The messages started surfacing a week ago Saturday, a day when departmental business slows to a trickle and academics begin lobbing links. One faculty member circulated a petition at Change.org, with the heady title, "University of California: Stop the new UC Logo," and others soon followed with heated critiques.
Jokes flew (it looks like a toilet flushing or a program loading!), and thoughtful judgments were made: "The University of California will never be as hypervisible in our culture as Nike or McDonald's, so it's unwise to try to create recognition with an overly stylized, less-explicit visual." I bet more than a few even signed the petition.
I am an English professor with an interest in design, so all this logo talk made my serifs tingle. Graphic design, usually an art of self-effacement, had taken center stage. I was looking forward to an impassioned debate on the role that design could play in advocacy and public policy, not just retail culture. I was pleased that UC set up a special web site (now taken down) to explore how logos function within larger graphic systems, multiplying into patterns, fading into the background or banding into color stripes.
Yet that debate never got a chance to blossom. The campaign against the new monogram went viral, and UC announced Friday it was suspending its use. As the university said in a statement, "The controversy has been fueled in large part by an unfortunate and false narrative, which framed the matter as an either-or choice between a venerated UC seal and a newly designed monogram."
The campaign against the monogram fed misconceptions that UC was abandoning the old seal for a new one. The Change.org petition stated that the new logo "loses the prestige and elegance of the current seal. Please let your voice be heard and sign this petition to stop the identification of the University of California with the new monogram, and ask the Regents for an alternative solution."
The logo was not an attempt to replace the 1910 seal. Rather, it sought to incorporate its key elements (the open book, the rays of light) while being adaptable to the Internet and other places where the seal didn't easily reproduce. It had already been in use for almost a year, appearing as a discrete mark in the corner of a web page or as a webicon next to a digital address. The logo became controversial not because stalwart Keepers of the Seal were offended by its use, but because a swarm of viral clicks hounded it into our frame of attention.
So what about the mark itself, designed by UC alum Kirill Mazin?
First, I think it is a smart and thoughtful design. The blue "U" is formed from a stylized transcription of the open book at the heart of the seal. The yellow "c" curls out of the base of the "U," the gradient color allowing one letter form to emerge out of the other. The University becomes the ground on which the figure of "California" can be cupped and cultivated. U and C, "University" and "California," flow into each other in a relationship of mutual support.
A lovely vimeo of the logo, brain child of UC designer Vanessa Correa but no longer available, shows how the new mark was assembled out of the resources of the seal. The yellow and cyan colors quote the traditional blue and gold of the University of California while giving them a more youthful cast.
It's a smart mark, but not a brilliant one. Although the C is clear, many commentators have noted that the U doesn't really look like a U. And the associations that it strikes for many with a loading symbol is, well, unfortunate.
Still, if the logo did not hit the mark achieved by Comedy Central, Nike and McDonalds, does that mean that the UC Office of the President should have bowed to public pressure and retired the mark in its infancy? I regret it made that decision. The mark and the sophisticated graphic identity system that houses it can continue to evolve, while we use this occasion of brand resistance to learn more about the power of graphic design to connect people, even negatively.