A good identity is far from just academic

As university students become fee-paying customers, institutions are starting to reflect this new relationship through identity design…

Now that future students at English universities have been told they will be paying roughly the same for their degree as a mint condition 1963 Jaguar MkII, they have every right to peg their expectations high.

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. And some of the newest HE identities are reflecting the more balanced, one-to-one relationship that today’s students expect.

The new identity that will greet freshers and returnees to Plymouth University this autumn brings this power shift to the fore. 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 The traditional position of studying ‘at’ a university has been replaced by the more inclusive, equable ‘with’. Its application also extends much further. The design studios, Buddy (based in Exeter) and Here (London) have supplied the beginnings of a library of core phrases, covering messages from the functional, such as ‘arts with Plymouth University’, to the aspirational, like ‘pioneer with Plymouth University’. Even standing alone on images of students in eye-catching locations, working or enjoying themselves, its effect is powerful, getting to the core of the non-hierarchical, collaborative perception of education that students find attractive. Time will tell whether the new form of words catches on.
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. Top art and design schools abroad have got there already. In 2010, Design Academy Eindhoven launched a logo by The Stone Twins that invites students to write their own messages and slogans inside the three white bars of an abstracted ‘E’.

And this summer, following an intensive “research and engagement phase” involving students, staff and alumni, Toronto’s esteemed OCAD University (formerly Ontario College of Art and Design) unveiled a logo by Bruce Mau Design that makes students’ own work part of the identity. Taking visual inspiration from the pixellated surface of OCAD’s extraordinary, Alsop-designed, slab-on-stilts building, BMD created a base of black frames that medal-winning students each year will be asked to embellish.

One can think of ‘flexible’ brands in commerce and culture that already work with changing imagery and words [p64]. But in the don-eat-don world of student recruitment, where HE institutions do battle over the mindspace of their young, connected, brand-savvy audience, the Plymouth and OCAD approaches could be a sign of radical things to come.

Michael Evamy is the author of LOGO and the forthcoming Logotype, to be published by Laurence King next year. evamy.co.uk

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