In today’s world, the success of a design can be influenced by three separate yet perhaps equally important groups: the designers who create visual brands; the online commenters who criticize them; and the reporters who write about the controversies.
These are their stories.
Or rather, this is one story. And it opens with the deceased:
The University of California’s controversial monogram.
Last month, UC officials suspended use of a new, streamlined monogram the school had created after it became the subject of intense criticism. Many thought the image was not a fitting replacement for the stately university seal, even though the university said the two were meant to coexist. Other common complaints were that the monogram was too corporate-looking, incomprehensible, and just plain ugly. An online petition demanding that the university not use the monogram attracted more than 50,000 supporters.
But who really killed the monogram? What created the controversy around the design, and why did the university feel it needed to respond? In the past few weeks a handful of analysts, pundits and reporters have looked back on the controversy and weighed in. The Jan. 1 episode of the KALW-produced, San Francisco-based design podcast “99% Invisible” includes interviews from December with UC Creative Director Vanessa Correa and Christopher Simmons, a local designer and educator who has blogged about the dispute. (Simmons’ blog post was criticized last week by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll.)
Here’s who they say are responsible for the demise of the monogram…
1. It was the media.
Simmons notes in “99% Invisible” that news outlets often displayed the monogram next to the UC seal.
“It sort of strongly implied, I think to most people, and reasonably so, that the seal was the before and the monogram was the after,” Simmons said. “It sort of framed the conversation completely wrong.”
The monogram was not intended to replace the seal, which UC Marketing and Communications Director Jason Simon described as signifying “the prestige and tradition of the university itself.” The seal was to continue to appear on UC diplomas and correspondence, while the monogram was to be used in marketing and online recruitment campaigns.
“When we need to have the full weight and gravitas of the university behind a budget book or behind a proclamation by the president, or whatever that is, that seal gives us that gravitas,” Correa said in “99% Invisible.” “But we don’t always want that gravitas. That gravitas has a place in communication. It’s like having a tuxedo and being forced to wear it every single day.”
Still, many believed that UC was throwing the tuxedo in the trash, and that inflamed opinions online.
“The long-standing UC seal has integrity and meaning and represents a philosophy and a tradition of excellence, the unwavering pursuit of new knowledge, creativity and enlightenment for the betterment of humanity. The proposed new ‘seal’ is not a seal,” wrote Santa Maria resident Leslie Campbell in a comment on the NPR Facebook page. “It represents nothing, not even good design/art.”
In his blog post, Simmons also criticized the media and others for not including more context in their descriptions of the monogram and its creation.
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.
Jon Carroll in his Chronicle column took issue with Simmons’ complaints…
First, a word of advice: The phrase “no one wrote about” is, in this Internet age, inevitably untrue. Somebody writes on every side of every issue… This very newspaper, for instance, in its news story on the issue, quoted university officials with regard to what the thinking was behind the new branding campaign. So did other places. Perhaps the story was not covered the way Simmons would have covered it, but the issues he brings up were discussed.
But Simmons also added that UC officials may have helped create some of the confusion surrounding the monogram. Which brings us to the second suspect in the monogram’s death.
2. It was the UC designers and university officials.
A UC video created to explain the inspiration for the monogram shows a hand wiping away most of the seal. The few elements of the seal that remain are used to create the new monogram. This may have helped turn many in the public against the monogram, Simmons writes in his blog post.
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.
UC outlets also may have been viewed as dismissive when responding to complaints. A post about the controversy over the monogram on the UC Facebook page states, in part, “It’s not replacing anything. There wasn’t a logo before, and the UC seal isn’t going anywhere.”
In the “99% Invisible” episode, reporter Cyrus Farivar takes one of his concerns about the monogram design to UC’s Correa.
“The first time I saw the logo I immediately thought of a computer icon of something loading,” Farivar said. Correa said the color choices may have not been the best. “This particular color combination is one that really pops out that loader bar reference in a way that is, again, I mean, very unfortunate.”
Most of Correa’s comments in the episode lay the blame on the third suspect in this case.
3. It was those who criticized the monogram online.
“It was the use of the rhetoric of democracy for the tyranny of the minority,” Correa said, when describing the controversy over the monogram. “We live in a time when everyone feels that their opinion matters. And the reality is that not all opinions are equal… When it comes to, for example, physics, my voice is not the same as Stephen Hawking’s, nor should it be.
“Aesthetics is a very easy target because no one understands how aesthetics works and they feel that subjective opinion is the rule of the day,” she noted. “I would hope that people think about design in the way that one should be thinking about design rather than assuming that purely subjective response to one thing badly posted on an Internet platform is enough to base an entire judgement on.”
We wanted to follow up on the podcast with Correa and contacted the university. A spokesperson said nothing has changed since it issued a statement by Daniel M. Dooley, the university’s senior vice president for external relations, announcing that use of the logo had been suspended…
In due course, we will re-evaluate this element of the visual identity system. My hope going forward is that the passion exhibited for the traditional seal can be redirected toward a broader advocacy for the University of California. For it is only with robust support from the citizens of this state that the university will be able to serve future generations of Californians as well as it has those of the past.
In the “99% Invisible” interview, Correa said she felt some of the frustration expressed at the monogram had nothing to do with the design.
“This has become a very simple way to express a lot of other frustrations about the university,” she said. “I mean, I’ve received that from a lot of different people. They are frustrated because they feel the administration is inaccessible. They’re frustrated because their tuition is going up… they’re frustrated by the privatization of the university.”
Correa also said the monogram was never given a chance to grow as a brand and succeed. It was killed before it could take on any real significance.
“You build the meaning,” she said. “That’s what building a brand is … The same thing [goes for the logo for] Apple. Can you imagine, I mean, it’s an apple. This is a computer company, why do you have an apple? Is this a grocery store?”
“The meaning is not baked in,” she said.
You can hear more of Correa’s comments in the “99% Invisible” episode below.
Now you’ve read and heard the evidence. Who do you think is responsible for the demise of the UC logo? Leave a comment at the bottom of this post and let us know what you think and why.