UC’s short-lived monogram

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.

The University of California seal.
The University of California seal.

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.

Who Killed the UC Logo? 3 Suspects 22 January,2013

  • Even as a monogram, it is incredibly ugly. The main culprit for its demise remains with the communications team at UC for failing to articulate its purpose and value to virtually everyone.

  • Great article. One suggestion only, as 99% Invisible is developed and produced by a fellow NPR station, I feel you should give explicit credit to that station (KALW).

    • Jim, good call – that was an unintentional omission. The folks at KALW do great work. We’ll add it a credit now. Thanks!

  • This really oversimplifies the failures of process in the creation of the logo. The University did not get enough buy in from stakeholders and therefore, did not have any advocates for the logo, either amongst donors, online or in the political sphere. The failure of the designers to determine what donors and alumni would want before producing a product was the ultimate failure of the logo.

    • I also think that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of alumni views when we’re talking about “allowing the brand to grow.” the brand has existed for almost 150 years, so the fact that the new monogram did not connect with that history is indicative of deeper problems in the design process. If it has to grow new meaning, you’re not using the biggest asset you have, which is the existing reputation of the University of California System. Build off the assets we have, engage the stakeholders and then put your design mind to work. In that case, you will have allies and advocates fighting to keep any new logo.

  • Ultimately the responsibility lies with the University. Internet hypervigilance is a part of the modern world and it is incumbent on whoever is responsible for the rollout of a new design to prepare for and manage the community’s expectations and potential backlash. The University did a poor job of contextualizing this logo.

    Also, unless more happened behind the scenes that we don’t know about, the University always had the choice to NOT withdraw the logo. A certain degree of backlash should be expected and sometimes a steady hand is needed to give the new logo, as Correa says, a chance grow as a brand and succeed.

    Correa demonstrates an unfortunate level of designer snobbery here, pining for a fantasy time when designer-kings rule the aesthetic world. It’s an unfortunately common perspective among designers but one which serves only the designer’s wounded ego. The regular Joe/Jane is your prime audience and your task is to present them with a design that resonates with them, no training needed.

  • Chuckl8

    On a purely practical level, the fading “C” would present a major problem for those who would have to reproduce it on shirts, mugs, etc. Where the fade begins and ends would require no small effort to reproduce consistently. A small dot pattern would have been the better call.

    On the acceptance of the logo, I agree that the logo’s abrupt introduction had added to the frustration being experienced by the students, who – rightly, in my opinion – feel that their participation and input into the decisions in the UC system, both large and small, is waning.

    In that way, the logo has actually accomplished the task, in that it perfectly symbolizes the UC administration’s efforts to diminish the complex relationship that should exist between student and school.

  • Mark Duerr

    “We live in a time when everyone feels that their opinion matters. And the reality is that not all opinions are equal…” What an absolutely elitist notion! Yes, a graphic designer probably knows better whether a logo will convey it’s message or represent the agency, but at the end of the day, Ugly is Ugly and this thing stinks. I printed it in color and showed it to all 17 people in the office and asked for a ‘good, bad, or indifferent’. I got 4 ‘indifferent’ and 13 ‘bad’. It’s pretty clear to me that what this logo conveys is, “how could the University of California–of all places!–not come up with a logo that “works” AND that people like?

    • It’s not elitist to note that not all opinions are equal; I’d much rather have my doctor’s opinion on how to treat a head cold than the opinion of a physicist.

      That said, I am a graphics designer, and you (and many, many others) are correct that this thing is hideous.

  • Silly me, I thought this was the UC logo:

    • That is the UC Berkeley logo, the not the University logo.

  • Joanna Bujes

    It’s simple. The monogram looks like someone forgot to flush. Glaring evidence that the meritocratic chain that led to the creation and adoption of this symbol is a chain of fools.

  • It might work for a tulip grower.

  • jim

    looks bad.
    hopefully they only wasted a few hundred thousand tax payer dollars on its creation and not millions.

    • jon

      you had a typo: *tuition

    • Fortunately, only staff and designer time was spent but the fund was a non-state fund so we were not affected. Only those employees who are getting a pay-cut in July are being affected. So I’ll be hit once not twice on the expenses.

  • Awakeart

    Bad design. I like to think I’m pretty quick visually, but I just didn’t get the reference to an open book at the top–a very ungainly shape overall.

  • Far from it being the “tryanny of the few”, marketing and branding professionals agree — it sucks.

  • It does look like a flushing toliet as someone pointed out in the myriad of criticism it got.

  • Michael Ross

    Good intentions may have been the genesis but poor design finished it off. It cast Berkeley like an social media start up. Berkeley’s brand is more associated with the world’s greatest universities. Not this.

    • This was not a Berkeley brand – this was a University of California brand for ALL of its campuses.

  • Zo

    I can’t decide which one is uglier; the logo itself, or the creators blaming the public for not understanding their work ‘coz we (the public) don’t know jack about aesthetics. While the right to criticize anything is not incumbent upon our level of relevant education, how dare you blame the public for not liking something that is created for public consumption?

    • Jonathan

      “how dare you blame the public for not liking something that is created for public consumption”…
      Because the public is wrong!

      I’m also “in” the public, but I actually read and understood the WHOLE package of new branding identity created. It sounds like you STILL think this is about a logo created for your “public consumption” but its NOT.

      This is a monogram created for a specific use in a whole new campaign and branding identity for UC. You (and the the general public uproar) have been shown this out of context and so you are evaluating it as a logo, and calling it ugly.

      • I’m not sure I understand. UC used it on their Facebook and twitter accounts (separate from the campaign). is that not a logo for public consumption?

        I like the rest of the campaign, but I don’t see how this is necessarily an integral part with the website. seeing it in context on the website did not make it better.

  • JJ Thorp

    It is ugly, that is the fatal flaw. Brilliant design trumps political hoopla. Administrators who allowed this to happen ought to bury their heads.

  • Shutter

    “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,”

    Says it all, right there. We know best & you dolts out there with low foreheads and scuffed up knuckles … back in your cages!

  • In fairness, my article also places ‘blame’ at the feet of designers. I think I was fairly careful to avoid placing designers and the public into ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ buckets. Everyone has a right to criticize. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. Collectively, opinions do matter.

    But the history of the development of the new identity includes months of focus testing and nearly a year of public rollout to the various campuses. In other words, the logo that everyone hates was previously approved by the UC community, and had been in use for nearly a year prior to the uproar. This is a part of the story that wasn’t widely reported. To blame the designers for being arrogant or the administrators for being out of touch, is to attach those same labels to the thousands of students, faculty, prospective students, parents and others who had input on the design at various stages of its development.

    In the final analysis, however, design succeeds or fails based its ability to connect with the audiences for whom it is intended. Sometimes those with the power to decide yield to the weight of public opinion. Such was the case here. Sometimes they do not, as was the case with the Eiffel Tower, The Guggenheim, New York’s Flatiron Building, The Transamerica Pyramid, the new YouTube user interface, and the identities for UPS, Swiss Air and MTV.

    • you say it was approved by the UC Commmunity but not one person I know had seen it or discussed it before the campaign was rolled out, including people very high up on campuses and in alumni associations.

      I think they need to take a look at what level of real engagement they had in this process, because most people who feel like stakeholders felt blindsided by this. it’s disingenuous to say that there was rigorous “community” involvement in the development process here.

    • Remo

      True, but some things get built and remain and turn out to be an eyesore. Just google “Wurster Hall ugly”. Wurster Hall is the home of UCB’s architecture department.

    • Focus groups. Oy. There’s a reason they aren’t given too much weight – until it’s time to defend a bad decision. (One uninformed opinion is not validated by dozens of other uninformed opinions, even if they’re all the same.)

      The problem I had with the design the first time I saw it – and it’s still a problem I have with it – is that it is far too reflective of current trends in design. That’s a problem because they are current trends in design. In ten years, this thing will look dated.

      Another problem is that the design lacks meaningful dimension. For the color version, attempting to incorporate the blend does not make up for that lack of dimension. There is no character, no texture, no ‘tactile’ element that might make the design attractive. I don’t think it needs stitching or woodgrain or brushed metal (or even a drop shadow), but as it is, it lacks what could be called ‘personality’. It’s lukewarm. It doesn’t ‘pop’. Et cetera.

      More subtly, it’s a bit too sleek or streamlined – there are no corners to grab onto, either in the shield or the C. Corners act as finials or conclusions, a kind of visual punctuation. This design has no clear visual terminus; it seems all beginning, no end. Nothing really stands out to the eye; even the one strong shape, the curve of the C, fades into the background as though it didn’t really mean to be there.

      The color palette is muted, too, and that doesn’t help matters any. If they’d kept away from the cooler tones, the art might have survived its utter two-dimensional lifelessness.

      I saw the B&W version, and by comparison, it is a much stronger design. If they’d stuck with that, included the borders (not necessarily as black lines, but as a visual presence) and lost the fade, they might have been able to keep it all, complete with the wishy-washy palette.

  • travin

    The three things that killed this branding initiative are:

    Poor Planning: Correa states that it’s failure is attributable to people using the branding exercise as an outlet for various angst. However, marketing and branding folks are well aware of these factors going into any project. It’s an integral part of the exercise and the solution. But here she states it as an excuse and attempts to unconvincingly persuade us that it was all just taken too seriously. The ‘tux’ metaphor is especially laughable.

    Hubris: Design, branding, marketing, is an experimental, continuing learning process that few have ever perfected. But here politics is being played, lacking humility in it’s failure, attempting to assuage responsibility for factors well within their realm of control and laying blame upon others.

    Introduction Video: Considering all the factors Correa mentions as people venting their frustrations upon their design, knowable/known conditions prior to release, there should have been no reason they would present the ‘new logo’ (despite her pretenses to the contrary) showing people deconstructing and, literally, casually brushing aside the established branding as though it were meaningless. To say the least it was shockingly disrespectful and now they’re paying the price.

    Oh wait, I forgot, it’s really someone else’s fault. Nevermind.

  • Owen Good

    Of course there was no meaning baked in either to the name Apple or the use of an apple for its logo, when that company first chose those symbols. At the time, Apple was not a 142-year-old institution representing the authority and prestige of an entire state, either.

    To Correa’s point, UC had built a brand, and it isn’t one that is best represented by the ghost of a cheeto.

    I find blaming the audience here to be tacky and arrogant, especially as it concerns a symbol of the state and, presumably, the people who so richly subsidize the education at UC.

    PS There has to be a Godwin’s Law of Design, which predicts the inevitability Apple will be mentioned during any argument.

  • There’s a fourth suspect: The design sucked.

    It is appalling, ugly, and ridiculous; it’s a clear pandering to the current trend/fad of ‘flat’ vector-driven graphics, a disposable image, something that would have gained no respectability with time, but rather have become obviously visually dated by, say, 2020.

    That it took so long to even come up with it at all is mind-boggling. It’s a disaster, and is better off relegated to the dustbin of Embarrassing Incidents We All Wish We Hadn’t Put Online In The First Place.

    • travin

      I was filing that under ‘poor planning’ and ‘hubris’, but you’re correct. Even in the digital age you don’t design something with a spot color half-tone bleed into another spot color. It doesn’t scale or reproduce well (read: it will frequently look like crap). Aesthetics I’ll leave to you to judge.

  • Remo

    A lot of artistic designs fail. At least UC’s logo was better than Drake University which began a marketing campaign using a “D+” logo. Read more here for a laugh: http://voices.washingtonpost.com/campus-overload/2010/09/drake_brands_itself_as_a_d.html

    At least our “C” is a lot better than a “D+”.

  • Poor design and not enough input from a variety of designers was the primary reason, imho. Finally, there was not enough pre-news about the new logo to prepare everyone. I think a logo is a good idea but it was poorly implemented. The design for the Vietnam Memorial was given to the public and vetted through a committee which prepared the public way ahead of time and a great deal of news before, during and after was given to this design. Why not this one?

  • Ali Reza

    I just wish they would have responded as effectively to the Occupy UC Davis brutalities by Lt. John Pike and Chancellor Katehi.

  • rayon

    Top view of a toilet

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