Her eyes command a warm confidence. Her hair ripples as an ocean wave that laps provocatively over her breasts. As the face of Starbucks since 2011, the Siren logo is alluring by design, beckoning you into the store to grab a latte or pastry. Her face is so perfect, it is its own mirror, with the left and right sides copied to match up like a Rorschach test.
But when the global branding team at Lippincott was staring at her on a wall seven years ago, she just didn’t work–and they didn’t know why. She wasn’t beautiful; she was uncannily beautiful, a bit creepy, to be honest, giving you a funny feeling in your stomach like she was a shell of a person, like an alien or robot pretending to be a human.
“As a team we were like, ‘There’s something not working here, what is it?’” recounts global creative director Connie Birdsall. “It was like, ‘Oh, we need to step back and put some of that humanity back in. The imperfection was important to making her really successful as a mark.”
Specifically, Lippincott realized that to look human, the Siren couldn’t be symmetrical, despite the fact that symmetry is the well-studied definition of human beauty. She had to be asymmetrical. Can you see it now that you know? Look closely at her eyes. Do you notice how her nose dips lower on the right than the left? That was the fix of just a few pixels that made the Siren work.
“In the end, just for the face part of the drawing, there’s a slight asymmetry to it. It has a bit more shadow on the right side of the face,” says design partner Bogdan Geana. “It felt a bit more human, and felt less like a perfectly cut mask.”
The origins of the Siren
Of course, Lippincott didn’t draw the Siren from scratch. She’d been around since the very first Starbucks location in 1971. The double-tailed mermaid appears to be a reference to an Italian medieval character Starbucks has claimed as “Norse”–but in any case, the imagery, born from a maritime book, inspired its founders to make her the logo of the Seattle coffee shop.
The logo they were redesigning in 2011 was what Birdsall lovingly dubbed “the donut,” and it represented a much more mature Starbucks brand that had already disrupted coffee house culture as we once knew it.
The donut had all sorts of problems. In the U.S., the Starbucks logo was the stamp of ubiquity for the same coffee shop on every corner. Recognizable? Sure. But it was so bounded within its own circle that the brand had to be presented in a strict, logo-bound way that read exactly what a consumer might be sick of seeing, “Starbucks Coffee [sign].” At the same time, Starbucks had ambitions beyond selling coffee. It wanted to sell more breakfast foods (a year later, it would buy La Boulange bakery for $100 million), and perhaps even sell wine to visitors at night. It also wanted to sell more products in a supermarket, and it needed a tool other than the sign of its coffee shop to do so.
Abroad, the logo was equally problematic. Around it was a ring that read “Starbucks Coffee,” and that shape drew your eye so much that you might not even notice the topless woodcut mermaid inside. That circle was so prominent that it drew your attention above all other elements, which allowed knock-off coffee shops to change minor bits of the logo to fool consumers new to the brand.
“How did you know if you were at the real Starbucks in China?” asks Birdsall. “Around the world, you would get people writing “stars and bucks” and putting a deer in the middle. The design was very replicable, and it was hard to police because it fooled your eye.”
Together, Starbucks’s internal design team and Lippincott developed a new approach: Break the Siren out of her circle. Make her the face of the company. Re-color her from black to Starbucks green. And with all that brand equity in place, just delete the words “Starbucks” and “coffee” altogether. They were unnecessary.
Finding the Siren’s personality
As a true woodcut–literally carved from wood and stamped–the Siren in the donut logo was a little rough for a modern corporate brand. She wasn’t ready for her close-up. So Lippincott began her makeover. “We looked at her proportions. The head was a bit too wide, the body felt too squat,” says Geana. “So we started adjusting and revising these forms, make them crisp, designed, and geometric.”
But now that they were defining the drawing better, they also had to define the Siren better. She now existed at such a high resolution that you could really inspect her personality. So the designers began to question just who the Siren should be, because that Siren would literally be the face of Starbucks.
“Is she more natural and welcoming? Does she present confidence? Does she feel like a seductress?” recalls Geana, noting that adjusting her features just fractions of an inch created massive changes in her personality. “In the end we decided that giving her a mythical, mysterious, alluring quality was something we wanted to retain.”
After the team had sharpened every detail into absolute corporate logo perfection, Lippincott realized that it had gone too far. “We didn’t want her to be perfect, like Barbie, or other brands with characters,” says Birdsall. “Wendy is too perfect. [The Siren] is more worldly. And not in the negative sense of ‘worldly.’”
So the designers reconsidered her makeover. They added some rounder details, softening the edges. And they finally recognized the core problem of geometry: her beauty-defining symmetry itself.
“We had [the iterations] altogether, and all pinned up on a wall. And we all stood around debating and debating and debating,” says Birdsall. And that’s when the team realized that, despite what we’ve all been led to believe about human attractiveness, no one really liked looking at a perfect face after all. “It was a eureka moment.”