Since I assume you don’t live in a cave, I will also assume that you’re familiar with the University of California’s recent decision to “rebrand” itself by developing a new logo*. The reception among students and other right-thinking individuals has been less than enthusiastic, to say the least. The abysmal design has been rightly compared to a toilet bowl (complete with the urine-colored “C”) but there’s more to this story than the logo’s unqualifiably hideous aesthetics. Put simply, the whole “branding” effort is a reflection of the degree to which the corporate mentality has taken over universities wholesale; the logo itself is merely a urine-stained symptom of a larger problem.
Nothing suffices as better proof of this thesis than examining the positive reactions to the logo (yes, they exist). For example, in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, a “creative director of a branding agency” writes:
This is one of the freshest and most creative education identity schemes in a country full of boring institutional logos…As designers know, a brand is much, much bigger than the logo. A logo is just one element of the entire system but the general public does not understand this.
Translation: fuck you, you stupid plebes, for not appreciating my art.
It would be tempting to take Rob Duncan to task for being a blithering imbecile (the man actually defends the equally abhorrent logo of the London Olympics; you know, the one frequently analogized to a certain cartoon character giving a blowjob), but that would be ignoring the real problem. The problem isn’t that Rob Duncan is stupid; the problem is that he types words which mean pretty much nothing, and is convinced that they mean everything. The problem is that Rob Duncan, and people like him, have committed an egregious category error about what sort of institution a university is. Further down, Duncan writes:
Times have changed. Audiences are more visually sophisticated. They expect more out of an identity than just a static logo (which would describe many university or college logos).
Which audiences? What is the evidence that they “expect” any such thing? Do they “expect” anything of the sort from their institutions of higher learning? Duncan doesn’t say; someone enamored with facts might point out that the audience has, in fact, not been particularly pleased with this innovation, but for people like Duncan facts are simply inconvenient things. The theory of the brand is all, and all must submit. That’s just how things are, even when that’s not how they are. When the facts run counter to the theory, it is the facts that must be changed, or ignored, if they’re too inconvenient.
Consider the classic UC seal: what exactly is “static” about it, as compared to the logo? If anything, the seal actually depicts, literally depicts, more motion, with the ribbon flowing across the bottom right and light emanating from the star. A bit busy? Sure, maybe it’s not the best Twitter icon, but why should this matter? It ought to be a simple task to reduce the visual complexity slightly for use in other media, not a task requiring a committee working for several years on a re-engineering effort. But the real key to the seal is the content, which is easy enough for anyone to comprehend. The book is the symbol of learning; light is a symbol of, well, enlightenment; “let there be light” echoes the classical Biblical line, but posed against the background of the book, suggests that real light comes from learning. And the University of California is the preeminent institution of higher learning serving the citizens of the Golden State.
It’s a series of very simple, very straightforward visual metaphors that convey a genuinely important message: that learning is good, and that we as a society are making a public commitment to it. To cast the university as a brand is, first, to simply mistake what the university is about in a fundamental and deleterious way. For an institution of the caliber of UC to do so is also completely pointless. Who, exactly, is the mythical “audience” for this change? Is there anyone in the world who needs to understand a symbol that refers to UC but would not understand the UC seal? It’s a maneuver that doesn’t make sense from any angle; you can talk about “brands” all you want, but UC does not need to brand itself. It already has a brand, that of the best system of public universities in the world. Is someone going to be swayed in ways they might otherwise not have been swayed by this change?
When a business needs to convince people to buy more of what it’s selling, it might engage in such an enterprise. FSM knows that the world is full of iconic business logos, from golden arches to exaggerated checkmarks. But univeristies are not businesses, and UC in particular doesn’t need to convince anyone to go there; demand far outstrips supply when it comes to a UC education. This obsession with image over substance is a symptom of fundamental rot, of misplaced priorities and failure to understand what kind of institution you’re running and for what purpose. Consider, if you will, the official video put out by the university which “explains” (for sufficiently generous interpretations of that word) how they came up with the new design**.
Look what happens there. First they eliminate the entire UC ring as well as the “Let there be light” ribbon. Then they trace the outline of the book (which is barely recognizable as a book) and then they shove the book out of the way (how’s that for symbolism?). Some dude is then showing turning a crank which reproduces the horrid design in yellow-on-orange (orange is not a UC color!).
In predictable fashion, graphic designers, mistaking their work for high-concept art clearly over the heads of the idiot public, have gone to bat for it, in the process demonstrating how little they understand what they’re talking about. Example time!
The older UC logo, she said, conveys a sense of stability while the new one looks “incredibly progressive.”
What exactly is progressive about the letter “C” embedded in the letter “U” is left unexplained.
“It is much more about brand differentiation,” she said, noting that many of the old college seals looked too much alike. UC has shifted dramatically, she said, “from an institutional look to a marketing look that is young-skewed and vibrant.”
Indeed, “from an institutional look to a marketing look.” Whether that represents any sort of vibrancy worth the name is not something that Petrula Vronkitis is qualified to answer.
The piece de resistance of the whole thing is nonthing other than the official University of California brand guidelines which amply demonstrate how deep the dementia goes. Some actual, real, completely not at all made up by me because I couldn’t possibly be clever enough to create satire of this quality quotes:
A brand – our brand – is the intersection of what we say about ourselves, how we act, and what people think of us.
Translation: a brand is everything and nothing. It’s whatever we need it to be whenever we need it, which is how we avoid anything that remotely looks like consistency and accountability.
the UC lock-up reinterprets the classic elements of the seal into a vibrant, visually energetic, engaging and relevant identifier.
Translation: Cyan and urine-yellow are now “vibrant” and “visually energetic.” How any of this is “relevant,” exactly, is unclear, but hey, see point #1; it can be whatever we need it to be whenever we need it. If we say it’s “relevant,” then it damn well is, facts notwithstanding.
The UC monogram is a contemporary reinterpretation of the UC seal. Modern in form, it embodies both the relevance and rootedness of the university.
Translation: We’ve gotten rid of any element that indicates an obvious connection to the sorts of values universities are tasked with upholding. This means we are modern.
The wordmark is the official relationship of the words “University” “of” and “California”.
Translation: ….[gurgles]….[vomits on self]….[eats own vomit]….
Even in the most flexible and dynamic visual system, guidelines and consistency are critical to ensure we understand who we are.
Translation: How can we understand who we are without a dumbed-down visual symbology that effectively eliminates all but the barest hint of who we actually are? Did I mention that war is also peace?
UC is not just a university, contributing educated graduates to California, but a place in perpetual motion
Translation: Contrary to what you may have been taught in the Berkeley Physics Department, the University of California is not, in fact, subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Translation: We are awesome! How can you not look at our logo and deduce how awesome we are?! P.S. AWESOME.
the UC visual identity is more accurately described as a visual system
Translation: I like to use opaque metaphors that obfuscate any sensible interpretation that a competent speaker of the English language might try and undertake. I believe that this represents cutting-edge design theory.
Let There Be Light is not just the university’s motto; it is a fundamental concept of the brand identity.
Translation: I don’t understand exactly what universities do, but I won’t let that stop my mission to redefine universities.
And finally, my favorite part, because you really, really cannot make this shit up:
We all must be good stewards of the UC brand. Being mindful of how we use and express the UC brand allows the university to grow and flourish. UC is a dynamic, complex and important institution to represent. The brand is how the university’s contributions and values can be more easily understood. It’s that simple.
Translation: State support is contingent on using the correct font spacing. Also, making it easy to understand values means that you have to eliminate any element that might actually hint at the values that an institution of higher learning ought to hold from your “visual system.” And people can’t be trusted to understand your contributions by being told about them, because in this brave new era of modernity and progress words are outdated.
And next to this inspiring collection of words is the following image:
That’s right: it’s a goat in a vest being led on a leash by a disembodied hand. If that doesn’t say dynamism and leadership and progress, then I don’t know what does!
There you have it: the end result of the ludicrous obsession with “branding” is an Orwellian mangling of the English language to the point where not only does the text in question not convey any comprehensible meaning, but to where it is explicitly designed not to do so. All of these fuzzy metaphors and pontifications about visual systems and brand stewardship are not statements of value; they are not statements of what the university stands for and how it achieves and lives those values. They are statements about how graphical elements can look like they might hint at possibly achieving those values, or possibly how people can be convinced of this if they’re hammered often enough. Eliminate the visual reminders of the institution’s original mission, repeat meaningless shibboleths with sufficient frequency, and someday you’ll eliminate the spirit of the thing too.
* Yes, I am aware that the logo does not replace the seal.
** I realize that this might not be a literal depiction of how the new design was achieved, but it’s how it’s being conceptualized post mortem.