California raging

An extraordinary row has broken out over a new identity scheme for the University of California, with over 50,000 people signing a petition urging the institution to withdraw its new mark

An extraordinary row has broken out over a new identity scheme for the University of California, with over 50,000 people signing a petition urging the institution to withdraw its new mark and even the state’s Lieutenant Governor getting involved

With echoes of the rows over the London 2012 logo, Gapgate and even the UAL scheme earlier this year, the new UC identity has been met with derision online, where commenters have likened it to a flushing toilet – one even came up with the classic “Looks like a 10 year old designed it”. So far, so drearily familiar, but the response from both students and staff of the University raises some important questions about the process of design and the competing claims of all those who have ‘ownership’ over institutions and brands.

New UC mark, gradient version


Original University of California mark next to the new version, as shown on the Brand New website


First, some background. The new scheme was introduced in September and was created by an in-house team of 11, led by creative director Vanessa Correa. The University of California acts as an umbrella organisation for the state’s public university system. The University has nine campuses – Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz – and some 220,000 students, most of whom feel more of a connection with their specific campus (eg UCLA) than the University as a whole. In addition, the University is active in many other areas. In a letter explaining the aims of the scheme, UC director, marketing communications Jason Simon said that “Our challenge is to represent not only the work done on our campuses but also in UC medical centres, agriculture and natural resources efforts, research centres, K-12 preparation and outreach efforts, and even things such as overseeing the state’s 4H program or the University of California Press”.


Previous UC materials using its seal

UC seal

Selection of UC sub-brands

Previously, the University used its seal as an identifier across all its locations and activities. However, as Vanessa Correa told the Brand New website “it was abused with impunity”. The new mark forms part of what Correa calls “a dynamic visual vocabulary”. “It is meant to be scalable, flexible, adaptable; something that would let us talk to our diverse audiences while maintaining recognisability,” she told Brand New. The seal will still be used on “formal systemwide communications, diplomas, official regental and presidential communications, and other official documents”.

Mock-ups of the new scheme in use. LiveSurface perhaps?


This is a situation that will be familiar to many readers – a ‘parent’ brand that is struggling for visibility against a wide array of strong sub-brands and not getting the recognition it feels is its due. The desire by the client to increase visibility and to clear up a mess of inconsistency. The need to create something flexible enough to work in very different situations yet still remain recognisable. The solution will also be familiar – the modern, ‘friendly’ replacement for a traditional, staid predecessor, the geometric patterns of the associated scheme and the simple sans type (FF Kievit in this case).

And, unfortunately, many readers will also be familiar with the resulting furore. What seems to have stoked the flames here is an underlying row over the commercialisation of the University – many supporters of the petition seemingly equate a ‘logo’ with a commercial brand and see its introduction as evidence of an unwelcome change in priorities. The online petition has been supported by some UC staff, the local paper has weighed in as have various blogs. Even Gavin Newsom, the Lieutenant Governor of California, has become involved, writing a letter to UC’s president in which he states that “the overwhelmingly negative response to the recent change to the University of California logo demands immediate attention” and that the new design “fails to respect the history and prestige” of the institution.

Armin Vit, at Brand New, has now posted a spirited defence of the scheme, not for its design per se but against what he sees as “the danger this mob mentality poses to the practice of logo and identity design”. He has also written to Jason Simon offering his support.

For Vit, identity design is in “no way, a democratic process: People in leadership positions make these decisions; it’s their responsibility to get buy-in from whatever number of people they feel is required to push their decision forward – sometimes it’s five people, sometimes it’s endless focus groups. But the process and the final decision is between client and designer. Not between mob and online petitions. Do you feel left out and that your voice doesn’t count? Too bad.” But where does that leave consumers – or in this case, students and staff. All modern brands strive to engage their customers as much as possible. They are invited to feel part of things, to feel like the brand belongs to them as marketing people are fond of saying. So when it comes to something as emotive and important as a change of identity, how can they be ignored?

It’s easy to overstate the importance of the petition in this case – 50,000 sounds a lot but it’s very easy to click your support of something like this. But it is clear that designers and their clients ignore such protests at their peril. And maybe they have a point. Most of the logos which have engendered the really vitriolic responses have had their faults. The proposed new Gap logo was awkward and clunky, 2012 was determinedly ugly, UAL was overly utilitarian and this UC mark is really quite banal. Perhaps the problem could be avoided simply by doing better work that accurately expresses the values which a community associates with its brand?

The question remains how, in this social media age, do brands ensure that innovations such as a new identity scheme come as a pleasant surprise rather than an awful shock to their community? How do they ensure, to use an awful phrase, ‘buy-in’? And how do they know who to ignore and who to take notice of?

This problem is not going to go away for brands or designers. This year has been notable for the ‘blanding’ of several large organisations who have introduced very pared down new marks. You wonder whether there is a link here. Are brands and their designers, in the face of online criticism, seeking work that they calculate will provoke the least criticism? If so, it would represent a colossal failure of nerve.





CR In print

In our December issue we look at why carpets are the latest medium of choice for designers and illustrators. Plus, Does it matter if design projects are presented using fake images created using LiveSurface and the like? Mark Sinclair looks in to the issue of mocking-up. We have an extract from Craig Ward’s upcoming book Popular Lies About Graphic Design and ask why advertising has been so poor at preserving its past. Illustrators’ agents share their tips for getting seen and we interview maverick director Tony Kaye by means of his unique way with email. In Crit, Guardian economics leader writer Aditya Chakrabortty review’s Kalle Lasn’s Meme Wars and Gordon Comstock pities brands’ long-suffering social media managers. In a new column on art direction, Paul Belford deconstructs a Levi’s ad that was so wrong it was very right, plus, in his brand identity column, Michael Evamy looks at the work of Barcelona-based Mario Eskenazi. And Daniel Benneworth-Gray tackles every freelancer’s dilemma – getting work.

Our Monograph this month, for subscribers only, features the EnsaïmadART project in which Astrid Stavro and Pablo Martin invited designers from around the world to create stickers to go on the packaging of special edition packaging for Majorca’s distinctive pastry, the ensaïmada, with all profits going to a charity on the island (full story here)

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  • adam

    I would suggest failure of nerve is perhaps a little simplistic. The larger the scheme the more attritional the process, it can often be a question of stamina, simply trying to outlast your clients. Often decisions are taken out with the designers presence. You can present something strong, get a good reception, to find a few days later that an alternate decision has been taken and thats it, no logic, no discussion. We also have a problem that increasingly most of our major clients are headed up by Accountants rather than say more visionary leaders.

    This is not a defence of blanding, or some of the ridiculous rationales some designers put forward on the behalf of weak work, but rather the landscape has become extremely difficult to navigate. Organisations are wary of what we do, they dont want to appear to be wasting money, or appearing too flash. I think its worth a broader look rather than the usual onslaught on branding designers.

  • Chris

    I think their website requires more urgent attention than their branding!

  • Blanding? How about that for a Freudian slip 😉

  • Clever design. Like the open book at the top of the U and its versatility. A big problem with launching a new logo is much negative commentary arises from seeing it in isolation, without seeing its applications across the full branding. Similar derision was heard when London 2012 unveiled their new logo before we saw its potency across the full range of brand and associated collateral.

  • newman

    is it really that bad everyone?

    there are so many other well known logos out there that are eyesaws.

  • adam

    No its not that bad at all

  • “The question remains how, in this social media age, do brands ensure that innovations such as a new identity scheme come as a pleasant surprise rather than an awful shock to their community? How do they ensure, to use an awful phrase, ‘buy-in’? And how do they know who to ignore and who to take notice of?”
    – Patrick Burgoyne

    One possible route would be to include interested parties at the start, as Bruce Mau Design did when designing Sweden’s Open-Source Music Festival. Paddy Harrington, executive creative director, explains:

    “We decided to open ourselves up. We built three very rough sketches that we’re now sharing with the festival’s Facebook community.” The hope was that feedback from people who had “liked” Festival 2014 on Facebook would help steer the brand in a direction informed by the people powering it, without completely losing BMD’s overall perspective. “There were many precedents for open-source identities but none, that we know of, that opens up the design process in this way,” says Harrington. “It put us into the uncomfortable position of sharing things publicly before we felt they were ready.”

  • eddie

    There’s nothing wrong with this branding.

  • Robbin de Pobbin

    Let’s not leave forget to put the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam on the 2012 list of design disasters…

  • Robbin de Pobbin

    Let’s not leave forget to put the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam on the 2012 list of design disasters…

  • Haha the flushing toilet metaphor made me laugh. Didn’t see it at first.. :-)

  • roycepowell

    Looks like they “borrowed” from the Criterion Collection’s “C” logo….hmmmmm….

  • A surprising debate when it appears to be a very considered and striking mark. When compared to the sub brands it clearly holds its ground looking far less corporate.

  • Todd M. LeMieux
  • A

    They need to man up and stand by the decision. Peeps will shut up eventually and in a year, wont even remember the old stuff.

  • Tim C

    The open book idea, at the top of the mark, is a rip of the INSEAD logo type…

  • John

    This is a classic “Why wasn’t I consulted??” situation, whatever the University decided to do they did with the aid of a group of professional designers and consultants that worked to a brief set by the University.

    To devalue this process is childish but also arrogant but then again it’s a re-branding in a social sphere where everyone is the expert.

  • Andy Benson

    What did the people who hate it want? Let me guess, a globe? You can’t design by committee – simple as.

  • LiveSurface was not used. I made those beautiful drop shadows by hand.


  • Whether this design is good or not isn’t really mine to say. The importance of this fine article is more one of process. Not having been privy to the U of C’s process I can’t comment on this specific situation. But coming from a University management position I can state that this reaction should not surprise anyone. The post-secondary institutional makeup, especially with this many silos and ‘stars’, calls not only for a strong design team but for a strong representative management team who set forth with a detailed, published plan of action that clearly sets out the priorities, principles and goals. They should also provide an open consultative process at various stages of the development, where all parties are given an opportunity for input, buy-in and information to help guide students, deans, academics and management through with respect and diplomacy. It’s a long, long process and even then, may not be a smooth one. Should it not be managed properly it can easily turn into “design by mob”.

  • People within the organisation and outside need to know why you’re rebranding, what problems this solves, why this mark and what will come from changing this identity (i.e. better marketability online to increase student sign-ups). This is standard design process and we just need to educate stakeholders better.

    I think the video lacks explanation from the design team as to why they took this direction. Remember the Obama logo video ( ) – something less snazzy and more meaningful to those that are watching it may have been a better direction.

    I do wonder if all the 50,000 petitioners knew that the seal is still part of the brand identity? A lot of Universities pull this off fine, where the seal is secondary to the logo – used on certificates, some print etc. See – seal is at the bottom of the page, or Michegan where “The University of Michigan Seal is reserved for presidential and regental uses. ”

    It is unfortunate that some people high up in an organisation make decisions with poor judgement, cave-in to pressure and aren’t prepared to take risks. If we all designed-by-committee, there would be no innovation. I do liken it to the London 2012 process. A lot of people hated, but it stuck. Like when a new car comes out that looks a bit ugly, after a while, it looks beautiful. We’ve taken the time to understand it and the world around it has changed to something that fits around it.

    Oh, and I like it.

  • Hi Ross,

    If you are interested, Vanessa Corrêa, the Creative Director of this project, writes about the process of getting this identity approved, in one of the comments here:

  • Alexp

    People are not just angry about the seal!! People are disappointed with the entire campaign, the color scheme, the zany pre-teen cali girl “vibe” that looks like its straight out of a Roxy clothing store or a kids-targeting surf company! The colors dont even represent all universities within the system and favor a UCLA-like color scheme. The audacity of the UC to say this cost nothing and was effectively brought to the community for input is ridiculous. They drove ice cream trucks painted in pastels with the ugly “mini” logo around for a few weeks last spring and then returned to campus this fall to give free ice cream in return for a picture for their propaganda campaigns and advertising on campus (supposedly using this new branding scheme until it got thoroughly rejected by the students).

    People do not want their university looking like a weak start up tech company using the aforementioned color scheme and inserting ugly logos that signify one single school out of the whole system. There are seniors and grad students at theses UCs who have created start ups with completel branding campaigns and as much media as these UC hacks have put out, but in a single semester while still in school. Doesn’t take UC grads 3 years to do something this poorly received and poorly conceded by the administration.

    Dont belittle your critics by trying to reframe their criticism, people were disappointed with much much more than the swirly logo, and they DID recognize that the seal would be kept for some uses (although the UC completely failed to indicate exactly what). However people disliked the color change to a effete sky blue instead of the striking dark shades of blue formerly used on the seal as well…