California dreaming: lessons learned from a logo redesign wipeout

2012 Dec 21
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There’s been a huge ruckus in recent weeks over the launch of a new logo by the University of California system.  The mark has been variously described as looking like a flushing toilet, a Swedish cake roll, and a washing machine label.  On Friday, December 14, the University officially responded to the backlash by suspending the use of the new identity.

So I’m going to weigh in, first posting my bona fides;

— I have worked with a number of higher ed institutions that have successfully launched a new institutional identity (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Northern Arizona University, Ohio University, University of Miami, University of Sydney, University of Texas at Arlington).

— I am a graduate of the University of California at Santa Cruz.

— My opinion of the new identity was solicited (randomly, I’m sure) in an online survey before the logo was launched.

— I grew up a surfer (the relevance of this will become apparent later—trust me).

When the new identity was launched, Fastcodesign applauded its ability to bring “surfer charm” to the University’s identity.  Let’s compare associations:

University vs. Surfing

Great research—Waiting for the outside set

First-class education—Adding “cowabunga” to the popular lexicon

Community service—No bogarting

Economic development—$1 tacos

Hope for the future—Hope that the landlord doesn’t up the rent


The uproar has been out of scale to the identity mark itself, perhaps because the University launched the new identity with an introductory video that showed them physically sweeping aside the seal in preference for the new streamlined mark. This approach really riled the masses: just sweep away the old mark that’s on my diploma and drop in its place a symbol that will look about as relevant in ten years as Justin Bieber’s haircut. In fairness, the University did conduct research with alumni that must have shown a positive response—as I said earlier, I was one of the alumni asked, and provided a negative assessment.  In addition, the University seemed to have overlooked constituency-building conversations internally that would have 1) let them know that they had big trouble with the direction they were heading, and 2) allowed them to build a case for inclusiveness, generate internal enthusiasm, identify spokespeople, and the like.  With these factors in play, it’s no surprise that the petition to withdraw the new mark gained more than 50,000 signatures before the University officially retired it.

Unfortunately, it appears the University also overlooked a key factor while scheduling the launch of the new logo:  the possibility that it may stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy in the middle of the most important month in the annual fund season.  Donors and prospects—who typically have a soft spot in their hearts for student callers—are now more likely to pose pointed, nasty, and belligerent questions in regards to how the University is spending its money.

We believe that an identity transition should be done with the Hippocratic oath in mind: “first, do no harm.”  This requires an acknowledgement that the identity has elements that are going to be seen as sacred or untouchable to many people, and demands that you go about the process methodically and openly.  Or your great new solution will be effluvia.

A successful identity launch starts with a definition of intent: What do we want the new identity to do? What characteristics or attributes do we want it to communicate?

After that there are a lot of questions about usage: In what environments will the identity be used? How will the mark relate to the institutional name?  How will the mark relate to other institutional symbols (the seal, the athletic identity, etc.)

Then there is the question of givens: What, if anything, from the old identity must be kept? What are the criteria by which a successful identity will be judged?

And, finally, the question of stakeholders: Whose input do we need to gather as the process moves forward? How do we accommodate and adapt to that input?

From there, the ideal path is to generate a creative brief, share that creative brief with key decision-makers and stakeholder representatives, revise it based on their input, and begin to develop a “spectrum” of possible solutions, including an examination of all symbols, icons, or visual cues that are associated with the institution.

Following the all-encompassing work of actually designing the identity, institutions must develop a strategic plan for roll-out of the new mark. There are the obvious changes to stationery, directional signage, and recruitment materials, but there are less obvious changes that prove to be a challenge. This is where a well thought out public relations plan comes into play. Are there internal champions who will assist in introducing the new identity internally? What is the appropriate time to launch the new identity publicly? How will the University respond if there is backlash?

Yes, the University of California “ate the big one”—to borrow some surfer slang.  But there are lessons for the rest of us in their wipeout: a new identity—like any rebranding project—requires robust research, flexible strategy, consensus building, stakeholder evangelism, and a public launch plan.  It’s very possible that UC worked through many of these stages, and it’s definitely true that the mark itself does not deserve the level of criticism it received, but it’s hard to believe that a true consensus-building process was followed, else why has nobody spoken up in defense of California casual?

-Rob Moore, CEO

Learn more about Lipman Hearne’s Creative Services practice as well as our higher education expertise at the Lipman Hearne website.

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