Steven Heller’s Evolution: On University Logos and Seals

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From EVOLUTION: Clubbing Seals in the April 2013 issue of Print Magazine. Get the full issue here and read this column plus the 2013 New Visual Artists, a brand new column “Ask Jennifer,” and so much more.

On university logos and seals, and the difference between the two.

Last year, design critics of all stripes came together to find fault in the University of California’s new logo, introduced by UC’s in-house design team in late 2011. But the widespread derision was fueled by a misunderstanding. Critics assumed that the logo was replacing UC’s 1868 Victorian seal. In fact, the university had always planned to continue using the seal on diplomas and official correspondence. The logo was meant as a complement, something “more visually contemporary and versatile” that would, unlike the seal, reproduce well at small sizes on the Internet.

This is nothing new. A seal is a heraldic mark that, historically, has been used to validate documents and decrees issued by royals, nobles, or clerics. A modern logo, conversely, is a mark that represents—through imagery, letter, or word—an institution’s quotidian identity. Although a seal can be part of an identity system, logos have a look quite distinct from seals, which are inherently more conservative.

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Europe’s first university—the Università degli Studi di Bologna, founded in 1088—presumably had the first university seal. It was round, like a coin or a medallion, and imprinted with ecclesiastic symbols. When the Università decided in 2002 to transform its seal into a logo, it retained many of these symbolic features; the history of such an august institution demanded that the logo designer stick close to the original.

History and tradition govern the look of many contemporary academic seals. Take the one that the University of Denver has used for more than 65 years. It incorporates imagery emblematic of UD’s heritage and, according to an online description, “speaks to the University’s longevity.” But the same statement cautions that “The seal is not to be used on University-wide or department-specific marketing materials, collateral or letterhead. Because it does not speak to the University’s current values, mission or aspirations, it does not convey identity effectively.” For that purpose, there is a UD logo, an abstract D combined with type spelling out the school’s name.

Some schools have dared to sideline their seals almost entirely in favor of contemporary marks. Carnegie Mellon University retains a seal that appears on its diplomas, but its primary identity element is a wordmark of the university’s name. And most art schools do not have classic seals at all, which permits them more branding flexibility. The Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD), for instance, employs an identity created in 2011 by Bruce Mau Design. Inspired by OCAD’s trademark Will Alsop building, it uses a black-and-white frame to contain a movable display of actual student art and design work.

But this kind of thing is the exception. More often, when it comes to university identities, there are two parallel tracks: university seals, which evolve quite slowly; and contemporary logos or wordmarks, which must reflect a school’s traditions while hinting at its future (and looking decent on the Internet). As for whether the UC logo marks a fundamental transition in university seals, remember—it’s not a seal, it’s a logo. In any case, last December, a year after the logo’s launch, the University of California decided to suspend its use.

From EVOLUTION: Clubbing Seals in the April 2013 issue of Print Magazine. Get the full issue here and read this column plus the 2013 New Visual Artists, a brand new column “Ask Jennifer,” and so much more.

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →

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