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    The UC logo controversy: How 54,000 people, the mainstream press and virtually every designer got it wrong

    Ed. Note: This article is based on a piece originally posted to Christopher Simmons’ blog, Teaching Design, on December 13, 2012. 

    By now there must be few people who are unaware of the recent uproar surrounding the University of California’s rebranding effort. The controversial redesign was reported by outlets ranging from the Huffington Post to the Christian Science Monitor to the British Daily Mail. Seldom does the media take such an active interest in design, so it was disheartening (to say the least) that they got their reporting so very, very wrong. The outcome of that misreporting—fueled by an online petition and fanned by our very own design community—has set back the course of design and cheated the University of California out of a progressive new identity.

    The Controversy

    At the heart of the controversy was the impression that the UC System’s new monogram was to replace the traditional seal. This was never the case. The seal and the monogram were always intended to coexist as part of the UC’s overall identity system. The seal was to be used on official university materials such as stationery and diplomas, while the monogram would be used as part of a visual identity system on marketing and promotional materials. The monogram, and the visual language that supported it, were part of a separate, concurrent system designed to augment the existing identity, not supplant it. In fact, the new system had already been in use for a little more than a year when the controversy suddenly erupted, according to Vanessa Correa, the UC creative director who led the rebranding initiative. “It appeared on every campus, in a national advertising campaign, across systemwide human resources materials and on a variety of websites,” she explains. “The new identity was just beginning to create a dynamic and recognizable voice for the system.”

    That voice was challenged on December 7, 2012 when Reaz Rahman, a 21-year-old biomedical engineering student at UC Irvine, launched his “Stop the new UC logo” petition on Change.org. A week later, following national media scrutiny and some 54,000-plus signatories to the petition, that voice was, inevitably, silenced. In a press release, Daniel M. Dooley, senior vice president for external relations at the University of California Office of the President announced that the logo would be eliminated from the identity system. Indeed, the system itself has now been tabled. 

    So why did so many people assume the monogram would replace the seal? Two reasons stand out. Foremost is the way in which the media depicted the new identity, presenting the logo in isolation from the rest of the system. The North County Times, for example, exhibited the minimally updated seal next to the new UC monogram as an example of before-and-after. They weren’t the only ones. The Los Angeles Times ran the same image. So did ABC news, The Daily Californian and the San Diego Union-Tribune, as did countless blogs and other news syndicates. The Mercury News and SFist at least used the original seal, but still stated that the monogram was its replacement.

    Juxtaposing 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. This is a matter of visual literacy and an unfortunate failure of communication design. Since this same image was used on Rahman’s Change.org petition, perhaps this is why so many of its supporters were under the misapprehension that the seal was being replaced. The design blog Brand New was the only media outlet, to my knowledge, that got the before and after right.

    The second reason probably has to do with the online video put out by University of California on November 14. Many apparently interpreted the imagery in the video—such as the brushing away of the seal and the crossing out of the motto—as indicative of the new identity’s disregard of the past. The intent of the video, which Correa stresses was supposed to be a supplement to the extensive online identity guidelines, was to explain how the two marks—the seal and the logo—relate to each other. Explains Correa, “The beginning shows the seal as the conceptual genesis for the system, while the end underscores the seal as an integral part of the new visual family.”

    Regardless of intent, interpreting this symbolism as sweeping away the old in favor of the new is a fair inference, especially absent the context of the more explicit guidelines. Anyone already incensed by the perceived abandonment of the traditional seal would only have his or her fears confirmed by watching this video.

    Not surprisingly, the petition’s Facebook page was soon rife with comments deriding the new logo and imploring the University to “keep it as it is!” Posters and signatories professed their love for the seal and bemoaned the abandonment of the motto “Let There be Light.” These would have been fair laments, if only the seal were being replaced or the motto changed. 

    In his official press release, Dooley made one last effort to clarify the relationship of the seal to the logo, the logo to the system and the system to the brand. But it was to no avail. As with the reporting that preceded it, people were only listening for one thing. Cheers erupted in the design critique I was attending when someone texted the news, “They killed the new UC logo!”

    It’s not about the logo

    “Designers too often judge logos separate from their system…without understanding that one can’t function without the other,” noted Paula Scher, when I asked her views on the controversy. “It’s the kit of parts that creates a contemporary visual language and makes an identity recognizable, not just the logo. But often the debate centers on whether or not someone likes the form of the logo, or whether the kerning is right.” While acknowledging that all details are important, Scher also calls these quibbles “silly.” 

    “No designer on the outside of the organization at hand is really qualified to render an informed opinion about a massive identity system until it’s been around and in practice for about a year,” she explained. “One has to observe it functioning in every form of media to determine the entire effect. This [was] especially true in the UC case.”

    In the slideshow above, then, is a sampling of the old materials based around the old (now revived) identity, as well as a sampling of some newer materials, created under the new (now defunct) brand guidelines. If we contrast these before-and after-exhibits, we start to appreciate how an identity is a system and not just a logo. If we further consider the fact that the seal and monogram were to coexist in separate orbits, we begin to form a more complete understanding of the new identity. Yes, it is progressive, and yes, it is uncharacteristic of other universities. One assumes that these choices were intentional. Clearly it was too progressive and too uncharacteristic for the 54,000-plus signatories of the petition and the many designers who prematurely panned it on design blogs and in the press.

    It’s about the discourse

    Catalyzed by Rahman’s petition, a vigorous and often intensely emotional outpouring of opinion rapidly ensued. But rather than engaging in a thoughtful discussion around the complex issue of evolving an institutional identity, social media and the mainstream press were awash with reactionary articles and borderline reporting.

    Take this article 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 suggested that if one were to turn the logo upside down, flip it and look at it just right, it kind of looks like the backside of an elephant. This may be a valid individual opinion, but it is not a situationally relevant one.

    The Los Angeles Times quoted “one twitter user” as saying, “New UC logo is an abomination. Back to the drawing board.” Again, a valid personal opinion, but not a publicly constructive one.

    The SFEgotist broke the news by writing, “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 entirety of their post; 63 words that basically say, “Give us your opinion of why this sucks.”

    “There is confusion between having an opinion and having a relevant opinion,” said Correa. “This results in even less productive social discourse around everything—not just design; it’s a basic misunderstanding of democracy.”

    Rahman sees things differently. Although he regrets the tenor of the conversation, he defends his decision to launch the petition. “Sometimes undermining leadership is necessary when unacceptable decisions are made,” he explains. “Garnering 3,000 opinions, as they did with the now disposed monogram, is a paltry representation of the entire UC community of more than 234,000 students, 207,000 faculty, 50,000 retirees and 1.6 million living alumni.” The outcome, he says, was a victory for democracy.

    Design as a discipline is challenged by this notion of democracy, particularly in a viral age. We have become a culture mistrustful of expertise—in particular creative expertise. I share Correa’s fear that this cultural position stifles design, as designers increasingly lose ownership of the discourse. “If deep knowledge in these fields is weighed against the ‘likes’ and ‘tastes’ of the populace at large,” she warns, “we will create a climate that does not encourage visual or aesthetic exploration, play or inventiveness, since the new is often soundly refused.” 

    This is not to suggest that design outcomes are immune from criticism, or that they may only be criticized by insiders or experts. But critique, by definition, must be based on informed—not personal—opinion. Although the collective opinion and aesthetic taste of one’s audience and the culture at large must always be considered, respected and valued, it is important to remember that design is a discipline that exists in part to identify new opportunities for communication—opportunities that the general public usually doesn’t see.

    Leaders exist because of their unique ability to envision and direct such possibilities. Designers exist for the same reason, and because of their ability to give those possibilities form. In virtually every arena—save perhaps U.S. currency and, it seems, identities for American universities—design looks and functions very differently today than it did a decade ago (let alone a century ago). This is not because the public rallied together to demand more progressive design. It is because leaders articulated bold new visions, technologies offered new opportunities for communication and designers met those challenges and opportunities with suitably innovative solutions, often against substantial public resistance.

    But on what basis, other than a comfortable familiarity with the status quo, is that resistance typically founded?

    In the case of the UC rebrand, almost everyone engaged in the “critique” of the new identity—designers included—did so 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? These are critical considerations that no doubt precipitated and drove the design process. But throughout this controversy, no one wrote about the strategy behind the new identity. In fact, no one wrote about the identity. Instead we fixated on one deliverable of a thoughtfully considered design process: the logo.

    Design is a process, not just an outcome

    Non-designers commonly use the term “design” as a noun to describe the 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 was 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 accounting for 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. 

    Rather than making an effort to understand the outcome or the process that formed it, the response in all quarters was uniformly reactionary: an online petition; an open letter from California’s Lietenant Governor; students proposing their own logo ideas; competitions to crowd-source a redesign; hundreds of derisive comments, tweets and posts. Worse, many (though notably and commendably not Rahman) voiced their reactions with vitriol and dismissive condescension for the only people who actually know all the facts—the design team behind the new identity. Perhaps worst of all, there was no shortage of designers willing to pile fuel on the fire.

    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 the profession—and themselves—to be taken seriously need to be asking questions that get to the core of the motivations and goals that frame a project before passing judgment on the outcome. Otherwise our “criticism” is simply subjective. And if and when we do criticize the work of fellow professionals, we should strive to do so in an informed and civil manner. That sounds like advice your mother might give you, but it actually comes from AIGA’s Design Business and Ethics: “A professional designer shall be objective and balanced in criticizing another designer’s work and shall not denigrate the work or reputation of a fellow designer.”

    Writing “the logo sucks” may garner a bevy of Facebook “likes” but it doesn’t do any favors for our professional profile. While we collectively lament that the term “graphic design” has been marginalized over the years to simply mean “decorator,” let’s acknowledge that our summary dismissal of the UC identity based on the look of a single element has made designers the most culpable participants in that redefinition and the most damaging contributors to our own demise.

    Not only that, but designers who publicly jumped on the anti-logo bandwagon in interviews for television, radio, blogs and newspapers have helped to undermine 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 next new logo, let’s start conversations about the identities of which they are a part. And let’s help people understand the distinction.

    Let’s stop making jokes about toilets and elephant asses and start talking about strategy.

    Let’s remember that real people work really hard on these projects, 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 work they do).

    Let’s have some faith in the leadership of organizations like the University of California and the talent of the communications team in whom their faith is placed.

    And let’s, as Scher implores, “Have real discourse, not tweets, about the goals, purpose and functionality of identity design in the 21st century.”

    About the Author: 

    Christopher Simmons is a Canadian-born, San Francisco-based designer, writereducator and design advocate, and principal/creative director of the San Francisco Design office, MINE™. He is a former AIGA chapter president (San Francisco, 2004-2006). 

    In his spare time he writes about design from the perspective of hamburgers



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