Thonik puts HKU on the grid

From January, the Hogeschool van de Kunsten Utrecht (Utrecht School of the Arts) is to be renamed HKU and will introduce a dynamic grid-based identity created by Amsterdam studio Thonik

From January, the Hogeschool van de Kunsten Utrecht (Utrecht School of the Arts) is to be renamed HKU and will introduce a dynamic grid-based identity created by Amsterdam studio Thonik

Thonik’s scheme replaces the school’s original logo (above), which has been in use since its formation 25 years ago when various art, music and theatre colleges were brought together under one institution. According to Thonik‘s Thomas Widdershoven, over time the school became commonly referred to as the HKU, hence the decision to formerly adopt the abbreviated version as its official name and introduce a new identity scheme to reflect that move.

The scheme is based on a grid, out of which the initial letters HKU are formed. “The letters HKU form a strong graphic image. We tried to establish that image and open it up, at the same time,” Widdershoven says. “That is why we did not choose a typeface but constructed a letter within a grid. The letters are in that way part of a bigger structure of relationships. We think that that correlates to the position of the school, in the middle of the Netherlands, in the middle of society.”

The same grid can then be used to create patterns and illustrations so that a coherent identity system of type and image is derived from the same starting point. “If you form the H K U out of a grid of nine points, an interesting rhythm is the result,” Widdershoven says. “We did many tests on how to come from this nine point basis to a grid with enough detail and possibilities. By using an octagon around the points and connecting the side of these octagons we came to the right [mix of] simplicity and complexity. The grid is easy to identify and gives ample options. We have four strategies to design with the grid: random, accentuated, decorative and structural.”



We have seen a great many identity systems recently which have generative elements and systems for creating patterns to be used on supporting materials. Often, however, there is a disconnect between the core mark and the supporting elements. By using the same graphic system to create both the mark and the ‘brand world’ elements, Thonik has ensured a much greater level of cohesion while still allowing for the flexibility and dynamism that has become a staple of modern brand identity.



Is it right for the school? HKU director of communications Marieke Lauwrier says that “The new identity is appropriate because we have chosen a new position as an art institute in society. We not only want to educate talented arts students, we also want them to connect in various ways to our society and the creative industries. Working together with external partners is important for our students. Furthermore, we are an institute with various courses and programmes. We offer bachelor and master programmes and research degrees in fine art, design, media, games and interaction, music, theatre and arts management. All these departments have the need to communicate with their target groups.” Which presumably makes an identity based on an interconnected grid, where both lettering and type are derived from the relationships between the elements, an appropriate route.

It all sounds convincing in theory but, as we have seen so spectacularly with the recent University of California debacle (where an online protest led to a new scheme being withdrawn) creating and introducing new identity systems for educational institutions where staff and students take a keen interest can be fraught with difficulty. So we were intrigued as to how Thonik and HKU handled their design process.


HKU mark with supporting typeface Brown from Lineto


“The design process was done in interaction with a project team and a response group. The project team consisted of HKU’s head of communications, a teacher of graphic design and two communication experts. The response group mainly consisted of students and employees,” Widdershoven explains.

Lauwrier further reveals that “We chose strong and communicative opinion leaders from our five faculties to attend this group. Each faculty had two representatives. We also selected three students to join the group, a music student, a graphic design student and a digital design student. So the response group consisted of 13 people. We had two sessions with this group together with the people of the web team (four) and of the communication department (11) in October and November. HKU did the introduction to the meeting (‘why does the HKU need a new identity?’, the details of our briefing of Thonik etc). Thonik presented the designs and afterwards there were discussions with these groups. The most important feedback we got was that the new identity shouldn’t be too decorative, that wouldn’t suit the HKU at all.”



Lauwrier says that “The response we got form this group was very positive” when presented with Thonik’s idea. “We did a final check up session with what we called the ‘feedback group’. [Here] we presented the new identity to 60 people from various departments of the HKU – students, alumni etc – to check if we were on the right track with our new identity.”

Although she says she was unaware of the University of California row, “we decided from the start that we had to involve our students and alumni in this process for several reasons. First they are opinion leaders about everything that’s happening in their institution. Second because they will be important users of the logo on their work. If they are proud of the logo, they will use it. Otherwise they ignore it. I think that nowadays with all these easy accessible social media, you have the be more concerned with your actions. Transparency is the new keyword.”
When the scheme is rolled out in January, we will see whether HKU’s transparent approach has ensured a smoother ride for the new identity that that endured by the University of Caifornia.



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