Design and thinking. Sometimes together.


Branding is thinking made real. Here are some thoughts on design, branding and other miscellany.

Only The Strong Survive


Recently the University of California introduced a new branding initiative. The reasoning is given below in what is really one of the more honest and bracing comments in regards to a re-brand that I can remember:

Previously, the UC system only used its seal as its primary visual identifier, where it was abused with impunity. We feel it is an important component of the university’s visual ecosystem. But it is a non-distinctive symbol which serves an important bureaucratic function. Now we limit its use to formal systemwide communications, diplomas, official regental and presidential communications, and other official documents. Many of our campuses, and other universities across the country have limited use of their official seals in similar ways.
From this perspective, this is less of a rebranding exercise, but instead the creation of a coherent, consistent, and relevant brand identity where before there was none.
— Vanessa Kanan Correa, Creative Director, University of California

As you can see the logo is a sort of pseudo "UC" monogram where the top of the U is an open book. it's a perfectly lovely solution. If you click the link above you can see that the execution of the rest of the materials is quite nice and well done. This is quality professional work which was amazingly done by the in house team at the university as opposed to an outside firm which is typically the norm among educational intstitutions.

And then things went haywire. A contingent of angry folks on the internet (a redundant term)  posted a petition to dump the new logo. 50,000 people "signed" said petition. The reasoning behind their spite for the mark ranged from uninformed to asinine. To wit:

I don’t want the symbolic representation of my university to look like the logo of something found in the toddler section of Toys R’ Us. — Jessica Pena
The “redesigned” one looks like something somebody made in PowerPoint in 5 minutes. — Nimish Pratha
I don’t want the UC logo looking like a flushing toilet. — Terrance Bei

Then things get even more grizzly as the director of communications for the university has now caved in to the pressure from the mob and decided that they will scrap the new mark (no word as to the rest of the branding initiative). You can read Armin Vit's thoughtful and slightly enraged response to these "critics" here.

For this post I'm not terribly interested in the judgements of the quality of the work. Let's take it as a given that the work, while controversial, is certainly of a professional level and can be seen to fulfill it's goals that were laid out by the project. The more interesting/disturbing part of the process is the decision by the university to scrap the work.

What possible reason can they give for throwing this stuff out the window? Angry internet posters and jackoff columnists aside, it begs the question of why you started the project in the first place. Clearly there was great concern amongst leadership that the The University of California was having trouble communicating. That being said they went through the trouble not of hiring an outside agency but building a team over three years to develop the new identity. This is a sincere commitment. This is something that clearly wasn't done on a whim and I don't imagine that the process of getting to this solution was some sort of willy nilly free for all. Given that the older communications were seen as failing, how can going back to square one be a wise decision? There's a perfectly good answer to these questions – it's a terrible idea.

Universities are a bit unique in that the existing students and alumni form rather strong ties to and take a bit too much ownership over their school. Changing the identity of the school somehow changes their own identity. Additionally anything that theoretically diminishes the vaunted academic achievements they've managed seems like a personal affront. And while I'm sure alumni were considered as part of the audience for the new branding, I would guess that it's prospective students that are the real focus. And that's why there is a change in the direction of the communication. For whatever reasons UC felt a need to make something that would try to give them inroads to younger people who have no real attachment at all to a seal. 

This is why scrapping the work is a huge mistake. Not only because it undermines the work of the creative team; not only because it  makes upper level officials that made decisions to move forward seem incompetent; not because it implies that you've wasted time, money and resources in an already cash-strapped environment; it's a mistake because moving backwards is sure to be a failure. It already was a failure! Change and evolution are hard. Getting buy-in from existing constituents is a Darwinian process that can feel like it's taking place on a geological time frame. It's in these situations that the strong survive. The University of California is evidently weak.

Jason LaughlinComment