How the process of designing a global design icon is helping us build a global brand

by Ivan Pols, Creative Director at what3words

A cafe window with a red sign displaying a what3words address in Chinese

It was the right time for the right question

I really love startup life.

It’s one of the few times in the life cycle of a company when we can all dream big and try to achieve the impossible.

It’s also a time when we ask ourselves a lot of questions; about the product, about our story, and about the users. A good question at the right time can be incredibly valuable.

Back in 2016, what3words had two very good questions.

Could we explain the idea of what3words (3m squares identified with 3 random words from the dictionary) with the logo?

How could we make it easier for users to quickly understand that index.home.raft or strong.bond.drift are not word puzzles or surrealist poetry, but 3 word addresses?

Our brains see stories

When I joined what3words I noticed I couldn’t help but read a what3words address like it was a sentence, and I wasn’t alone.

“riverbed.wipe.actor” and “Riverbed wipe actor.” are very different. One is a 3m square found in New Delhi, the other is a collection of words that could easily have some meaning.

Because we are used to seeing sentences with words, subjects, verbs and periods, our brains predict that a sentence will follow familiar rules. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says that if there is a gap in understanding our brains will confabulate a story to make sense of the three words. We make stuff up!

Will Storr in The Heretics explains, “This is because our brains tend to see and hear what we expect to see and hear, not necessarily what is there.”

This means that people like me are likely to either not “see” the what3words address, or become confused with something that seems meaningless.

We had to find a way to highlight that index.home.raft is special information.

Building on what works

The existing logo of what3words made perfect sense at the time. Three words indicated by apostrophes on a map pin that says location. While the three words of the system were represented, the squares were missing.

We needed a logo that would complete the brand story.

Looking for a global symbol

When we looked for solutions to these questions maps were a wonderful inspiration. Map symbols identify locations of interest and danger; like churches, bridges and gates. These symbols have been used for hundreds of years and permeate our culture.

We wanted that same sense of familiarity for what3words.

Digital platforms like Twitter and Instagram use symbols like “@”, “+” or “#”, to change text for specific uses. For example, @d3signl0ver is a username and #d3signl0ver is a hashtag. Placing a symbol before the text modifies “d3signl0ver” from a name to a conversation topic that’s easily recognised by a human or a computer.

We were looking for a symbol that’s easy to use and quick to learn. Wouldn’t it be amazing if anyone could reproduce the symbol with pencil and paper anywhere?

Helping everyone talk about everywhere

what3words users can be anyone; from Mercedes-Benz owners in Germany to healthcare workers in Uganda, postal workers in the Solomon Islands and autonomous vehicle passengers in California — basically anyone who may need to reliably use a very precise location.

what3words is a really simple way to talk about location. They have assigned each 3m square in the world a unique 3 word address that will never change. For example filled.count.soap marks the exact entrance to what3words’ London headquarters.

A what3words address is easy to say and share, and is as accurate as GPS coordinates.

51.520847, -0.19552100 ←→ filled.count.soap

The system works in over 40 languages across 240 territories in human-to-human and human-to-computer interactions, using handwriting, text, scan and voice in thousands of businesses and services.

Our idea had to make this information simple for people, and simpler for computers.

Design, iterate and test

The design process was fast. We settled on the idea during a design review with the founders and CMO where we discussed ideas while I sketched them on the big screen. It was a great meeting.

From approval of the logo sketch to appearing on the back of a Formula One car in Brazil took five weeks.

Our process is to design with the information we have, and quickly put it out in the world to see how it works for us and our partners.

The what3words symbol

///filled.count.soap

Our solution is simple: three forward slashes that are placed before a 3 word address with no spaces.

The current what3words logo

As a logo we put a “3m square” around the three slashes with the wordmark to make it a trademark.

And it makes a decent app icon.

How /// works

Firstly, /// makes it very easy to see a what3words address in text. For example, you’ll spot an address like pinks.driven.covers much more quickly when I write it as ///pinks.driven.covers.

You can type or hand write /// in moments and it’s easy to see at a distance.

/// works with almost every language, font, keyboard and brand design in the world.

While forward slashes are most commonly used to describe a network address, or URL’s, three forward slashes are only used for what3words (hobo signs from the 1930’s USA don’t count).

/// helps the what3words API recognise when the user is inputting a 3 word address faster.

For voice commands /// is ignored since people are very unlikely to see ///pinks.driven.covers and say, “forward slash forward slash forward slash pinks driven covers” or “slash slash slash…”. And what3words AutoSuggest will catch any mistakes.

Photo of Stone’s Brewing ///Fear.Movie.Lions beer packaging.

When does a design become a global standard?

I think we’ve found a design that helps people understand a 3 word address more clearly.

But this is a design journey, not a design solution.

We continue to learn everyday from people around the world as they use what3words and the symbol on their websites and apps, on TV and billboards, in navigation apps, handwritten on notes, in magazines, wedding invitations, hotel signs, business cards, on beer packaging, autonomous vehicles, and even tattoos.

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what3words

what3words is the simplest way to talk about location. It has divided the world into 3m x 3m squares, each with a unique 3 word address.