University of the Arts London identity

The University of the Arts London has just unveiled its new identity designed by Pentagram. CR talked to the studio’s Domenic Lippa and UAL’s director of communication Dee Searle about the project, and what it means for the university’s six famous art and design colleges

The University of the Arts London has just unveiled its new identity designed by Pentagram. CR talked to the studio’s Domenic Lippa and UAL’s director of communication Dee Searle about the project, and what it will mean for the university’s six famous art and design colleges…

UPDATE: Read CR editor Patrick Burgoyne’s opinion on the UAL identity here

Pentagram began working on the identity project in January, having been approached to pitch for the work in November last year.

The previous UAL identity, created by a team of students and developed by Lloyd Northover in 2004, was based on a constellation device. Each of the six UAL colleges was represented by an asterisk which showed its relation to the others within the capital. In communications material from Central Saint Martins, for example, the college name appeared in red under the UAL name, with its constituent ‘star’ highlighted in the same colour.

“UAL decided it need to refresh its strategic and visual identity, primarily because the previous one was done when the university was still young,” says Searle. “And it spoke of separations rather than the value-add you get from six of the world’s top art and design colleges coming together.” (Founded as the London Institute in 1986, the collective of five colleges was granted university status in 2004 and remaned as UAL, with Wimbledon College of Art joining in 2006.)

Lippa also observed that, within UAL, “there was a lack of respect for the identity, it wasn’t working for them,” he says. “They didn’t like what they were using.”

The new identity takes a much simpler typographic approach, rendering the university’s initials in lowercase Helvetica, with a colon acting as the bridge between the main university and its six colleges.

“As we were starting from a point of rejection of the old identity, people wanted something to use in a cleaner way, and I think were pleased we didn’t try to over-complicate it and try too hard,” says Lippa. “The temptation is to make something ‘too’ designed.”

(How the previous and new identities work on two examples of literature from different UAL colleges is shown here, above and below.)

As part of the research process, Lippa says the studio carried out interviews with UAL staff, and conducted a comparative study with the identities of several other universities. It was found that the UAL identity didn’t stand out when put alongside those of the other colleges. “If we tried to use it in co-branding, we disappeared as a smudge,” says Searle.

“So we needed to make it bold, robust and authoritative,” says Lippa. “‘The University of the Arts London’ is also a really long visual mouthful. But once we’d established that ‘ual’ was a good simplification for the identity, the colon after the letters became the linguistic link between the UAL and the colleges.”

For Searle, it’s important that the new identity not be seen as a straight-jacket but, she says, “rather as a unifier which lets the distinct characters of the colleges come through. It gives us something quite bold and striking but not dominating. It’s a very practical project and will benefit the work of the colleges. It improves our recognition, our ability to communicate and, so far, it seems to work.”

The studio apparently looked at colour options but settled on a monochromatic design so that the device can work on a range of internal and external materials. “At Pentagram we always approach it as ‘will it work as a one colour job?’,” Lippa explains. “It’s gone from a seven colour job, to a one colour and that also became a pragmatic by-product of the decision, that the university could save money.”

But in emphasising its own utilitarian character, doesn’t the identity run the risk of being too devoid of personality? Lippa says that it is the work produced within the six colleges that will provide the colour and flair in any communications.

“For me the identity should be a platform for the work of the students and tutors,” he says. “They’re the heroes, their work is promoted in the shows, and that’s how the reputation is built. Other colleges the identity tries too hard to be creative, it’s fighting with the student work. Some of the other routes [we took] had more personality in them, but I was conscious that this had to be something that all the colleges needed to embrace – it’s not a dictatorial design for all to use – the colleges will have their own designers working on it.”

Helvetica was chosen specifically because of its “neutrality,” Lippa says, but also because the typeface is robust enough to reproduce at smaller sizes. While stationery (above) can therefore be treated fairly conservatively, used at larger sizes the type can carry much more impact, as shown on these bags and badges, below.

“With communication products from the university as a whole we’re following the identity quite tightly,” says Searle, “but with the colleges, we’re allowing them to interpret it more loosely: a clear and consistent use of the logo as a minimum. Of course, they all have different personalities, it’s part of who they are. And the reason that someone might choose to study with us, or partner with us, is based on how we express ourselves.”

Pentagram is currently finishing the identity guidelines for the university and designing the main UAL guide for the next term, alongside graduation ceremony graphics.

UPDATE: Read CR editor Patrick Burgoyne’s opinion on the UAL identity here

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