Because I have no training or experience as a graphic designer, I prefer not to write about visual identities, aka logos, unless there’s a language angle I can cover. That’s why I’ve avoided any comment on the new University of California logo, even though (a) I’m an alumna myself (Berkeley campus) and (b) it is, as you can readily see, a pretty dramatic development.
Old and new logos via Berkeleyside.
But in the weeks since I first learned about the logo redesign, the story has become too huge to ignore. (Even James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic, has weighed in.) And when I realized there was a tiny language angle after all, I decided to add my two cents.
First, some clarification from the university about how the new logo was developed and how it’s being implemented:
The University of California seal isn’t going anywhere. It will continue to grace diplomas and other official UC documents, just as it has for most of the university's long and storied history.
Jason Simon, marketing communications director at UC’s Office of the President, issued that reassurance as debate continued over a small monogram that appears on many of the university's systemwide Web pages, as well as its marketing and communication materials.
“The seal signifies the prestige and tradition of the university itself, and is a treasured part of the UC identity,” Simon said. “There has never been any plan to replace it with the monogram.”
Reassuring, right? Not so fast.
I learned about the new logo in a November 20 post on the influential design blog Brand New. The monogram, wrote Armin Vit, is for the entire UC system rather than any of the university’s 10 campuses; it’s intended for use on the Internet and mobile devices as well as on print materials and assorted tchotchkes (mugs, tote bags, pins). It was developed by an in-house team and quietly introduced in November. “[T]his is less of a rebranding exercise, but instead the creation of a coherent, consistent, and relevant brand identity where before there was none,” said the creative director, Vanessa Kanan Correa.
Vit praised the monogram-style logo – “really simple and memorable” – and the video that introduces it. “Overall, this is a really great redesign that gives UC its own personality,” he concluded. Vit is a designer.
Co.Design, Fast Company’s design blog, also approved. The headline on Kelsey Campbell-Dolaghan’s story singled out the logo’s “surfer charm.” Campbell-Dolaghan is a designer.
Non-designers have been, shall we say, less impressed. Indeed, from the public uproar you’d think the Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy had been prematurely fulfilled.
Some comments on a Berkeleyside story about the logo:
“Totally meaningless.” “The disappearing C is grotesquely ugly.” “A turd circling the bowl. Money down the drain.” “Everyone involved with this travesty of a design should be fired.”
“Is today’s date April 1st? This must be some kind of joke.” “
“Quite honestly it seems more like a subversive marketing campaign against books.”
“Did Stanford design this?” [Stanford and Berkeley are sports rivals.]
The shape that is supposed to represent the “U” looks like a garbage bag, a low-flush toilet, a beaker with a chipped lip, three-fourths of a flip-flop—you get my drift. And the font for the “C” is a most juvenile example of a modern sans serif typeface—suitable for a preschool or kindergarten perhaps.
There’s also a “Stop the UC logo” petition on Change.org with more than 50,000 signatures.
The outcry has been so noisy that Armin Vit posted a follow-up to his original critique, in which he wrote, in part: “I wish I had the time to devote the rest of this week to write a response to each and every single supporter who has left a comment in the Change.org petition, because each one is more asinine than the next.” I recommend reading his entire post to better understand his perspective, and that of many other designers, on the controversy.
As for me – not a designer, remember, just someone with a couple of degrees from UC Berkeley – why, I can play Mock The Logo too. What do I see? Hmm. It’s a eulogy: California is sinking – as the oceans rise, perhaps – and also gradually decaying. We’re putting on a cheerful face, though, as our sunny (Swedish?) colors indicate.
(By the way, Weight Watchers’ new logo also employs that odd waning effect. In this case it seems to suggest that you won’t just drop a few pounds – you’ll actually fade away to nothingness.)
Old and new logos via Brand New.
And then there’s that tiny language angle I promised all those paragraphs ago: What happened to the motto? In the video, it’s brushed aside rather peremptorily and replaced by some streaky lines. Is this a suitable fate for “Let There Be Light”? (See my 2011 post about university mottos.)
And while I’m at it: On a semantic level, shouldn’t the U be inside the C? Yes, it would be a tight squeeze, but we’re all cutting back these days.
But honestly? I’m not offended by the new logo. It’s energetic, it’s distinctive, and – above all – it’s marketing. Because, let’s face it: marketing is what higher education is all about. (That and “development,” the chaste synonym for “extracting money from alumni.”) Besides, the teeth-gnashing and clothes-rending that have accompanied the logo’s big reveal strike me as knee-jerk and a little suspicious. Armin Vit feels that way, too. He writes: “I have never seen so many people so passionate about a seal. A seal that looks exactly like a hundred other university seals.”
I know from experience that rebranding is a hard, mostly thankless job. People, even supposedly liberal people in California, tend to resist change and cling to the familiar. Designers, on the other hand, get no credit for logos that were created before they were born. Inside the design bubble, the battle cry is almost always Out with the old! In with the new!
But as we’re seeing now, and as we’ve seen with the recent Tropicana and Gap redesign fiascos, the world outside the design bubble can be swift and harsh in its judgment. Tropicana and Gap yielded to the negative public pressure, but I’m hoping UC stands firm. It’s just a new logo, after all; it’s not as though all those degrees and libraries and Nobel Prizes (and football games and fraternity parties and fondly remembered all-nighters) have suddenly ceased to be.
Armin Vit concludes his update with this fine rant, which I second:
To be perfectly honest, I don’t care if this logo withers and dies or if it survives and prospers. … What I do care about, deeply, is the danger this mob mentality poses to the practice of logo and identity design, which is, no way, a democratic process: People in leadership positions make these decisions; it’s their responsibility to get buy-in from whatever number of people they feel is required to push their decision forward — sometimes it’s five people, sometimes it’s endless focus groups. But the process and the final decision is between client and designer. Not between mob and online petitions.
That’s why, by the way, I stand firmly and loudly against the practice of crowdsourcing or focus-grouping the verbal identity, too – the names, the taglines, the copy. If you, the client, don’t trust the professionals you’re paying to do the job, you probably shouldn’t trust a bunch of amateurs.
UPDATE: San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll is less forgiving than I:
We “reach out” with this new logo and touch your heart, or your brain, or whatever part of you is touched by logos. We stroke your hair and say, “There, there.” Our vanishing C will make you feel good inside. You'll think, “I must give to this institution so it can continue to make me feel good with its powerful logo.”
Ah yes – let’s not forget that reach out has its haters, too.