University Blues: The Challenges of Crafting Identities for Higher Education
Editor’s Note: The following article by Sagi Haviv builds on his HOW Design Live 2016 keynote, which addressed the trials he and other designers face when faced when crafting new identity designs for beloved brands.
As identity designers, we have avoided focusing on any single industry or type of organization. This keeps it interesting for us, so we are constantly learning new things (or as Ivan Chermayeff always says, we get to go to school without paying tuition). More importantly, however, this way we can bring fresh eyes and perspective to every project.
Still, we’ve become something of an accidental expert in one particular field: higher education. Since the firm created the famous torch for New York University in 1969, numerous high-profile universities have come to us to solve their identity needs, such as Cornell, Brown, and others.
And while each of these identity designs has an interesting challenge behind it, they were adopted and embraced by their audiences without a hitch.
In recent years, however, the environment for university identity design work has become more fraught. University economics have changed dramatically: the cost of tuition has skyrocketed, and the majority of graduates leave with tremendous debt loads. Students worry about any change in the perceived prestige of their university, and alumni might threaten to withhold donations. These student and alumni voices are more easily amplified, due to social media.
On the other hand, the increased competition between universities, as well as the widely publicized ranking systems, puts pressure on administrators to make dramatic and public improvements. The visual identity of a university—which appears everywhere from signage to diploma, from apparel to sports teams—is the most public and dramatic change a university can make.
It’s a pressure cooker environment.
Our first encounter with this new world was our project for Middlebury College in 2006. Working with a terrific team from the University, we followed the same process we take with every institution or company: We always start by speaking with key people, in this case from the university administration as well as with students, faculty and alumni.
We came up with an unusual design for the university, one we believed in wholeheartedly: a maple leaf—indigenous to the Middlebury landscape—formed by three letter M’s. We presented it as a seal, with the words “Middlebury College” around the graphic. When we presented it to the president’s staff, they preferred an alternate version—perhaps less collegiate—in which the mark is bolder and has more visual impact.
Two days after the University announced the new identity, we received a call telling us that they were worried because there was a petition on something called Facebook in which more than 750 students were protesting the new identity. We shrugged it off and offered our experience that although an identity change can prompt trepidation and hesitations in the beginning, these tend to fade away after a little while.
However, we underestimated two important factors: first was that social media can broadcast the voices of any student or alum who is discontented with the new logo. The other factor was the very limited political capital that the Middlebury president at the time had to withstand the firestorm. In fact, it was so little that the president announced shortly thereafter that the college was abandoning the new identity. Needless to say, we were heartbroken.
Middlebury still adopted the wordmark we designed, which has been in place on its own until recently, when the university began using a more traditional mark to accompany it.
We suddenly realized that, for universities, you could do everything right, follow the correct process, create a beautiful design that solves the problem perfectly, announce the new identity through the official channels—and still somehow trigger a negative reaction. How could that be?
The launch is everything
The answer to this question may be found in a more recent project with the University of New Hampshire. The environment is arguably even more charged in the case of a public institution—meaning that every taxpayer is a constituent and therefore has a say. State legislators across the country are cutting down budgets, meaning that universities are pressed to recruit more out-of-state students who pay higher tuition rates.
The University of New Hampshire had a classic, somewhat clichéd image of the top of the University chapel’s steeple, which to us looked a bit like a witch hat. And although no one we spoke with—students, alumni, or faculty—professed any love or even liking for the witch hat design, as soon as we presented new design options, outrage erupted on political blogs and social media:
In this case, in the face of the public outcry, an agile and talented university communications team quickly regrouped and appointed a committee to judge the designs (including designs submitted by the public). Once the committee picked a design (which happened to be ours), the university communications team devised a brilliant plan to introduce and build a consensus around the new logo.
During the half-time in a high-profile hockey match, thousands of t-shirts with the new logo on them were thrown into the crowd, creating an event around the new identity.
They videotaped this carefully orchestrated pep rally, and overnight created a short video splicing in comments from students and alumni praising the new logo. By morning, the upbeat video was available on YouTube for everyone—no one was interested in challenging the happy faces and screaming fans.
It takes time
Trouble with changing a university identity isn’t exclusive to the US. In 2014 we created a comprehensive identity program for the largest private university in Mexico, Tecnológico de Monterrey, which boasts 31 campuses and over 100,000 students.
At first approach, we were shocked to see a complicated and illustrative—even cartoonish—mark for such a distinguished institution. But it turns out that people LOVED it: it has symbolized their university for over 70 years.
In a survey, we asked people what they thought to be the most important element in the seal, and the majority of respondents said that the torch was the most important. So we designed a simple mark featuring an Olympic-style torch in a blue circle—representing the world. We recommended that the university maintain the unchanged, traditional seal for official, ceremonial purposes and use the new simpler “everyday” mark for everything else. The new everyday mark resonated with the administration, who wanted to emphasize the global reach of the institution and also the values of achievement and leadership.
However, no matter how convinced the president and his staff were of the validity and merit of the new identity, once it hit the streets, an uproar ensued on social media, with over 52 million unique mentions, mostly negative. As it turned out, the president—who is a true visionary—had been instating radical changes to curricula, staffing, classrooms and other foundational aspects of the institution. This disruption had caused resistance within the faculty and others, and the new logo became a symbol in that struggle. Even worse, there was a widespread misunderstanding that the seal was being retired for good. The week of the launch, the local paper in Monterrey featured on its cover this terrific illustration capturing the sentiment:
One of the most popular derogatory critiques aimed at the identity on social media was that “the university adopted its own subway icons.” When we looked into the meaning of this statement, we realized this was a reference to the Mexico City subway system, which features a simple, distinctive icon for each of its stations. This subway identification system was designed by the very excellent Lance Wyman, who is also responsible for the iconic identity of the Mexico ’68 Olympics. Needless to say, we did not take this comparison as the insult it was meant!
Over time, however, once the hoopla subsided, we heard that many changed their minds and even communicated to the university over social media their newfound respect for the identity. It reaffirmed the counsel we offered to the president at the height of the scandal: if you’re able to weather the storm, it will pass, and people will come around.
Institutional versus commercial
The university or college we choose to attend occupies a special place for individuals. Much like the military service or the church one attends, the institution brands us for life—shaping life decisions, the image we project to the world about our capabilities, our sense of worth, and indeed our sense of identity. No wonder then that we are sensitive to the way the identity of that institution is treated.
Additionally, it seems that many of the issues surrounding the branding of universities stem from the perceived treatment of those venerable institutions as consumer products, as the word “branding” suggests. The clash between the way we would like to think of these institutions, as venerable shrines of knowledge, and the perceived treatment of them as consumer products—that clash is responsible in large part for the emotional and often explosive reactions that now have an amplified reach on social media.
A very recent project—just launched—serves to illustrate this point. An online higher education platform with over 10 million users, Course Hero, came to us for a revised identity in 2015. We Created a simplified shield that looks like an open book with a five-point star in the center, connoting achievement.
Course Hero is an unabashedly commercial entity and its products are understood as instrumental. The students rely on Course Hero to improve their grades and course performance, and they even credit it as saving them in crunch times; however, while they are grateful for and even loyal to the service, they do not self-identify with the brand. This distinction is essential: Course Hero is a tool, not an Alma Mater. And so the new identity has been received and embraced by the student population without a hitch.
You could say it boils down to this: with a commercial entity, getting a design approved is much easier than it is for a university—you only have to convince one person or at most a small group. In the case of a university, there are tens of thousands of people to win over. But universities deserve good design too, and we’re up for the challenge.
Learn more about how to overcome the challenges of identity design with HOW Design University’s Certificate in Branding. In this Certificate, not only will you master the branding process, but you will also learn how to talk to clients about branding and how to position yourself as a expert in identity design.