UC logo

Having shared some very snarky jibes on a UC listserv about the new UC ‘logo’  that Mark deplores, I’m now feeling some remorse.  As a piece of graphic design, I think it’s not a success on its own or for its purpose. But it’s not a replacement for the seal, in fact the designer says “our goals were two-fold: first, to reinstate the systemwide seal’s authority and gravitas after years of casual, indiscriminate use; and second, to create a coherent identity that would help us tell the UC story in an authentic, distinctive, memorable and thoughtful way” and these are not silly or trivial objectives.  And as an erstwhile architect and current designer of non-physical environments, I am sensitive to the long, sad history of people who should know better lambasting new stuff–from the Eiffel Tower, that was universally despised for its first forty years, to Wagner’s music and Bird’s (maybe Byrd’s, too, back in the day), to the Nude Descending a Staircase–by making fun of it because it’s easier than making a fair effort to engage, and because dissing something gives you a quick hit of feeling superior and sophisticated.

As a mea culpa, here are some serious comments about the project and the design.   First, a logo is not a seal, and a seal is not a coat of arms. A logo is a symbol in between school colors and arms/seal.  As it happens, the University of California has no arms, a graphic device originally intended to make a knight quickly identifiable in a chaotic battle by illiterates, so we’ve been using the fairly undistinguished seal instead, and Corréa is right to try to find something better suited. Each campus has its own colors, most observing heraldic rules about not putting a metal (gold and silver, usually indicated by yellow and white) against a metal or a color on a color  It’s not clear why a university should have something so martial as a shield as a symbol, but many do and some, like Harvard’s, are such recognizable, relevant, and simple constructions that they serve as logos.  (Most are an impossible jumble; google “university coat of arms” for pages of fussy, complicated, historicist claptrap.)

The current effort at UC went off the rails  by trying half-heartedly to recall a shield; depending on the letters UC which aren’t unique and almost always a weak graphic crutch; and reaching into the seal for its least distinctive symbol of learning (the obsolescent book) and then trying to recall it by giving the U a little Paul Ryan widow’s peak. (There’s a Vimeo that explains some of this design process here. Apparently they also extracted a pattern of diagonal blue and white stripes to go with it but it’s not clear how these are supposed to be used.)  I ridiculed the result as a C dissolving at the bottom of test tube, which is unfair, but that I could do it I think indicates that its associations and symbology are confused. Graphic design is a subtle business: I think the C stumbles because if your eye follows it the way you write it (counterclockwise), it fades away instead of leaping brilliantly into the sky.

It’s not easy to generate a logo for something as complicated as a university system.  Trying to use initials in some new typography, like a monogram, worked for IBM when Paul Rand did it, but especially as our initials aren’t unique, it looks to me like a blind alley.  Each UC campus has an animal mascot, from Berkeley’s bear to UCLA’s bruin (is that different?) to Santa Cruz’ immortal banana slug, so the bear paw that actually serves pretty well for Berkeley and recalls the state flag, isn’t appropriate.  This is too bad, because bears are smart, fast, and strong.  An owl would be nice, but it’s been done.

The logo is not likely to have a lot of use in competition with campus-specific logos or symbols (I think our Berkeley letterhead would be smashing with the bear paw).  If the president’s office would abandon the idea of giving this enormous conglomerate of free-standing institutions a “comprehensive visual identity”, for example not requiring all letterhead and the like on all campuses to use a single UC graphic (as of now we’re required to use the seal), and let ten flowers bloom, a simplified distillation of the seal’s book and star would work fine for the university as a whole.  So would something completely new: it’s hard to show light (from the motto) in an original way (candle, sun, radiating lines, yawn) but (for example) a Fresnel diffraction pattern of fuzzy concentric circles, something only light makes and that illustrates its real wave/particle nature, is simple, distinctive and timeless.

I hope they take another crack at this, especially if they (the president’s office) have the idea of making everyone use it the way they flog the current seal. They may have the idea that each campus can elaborate it, or use it in its own colors, which is not crazy if we get the logo right in the first place.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

14 thoughts on “UC logo”

  1. One of the confounders of UC is the University of Cincinnati, where my wife teaches. For me, UC will forever and always mean the University of California system (Berkeley being either Cal or, well… Berkeley). So, I have to be careful not to use UC when I’m in oHIo, because everyone immediately assumes I mean Cincinnati.

    And as to a bearpaw looking great on a letterhead, Michael, be careful what you wish for. I’ve seen Cincinnati’s bearpaw logo (their mascot is the bearcat, whatever that might be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cincinnati_Bearcats). It’s almost as good as New Mexico State’s misadventure with Lasso Larry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Mexico_State_Aggies), when they tried to get away from the ubiquitous Pistol Pete (who was shared with Wyoming, and Oklahoma State and probably others I don’t know about).

    1. I grew up near Cincinatti and indeed knew the basketball coach for the Bearcats, and I must say never understood why they had this mascot. A bearcat is a binturong, an odd smelling civet-like creature which is native to Viet Nam and Indonesia. I doubt it ever existed in or around Ohio.

      If it’s metaphorical, when people say “Bearcat” in the appalachia region, it is usually negative, like “I am having trouble getting the radiator hose fixed, it’s a real bearcat” — doesn’t sound like something you’d want as a mascot.

    2. re: UC vs UC. There is also USC vs USC. Talking to a Clemson alum, I mentioned I had a degree from USC – the one is Los Angeles, not the one is South Carolina. His response: “Oh, the REAL USC.”

  2. I have no problem whatsoever with the creation of a logo (apart from some concerns about where the administration, which I regard as bloated, is putting its time and money), and I don’t confuse a logo with a seal – though I think this difference can be overblown, that with modern printing technology a version of the seal can be used in many places. And I understand that good graphic design is not easy.

    All that being said, this really is one of the worst designs I’ve ever seen. I recognize that the “Disappearing C” was not the message they wanted – but it was the message they got. And, as you point out, even if the viewer correctly discerns the U-C idea (which I’d say is far from certain, especially with the “U” so unnaturally tall), there’s nothing there to inform the viewer they’re not looking at the new symbol of the Universities of Chicago, Colorado, or Connecticut, or doubtless others I’ve failed to consider.

    As you say, some of the obvious mascot-based options aren’t available, because different campuses use different bears, or banana slugs, aardvarks, etcerera. But there’s the outline of California, and doubtless other options. Leaving room for each campus to add their own symbol, as you suggest, might work quite well.

    Or they could just go for something extremely simple and dignified. But a C dissolving in a test tube isn’t it.

    1. You know, an outline of California, with a little red star where the relevant branch is located, would be a nice-enough logo, and it might teach some geography to boot. What’s not to like? There could, I suppose, be a blue star, slightly larger, to show UCOP in Oakland. Or not.

      Otherwise, I agree that this new logo is not a change in the right direction. They should just try it again (or quit). There is no shame in trying again. And I doubt anyone thought they’d nailed it with the large, Unilever-y testtube. It is okay to make mistakes, but let’s not dig in on them.

  3. Indiana University did something similar about (I am surprised to recall) 10 years age (here’s a link to a discussion of the whys and wherefores: http://visualidentity.iu.edu/index.shtml). IU has 8 campuses, and, although they are not as independent of the central authority as in California, the campuses do operate without all that much central control. Whether the effort to present a unified image has been successful, I’m not altogether sure, but I will say that the primaty logo seems to me a much stronger design that the one we’ve seen here. (As implemented, the individual campus identifiers tend to be below the basic IU logo.)

  4. Just for the record, I think the Parisians had it right the first time: the Tour d’Eiffel is a blot on the Paris skyline. The fact that it’s now iconic for “Paris” doesn’t make it any less ugly. If they’d built it in Youngstown, no one would visit Youngstown to see it.

  5. “these are not silly or trivial objectives”.

    Don’t get two worked up. What the designer was saying about ‘authority and gravitas’ and telling a ‘story’ is the usual rubbish you hear from the Marketing people no matter how demented their product.

  6. The oddity is, in an organization with plenty of talent (arts faculty and students), not to have a design competition–first prize being that your design gets selected. I’ll bet that a competition restricted to undergrads, with a faculty jury, would produce many good designs. Such bottom-up approaches do not seem to be UCOP’s style.

    1. You are making the unwarranted assumption that the UCOP is aware that they have undergraduates studying visual arts. (Actually, in fairness, under the Donahoe Act, the UC campuses were to be strong in academic arts [Art History, Music Theory, Ethnomusicology and the like] and the Cal State campuses strong in the creative arts. This explains why Long Beach State and CSU Northridge both had much stronger music programs than UCLA, Irvine or Riverside when I was an undergrad.)


  7. (Yes… I know that the seal isn’t being done away with, but the new “modern logo” is horrible. It’s served just fine on media and is completely recognizable.)


    It’s making me more angry by the moment! I understand the reasoning behind having a “new, fresh, unified” logo. This logo is certainly new. It’s also horrible. It looks like a “loading” icon; as in it is only half-finished.

    It Is just plain bad, and I am truly saddened that this was the choice that was made.

    I have three degrees from the UC system: BA, MA and PhD; and this logo looks like something my daughter would come up with while drawing with her crayons. What’s the message? What’s the vision? Seriously! An unrecognizable “U” and a half-written “c” that prints BADLY in black and white? Common. Seriously UC admin… you can do better.

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