Ubuntu logoWhen it comes to branding, the open source world is rarely at the front of the pack. Free software hackers tend to be much better at writing code than they are at designing logos, inventing names and developing elegant color schemes. But Canonical has long stood out as an exception, and its latest stride -- a new website devoted to helping the community adhere to Ubuntu branding conventions -- is no exception. Here's a look.

We've covered Ubuntu branding -- the artwork and names associated with the operating system -- a number of times in the past. By and large, Canonical consistently has impressed me over the last few years for holding its own when it comes to developing a coherent and attractive Ubuntu brand.

This is particularly true when measured by the standards of the open source channel, where some projects lack any real branding at all (the MATE desktop is an example, although maybe not a fair one since it's a new endeavor) and others are just, well, ugly (as much as I love Debian, it's hard not to see a flushing toilet in its coarse, choppy logo). This poor branding isn't too surprising, since open source developers tend to have much less time and money to pay professional designers than their equivalents in the proprietary world, but it's still a reality.

A Look Back in Time

Canonical may have gotten good at Ubuntu branding in recent years, but that wasn't always so. To get an idea of just how remarkably the face of Ubuntu has evolved over the years, it's illuminating to take a look at snapshots of the Ubuntu homepage from different points in time, courtesy of archive.org.

Here's what ubuntu.com looked like in October 2004, back when the operating system officially made its debut. That was a while ago, and the Web in general was less pretty back then. But besides the Ubuntu logo and the highly questionable screenshot, there's no real content here at all that approaches branding:

ubuntu.com in 2004

Here's the homepage again in February 2007, by which time it had greatly improved in the aesthetics department but still lacked an elegant logo or distinctive font or color scheme:

ubuntu.com in 2007

And here it is today, when the design is so consistent that even Chinese characters look right at home:

ubuntu.com in 2012


Ubuntu Brand Guidelines

Even good branding is only worth anything if the people representing the project -- which in the open source world often means third-party users as much as those directly affiliated with development -- deploy it. For that reason, Canonical has launched a new website, design.ubuntu.com, offering "Ubuntu Brand Guidelines" conceived "so we can all communicate Ubuntu with the same precision we use to make it." It explains how different groups of people should use the Ubuntu name and artwork in various contexts to keep the Ubuntu message consistent.

On the surface, these "guidelines" may sound a bit Orwellian, and I'm sure some users out there will decry the site as the latest endeavor by dictator Shuttleworth to impose a unilateral vision on the rest of the community. But that's a separate debate, and regardless of whether one agrees with the way Canonical has chosen to communicate its branding values to Ubuntu users and third-party developers, the company deserves credit for taking this issue seriously in an ecosystem where few other projects do.