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Avoiding a Logo Backlash

December 17, 2012

The University of California system on Friday opted to stop defending a new logo that was the subject of widespread derision and anger.

A statement from Daniel M. Dooley, senior vice president for external relations, said that "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." (In fact, many critics of the new logo acknowledged that the traditional seal was remaining, but insisted that they didn't want the new symbol to be used anywhere.)

Dooley also said that he believed "the design element in question would win wide acceptance over time," but he also acknowledged all the criticism. "[I]t also is important that we listen to and respect what has been a significant negative response by students, alumni and other members of our community. Therefore, I have instructed the communications team to suspend further use of the monogram."

The new logo, showing a yellow C in a blue U, has been criticized for not being an appropriate symbol for a great university system.

The uproar raises the question -- especially since the University of California is not the first institution to emerge red-faced from a logo redesign -- of how colleges can get these changes right when they make them, and what to do after a furor over a symbol.

Brenda Foster, a partner at Greatest Creative Factor, which does branding for schools and colleges, said that she did not think the new logo was as bad as critics said. While it needed some work, she said, it "didn't deserve to be so resoundingly trashed." She said that, had the university done more outreach about why it was adding a new logo, some of the criticism might have been avoided.

Foster said that the California controversy was a reminder that "people strongly identify with the symbols and icons that represent their school." If an institution is planning a major change, even if there are good reasons to do so (from the perspective of those making the change), it is important to explain the reasons carefully, and in advance. "There is nothing more inflammatory than changing that symbol without smoothing the path," she said.

Peter Hahn, creative director of Widmeyer Communications, which works with many colleges, said he saw several lessons from the California situation. With regard to design, it's important to remember that "if it isn't broken, don't fix it."

Further, he said that if there are reasons to change a symbol that people care about, "evolution, not revolution" is the way to go. He compared the way people responded to the logo with the way one might react to meeting an old friend, suddenly "dressing in a completely different way, looking completely different." One would be surprised and wonder what was going on, he said.

"What they came up with was a huge departure from what was," he said.

Another lesson from the University of California, he said, was that when preparing to unveil a new symbol, one has to show it -- before launch -- to many, many people, if one wants to avoid the embarrassment of the kinds of comments ("it looks like a flushing toilet") that have been made about the now-abandoned logo.

"You can't test enough on these things -- test, test, test," he said. "A rigorous testing process would have revealed some of the way people reacted."

 

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