Disappearing Act: The New Logo(s) of the University of California

The recent move by the UC administration to float a new logo has been met with dismay, outrage, anger (and over 40,000 signatures on a petition protesting the new branding tool).  This news story does a fairly good job of summarizing where we are at the moment I am composing this: New simpler UC logo draws derision.  Naturally this has, in a few days, led to university representatives mounting a defense.  I will simply quote one rep, because his remarks capture perfectly what I most abhor and what I devote this blog post to.  Here is his statement: ““Its vagueness is its strength–anything more detailed would get in the way of the pastel and neon textures that animate the identity.” (Quoted in Aaron Bady, “Let Us Eat Cake”).  It is the very “disappearing” of “detail,” and the new dominance of “pastel and neon colors” that now “animate the identity” that I want to comment on.

Now, I understand that for a marketing department all that graphic detail might be a visual burden.  But the way the designers reached their final proposal for the logo is captured in the video they released, illustrating the “creative process,” and this “creative destruction” is arrogant, misguided, and plain stupid.   In it we see the elements of the old logo swept away and in their place–magic!!–a much abbreviated “sign” pops into view.  For example, the motto of the University, “Let There Be Light” (and in my day, it was the old-fashioned “Fiat Lux”–I am ready to accommodate some change), and the radiating star we find on the old logo are replaced in total with three diagonal stripes.

The dramatic sweeping away of the old logo and the radically reduced “metonymic substitution” really is provocative (in a bad way).  Do they really think “Let There Be Light” can be communicated by those lines?  Instead of illumination and enlightenment we find pastel and neon colors that deliver to us a marketing message (very poorly, I might add, but I get to that later): “Let There Be Branding!”

Now that substitution relies on the idea that people now and in the future would get the reference to that ethos.  But they won’t, and the fact that the marketing department produced this video indicates that indeed, an exegesis is in order.  What we are left with is an empty signifier that refers only to its attempt at meaning, based on the supposed literacy of potential donors.  It is indeed a stalled upload.  Why?  Because it has nothing to index the historical memory and the (hopefully) continued ethos and values of the University of California, nothing to signal to people that it gestures toward a legacy of academic greatness and striving.  And a community.  This, plus the hikes in tuition, repression of labor and faculty rights and authority, incursions into pension funds, hikes in administrative salaries, all signal the erosion of the academic mission of the university, and so, I would argue, it is all the more urgent to remind ourselves and teach others what UC stood for and might continue to stand for.

People like me are protesting because this act is a small but meaningful token of the way this administration has skewed public debate and manipulated its community by arguing that this financial crisis warrants unthoughtful decisions.  Or, correct that, “thoughtful” only according to a certain mindset.

Besides being stupid it is ultimately ineffective.  As Mark Fox, a graphic design professor at California College of the Arts quoted in the article above notes, “The visual language is generic, commercial and utterly forgettable,” he said. “It is a complete mismatch for the university’s history and reputation. (It) has no visual or conceptual gravitas.”  The article continues: “A good logo should be distinct and memorable, create positive associations, reflect well on the company and work easily and inexpensively in all media, he said. ‘The new UC logo, Fox said, ‘fails in most of the above criteria.'”

Of course, I know as well as anyone that UC is faced with huge reductions in federal support, the effects of the financial crisis on the state, and in general a rise in the cost of education.  But that does not warrant floating a vacuous and pathetic new logo.  If we need stronger marketing it does not mean we need to erase what UC actually stands for, or at least let that ethos take a back seat to a “flashy” blip.

I am not against a new logo–I am against this one for what it does not stand for, and all it does.