INTERVIEW: Jim Petersen, Adobe Branding Director, Speaks About Acrobat 9 Design

Acrobat 6

The Acrobat 6 Professional splash screen was one of the last appearances of Acrobat’s “running man.”

Acrobat 5

The box art for Acrobat 5.0.

Acrobat 7 Pro

The box art for Acrobat 7.0 Professional. Note the move from the “running man” to an abstraction of the PDF trefoil.

Acrobat 7 Standard

The box art for Acrobat 7.0 Standard.

Acrobat 8

The box art for Acrobat 8.0 Professional.

As designers, we’re very sensitive to the branding experiences out in today’s world and we notice when a product is rebranded. Over the past few years Adobe’s Creative Suite applications have had major branding revisions (first with CS in 2003, and again with CS3 in 2007) and these have attracted attention from designers and branding experts alike, with mixed responses both positive and negative. There’s parts of the CS3 branding that I like and others I don’t, but what has struck me over the past few years is not the Creative Suite rebranding but the branding for Acrobat—little Acrobat, the application that seems to march to its own drummer, doesn’t match the Creative Suite product cycle and caters to more than just creative professionals.

The running man and the trefoil

Longtime Acrobat users will remember the “running man” graphic that graced most early versions of Adobe Acrobat. Acrobat’s “running man” was probably as recognizable as Photoshop’s old eye icon or Illustrator’s Venus icon, which were also used over the course of many versions of those applications. In January 2005 Adobe released Acrobat 7.0, which dropped the “running man” in favor of a very cool three-dimensional abstract graphic based on the PDF “trefoil,” the ubiquitous three-pointed swoosh that graces the PDF file icon. At this time Adobe introduced the Acrobat product family (Professional, Standard, Elements, 3D) and gave each product its own variation of the abstract trefoil packaging. I liked this.

Acrobat 8.0 came out in November 2006 and sported another kind of trefoil graphic, this one seeming to convey motion and not dimensionality. As with the previous version, Acrobat 8 had multiple products in its family and each sported its own variation of the “motion” trefoil. I wasn’t used to seeing three distinct packaging designs over the course of three versions of one Adobe product, but I figured this would be the end of it. And now Acrobat 9.0 is shipping with yet another redesigned package—this one not really based on the trefoil at all but more of an airwave/broadcast motif.

So what gives? When I see this kind of indecision in a brand, it makes me think something’s not right—like there’s a struggle behind the scenes between multiple creative ideas, or something more damaging like Quark’s rebranding and subsequent re-rebranding a couple years ago. Rather than speculate I went straight to Jim Petersen, Director of Brand Strategy and Design at Adobe Systems. I have to hand it to Adobe: they are always very willing to share and discuss the thought processes that go into all their products.


Here are the main points I gathered from our interview:

Adobe seems to think about branding a little differently. Jim repeated a few times the notion of the Adobe brand serving as a “foundation” or an “enabling brand” to allow customers to “connect despite clutter and make engaging experiences” for their audiences. I think many companies think of their product brands as guideposts to steer consumers to the right purchase—twentysomethings buy X, fiftysomethings buy Y, women buy Z. But I think Jim was thinking about the Adobe product brands selling not just the products themselves, but the means to create those creative, engaging experiences we strive to create. A major function of branding in this case is to help customers choose what’s right for them.

Adobe Reader 8 icon

The icon for Adobe Reader 8 sports the PDF trefoil.

So what does this mean for Acrobat? Well, my hypothesis is that Adobe sells PDF, not Acrobat. I learned from Jim that the “running man” icon was retired because research showed that consumers considered the PDF trefoil to be the true icon of the whole PDF/Acrobat technology. That was the major impetus behind the rebranding of version 7. Color was also added to the packaging in order to classify all the new Acrobat products in the family. This was also the first version of Acrobat that had the white background, since CS had just adopted the “white box” branding style. The shared white branding element brought the two products together and gave them a “family flavor” that has since expanded with CS3.