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University logo redesigns: just say no

2012 December 12

A couple of days ago, I learned that the University of California (system, I guess) had introduced “a new logo” and that it was meeting with considerable negative reaction. Since when, things have gone pretty steadily downhill.

And there are a number of comments worth making, here, but I think based on previous observations and even one fairly direct personal experience, I believe that the primary “takeaway” here should be: just don’t. Don’t do it. If you are a a college or university, and older than five years, just don’t replace your logo. Ever.

Before moving to Ohio, I went through what might arguably be considered the best-case scenario for a uni logo redesign, at Drake University; DU barely even had a logo, so unmemorable was their mark, and ultimately did get a new design with which most people seem content, but only after a disastrous farce which basically broke the art director at the time. That poor guy (n.b., not me) was never the same and actually retreated back to his previous employer within a year of the whole fiasco. And this, again, seems like a good outcome compared with the much more public kerfuffle which erupted at Case Western Reserve University not long after I moved out hither. And which now seems to be replaying with UC. Bets on how long until the “banana label” joins Case’s “fat man with a surfboard” in retirement?

What’s particularly fascinating and, I have to guess, frustrating for those behind this UC redesign is that it isn’t actually replacing anything, or meant to. So far as I can tell, Cal had even less of a “logo” as old DU, before this. It had a Great Seal, just like DU and afaik most universities do, and for that matter not particularly distinguishable from the rest of them. This new whoosit was intended to exist alongside said Great Seal, not replace it. And yet, I think that as soon as the phrase “new UC logo” began making the rounds, it was doomed. Even those who understand the intent here are probably nonetheless forming a reaction in part based on this thing’s framing as “new UC logo.”

Admittedly, there’s room to criticize this graphic even as a “secondary identifier.” It occurred to me today that it reminds me a great deal of the new DC logo, and that my reaction to it is much the same: it looks like interesting student work which just doesn’t pass the “smell test” as an appropriate real-world, working graphic. Yeah, I get your concept, yeah there are some credible things going on, but no it just isn’t quite “there.”

That said, however, I believe that on balance this is beside the point. The UC thingummy isn’t great art but it isn’t an atrocity. The attempted Iowa Hawkeye logo revamp which was simply buried through sheer popular rejection was arguably as good as the goofy thing it was meant to replace. And the abortive Drake University logo which never had a chance at replacing what people called “the Drake Drake logo,” as well as the Case Western logo which did get a public rollout before being beaten to death, were both in my opinion as a design professional solidly better than what went before and at least as good as the retakes which followed them.

All of them went to the wall, however, as I suspect the UC bug is going to do. Why? Why? TRADITION! Tradition, plus the fact that any logo design project for a large interested audience is a Hell, even when there’s no existing graphic system to replace. Logo design inevitably turns into a Rorschach test, one reason why (quietly, way down here “beneath the fold” in a blog post few people will ever bother reading) I cordially hate logo design and have little disappointment about how little of it I’m called on to do.

With a university logo design, however, it’s even worse because of tradition. Tradition! And tradition, I believe, counts for considerably more with a university than most other scenarios because of what a university represents. The modern American university, in fact, represents a long laundry list of things I may go into some other time in some other forum. This is a subject to which I give much thought in recent years. But high on that list is its representation of a deep connection between one’s individual identity and something greater in a way that I believe very few institutions can match, in our society. The true Company Man is a relic of the past; for most of us (even those with a traditional job) their employer is just a job. We move around so much that I believe connection with geographic locations are necessarily weaker, plus once they get above the size of a small town I believe they become too impersonal. They also lack the trappings of a university: how many people wear or even know the colors of their city or state? Does the state of Ohio have a football team one roots for? In point of fact the closest thing, for many states, is the major university. Professional teams come and go (as we in Cleveland well know) but The Ohio State University or the University of Iowa or dear auld ISU is pretty much stuck. A university thus represents a very rare relationship with some larger institution that offers the modern American both depth (e.g. “those years at ISU were the best in my life” or “I’ve cheered for the Hawks since I was old enough to remember, and my dad and granddad before me”) and dependability (the University of Michigan probably isn’t going to decamp for the sunbelt).

You just don’t want to go poking this.

Thus my Unsolicited Advice for the day is that, when it comes to university logo redesigns, just don’t do them. More specifically, don’t do anything which will be framed as “they’re changing the logo?!?!” And especially, do not frame it that way yourself. I’m not entirely sure how this UC thing was introduced, but I think the best way they could have handled it would have been by simply not introducing it. I don’t mean “not creating it” or “not using it,” though these wouldn’t have been bad ideas. I mean “not introducing it.” I suppose what I’m leading toward is really a second takeaway, which probably can and should be its own post or series of posts, but:

Your visual system is much much more than your logo.

And for heaven’s sake, designers, it’s 2012. I’m 34 years old, and I get it; I don’t believe this is especially a radical new concept any longer. In fact I’m probably just old enough to appreciate how it really was different, a generation ago. In the era of typesetters and “logo slicks” and literal “camera-ready art” back before desktop publishing, the logo was probably a much more important part of a visual identity. But the past 20 years or so have changed things dramatically. These days we have easy access to and control over such stunning wizardry in terms of typography, image, color and, increasingly with no-longer-even-all-that-new “new media,” motion, that the logo just doesn’t need to be that important. It can be. But it doesn’t need to be.

Truth is, if you have a snoozer of a logo you can just about ignore it and create a whole new visual identity around it. (I know whereof I speak; this is more or less what we did at DU during the final years of “the Drake Drake logo.”) Make it small, tuck it out of the way, and where it doesn’t work well just leave it out. Use type. I guarantee you that few will take any notice.

In fact I suspect that UC just might have gotten away with its “new logo” if it weren’t for you meddling kids and that dog er, I mean, had they taken a similar slow, “stealth” approach. Introduce it quietly, in out of the way locations, and gradually acclimatize people to it; within four or five years most of your current student body won’t remember a time when it hadn’t been around and alumni probably wouldn’t care so long as it never became too big or prominent. So long as it never triggered that “that’s our new logo???” frame. I can’t be certain but I’m guessing this could have worked, if handled correctly. In any event, my general advice still holds, both for university graphics and indeed for graphic design in general: look at the big picture. I got this from someone else, and while I can’t recall who or where, I’ve found this very, very valuable over the years. A truly good design will not be “hurt” very badly even by some small and very ill advised blemish. Including a bad logo, unless of course the design features the logo very prominently. Which, if you work for a university which has a bad logo, you shouldn’t do with your designs.

And voila, the logo (and/or Great Seal) becomes irrelevant. You don’t ever, ever “need” a logo redesign, no matter how clunky your old logo is or how poorly your Great Seal is suited for smartphone displays. Just ignore them; leave them out entirely where you can and minimize them where you can’t. In this day and age it should still be entirely possible for you to create vibrant, attractive and unified designs without a strong logo playing any part.

To recap, then:

  1. Just Say No to a new university logo; instead
  2. Look at the big picture, and realize that
  3. Your visual system is much more than the logo these days

You’re welcome.

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