It’s Not About the Logo
A newer version of this article appears on AIGA.org.
You can still read the original (below), but the revised version includes some important corrections, and exclusive commentary from the Vanessa Correa (the UC Creative Director in charge of the project), The Petition Organizer, and designer Paula Scher.
The University of California rebranding has been getting an incredible amount of press of late. Suddenly, it seems, everyone really cares about logos.
Allow me to jump into the fray.
First off, I have to admit that when I first saw the new University of California logo I was not a fan: I was lukewarm on the logo, basically liked the system, and was impressed with the implementation. Despite these generally positive feelings, however, I harbored a belief that it just wasn’t appropriate for an institution like the University of California. And then I realized something. I’m not a student, prospect, employee or alum of the UC System, so I’m not the audience. What I like, feel and believe doesn’t really matter.
What matters more is what I know, and with regard to the goals of the UC brand I know only as much as the throngs of haters out there—which is to say, very little.
But lack of knowledge hasn’t deterred the more than 50,000 people who have signed a petition to repeal the new logo. In fact, it has probably spurred them on. For example, the petition’s Facebook page is rife with comments deriding the new logo and imploring the University to “Keep the logo as it is!”. The problem with that? It’s not replacing any logo, it’s an entirely new addition. Posters and signatories claim to love the seal and they bemoan the abandonment of the motto “let there be light.” These would be fair laments, if the seal was being replaced or the motto changed. They are not. The use of the new logo—which represents the UC System and explicitly does not replace the identities of any of the individual schools—has been widely mis-reported. As has its relationship to the various campuses, athletic programs, etc.
The North County Times, for example, exhibits the minimally-updated seal next to the new UC monogram as an example of before and after. Oops. They are both part of the’after’ and the updated ‘unofficial seal’ (left) remains an integral part of the identity. Now, before you jump on me for citing a lazy mistake by an obscure paper, consider that The LA Times ran the same image. So did ABC news, The Daily Californian, The San Diego Union Tribune, and the Associated Press. The Mercury News and SFist at least used the original seal, but still stated that the monogram was its replacement.
Placing the seal and the monogram side by side, with the familiar-looking seal on the left and the new-looking monogram on the right, strongly implies a before-and-after relationship. Since this same image (shown above) was used on
Professor Newsom’s Reaz Rahman’s change.org petition, perhaps this is why so many of its supporters suffer the misapprehension that the seal is being replaced. Maybe if [Rahman] had consulted a designer, he would have avoided this rookie mistake. [UPDATE: Mr. Rahman has updated the petition graphic. Though in my opinion the comparison still suggest that the monogram is replacing the seal, which it is not]. Maybe if he had consulted with the communications team responsible for the rebranding he may have rethought making inflammatory assumptions such as this: “My strong suspicion is that in this case the designers’ eagerness to express themselves (and thereby decide how the UC should present and represent itself) led them to pay very little attention to their actual clients’ wishes and feelings.” I’m not sure why Newsom suspects this, nor why his suspicions are so strong—especially considering that the design team’s client, the University of California, clearly signed off on the outcome, which is the only reason he or any of know it exists. [UPDATE: The quote above was penned by Professor Newsom in a letter of support for the petition. Previously this statement appeared at the top of the petition site suggesting it was part of the petition statement. Mr. Rahman has updated the order of the posts to clarify this misunderstanding. He has also spoken with UC's Director of Marketing and specifically called for civility in this debate, for which he should be commended.]
By the way, the design blog Brand New was the only media outlet that got the before and after right:
Now, here is are a sampling of the old materials that supporters of the petition are demanding be preserved:
And a sampling of some newer materials, created under the new brand guidelines:
[Update: one more clarification here: the petition, in fairness, does not specifically ask that the previous visual identity be preserved, just that the new monogram be eliminated. My point remains, however, as the monogram is an integral part of an overall visual identity—one which precludes the previous look-and-feel. The rebranding is a comprehensive visual overhaul—picking and choosing which elements should stay and which should go amounts to art directing the project and is not an approach I support.]
If you contrast these before and after exhibits above you start to understand how an identity is a system and not just a logo. Now consider the fact that the monogram doesn’t replace the seal. Do these factors cause you to rethink your opinion the proposed rebrand? If you are among its detractors, I hope they will.
Moving on from the facts, let’s look at the discourse. Rather than engaging in a thoughtful discussion around the complex issue of evolving an institutional identity, we have so far been treated to reactionary articles and borderline reporting. Take this one from Salon.com
which quotes an individual identified as a ‘blogger’ as saying “it looks like a Swedish flag being flushed down the toilet.” It may be worth noting that this same ‘blogger
‘ also thinks that if you turn the logo upside down, flip it and look at it just right, it kind of looks like the backside of an elephant. [Note to the University of California: don't turn your logo upside down, flip it and ask your a three-year-old what animal it looks like].
The LA Times quotes ‘one twitter user’ as saying, “ New UC logo is an abomination. Back to the drawing board.” Thanks ‘twitter user.’
The SFEgotist broke the news this way, “Yesterday, the University of California debuted their rebrand – and proved in the process how important it is to have a professional do your logo. We can’t even express how poorly done the new one is. So maybe you can help us. Put your thoughts on the UC logo in the comments. And try not to puke on your keyboard when you do.” That’s the entirely of their article; 63 words that basically say ‘tell us why you hate this.” Maybe they need a new editor, because I just did in six. Not that I’d presume to tell another professional how to do their job. Other than to, you know, get your facts straight.
Besides the fundamental misunderstanding of the new identity and snarky, the juvenile reporting that cites anonymous tweeters as evidence of the identity’s shortcomings, there are some other massive flaws in this conversation.
First, we’re all commenting and making observations based on very little information. What was the brief? What challenges is the UC system facing? What is their long-term plan? What are other institutions doing? What is the assessment of the current identity? What audiences are they trying to reach? Etc. Etc. Etc. These are critical considerations that no doubt precipitated and drove the design process. No one is talking about the strategy behind the new identity. In fact, no one is talking about the identity. Instead we are all fixated on one deliverable of a thoughtfully-considered design process: the logo.
Which brings up the second problem.
Design is a process, not an outcome. Non-designers commonly use the term ‘design’ as a noun to describe result of designing—in other words, the way a thing looks. But to design means ’to plan and fashion the form and structure of an object, work of art, etc.’ Any critical conversation about design must, therefore, include some consideration of the factors that framed that plan. There are reasons why this identity system was introduced. There is a purpose it is meant to achieve. Do we know those reasons? Do we know that purpose? We do not. To condemn a thing solely on the basis of how it looks, (or on assumptions of how much it may have cost) without taking into account the context within which it was created and within which it must operate, is exactly the kind of bias from which institutions like the University of California exist to liberate us.
Instead we get English professors circulating petitions based on erroneous conclusions and engineering students proposing their own logo ideas. Worse, they do so with vitriol and dismissive condescension for the only people who actually know all the facts—design team behind the new identity. And we get a mainstream press that once again picks up a story about design by framing it in shallow, sensationalized terms. Worse still, there seem to be no shortage of designers willing to pile wood on the fire.
So let’s call incivility problem number three, and designers problem number four.
Yes, once again, designers are the problem. I’m not talking about the designers who created this surprisingly controversial identity. I’m talking about everyone else. I’m talking about the haters. Designers who want to be taken seriously need to be asking questions that get to the core of the motivations and goals before passing judgment on the outcome. We lament that the term ‘graphic design’ has been marginalized over the years to simply mean ‘decorator.’ Well guess what? The summary dismissal of a new identity based solely on how it looks makes designers the most culpable participants in that redefinition and the most damaging contributors to our own demise.
Not only that, but by jumping on the anti-logo bandwagon we’re undermining our own professional relevance. ‘Design by committee’ has long been the nemesis of designers who aspire to create progressive (or often just credible) work. If you think answering to a committee of 12 people makes for a compromised design, try a mob of 50,000.
So, rather that blasting the new logo, let’s start conversations about the new identity (and help people understand the difference).
Let’s stop making jokes about toilets and elephant asses and start talking about strategy.
Let’s remember that real people worked really hard on this rebrand, and keep our criticisms civil and professional.
And let’s make sure we’re informed before we offer that criticism to the press, our peers and our social networks.
Let’s consider supporting our fellow designers rather than tearing them down (whether or not we happen to ‘like’ the new identity).
And let’s have some faith in the leadership of the UC System and the talent of the communications team in whom their faith is placed.
This post has been edited since its initial posting. ‘Leuk-warm’ was corrected to ‘lukewarm.’ Apparently the MacOS dictionary prefers Middle-english.
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