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Ideas
February 27, 2020
Katy Steinmetz is a TIME correspondent in San Francisco covering tech, politics, culture, language (and so on).

When Andrew Goetz and Matthew Malin set out to name their unisex beauty brand 16 years ago, they decided to follow in the tradition of successful companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, with one pointed exception. They linked their surnames just as those firms had, but they used a plus sign. “We didn’t even consider the ampersand,” the latter half of Malin+Goetz says.

The plus sign spoke to everything on the duo’s mood board, from an apothecary concept (echoing the crosses that mark pharmacies throughout Europe) to their balanced partnership both in business and in life. And it was the antithesis of &’s old-timey excess. “The plus sign is very modern,” Goetz says, “and it was very important for the brand to be minimalist and contemporary.” It was also important for the brand to stand out, which the symbol helped do back when Facebook was headquartered in a college dorm room.

That, however, has changed. “Now it’s everywhere,” Goetz says of the plus sign. “It’s literally all over the place.”

Most recently, the plus sign has become a sigil in the streaming wars (Apple TV+, Disney+, ESPN+). But that is just the latest sector to catch the fever, alongside industries ranging from fashion to food. There are plus-adorned handbags (Foley + Corinna), soaps (Etta + Billie), men’s clothing lines (Mizzen+Main) and wines (++ Double Plus ++). The enthusiasm some brands have for the symbol can hardly be contained. Monica + Andy, for example, makes children’s clothing that appeals to “you + your baby” and offers “events + classes” as well as “returns + exchanges.” boon eat + drink sources “seasonal + sustainable” ingredients in California to make “simple + tasty” food every “friday + saturday.” (Its proprietor, btw, also runs a “hotel + spa.”)

From branding, it is a small jump to marketing materials. High-touch realtors now advertise “featured listings + off market opportunities,” and event promoters for luxury brands promise “the full store shopping experience + of course fun activities.” The plus sign has even developed new cachet in casual communication, as breezy shorthand for adding people to email chains (“+ Kirk and Cody”) and calculated snark on social media, where Internet people wield it with the same flair as prepositional because. For example: “War is expensive, the most likely thing to bankrupt your nation-state, with highly unpredictable economic costs to future generations + it’s immoral af.”

As Goetz puts it, the plus sign “has become a new vernacular.”

On TIME’s behalf, Internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch fielded a poll to her Twitter followers asking whether they use the plus sign as a substitute for words like and or as well as and why. More than 58% of 400 respondents said they do. Of them, roughly 54% said that aesthetics were at least part of the reason, while 43.5% said the draw was purely functional.

Functionally, McCulloch says, the plus sign can save time and space, especially when writing by hand. It can also serve as a “DIY graphic design element,” both on labels and on platforms like Twitter that don’t allow for other visual cues like italics or differently sized fonts. It can attract eyeballs and aid comprehension by creating whitespace. Also, McCulloch notes, a lot of people can’t draw ampersands, while even people who sign their name with an “X” possess the skills necessary to successfully deploy the “+.”

For companies like Disney and Apple (which also tacked the symbol onto a new media product, Apple News+), there is a different kind of functional appeal. “The value of + is that it implies more, better, premium,” explains Maria Cypher, creative director at naming company Catchword, “without being specific as to content, scale, or degree of premium-ness.” It suggests customers will be getting something extra without making it at all clear what that extra thing might be. On top of that, Cypher notes, it bypasses red tape. “These media companies have to trademark globally, a monstrous task that innocent bystanders cannot begin to comprehend,” she says, “and appending a + to an existing name is an easy way to square the circle.”

For many, the aesthetic appeal of the plus sign is in its simplicity, which dovetails with a culture that fetishizes the raw, the elemental, the nostalgic — whether it is slow food or adult hide-and-seek. David Steele, one of the founders of the beloved, award-winning San Francisco restaurant Flour + Water, was also on the early side of the trend. When they decided to use the plus sign in 2008, before the restaurant opened, Steele had only seen it used by architecture firms. He liked it and told their graphic designers to draw it up. “I’d like to tell you that the plus sign represents inclusiveness,” Steele says, “but the truth is it just looked f—ing cool.”

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The plus sign can indeed project open arms, thanks to uses like LGBTQ+. It has a clean medical patina, which the contact lens brand Bausch & Lomb capitalized on when rebranding as Bausch + Lomb in 2010. When Dove launched Men+Care the same year, onlookers suggested the plus sign might be conveying masculinity. Others link its appeal to the “x” used to denote collaboration among artists (a construction that is also hot in the branding world).

And the list goes on. It can channel the childlike charm of scratching initials into a tree or the high-tech efficiency of C++ brogrammers. It’s hardly surprising to see it in TechCrunch panel names. “The plus got a lot of traction through things like Google +,” says Nancy Friedman, founder of branding consultancy Wordworking. Friedman once named a design firm Post + Beam. “They really liked the plus symbol,” she says. It had a kind of “mathematical crispness” and a promise of an answer at the end of the equation.

In emails and tweets and texts, the plus sign gives off a “studied casualness,” McCulloch says: “If the plus sign is traditionally used in handwritten notes because it’s faster, it can still convey that ethos.” The irony is, of course, that it’s not actually faster to type “+” on a phone or computer than it is to type the word and. In electronic media, one might use “+” to save a couple characters, but it’s also possible that “you’re typing a plus sign because you want to be the type of person who types a plus sign,” she says.

The symbol has become its own form of trendiness-signaling, much like jettisoning all the vowels from one’s brand name or refusing to engage in that hackneyed ritual known as capitalization. Your mom might make a PB&J, but that artisanal coffee shop that provisions handcrafted food and beverage? They make a PB+J.

Over the past 16 years, Malin+Goetz has grown from one store to 15 located in countries around the world. Their $22 shampoos can be found in high-end hotels and gyms and the showers of your more fashionable friends. When asked how he would feel if he woke up tomorrow and every storefront and bottle contained an ampersand rather than a plus sign, Goetz says, “We’d be a law firm!”

As it happens, even law firms are dropping the fusty old ampersand like a broke client, explaining that they’re “changing with the times.” Last year, the American Bar Association Journal ran an op-ed lamenting how so many firms had forsaken the & and “announced their sleek new ampersand-less titles with the swagger of a smug middle-ager presenting a new trophy spouse.” Often these professionals are just doing away with the symbols all together: Boies, Schiller & Flexner becomes Boies Schiller Flexner. But some younger, hipper boutique firms have even adopted the plus sign instead.

For Steele, who has watched the plus sign grow popular with a furrowed brow, this was something of a breaking point. After all, Flour + Water had chosen the symbol in part to be different, because it was the typographical equivalent of punk rock compared to the establishment’s and or & (or, heaven forbid, ’n’). “Really? These white shoes are using the plus sign? Is it time for me to get a new angle on this?” he says of the first time he saw a law firm use it. “If I could redo the logo right now, I might.” Cypher of Catchword says her firm was recently asked to develop “+” names for a client and advised against it, in part because it risked sounding derivative.

While ‘n’ appears to be going the way of Linens ‘N Things, the ampersand is far from dead. Its baroque curls suit retro hipster establishments and the world has yet to witness the coming of Crate+Barrel or Bed, Bath + Beyond. But the plus sign suits the modern tendency toward narrow, nerd-chic sans serif fonts. The & feels more like embattled cursive writing.

Goetz is far too attached to the symbol to ever consider a redesign, however a la mode the plus sign might get. He too laments its ubiquity. (“As they say, imitation is the greatest form of annoyance.”) But it has evolved from mere branding into a motif of his life. He takes pictures of the symbols wherever he sees them – whether it’s on a computer screen or a street intersection viewed from above. He only half-jokingly describes “the rapture of the plus sign” as kind of guiding force, a bit of beauty that has been around, in some form or another, since the Romans were in charge.

“The world is filled with plus signs wherever you go. You just have to look for them,” Goetz says. “And now you don’t have to look that hard.”

Write to Katy Steinmetz at katy.steinmetz@time.com.

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