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
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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