A look at 6 iconic open source brands

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Brand and community balancing on a see-saw


Branding is an integral part of marketing. When it's done right and makes an impact, a simple logo (like a Nike swoosh) becomes a powerful advertisement in of itself. Just drive down any interstate in America and you'll see symbols that tell you about a brand. Like, the golden arches. Even certain color combinations can be identified with a brand without any additional text or images to give further context. Like, Virginia Tech University's maroon and orange; they are a unique color combination that is hard to mistake.

So, the question is: Is branding important to the open source community?

There is a strong argument from me, and many others, that it very much is. Open source software competes with paid software, and so must define itself as a viable, realistic alternative. It must also be memoriable and make an impact. If an open source software project represents itself with a poorly designed logo, a bad tagline, and inconsistent messaging, it will be hard to get noticed, be remembered, and be taken seriously. 

There are many projects doing it right that we can look to for inspiration and guidance. Here are six of my favorites.

Six open source brands

Linux's Tux mascot


The beloved Linux penguin is named Tux, and he is considered the mascot, not the logo.

Tux was created by Larry Ewing, using GIMP 0.54 in 1996. The story, as told by Jeff Ayers, is that Linus Torvalds had a fixation on penguins after being bitten by one at an Australian zoo in 1993. Torvalds was looking for a fun image for Linux and felt that a fat penguin resting after a meal was the perfect solution. Tux has found his way into video games, cereal commercials, and even has a female pal, named Gown. Tux is as familiar to Linux users as the bitten-apple is to Mac users and the flying window is to Windows users.


The Mozilla Foundation is non-profit organization and free-software community.

Recently wrapping up a long rebranding effort, their creative team leader, Tim Murray, wrote, "At the core of this project is the need for Mozilla's purpose and brand to be better understood by more people. Our brand identity—our logo, our voice, our design—is an important signal of what we believe in and what we do."

In true open source fashion, Mozilla has invited everyone to contribute. "Thousands of emails, hundreds of meetings, dozens of concepts, and three rounds of research later, we have something to share." But, they're still working on the guidelines, so there's still time to get involved.


Firefox is Mozilla's flagship software product and a popular web browser.

The "fox" in Firefox is actually a red panda, which is a real animal, a cat-like creature native to China. The story is that Firefox was originally nicknamed "Phoenix" to denote its rising from the ashes of Netscape Navigator. The name was changed to Mozilla Firebird after a trademark dispute with Phoenix Technologies. Then, in February 2004, the name was changed to Mozilla Firefox, after the Firebird RDMS project said it caused confusion with its own projects.

Early logos for Firefox and Phoenix were criticized by interface designer Steve Garrity, who detailed the flaws in the post "Branding Mozilla: Towards Mozilla 2.0." So, Mozilla invited Garrity to lead better branding efforts. New icons were developed by silverorange, and the final renderings were done by Jon Hicks, who has done branding work for Camino, MailChimp, and Opera.

In 2013, the Firefox logo was a final clue on "Jeopardy!" that asked what the animal was in the logo. None of the three contestants knew the answer is a red panda, instead answering "su," "raccoon," and "Excel."


GIMP's logo is Wilber the GIMP, created on September 25, 1997 by Tuomas Kuosmanen.

GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program, and it is used for photo retouching and image manipulation. Wilber has had some accessories added, such as a hard hat, by Simon Budig, and a wizard cap, by Raphaël Quintet. According to GIMP's Linking to Us page, the use of Wilber is highly encouraged and you can even get the Wilber Construction Kit included in the source code in /docs/Wilber_Construction_Kit.xcf.gz.

What kind of creature is Wilber? Apparently, that's up for discussion. A forum on gimper.net offers many theories: coyote, panda, dog, or a "Goofy" derivative, just to name a few. A user named "TheWarrior" on GimpChat.com, emailed Kuosmanen directly and was told, "Wilber is an animal of its own species: a 'GIMP.' What a GIMP is, is sort of a joke, because people kept asking it so much: It would be so boring to say it's a dog or a fox or whatever. And when I designed the character, I did not really have any particular animal in mind."


As you've seen and probably know, animals are popular in logos.

An elephant named Slonik is part of the logo for PostgreSQL, an open source Relational Database Management System (RDMS). Patrycja Dybka, writing for "Vertabelo," explains that the name is derived from the Russian word for "elephants," which is "slony." Oleg Bartunov said that the logo was first considered in an email thread. In it, the elephant was suggested by David Yang at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia: "…but if you want an animal-based logo, how about some sort of elephant? After all, as the Agatha Christie title read, Elephants Can Remember."

VLC media player

This logo diverges from the animal theme with... a traffic cone.

VLC is the ubiquitous media player that seems to appear on desktops magically—giving many a taste of open source without even knowing it! VLC is a product of the VideoLAN project, supported by the VideoLAN organization, which is based in France. VideoLAN began in 1996 as a student project at École Centrale Paris. According to Wikipedia, the traffic cone image is a reference to traffic cones collected from the streets of Paris by the École Centrale's Networking Students' Association. The original hand-drawn illustrated logo was re-rendered in 2006 by Richard Oistad.

Fun tidbits include:

  • Seamus Islwyn's post What Does the Traffic Cone Mean in VLC? tells us that in the month of December, the VLC cone wears a Santa hat, which disappears on December 31 and reverts back to the original cone.
  • Some say that VLC stands for "Very Large Cone" or the cone was chosen because of a connection with Cone, France.
  • Is the "official" story accurate? An exchange on the VideoLAN Forum between VLC's Jean-Baptiste Kempf and users seems to indicate that the traffic cone collection theory, as well as the funnel, the construction zone, the megaphone, and several other theories, may not be correct.

Will we ever get the definitive answer on the origins of the VLC traffic cone? My personal theory: It's "Saturday Night Live's" Coneheads. They were from France, remember? Remulak, to be exact.

I'd love to hear from you in the comments about which other open source logos you love, hate, and feel excel at representing their brands.

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Jeff Macharyas is the Director of Marketing at Corning Community College in New York. He is a writer, graphic designer and communications director who has worked in publishing, higher education and project management for many years.


Interesting and quirky article, thanks for sharing!

Thank you. As a graphic designer, it was a fun article to write. There are so many more, too, and some of the stories behind the brands are very interesting. I also learned a few new things I never knew, like the story behind the "firefox." Pretty cool. Thanks again.

In reply to by anatomasovic

I love the Snort brand (Snort.org). I'm fairly biased though.

Since you mentioned animals in logos, I`d suggest GNU.

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