Opinion: UAL identity
When I heard that the University of the Arts London had commissioned a new identity I had an involuntary shudder. Not because I have any aversion to the institution but because, pre-CR, I spent a couple of years in the corporate communications department of the University of Westminster.
Part of our department's job was to act as the corporate identity police, cracking down on every rogue academic flagrantly flouting guidelines with the continued use of some entirely random logo he or she had commissioned from a friend/niece/person they met in the pub for the tiny research institute that was their pride and joy. Attempting to explain why they had to use only the approved logo in only the approved way was not something I look back on fondly.
At the time, the University of Westminster had a somewhat awkward portcullis and bar device as its logo (above), commissioned during the great 'new university' wave in the UK, when the old Polys disappeared and their successors were desperately trying to establish themselves as exciting, credible places to apply to. It was pretty awful to work with: being wide and thin, it disappeared at small sizes. The University now uses a much simpler mark, into which it can add marketing phrases and relevant sub-brands.
The University of the Arts has similarly swapped its quirky but far from user-friendly previous look for a much more straightforward solution. As Pentagram's Domenic Lippa and the UAL's Dee Searle make plain in our story on the new identity, the old 'constellation' system (below) was difficult to work with. This is confirmed in a comment on that story by Keith Parker who says that the old system (below) "was a pig to use, being a sprawling, loose-knit mess that either looked too small to make out properly or took far too much space wherever it was used".
Pentagram's Helvetica-based successor (above) will be, he predicts, a "much more usable identity". But is that enough?
The UK's academic sector is undergoing massive change. The introduction of fees has fundamentally altered the relationship between student and institution. When I was at university, I felt as if I was there almost on sufferance. The university had been good enough to 'accept' me, but would not hesitate to kick me out if I didn't meet its standards. Now, the power has begun to switch over to the student.
Michael Evamy wrote an excellent piece on this for us in his Logo Log column last September. "The hike in fees intensifies the new dynamic that has developed between higher education institutions and students - the shift from pupils to paying customers. HE governors are more conscious than ever of the level of service these young, well-informed, socially-networked individuals demand," he noted. "And some of the newest HE identities are reflecting the more balanced, one-to-one relationship that today's students expect."
Evamy picked out Plymouth University's new identity, jointly devised by Buddy (based in Exeter) and Here (London), as a great example of the way in which these new relationships are being translated into the institutions' communications. "The new identity that will greet freshers and returnees to Plymouth University this autumn brings this power shift to the fore," he wrote. "The product of a unique development process that saw extensive market research carried out as part of their course by business studies students, and which involved Plymouth alumni at two design studios working together on the one project, the identity comprises the phrase 'with Plymouth University', set all-caps in a plain-speaking sans-serif. It's almost a non-logo. Its strength isn't visual but verbal. The traditional position of studying 'at' a university has been replaced by the more inclusive, equable 'with'."
"It may not be long before we see a UK HE institution launch a fully student-inclusive brand identity - one that they have a hand in designing, not just supporting with research," Evamy predicted, citing Bruce Mau Design's work for OCAD University in Toronto (above) where students are being invited to embellish a mark that takes it cues from OCAD's building (more here) and The Stone Twins' system for Design Academy Eindhoven (below) where students were asked to write their own messages and slogans inside the three white bars of an abstracted 'E'.
Against this background, UAL's new system appears disappointingly unambitious. The University was obviously inconvenienced by the old system, but has reacted by commissioning something that is purposely bureaucratic and anonymous. It feels like a system designed to solve an existing headache rather than one that seeks to position UAL in response to the new realities of academia. As Lippa says in our story, "we were starting from a point of rejection of the old identity". So it's no surprise that the new one seems to have set out to be everything the old one was not. Searle talks about it in terms of it being "practical" and of it "working" from the internal point of view of the colleges, but what about what it says to the outside world?
When you are trying to bring together disparate institutions under one umbrella identity, it is immensely difficult to do anything with true personality or character - hence the temptation to go for the 'blank canvas' instead.
But it can be done - Unilever (by Wolff Olins) springs to mind. In the academic world, albeit at a smaller scale than UAL, Doyle Partners produced a beautiful and innovative solution for The Cooper Union last year. Compare that to UAL - which institution might feel the more exciting to a potential student?
The same arguments come into play when you are working with a client that itself produces creative work, that is part of the creative world. Should you compete with that creativity or, as UAL has chosen to do, step back and let the students' work shine? I'm very familiar with that argument as it has always come into play with CR and it's a perfectly valid route to take.
And, no doubt, getting any identity system through the labyrinth of competing interests in an organisation in which six separate colleges are asked to function under one overarching brand, would have been a huge challenge. How much easier to negotiate that process with a solution anonymous enough to be less likely to be picked apart than with one that would divide opinion? Sometimes design is about the art of the possible.
The comments on our original story are mostly critical of Pentagram: without absolving the studio, I would be more critical of UAL. As any good design studio should, Pentagram was responding to the wishes of its client (although part of that role is also to advise and suggest alternatives). All identity systems have an internal and an external role to play. UAL's, while solidly crafted and rigorous as you might expect from Pentagram, feels too much weighted toward the requirements of the former.
UAL has solved its own problems with this system and that's obviously important. But at a time of great change in academia, such a conservative, corporate solution for such an exciting, innovative institution feels like a wasted opportunity to inspire and delight.
One final thought: if the original UAL identity had been the Helvetica one, and the new one was the one with the stars, I wonder how people would be reacting to the change? Not well, I'd imagine.
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Pentagram normally produce first rate corporate identities. For example their recent one for Mohawk Paper.
This design does seem a little less impressive, but at the end of the day this is a formal institute of learning.
Did they not consider pooling their own talent from the design courses?
Seems a shame not to use the resource?
I think the stars one was designed by/with two LCC students? A shame to see that part of the process not repeated this time
I'm quite surprised by the comment at the end of this 'opinion' piece, "The comments on our original story are mostly critical of Pentagram: without absolving the studio, I would be more critical of UAL..."
To criticise the client, and to a degree, the studio, is a bit difficult, because of course, none of us actually know what the content was of the designer/client discussions that accompanied and steered the creative production process.
The public critique that greeted the story about Pentagram's re-design of the identity scheme for UAL was largely about the quality of the work (quite rightly) and reflected the fact that it was dull, poorly executed and amateurish.
Since Pentagram and/or UAL (or their respective PR departments) must have obviously done something to publicise and promote the work (in order for it to appear in CR) and given that the opinion piece has mentioned the dynamics of the designer/client relationship here's my thoughts.
The truth is that, whilst some clients can be difficult to manage, the responsibility for this and for the final design that is achieved lies with the designer. This is both our privilege and a fundamental part of our job.
It is our responsibility as creative professionals to explain to a client why a particular course of action is right or wrong and to justify this with a rational argument that explains why a particular design is suited, or not, for the purpose that the client wishes to put it to.
If a client wants to pursue a course of action and a design that is fundamentally flawed, then we should be explaining why this is wrong and offering alternatives.
If a client simply insists that we produce work that is, frankly, rubbish, then we should firstly politely explain that the reason they are employing us is because we're a design professionals and our experience gives us the ability to create good and functional design.
If a client really is insistent that they want me to create what is, in effect, sub-standard work and ignore my skills and experience, then I walk away and politely make my excuses.
Obviously we want the client to like what we create, but what we create needs to have, at it's core, in addition to being interesting and creative, integrity, honesty and most importantly it needs to do what it's supposed to do (function dictates format).
To simply go along with the clients wishes, whatever they may be (to think just of the money if you like) is unethical, wrong and is to the detriment of all members of our profession.
Unfortunately this is also a practice that although not inclusive of a large majority of the design community is, nevertheless, widespread.
I am mostly surprised by the use of Helvetica. Helvetica has been designed to be a neutral typeface, but with the current student / university dynamic one would rather be welcoming, than neutral.
Then again, there is an upside to this neutrality. By not having an "overly welcoming" identity it makes the university seem less needy. This could make the UAL appear more sophisticated.
I'm a student currently at LCC, and I am not a fan of the new identity system. I understand that maybe getting the students involved creatively would have been long process but as an identity, it fails to represent UAL as a prominent institution in Europe grounded in art and design. Hopefully, they'll figure out something to jazz it up a bit like incorporating students' work in it.
Why Helvetica (again)? Aren't we all fed up to the back teeth with boring bloody Helvetica? I can't believe designers are still using it after all these years, especially in conjunction with the words 'sophisticated', 'classic' and 'neutral' Who wants to be neutral anyway? Try and stand out! don't be a wallflower. There are now so many new typefaces available that are relatively unused yet Helvetica is still used along with Gill, (that other designers safe favourite), Futura and even Avant Garde. Whenever I see a new identity featuring Helvetica I always think it must have been done in a hurry or the designer simply couldn't be bothered to come up with any inspirational ideas. Boooooooooooooooring!
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What a total waste of money, given that the university is stuffed full of creative art and design students!
You could have put the project out to the students (and got it done much cheaper). It would have given the students some good experience in working on a real life corporate identity project, and the university would have ended up with a better finished item than the dull, lack lustre scheme that Pentagram came up with.
Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwnn. Oh, sorry, almost nodded off there. I mean, come on! This is supposed to be the best creative outlet in the whole of London? Preparing for the future of the creative industries?
Must try harder… please!
I couldn't agree more with the above comment. BORING.
An identity needs to be taken at face value. Not one for the Pentagram archives I suspect.
Prefer the "Moving Brands" ID the more colourful one.
Pentagrams is boring.
The previous Rector of UAL asked all it's designers (students & staff) to pitch proposals for UAL's graphic identity. A design team (2 students) from CSM BA Graphic Design came up with the concept of a 'creative constellation' to represent all UAL's constituent colleges. The concept was worked up by a branding agency in conjunction with the student designers. The concept was compromised in the final execution and it's implementation may have proved expensive, however, the notion of trust in one's own to conceptionalise a solution was a good one. The current design is also compromised, but at it's inception. The new logo demonstrates a lack of trust in designers and particularly the University's young designers. There are over 1000 graphic design students studying at UAL - there are hundreds of practitioners teaching student at UAL. Surely something better could have been produced 'in house'. I've had numerous conversations with colleagues, alumni and current students - not one has felt that the new logo/identity in any way reflects the creative nature of the institution, it's aspirations or its students.
Re Patrick's last point 'One final thought: if the original UAL identity had been the Helvetica one, and the new one was the one with the stars, I wonder how people would be reacting to the change?', the original University of the Arts identity (the Baskerville one, by Rodney Fitch, I think) was conceptually not that far from the new one.
I wold like to support what AlaN Baines has stated above. I have posted this elsewhere, but no harm in repeating this.
A number of ex-Central Saint Martins Graphic Design staff and students have been considering putting a letter forward to the Board of Directors of the UAL.
There are two reasons for this. Firstly to censure Sir John Tusa's comments regarding the previous identity from design week, 28th April 2011, where he states that the previous identity is "rubbish, as it was designed by committee".
Obviously ignorant of the history of the last identity (which followed a disastrous attempt by Trickett & Webb). Two students at CSM graphic design, Zamir Antonio and Antoine Choussat won the pitch for the identity. They sketched some very good ideas but the UAL Marketing Department, not trusting its own students or staff, whipped the idea away at its initial stages and handed it over to the rather drab Lloyd Northover who managed to implement every awkward element we see into the current implementation.
However for Tusa to describe his own student's work as rubbish in public is neither good form or professional, and he should apologise for it.
Secondly, there has enough been said about the current Pentagram design that we need not add our voice to it. It is not that Helvetica has been used. It is a fine font when used in the correct manner. Rather it is the indolence of the design… to choose a default font and describe it as neutral, the drabness of vision the identity represents, the laziness of the design and the ignorance of the client (at management level) that is astounding.
We see here one of the nails that has gone into the coffin of London art schools by UAL, destroying their place at the forefront of the creative industries.
What a brilliant identity (and video) that is from OCAD University.
UAL - not so much.
I am a student of UAL (specifically CSM) and the continual disappointment of the university experience on offer is only matched by it's conventional and flaccid view of itself. Like Maziar Raein has said above, the nail is in the coffin and is slowly being lowered into the ground, I'd say it's about 3 feet deep at the moment.
The lack of faith in it's own students/alumni to produce an adequate brand to entice future students and raise it's shaky profile has been thwarted again and again by an "I know better attitude" at the top levels of the university. Ironically Pentagram has managed to reflect this in what can only be described as a lazy response to what could have been a dynamic and forward leap in the university's profile. I'm only left asking if this is an art school or a stale looking business.
I thought the previous identity was quite strong, clever and differentiating.
The new one reminds me of UCL, but less elegant. The new mark looks lazy and bland and the indulgent lowercase 'idea' looks like a mistake when you read the place names 'chelsea' etc.
Poor. Thought pentagram would deliver better.
think i preferred the logo previous (for the then, London institute) to the previous one. At least it had colours identifiable with each separate college.
Pentagrams looks more appropriate for a Further education college.
The main comment thread here is saying a number of things
1. Corporate identity for a creative institution seems a poor /strange/ awkward match
2. Wasted opportunity for the university to engage with their own content: creativity
3. That the decision to run with this logo lies with the university and that a) it wants to communicate a corporate institution (could be bank, insurance brokers or a law firm) rather than a hotbed of talent, energy and creativity and b) that the people making the decision are corporates who should be working at a bank, insurance brokers or law firm rather than a creative university.
Pentagram has done some stunning work in the past, and I can only believe that this bland logo was chosen as it represents the blandness and corporate agenda of the people running the university and communicates their own lack of imagination or creativity. As such, it is a success and they got what they deserve.
It was very interesting to read the article point of view.
Also very illustrative with the actuality of education Branding!
I'll be on tune for more!
Maziar I wonder if you could elaborate on why Trickett & Webb created a 'disastrous attempt' at an identity for the London Institute?
I get the feeling that the folks at Pentagram, kinda tugged on their beards, adjusted their very cool eye-ware and said to the client, "we're the worlds premier design firm, we know best. We are Pentagram!" Then Pentagram tooted out something very average, took a big check and ran. The clients said: "Umm, ok. They must know something, they're Pentagram. Right?"
Then again, maybe it is cool and it's my coffee that has gone flat. Not the design effort.
This dull and uninteresting logo will inevitably fire up all UAL students to find ways to cover up the logo creatively, and REBELLIOUSly.
This was designed by a bunch of suits for a bunch of suits - boring - I have yet to come across one student at UAL that likes it - more like a bank logo ...didnt they do that hideous Olympics logo ? - Pentagram USED to be good ...not any more
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