UofC Rebrand Controversy

University of California Identity from University of California on Vimeo.

A while back.. well, a while back in internet space/time, the University of California had a new identity system designed – and there was a big to-do.

If you don’t know the story, here’s what happened in a nutshell:
The University of California unveiled a new brand identity. The new system was somehow misconstrued by the public to be replacing the school’s seal. It wasn’t, the seal was updated and was still hanging around for more formal uses while the new identity would be used everywhere else. The design team was able to pull together what had been a largely disjointed amalgam of logos and type treatments and turn it into one unified monogram and brand identity system. There was a backlash from the community (students, alumni, the internet in general), they all signed a petition on Change.org, and the administration pulled the monogram from any kind of usage… until further notice.

For more detail, here are some great write ups that follow the drama on the Brand New blog: post 1, post 2, post 3. There’s also a really nice 99% Invisible interview with Vanessa Correa, creative director of the internal design group in charge of the rebrand, here.

So, I could talk about the identity itself and say that I thought it was a breath of fresh air when it comes to large scale university branding systems, and that it does a great job pulling together many disparate organizations under one cohesive visual umbrella. Yeah, the gradient in the “c” is a little weird, but I could get used to that over time… just like when Nike founder Phil Knight was presented the swoosh logo.. he said “I don’t love it. But it will grow on me.” (quote via Brand New) But I digress…

My point about the UofC rebrand is that I think the design is beside the point when looking at the overall story. The university had confidence in their design team, accepted the redesign, and launched the new system. Then, they backed down because of public outcry over what seemed to be mis-information. Instead of standing behind their decision to move forward with the new identity, or trying to re-explain that they weren’t replacing the seal, they backed down…. and went back to using God knows what… and ended up a little in the same place that they started.

Anyway, I think it’s obvious what I think – they should have stuck to their guns and moved forward. However, that contradicts a lot of what we preach around here in letting the community decide what they want to symbolize them (by vicki dhead). An argument could be made for bad pr (mistaking the monogram for replacing the seal), but at the same time, if this is what the community wants, shouldn’t they get it? Honestly, I think there’s a time and a place when parents should step in and do what’s best for their kids no matter how much they whine. I’d love to hear what you guys have to say. Go ahead, rake me over the WOM coals… I can take it.


Nathan Spainhour Nathan Spainhour is a Designer + Interactive Director at Brains on Fire. Meet him here.
  • http://twitter.com/megburkett Megan Rene Burkett

    Thank you for sharing this- I look love the new look. Unfortunately, universities are one of the oldest institutions and cling to their traditions. Change of any sort happens slow and has many ‘hands’ in the pot. I am interested to see what kind of feedback this receives.

    • http://www.stringshot.com natespain

      I can totally see your point. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future with UofC.

  • http://www.facebook.com/skinnySC David Haskins

    I remember reading about this and seeing the video when it happened. As a non-U of C alum, I thought it was a nice adaptation of their traditional seal.

    On the other hand, as I watch the video, I can imagine alums would feel like some of their University’s history was being “wiped away” and “picked apart”. If the video and presentation was handled differently, it could have changed the whole perception of the rebranding.

    Maybe something as simple as a “copy & paste” of the imaging in the seal, just lifting the copied assets to create the logo and new “let there be light” messaging (rather than brushing the historical artwork aside by hand). Maybe that’s just me, and of course it’s Monday morning quarterbacking.

    • http://www.stringshot.com natespain

      totally with you David.

  • http://twitter.com/chadhartman Chad Hartman

    2.6% of the community sounds like a squeaky wheel, I would echo, “Don’t succumb to the mob”. The new look is fresh, kind of what I would expect for UofC.

    Based on the articles and the 50,000 ‘dislikes’, it sounds like UofC has a strong, active, opinionated community. Maybe, UofC should have got the community to buy in BEFORE rather that force it on them AFTER.

  • lisavgray

    My take-away from this story is that design processes must find a way to engage the community upfront — so that stakeholders (the squeaky wheels and others) know the re-design is afoot, have a chance to weigh-in, can watch the process unfold. There’s a lot more than graphic unity on the line, when you redesign the symbol of a beloved (and publicly supported) institution.

  • Lisa Ware

    I agree with you. UofC had a good reason for why they made the change, but if they rolled it out to their stakeholders without explaining those reasons adequately, then it’s not surprising there was so much resistance. The video is beautifully made, but doesn’t get at what the problems were with the disparate logos or how the new logo would strengthen the brand. It looks capricious. I’m not sure trying to get buy-in ahead of time is the right answer, since I lean toward your suggestion that it’s sometimes better to be the parent. Regardless, it’s too bad – it’s a great new look.

  • http://twitter.com/jeremiaha Jeremiah Adkins

    Agreed. I hope to see the brand rolled back out in full support. The situation reminds me of the original presentation of the most recent London Olympic Games branding. Once everyone was able to see the brand working in it’s entirety all of the criticisms seemed to stop.

    • http://www.stringshot.com natespain

      That’s a really good point Jeremiah. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

  • http://www.stringshot.com natespain

    Letting the community in on the action before the launch is the best thing I’ve heard so far. It’s a lot easier to get buy in on something like this if it’s presented like “here’s what we’re thinking”, rather than “here it is – surprise!”. With this passionate fan base – it wouldn’t have hurt them to grant an exclusive “first look” or something.

    • http://www.stringshot.com natespain

      Thx @twitter-50006076:disqus, @lisavgray:disqus, and @ed2be5b23b52378fb1b02ddab92b7630:disqus