Back in September of 2009, it was crunch time. Jack Groetzinger and Russell D'Souza were scrambling to present a pitch at a TechCrunch demo day for the startup they'd been hacking together. The Dartmouth College graduates felt confident in their idea for a company that would take on Ticketmaster by offering a transparent, fee-light way to buy tickets to a concert or sporting event. They called it SeatGeek.

Before getting on stage, though, they'd need something to put on their T-shirts and website. They'd need a brand.

They had a junior freelance designer put the name in a nice-enough-looking font called Thesis. And put a smiley mouth line under the "ee" in SeatGeek.  It was basic but friendly. It would do.

"We honestly put very little thought into it," Groetzinger says.

They were finalists in the competition, and over the next few years their business grew, attracting $103 million in venture capital funding, moving to New York City, and growing to more than 100 employees.

By 2015, the founders thought: Maybe it's time to get a real brand. You know, one that would be given more than "very little" thought.

"The company changed so much over that time and it never felt like we had time to tackle it," Groetzinger says. "As we realized that consumers were becoming loyal to us, we realized we wanted a real identity that matched our voice as a company."

As Groetzinger and others involved in the process tell it, they sought advice from mentors and peers, and, per the recommendations, hired a design firm. Months of brainstorming yielded a few designs, and even some renaming ideas. But most of the new logo choices presented to the founders involved a picture of a ticket. A ticket. It hit a little too close to the branding of some of their competitors, they thought. Also, they couldn't help but wonder: How long would people really be using physical paper tickets to get into events? Would using a ticket as SeatGeek's logo be equivalent to, say, Skype using a rotary phone?

"In five or 10 years, tickets may be obsolete--some people might not even understand what they are," says Adam Waxman, a product manager at SeatGeek who was involved in the rebranding. "We wanted something that will live longer."

They turned down the designs and started tinkering themselves. But Groetzinger, Waxman, and two more from SeatGeek--Eric Waller, the company's chief technology officer, and Ben Clark, the director of customer acquisition--found it wasn't so simple to create a pitch-perfect brand. In fact, it was creativity stifling at times, as they searched for an image that would be "perfectly universal without being generic or boring," Groetzinger says.

That's when they sought help again. This time, though, they had a better sense of what they wanted. They hired the designer who created Oculus Rift's bold "O" logo and Instagram's text logo (it has retained its camera icon since day one). He also created Luxe's whole look.

His name is Mackey Saturday.

The SeatGeek team was excited to work with someone running his own design studio--and who had experience working with startups. Saturday says he was delighted by the hands-on approach the SeatGeek team took.

"What was unique was that the decision makers were involved from day one," he says. That's in contrast to other projects he has worked on, which may get ignored by executives altogether. He says the norm is: "Maybe you'll just work with the creative team and you get to speak to them once."

There were some unusual considerations that Saturday points out he had to make. SeatGeek as a name is clear--but it isn't easy to understand when spoken. And it's not a household name. So a little brand reiteration could help. And an icon or image could work to that end.

"Basically, we had to stick with either the 'seat' or the 'geek,'" he says. 

About four months and 15 meetings later, in a design presentation, Saturday showed off several logo possibilities. Including one with just a simple theater seat, and the name in a clean sans-serif custom font the SeatGeek team had already told Saturday they liked.

"I remember when Mackey first put the logo up on screen, I just felt relieved," Groetzinger says.

The former SeatGeek logo, at top, and the new, below.
CREDIT: Courtesy Company

Mackey is partial to the design, because it depicts a seat. Only it's not that simple. The curve of the seat itself mirrors the former smile line under the "ee" in Geek. And the seat's arms resemble eyes to some.

"We leave a little bit of room for pleasurable discovery," he says.

What he means is: Once you see the secret smile built into the logo, you can't unsee it. Much like the arrow in the negative space of the FedEx logo. Or the staple hidden in, well, Staples.

There's just a lot of careful thought in the new design, which launched across the SeatGeek website and app in February, Saturday says. The seat's arms are also the same angle and shape as the 90-degree lip of the G in Geek. The blue background is retained as well.

It is subtle for a rebrand. Especially the hidden smile, because it carries across the company's former branding--but also integrates into the new seat icon. Saturday says: "Plus, it still works even if you don't know the secret."