The Big Game Around the UC Logo Controversy: Haters 1, Designers 0

The AIGA, the largest and most reputable voice for graphic design, weighed in on the University of California logo controversy with a rather scathing article on it’s web site.

The new UC logo to the right of the existing, but slightly tweaked shield.

Turns out though that the articles’ main source, Christopher Simmons of Teaching Design fame, isn’t so upset about the logo, but more about reactions by the thousands of anti-logo petition signers, Facebook comments and even trained his sights on the legions of designers themselves who lined up to besmirch the “Swedish flag being flushed down the toilet”.

And we here at Foolish Fire, who appreciate a good design debate as much as the next designer, side with Simmons, who rightly observes, “It’s not about the logo”. We agree that for designers especially to join the angry mob and take to the streets so soon after the logo was unveiled, displayed a lack understanding about the complex design process required to successfully capture any major brand (mainly that it doesn’t end with the unveiling of the logo), and the public display of vitriole didn’t do the profession any favors either.

All that said, the logo, which actually has been in use for over a year on various University materials (and was never intended to replace the UC shield—major misunderstanding) caused a visceral gag reflex when I saw it. And honestly, my first instinct was maybe to do a little Bastille storming as well, well maybe my second instinct. More accurately I was more underwhelmed than angry. Didn’t go to Cal, so I didn’t take it personally, but it was the populist uprising that so quickly followed the “unveiling” that tempted me to take up a torch, or the modern analog—leave a nasty Facebook comment. Maybe the whole controversy speaks more loudly of the mentality and power of the e-mob than any ill-conceived design project, but I digress.

The same but less publicized reaction followed the JC Penney rebrand(s) in 2012 and many other major rebrands prior. Suffice to say the calculation any organization makes to mess with their timeworn face to the consumer is a complex and tricky one and fraught with danger. The natural pressures to stay current or react to the competition can often result in loss of market share, temporarily or sometimes permanently as in the case of Pepsi, whose long string of brand mishaps beginning with the first shots fired over Coca-Cola’s bow in 1975, may have ended just last year by taking up permanent residence in Coke’s rear view mirror. Takeaway? Identity is everything—proceed with caution, but context matters and an organization’s success or failure doesn’t rest with the logo alone. So chill, haters, you don’t know the whole story.

While my day job has involved a few branding and logo projects, I’ve never been part of an effort with the same massive depth and breadth as the UC rebrand, so I can only speak from a less rarified vantage point, but I do appreciate what an exhaustive, mine-laden, and gut wrenching process a logo redesign can be, especially one that comes loaded with thousands of emotionally invested stakeholders. Let’s face it, if a brand has survived for decades you can bet there are legions of brand loyalists who will rise up and challenge any alteration to its identity—whether it makes good business sense or not i.e. J.C.Penney, United Airlines. And those are just major retail brands. Add to that the layer of ferocity with which students and alumni will defend their alma maters (been to a college football game lately?) and holy crap—I wouldn’t touch that project with a ten foot pica pole. Or maybe I would if only for the adrenaline rush. Note for under-30 readers: A pica pole is a ruler thingy once used by publication designers and compositors.

To further underscore Simmons’ point about designers publicly weighing in on re-design projects; simple, it’s almost always a bad idea. And what bothers me more than anything is that it amounts to a kind of crowd sourcing with designers and non-designers alike even going so far as to post ad hoc designs on social media in an effort to prove some kind of point, a la, “See, I just scribbled this design and it’s better than what they paid all that money for”. I’m not saying that every logo should cost $1,000,000 like the Pepsi redesign or $100,000,000 like the Accenture redesign but surely we can treat the process with a bit more respect. Paula Scher, who was asked to comment in the AIGA article says it better:

“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.”

Exactly.

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