Behind the Design of Bit.ly’s Iconic PufferfishMashable Dec 08, 2011 Back to press
For link-shortening service Bit.ly, finding a way to jazz up its simple, cut-and-dry product was a challenge. How can a little web tool make a visual impact in a thoughtful way?
Neil Wehrle, VP of user experience at Betaworks, found a simple answer to that problem: pufferfish. With two bright and cute mascots as the face of Bit.ly’s sharp product, the company made an impression and delighted users. Three iterations later (and one more on the way!), the pufferfish still charm throughout the website.
Mashable spoke with Wehrle on the development of the cute orange ocean-dwellers, and how their presence has made an invaluable mark on the company’s branding and consumer outreach.
Is there a memorable mascot you can’t get out of your head? Let us know in the comments.
Q&A With Neil Wehrle, VP of User Experience at Betaworks
What’s the history behind the logo selection?
Bit.ly was one of the first products I worked on here. I was like, employee number two at Betaworks and I’ve been working on Bit.ly since the beginning.
[Bit.ly CTO] Todd Levy and I were hanging around, and we had the product in its rawest form — a link shortener — built. Then the suggestion came up, “Why don’t we do a mascot?” First I was like, “Meh, do we need a mascot for a link shortener?” But we decided to give it a shot. We tossed around a few ideas and then I thought, we’re shrinking and expanding things, what kind of animal does that? The pufferfish came to mind, and at first we were like, “Yeah, that seems like a good fit.”
Todd had brought up a security algorithm that I think is called Pufferfish or Blowfish, which is used to encrypt data, and it actually shrinks the data and expands it as part of its process. It’s a vague technical basis which satisfied people too. There’s a relationship that might appeal to the tech community.
How did the pufferfish develop?
We started looking at renderings of pufferfish, and one of the things that I hit on was why not show two pufferfish and show them in the states you would encounter it, puffed out and shrunken down. Once we played with that, we hit on the relationship between these two. So we invented a backstory that the little is always pranking the big one and the big one is sort of clumsy. The little one is the smart one because it’s a shortened link and there’s a lot of data and valuable attributes that are useful to people, where as the big one is the sort of big, dumb long link that breaks in emails when you send it to people or IM it.
The smart thing to do is shorten it before you share it. We invented this sort of Tom and Jerry-like relationship between the small one, who is a girl, and the big one, who is a boy. She’s the smart one, always pranking him.
How has the icon been as a brand image for the company?
It turned out to be something users really respond to. I thought, “Let’s demote the puffer and push the puffer to the background.” So I just had a simple line-drawing of the puffer, and we went live with that along with a site redesign. It lasted maybe 24 hours. There were so many tweets complaining, “What did you do to my puffer? What happened to my puffer?” So I kept the outline of the second generation puffer and quickly colored it in to give it more personality. There’s a lesson there, which is don’t mess with the puffer! Your mascot has too much.
What were the initial design decisions for the puffer?
There’s certainly been lots of sketching and lots of internal discussions over generated renderings. There’s a lot of exploration in terms of how realistic to make the puffer versus how cartoonish, and it has evolved. The number of spikes on the puffer has decreased over time. We also had to create much more of a silhouette than a 3D rendering. There was a lot of exploration and forethought into how it would appear in different sizes, how well it would travel, what kind of puffer would represent Bit.ly away from the site. We grappled a lot with how to effectively maintain that playfulness away from the site and have the puffer represent the site in ways that elevate it more to a consumer audience.
We wanted people to use this as a tool and remember the site. Especially for consumers, it’s more than just a technologist’s tool. We wanted to flesh out the consumer side of the site, and the puffers turned out to be an invaluable and memorable presence that consumers love.
How have the pufferfish changed?
I think we’ve done three major iterations. Even within each version, there’s been quite a bit of tinkering in terms of softening up. Some of the early puffers were perceived to be too angry and threatening looking, so we reduced the puffer’s number of spikes and made him more of a beach ball than a poisonous fish that can hurt you. That was something we intentionally played down as well, as one of the things that comes to mind is that it could be potentially lethal. We didn’t want people to make that association.
We’ve also done quite a few appearances in different contexts: t-shirts, stickers, and on the website. The puffer is a great asset for things like tours, enlivening an otherwise very dry topic. Between myself and one of my colleagues, Jason Morrow, we manage the puffer. He did the last one, so he is the lead person, but I can jump in sometimes. We’re looking to develop the fourth generation puffer as we speak, to communicate a new version of the site.
How do you think the pufferfish help Bit.ly’s brand identity? Is it a successful icon?
Absolutely. The anecdote about taking off or diminishing the puffer is something that’s stuck with us, and we’ve learned that with conferences we go to, everywhere we go, even little kids are wearing t-shirts. They recognize the puffer everywhere, and I think it’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. We just thought it would be a cute little mascot, and something to make the site memorable. It’s really succeeded as far as that goes, and it’s enabled us to elevate the site into more of a consumer-friendly application and products much more easily than we ever could if we were just operating with typography and color without clear branding.