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Design Within Retch: The University of California Thinks We're Too Dumb to Appreciate its Logo 

Wednesday, Dec 4 2013

The benchmark for disastrously unpopular product launches may be the Ford Edsel or it may be New Coke. Last year, however, the University of California system vaulted its own entry into this hall of shame, unveiling a logo akin to an Edsel with a case of New Coke in the trunk.

Reactions to the logo were mixed: People couldn't decide whether it more resembled a cat's ass or an unflushed commode. It was, as SF Weekly wrote last year, "a cheaper, crappier logo for our cheaper, crappier times." When the people — read: rich alums — speak, UC listens. Even more so when the people fulminate. The logo was repurposed to the circular file, and there was much rejoicing.

But not from everyone. The American Institute of Graphic Arts last month published a case study produced by a team of UC marketing apparatchiks. That 1,600-word missive explained how, in reality, the abortive UC logo was a smashing success. "We walked away from the logo itself in part because we knew that our broader communications strategy and the other elements of the visual identity system could advance without it," reads an excerpt. "Being able to move on with other elements of our work and the rest of the visual system is actually a tribute to the symbol's success and our overall strategy."

The petitions, the rancor, the passionate disdain: Perhaps those could be a tribute to a successful strategy as well.

In fact, that argument has been made. During the October AIGA gathering in Minneapolis, two of the logo's designers headlined a presentation titled "The UC Logo Controversy: How 54,000 People, the Mainstream Press and Virtually Every Designer Got it Wrong." (Incidentally, a concurrent discussion in a different room was called "A Parallel Universe of Unconventional Thinking").

Much as gatherings of film professionals may bemoan the general public's ineptitude in rejecting such cinematic offerings as Ishtar or Heaven's Gate, so, too, did the AIGA's jury lament the demise of the abortive UC logo. Among its comments: "It exudes optimism and breathes vitality and purpose into the visually beleaguered university system" ... "One of the best briefs that we saw in the competition" ... "Game changer. Moved the needle. Inspirational. A smart and progressive identity program that got lost in media hysteria based on misinformation and false narrative." (Italics very much theirs.)

Apparently, we all got it wrong. Every one of us. But that's okay. The University of California is willing to accept our apology.

"At UC, we believe we've built a solid, strategic brand foundation that is much more than any one symbol," reads its case study. "So, in typical California spirit, we're moving onward."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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