Design crit, Roman style

The latest online furore over a new identity is bad news for design and for any organisation trying something new

If their online reaction to the University of California’s latest logo is anything to go by the Golden State’s students have a bit to learn from their predecessors about peace, love and understanding. Not since the launch of the London 2012 identity in 2007 has a logo elicited such a tsunami of negativity. This sudden, unexpected torrent, though, was directed not at a highly-charged microcosm of national identity, but one element of a brand identity scheme for a public university system: a gradiented yellow ‘C’ sitting inside the bowl of a blue ‘U’ open book motif.

The strength and scale of the uproar took the university administration completely by surprise. Not least because the logo, and the system to which it belonged, had already been on full display for over a year on UC’s admissions site, and as the centrepiece of a campaign that visited all ten campuses in summer 2012 in advance of a statewide ballot on public education funding.

But a week into December, a fourth-year biomedical student posted a ‘Stop the new UC logo’ petition on change.org, and within just five days had attracted a staggering 54,000 signatures from students, parents, alumni and others. The intensity of the backlash on Twitter, Facebook and in the mainstream media, resulted in the withdrawal of a symbol that had drawn significant praise from the design community.

In fact, the seal (previously UC’s only visual identifier) was never in danger of being jettisoned and would still feature on formal correspondence from the UC President’s Office and on degree certificates. But the mere suggestion that this ‘old friend’ had been coolly, cynically mugged in the night by a contemporary corporate monogram enraged a university-educated mob unable or unwilling to dig a little deeper.

Discussion of the strategic aims of the wider identity system was nowhere to be seen.

So what does it mean for informed design discourse and for the integrity of design, in particular for public institutions, when the threat of a full-on, free-for-all mauling hangs over every new rebrand? At what point should public attacks on design be taken seriously? When the people speak, how should design respond?
Design clearly faces a challenge when it comes to high-profile identity projects of this kind. The design community has never found it easy to explain its craft to the wider world: if it did, it wouldn’t still suffer the perennial gripes about the (alleged) cost of rebrands or the public’s total blank about how a brand identity serves an organisation’s strategic interests. And now, the en-masse, knee-jerk judgement of projects via social media runs a steamroller over the design’s ability to advocate for itself.

As Vanessa Corrêa, UC’s creative director, says: “The culture of the ‘expert’ – especially in industries where aesthetics play a role – will no longer own the discourse. Deep knowledge in these fields will be weighed against the ‘likes’ and ‘tastes’ of the populace at large. This creates a climate that does not encourage visual or aesthetic exploration, play or inventiveness, since the new will often be soundly refused.”

So easy has it become, via Twitter and sites like change.org, to mobilise uninformed opinion and make it count, that we face a crisis of not just visual literacy but of criticism and democracy, which will affect us all, not just those in creative professions such as design.

More practically, warns Corrêa, “every public organisation undertaking this kind of project – whether small or large – needs to prepare itself for a backlash”. One wonders how far emblems for public institutions such as those for the V&A and British Rail would have got if subjected to the instant online Roman amphitheatre – thumb up or thumb down – of public opinion.

Michael Evamy is the author of Logotype (Laurence King), evamy.co.uk. Vanessa Corrêa blogs at vanessacorrea.com

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