Opinion: UAL identity

Pentagram’s new identity for the University of the Arts London effectively solves the problems of its ‘starry’ predecessor, but at a time when academia is changing fundamentally, its corporate ascetism misses the opportunity to inspire and to reflect new relationships

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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