The Brief and Tumultuous Life of the New UC Logo

Roman Mars: This is 99% invisible, I’m Roman Mars.

Metaphorical anecdote coming in 3, 2, 1….

Christopher: Years ago, we were asked to do a redesign for a school.

Roman: A school that will remain anonymous.

Christopher: It was for their sports program, they needed a new mascot.

Roman: That’s Christopher Simmons.

Christopher: My name is Christopher Simmons. I’m the Principal and Creative Director of the design firm MINE in San Francisco.

Roman: He also teaches identity design at the California College of the Arts.

Christopher: We’ve created several alternatives.

Roman: A few new mascots.

Christopher: Showed that to the steering committee… They had their favorite but they were unsure. They wanted buy-in from the student body and alums. Seemed reasonable but also treacherous territory.

Roman: So, they got like 600 something responses and overwhelmingly by write-in vote, the original logo was the favorite.

Christopher: Not surprising.

Roman: Change is often the hardest of all possible options.

Christopher: And people would argue, “Well, if that’s everyone feels maybe we shouldn’t change it.”

Roman: But there was a real problem with the old mascot.

Christopher: The problem was, they were using their original logo illegally. It was actually the University of Notre Dame’s logo and the reason they engaged us to change it, was because you know, they realized they did not have the right to do that.

Roman: Of course the constituency of the school, all the people who love the original logo, didn’t know anything about that. They didn’t know the reason why there needed to be a new logo but the public dialogue continued.

Christopher: Then of course, people wanted to be constructive with their criticism. So they said, “Well, the reason we don’t like the new one, if we had to pick up a new one, why is it a white person? Right? We’re a diverse school so it should be any more ethnically ambiguous. Why is it a male? We’re co-ed, so maybe it could be more androgynous. He’s so aggressive. I know it’s a sports program but we are a Catholic school, could you make it less violent?” And so they wanted an ethnically ambiguous, androgynous, non-violent, mascot and they’re the Fighting Irish.

Roman: There are factors at play that guide a design of which not everyone is aware but that doesn’t stop everyone from having an opinion, and I like people having opinions about this. I think design awareness is an all time high and this has by and large helped designers of all kinds. People have cottoned on to the idea that their interaction with the built world and their hidden communication with the people who designed it, really matters. It’s really important and like I said, this usually works out pretty well but sometimes it’s a train wreck.
This is the biography of a logo, the brief and tumultuous life of the new logo of the University of California. So if you’re not from California, or missed this bit of news, the University of California has a new logo, kind of.

Christopher: Or rather had a new logo.

Roman: And to be more precise, they had a new visual identity system, which is the kind of entirely accurate but completely wonky description that gets met with sarcastic eye rolls from anyone who isn’t a designer but there it is. But they don’t have a new logo anymore because of a massive public backlash. The UC System actually suspended the new monogram logo while we were reporting this story.

Cyrus: And the Creative Director of the UC Office of the President is not happy about how it turned out.

Vanessa: I would say that it was the use of the rhetoric of democracy for the tyranny of the minority.

Roman: That’s Vanessa Correa, we’ll hear more from her in a minute. And the fellow you heard before her is Cyrus Farivar. He’s been on the show before having reported about Bonn, Germany and amazing Belgian Beer, but now he’s back home here in the Golden State of California.

Cyrus: All right, so before we get to why people hated this new logo, we need to tell you what it looked like first.

Roman: It looks a little like a shield with the mostly flat top and a rounded the bottom. Superimposed on the shield is the letter C and when it was first presented, the shield was in blue and the C was in gold. These are the historic colors of the university system but it was designed to be extremely versatile and almost any color.

Cyrus: So just to be clear, this was the new symbol for the entire UC System as a whole, not just UC Berkeley or UCLA or UC San Diego, all 10 campuses.

Roman: So, one of the reasons the public backlash surprised the in-house team that designed this logo and it’s a company in color scheme and associated icons, is that it’s all been around for nearly a year. It was part of a massive, “Onward California!” public marketing campaign, to build awareness of the university system as part of what makes California great.

Cyrus: Yes, in fact, that they took it on tour to all 10 campuses where they drove around a huge truck with the logo and all the new colors and everything around to show it to the faculty and students and no one said a word. The design team at the UC Office of the president probably thought they’ve done a good job and they were ready to move forward.

Roman: Then in early December, the shield like UC monogram hit the blocks and two things happened that set the stage for the burning torch reaction that it got from the public beyond the aesthetic opinions. I do recognize that there are completely valid criticisms that can be made about the design itself, but this first error on the part of the press really doomed it out of the gate. There were lots of articles in the media, nearly all of them actually, that put the classic university seal, side by side with the new UC logo.

Christopher: It strongly implied I think to most people and reasonably so, that the seal was the before and the monogram was after.

Roman: That’s Christopher Simmons again, who you heard from at the very top of the show. He had nothing to do with this UC logo redesign but he waded into the fray with a blog post on his own website called, “Why the UC rebrand is better than you think.”

Christopher: And that therefore, the monogram would be replacing the seal and, of course, that wasn’t the case. It framed the conversation completely wrong.

Cyrus: The second misstep, and this one actually got to me as a UC Berkeley graduate, was that the UC Office of the President released a video online that showed the graphical evolution from the old seal to the new logo.

Christopher: Which was produced by the University of California to kind of show some of the thinking behind the genesis of the new monogram and how it related to the seal, how it took some of its cues from it?

Cyrus: In the video, hands pulled design elements from the seal to create the new design and literally sweep aside the old seal, brushing it away and tossing it out! The video reinforced everyone’s greatest fear about the new brand.

Roman: So those two things were working against it from the get-go and the fact that this was all new and changes understandably very hard. And as a university logo, it was really standing out all on its own. It’s really easy to criticize. The UC alumni and the California public at large saw it, and their reaction was really negative.

Cyrus: Roman, that is actually an understatement. A lot of people felt that this new logo was too modern, too cheap and really denigrated the gravitas and that was the word that was used, the “gravitas” of the university. In fact, Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the former Mayor of San Francisco, sent an angry letter on December 11th to the UC President.

Roman: “The overwhelmingly negative response to the recent change to the University of California logo demands immediate attention.” He went on, “Perhaps now it is time to return to the use of the old logo and allow the university community a cooling off period to concentrate on the long term health the university. Instead of being creative with the University of California logo, we should be searching for creative solutions for funding the University of California.”

Vannesa: He’s wrong because the logo, there’s no logo to restore. There was no old logo and again it’s a classic case of the misinformation reaching the very, very top.

Roman: That’s Vanessa Correa, the Creative Director of the UC Office of the President. Vanessa led the team that came up with this logo and the new visual brand. She says that a lot of the negative reaction was because the media implied that the classic seal was being replaced, but there were no such plans. The seal which UC has reassured everyone, will stay on diplomas, is more of a classic collegiate icon. It’s circular with the word seal of the University of California around the edge and image of an open book and the motto, “Let there be light” at the bottom. An earlier version of this seal dates back to when the university was founded in the 19th Century. In its current form, that seal has been unchanged since 1910.

Cyrus: So UC Berkeley, my alma mater, has the UC seal on its official communications. It’s what’s on my diploma, it was on my aunt’s, my grandparents and yes, and it’s earlier form it was on my great grandparents’ diplomas. I’m the fourth generation in a line of UC Berkeley graduates, but more casual logos do exist, like the Cal script logo that’s on the UC Berkeley football helmet….

Roman: And every 10th persons sweatshirt in downtown Berkeley.

Cyrus: Or the C bear claw logo that’s on a baseball cap that I own. So, CAL and UCLA and lots of other universities have this distinctiveness between a more official seal and a more casual logo, but the UC System as a whole did not.

Vannesa: The seal for all the good things that it does represent, can’t carry all of that symbolic weight.

Cyrus: Why not?

Vannesa: Because it’s already interacting in sort of a rhetorical space that is much more institutional.

Cyrus: Like it’s too stuffy?

Vannesa: You can say that if you want, but…

Cyrus: You say sort of, how you feel about it, like is it?

Vannesa: No. I actually think that the seal is fantastic. Because when we need to have the weight, 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. But we don’t always want that gravitas. That gravitas has a place in communication. It’s like having a tuxedo and be forced to wear it every single day.

Roman: In other words, what the team of designers at UC intended to do was to create an icon that can be used as part of a broader campaign to more dynamically and more casually explain the university system to people. Correa, explained that the logo would never stand on its own, as it was depicted in media reports. It would almost always be presented with the words “University of California” next to it or the motto, “Let there be light.” It would have all these other visual cues that would help UC sell itself.

Cyrus: You talked about expressing dynamism and light and these sorts of things. Do you feel like that the logo should be able to stand on its own? I mean, I think that again, for me, I feel like when I look at this, and you say, “Well, it’s part of a larger thing, there’s text that goes with it. There’s other contextual information that would help me to understand what it is,” because when I just see it, this does not scream to me, “UC” like, I don’t…

Vannesa: Today, it doesn’t.

Cyrus: What’s that?

Vannesa: Today, it doesn’t, but it will.

Cyrus: Okay.

Vannesa: So, you need the ecosystem to build the meaning into the object. You need people to begin to identify it with the good works of the university for them to… you build the meaning. A logo, on itself is nothing. It’s just a thing. A logo doesn’t come fully formed with the meaning baked in, the meaning is accrued over time.

The Nike Swoosh? Looks like a giant check mark. I mean, if people had social media insight into it, today, they would say, “Why is there only one? Why is it so plain? Why is it look like a check? You know is that supposed to be a wing? I don’t get it. I don’t see a wing.” The meaning has accrued through years of quality products or non-quality products and athletes associating with it and the interaction that you have with the brand writ large.
The same thing 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? I don’t understand.” It’s the same kind of thing, the meaning is not baked in, you build meaning that’s what building a brand is.

Roman: People’s emotional resonance with something develops over time. The only reason why it’s a [inaudible] and so many other UC alums have such a strong bond with the seal is because it’s been around for over a century, and that bond is further strengthened by every other seal in the world. They’re really not all that distinct. Seals now kind of naturally communicate history and tradition and indeed, gravitas.

Cyrus: Vanessa says, she gets all that and while she herself may have attended another UC, that would be the University of Cincinnati. She thinks that part of why there’s been so much negative attention toward the logo is because it’s become a lightning rod for other issues.

Vannesa: I think that there are other things going on here in the outcry. Part of what’s going on is that this has become a very simple way to express a lot of other frustrations about the university. I mean, I’ve received that from a lot of different people. They are frustrated because they feel like the administrations inaccessible. They’re frustrated because their tuition is going up. They’re frustrated for all these things. They’re frustrated about the privatization of the university. Rightly so, I’m frustrated too. That’s part of the reason why I’m sitting here trying to get people to actually care about it because I want them to go and vote for it.

Roman: But now that we’ve described the purpose of the logo and the uphill climb and had ahead of it, I think it’s fair to talk about the actual graphic design that a lot of people both the lay public and several designers had huge problems with. One common complaint was the fact that the C part of the design wasn’t totally solid. It was a gradient. The bottom part of the C was lighter than the top and while the intention was to convey movement and luminosity, that’s not what a lot of people saw on it.

Cyrus: The first time I saw the logo, I immediately thought of a computer icon of something loading. I spent a lot of time in front of my computer, maybe you do too. This C looks exactly like a circle indicating a loading browser tab, or Skype opening, or any other number of loading scenarios on a computer. Vanessa told me that this was pure coincidence and she expressed a little bit of regret over it.

Vannesa: This particular color combination is one that really pops out that loader bar reference in a way that is again, I mean, very fortunate.

Roman: On the UC website where the identity was introduced, you could actually see other versions of the logo with different colors. That were black and white and blue and white versions of the monogram that didn’t have a gradient at all. I personally prefer those but I don’t think those were very widely seen.

Cyrus: Vanessa also told me that what’s gotten drowned out in all the noise of journalists like me wanting to talk to her, is the fact that people in the design world do like it. There was an op-ed written in the San Francisco Chronicle by Rob Duncan, formerly of Pentagram. He’s now an art director at Apple, and he also runs his own design shop in San Francisco. He called the new UC logo, “One of the freshest and most creative education identity schemes in a country full of boring institutional logos.”

Roman: But the much more common and widely publicized response was very, very negative. An online petition called, “Stop the new UC logo” received over 54,000 signatures and as we eluded to earlier, on December 14th, just a few days into the extremely vociferous public reaction to the logo, the UC Director of Marketing Communications released a statement saying that the new UC monogram was being shelved. “In the past week it has become clear that the University of California systemwide monogram recently created, is a source for great debate, dialogue, and division. In short, it’s too much of a distraction from our broader effort to communicate UCs value and vital contributions to Californians, so we intend to suspend use of the new monogram. We will begin to take steps required to do so.”

Cyrus: I certainly had an initial negative reaction to the monogram when I first saw too. I still think the gradient is just not quite right but overall, after talking to Vanessa, even a skeptic like me is a little bit more convinced of its usefulness and of its quality.

Vannesa: You don’t have to like design to recognize that it’s good design. I don’t like Led Zeppelin, don’t say anything about it. I don’t like Led Zeppelin. [crosstalk]

Cyrus: I have no opinion on Led Zeppelin one way or the other.

Vannesa: I don’t like Led Zeppelin, but I understand what they’ve done and why people think they’re good and why they are good and where they fit into rock and roll history. Like, it’s fine not to like it but you need to understand what it’s trying to do, and to go from there. I would say, I hate the IBM logo but doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It does what it needs to do and so from that perspective, I would hope that people think about design and 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 judgment on.

Cyrus: I talked to my 91-year-old grandfather about the new UC logo too. He graduated from Cal in the 1940s and he said, he didn’t like it either. For many of the same reasons that we talked about earlier. That it wasn’t clear what it was supposed to represent. That the C in UC looked weird and when I explained what Vanessa had told me he chewed on that for a while but ultimately I think came away unconvinced.

Roman: For Correa and many designers who have spoken out in support of her and our team’s efforts, they continued to say that their work was bold, daring and does represent modern California. Here again is Christopher Simmons.

Christopher: I think the role of an expert, and an expert to me is, just someone who is trained in a particular field and has some perhaps, or hopefully, deep experience in the practice of that field, is to see the world through a different lens?
So for example, when we had our kitchen renovated here, I don’t know anything about architecture, know nothing about engineering, I don’t know anything about really about interior design. I have my opinions but that’s all they are. And so when a designer tells me why I think this would work best, I defer to that opinion.
When a mechanic tells me that this thing needs to be fixed in my car, I trust that he or she is accurate. When I go to my doctor, they’re telling me how to understand my own body and I don’t know how to interpret what’s happening to my body. So, I allow them to do that for me.
When it comes to design, we don’t seem culturally, to have that same trust. And so, perhaps saying that people are ignorant of design or not knowledgeable the process, or short-sighted, is contentious. It’s probably strictly speaking true, but it’s not always wise to say the true thing in exactly the way you’re thinking it.

Vannesa: We live in a time when everyone feels that their opinion matters and the reality is that not all opinions are equal. That’s not popular, because you like to think that your voice is the same as someone else’s but 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 everyone– no one understands how aesthetics works, and they feel that subjective opinion is the rule of the day. I don’t like it. Therefore, it must not be good.

Cyrus: So, I get that. No one wants to be told how to do their job by rank amateurs who don’t understand what they’re trying to do. I don’t go to restaurants and tell chefs that their pizza could use more basil and the tomato sauce, but the difference between designers like Vanessa and the physics world is that we, the public, are not invited to sit in Stephen Hawking’s physics lab in Cambridge. We’re not part of that world, period.

Roman: But design in general and this design, in particular, is about communication and interaction with a public who are completely unaware of the motivations behind a certain design.

Cyrus: The logo isn’t meant to sit in someone’s sketchbook. It’s meant to be out there in the world, telling the story of the University of California. And right or wrong, the people connected to the university still feel like they have a say in the matter.

Roman: It’s hard to say what the ultimate effect of this whole fiasco will be. I think institutions like the University of California, which tend to be pretty change-averse anyway, will be more gun-shy about pushing new designs and new ideas forward. There will be a chilling effect. If that comes to pass that will be a real shame.

I hope the people who really dislike the logo, at least the thoughtful ones, would also not want to see that happen. But I also don’t want designers to circle the wagons and claim that no design can be criticized unless the person with an opinion knows the full back-story of the design process. That just seems false and incongruous with reality.
I didn’t see people making the same defense of the new GAP logo with the little blue square that appeared briefly in 2010. It was derided by everyone, everywhere, even Christopher Simmons who has very thoughtfully considered and spoken out against the overreaction to the UC logo took some swings at the GAP logo back then.

Christopher: Someone made some jerky website where you could turn anything into the GAP logo to emphasize how generic it was. And so for a while, my Facebook profile image was my name with the little blue square in the top right corner. And in retrospect, that was probably mean and if I could take it back, I would.

Roman: I think it speaks well of his character that Christopher regrets that, but I don’t know if he should. He cared and he commented fundamentally, because these things mattered him.

Christopher: On one level it’s great that the public is engaged and passionate about design. It’s a little dispiriting that every time it happens, it’s to recall the UC logo, to recall the GAP logo, to recall the Tropicana packaging and we don’t see the opposite. We don’t see people galvanized around a great new identity that they love. It’s very easy to pile on the hate and the criticism and not offer meaningful alternatives. That said the fact that design is even being discussed, signals that it’s important, and that’s important, to people that’s important, to culture that’s important, to business and that’s a win for everyone.

[music background]

Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Cyrus Farivar with help from Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. It’s a project of 91.7 Local Public Radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

  1. Andres

    I know this goes against the whole message behind the program, but I unfortunately must comment on the logo. Whether intended for limited use or not, the version with the faded gold “C” looks pretty terrible. However, I do like the blue and white version.

  2. G

    Regardless of anything else, It’s bad design & bad typography. Purely as a commercial or governmental logo of any kind, it would stink to high heaven.

    The blue object is supposed to suggest an open book at the top and the letter U at the bottom. Instead it appears like a letter U that is of ridiculously thicker line width than the letter C, as if someone made a thoughtless typographical error and took an already bold font and then double-bolded it further. Something about it that’s difficult to verbalize, suggests a person’s rear-end, as if they are turned with their backside toward you, and have pulled down their pants to “moon” you by showing their bottom.

    The rounded ends of the letter C look less-than-serious, as if it stands for Candy or Chewing gum or Cheesy-snacks. The C with the gradient doesn’t even suggest a C: but as your interviewee said, suggests a computer program loading. A “construction equipment yellow” version of the little twirly-ring thingie that appears in Windows 7.

    How it could have been improved or even saved:

    Keep the top of the logo as is, looking like a book. At the appropriate distance from the top, the blue area ends in a plain horizontal line. Below that line, the letter U is attached to it, in a darker color blue than the “book,” but not quite Navy blue.

    Inside the open area of the letter “U” is the letter “C” in a color that’s more toward gold than the present “construction equipment yellow” in the failed logo. The letter C is not a circular aspect ratio, but is a bit taller and narrower, to harmonize with the taller aspect ratio of a capital U.

    The ends of the letter C are not rounded, but are cut at angles that are not quite square but subtly suggest a font that’s almost hinting at having serifs, even though there are no serifs, as there are none in the letter U (never mix serif and sans serif fonts in a logo). The outer diameter of the letter C just touches the inner diameter of the curve in the letter U, and the line width of each letter is carefully crafted for balance between the letters. There’s a small amount of white space between the top of the curve of the C, and the bottom edge of the blue “book” element.

    IMHO that would be tolerable, whereas the failed logo isn’t.

    Too late. Bye-bye bad logo.

    BTW, unlike the UC spokesperson, real branding agencies don’t get all arrogant, hubricious, and defensive about their creations, or they would lose their clients.

    When it comes to logo designs, subjective opinion IS the rule of the day, and every existing or potential “customer” has an equal say, in the end, by voting with their dollars.

    1. J

      Dude, you just described an image with words to what I am assuming is an audience of designers…it’s like when I would stand in front of the review panel at architecture school and describe a phantom project that I intended to design but that was not represented anywhere in my project boards. As one of my professors said “If it’s not on the board, don’t mention it. Show it or shut it.”

      Not to be mean, of course. But man, show us a link or something to this logo!

  3. brendon

    (Note: I haven’t listened to the interview yet.) Horrific design aside, the story here was really about an incompetent rollout. I recall one of the folks involved at systemwide – months later and still trying defend what they did – citing how the food truck they branded with the monogram was so well received. That’s how they thought. Ultimately they tried to blame the public for not being savvy enough to understand what they were trying to achieve, but the fault lies squarely on the systemwide folks. I wonder how much money they wasted on this.

  4. Good morning; I love the series – thank you!

    Rather than comment on the logo, I have a comment on some of the thinking in the programme.

    Near the end the debate outlines the premise that design is a specialism (agreed) and that the process of critiquing design is misunderstood by the public. Parallels are drawn with particle physics and chefs. But the argument is poorly made and unresolved in your programme. One reason why aesthetics IS a public debate where particle physics is not, is that it is one of consumption and effect. We ‘consume’ design (but not particle physics) and are deeply affected by it in our built and visual environments. We are motivated by design, led to deeper understanding by good design or driven away from understanding, we are by it and we are adorned by it. Design matters to us on a minute by minute basis.

    It’s NOT true that, as Cyrus Farivar suggests, you wouldn’t tell a chef his pizza needs more basil… well most people would – because they are the consumer of the pizza! If I don’t like a design, it is not valid to tell me I am not a design professional. I am the audience, the target consumer of the design and actually, in many cases, also a participant in the design’s use. This is especially true if that logo represents me, my college, my town, or some aspect of my extended public persona. I have interest and value vested in the design and its success. If, fundamentally, the design is not accepted by enough people, the idea will die or go away, because we live in a consumer-driven evolutionary defined world, where the fittest survive. (But fittest isn’t necessarily the best design from a pure design specialist’s POV.)

    Fascinating programme – I work with designers a lot…!


  5. Wetdog

    this same thing happen at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland in the early 2000’s. They developed a logo of crisscrossing circular lines to emphasize its engendering and medical notoriety. It ended up looking like a fat guy holding a surfboard and quickly became the joke of the town.

  6. I am an artist and not a design wonk, but I think that new logo is great. Once again, great program all around, everything was taken in to account and treated fairly.

  7. Jamie Sheehan

    The logo is a good start. I like the idea and the ‘book’ shield idea. But it seems like it isn’t done yet. The gradated C is not a good idea. I think if this was finished right there’d be less push back. And it is too bad that the way it was communicated has put the stops on it. What they are doing is valid, but clearly all parties need to step back, and rethink a little to move forward.

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