”
Flipping the Logo and Building a Flexible Brand
Alongside the addition of a new colour palette and illustration style, Sonos is also making some changes to the way words show up in brand creative—most notably, through a new typeface. After years of using Helvetica Neue as its primary font, the brand is transitioning to a new one called Aktiv Grotesk. It’s a fairly subtle shift from one sans-serif typeface to another, rather than a radical departure.
“It’s a little bit more interesting,” says Jeanguenat of the new typeface. “It has unique qualities to it that feel more contemporary and ownable for us.”
One thing that isn’t changing is the look of the Sonos wordmark, which was last revised by Bruce Mau in 2015. The logo, which happens to be an ambigram—meaning it reads the same when flipped upside down or backwards—will stay the same, but with new rules about its orientation.
This freedom to flip the logo sideways allows designers to fit the wordmark onto any canvas with more flexibility.
This won’t be the first time customers have seen the wordmark flipped sideways; products like the Play:5 and Playbase have displayed the logo that way for some time. It’s just one of the ways that the brand’s new visual identity plays creative homage to the Sonos products themselves—not just by mimicking details like the sideways logo, but by creating a design system that strives to be flexible, modular, and easy to scale.
That creative scalability is expected to come in handy over the next few years, especially when it comes to expanding the company’s system of products–and designing new creative to help support those expansions. In the meantime, the brand has a whole new set of creative tools to play with.