Tech by VICE

VSCO Burned Some of Its $40M on These Strange New Symbols

The photo app did an incredibly extensive redesign.

by Louise Matsakis
Feb 9 2016, 10:00am

Image: VSCO

Image: VSCO

The most artsy of photography apps, VSCO, has undergone an extensive redesign that includes a brand new typeface as well as a basic symbolic language created by the company's designers. "We really looked completely at who we are," Wayne Wu, the company's Chief Experience Officer told me.

"We centered our reflection periods around developing a visual language (a brand language) that could function very much like a human language system- interchangeable, flexible, and organic," the company wrote in its collection of notes about the redesign, dubbed VSCO ID. "This meant developing systems of symbols and structure that could be constructed and deconstructed easily."

Needless to say, this is one of the most elaborate branding exercises we've seen in a while. It might have something to do with the fact that the beginning of the redesign nicely coincides with a $40 million investment that the app received from Accel Partners in 2014, which was followed up by $30 million received in 2015 from Glynn Capital Management and its existing investors.

The typeface, VSCO Gothic, was created in partnership with Swedish design house Letters From Sweden. The sans serif font includes five different "weights," or thicknesses. The redesign, including the new font, took over a year to develop. According to VSCO, the company's designers began researching the overhaul in late 2014, but they also indicated that the majority of the work has happened in the last several months. Soon, the company also hopes to rollout several accompanying fonts from the same Swedish firm.

Image: VSCO

One of the most interesting things about the redesign was the decision to create a new visual communication system, which functions kind of like a primitive language. Through nine weeks of intensive research, the company focused on creating "a system that would allow us to visually communicate," they wrote.

After being inspired by patterns in nature, VSCO's design team landed on a series of symbols based on "mapping simple geometric shapes to the artificial and natural systems that are manifest in our everyday life." It's not clear exactly how the grammar of the communication the system will function, but the designers want it to "mimic the tension between the 'messiness' of nature and precision of mathematics," they wrote. To clarify, this isn't for use in the app—this was made for external messaging and branding, the company said.

Image: VSCO

Despite the heavy use of buzzwords, the designers of VSCO didn't take themselves too seriously. "It's both serious and lighthearted," Wu told me. The "letters" of the communication system are derivative of minimalism, but VSCO's team has also incorporated elements like smiley faces, and elongated "letters" that end up looking like sausages.

VSCO reportedly has 30 million active users, according to internal statistics released earlier this month, and more than 200 million photos have been tagged with the app's primary hashtags, #vsco and #vscocam on Instagram. According to Wu, the majority of VSCO's users are women, and 80 percent of them reside outside the United States.

A large part of VSCO is the company's in-app social network, Grid. Occupying a space somewhere between Instagram and Tumblr, it's a place where photographers post images and gifs. There's no comment or "like" function, keeping in line with the company's minimalistic aesthetic. Users do have the option of incorporating text into their posts, using the company's Journal platform.

Image: VSCO

Although Grid has been regarded as merely a less popular Instagram, the founders of VSCO reportedly see the two social networks as friendly co-inhabitants of the same image-sharing world. VSCO co-founder Joel Flory told Fast Company that "We like to see VSCO Grid as a museum, where you'll only share your best… We're not really concerned about the numbers. A user might post 100 images to Instagram, but we want them to post their five best photos to VSCO Grid." Update: This quote is from 2014 and no longer reflects the company's ethos, according to VSCO. "We're not interested in creating another social network," says VSCO co-founder Joel Flory. "We're interested in redefining what it means to create, to discover content, and to connect. We want to give people the ability to connect and to interact. That's part of being human. But we want to do it in a different way than others currently are."

With this fresh design overall, the company is well on its way in differentiating itself from other apps like it.