Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Oh my alma mater!

Oh my alma mater!
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I (like many others it appears) gasped, upon viewing the new icon and signature for the Emily Carr University, here in Vancouver. In the past few days, the logo has been lambasted on sites like Under Consideration’s Brand New, and the nature of comments have at times eroded into being mean-spirited.

Needless to say, I find this somewhat disappointing. As designers, we’re supposed to be able to clearly and intelligently articulate our opinions. Nevertheless, somehow under the guise of anonymity, many are willing to present the weakest versions of their personalities by making remarks few of them would ever utter in public.

The web is seemingly a sanctuary for such types, who lurk away in the shadows and pretend to command some kind of authority. Please note that I in no way intend to discourage constructive discussion; that being said, it’s very difficult to be on the receiving end of such comments. A degree of civility in such criticisms certainly shouldn’t be too much to ask.

The people at Emily Carr are great

In writing this post, I find myself in a somewhat uncomfortable position. In fact, I’m rather “late to the party” on this discussion as a result of my reluctance to address it directly.

You see, I studied at Emily Carr in the 90s, and the people there put up with a great deal of silliness on my part. To my credit, I was 17 when I began there; still, I was a bit of a dolt, and they’ve never held that against me.

I’ve known Eva, Roxanne, and Sylvia for years. I’ve shared correspondence with Ron and he’s always been positive and highly encouraging. And Cari (the designer of the logo) is both a talented designer and a lovely person. I know she’s feeling the pressure of this criticism, and I encourage her to “grin and bear it” as these things do all pass. (Honestly–I didn’t sleep for a week when I received hate-mail for my 9 to 5 post a few years back.)

These are people I know, and I really like them. I grew a great deal during my time at Emily Carr, and I have nothing but fondness for the institution. Meanwhile, the instruction I received at the school was heavily weighted towards critical thinking. Not doing so in this instance would seem like a discredit to what they imbued upon me during my four years of “coffee fueled” group critiques.

A broken form

Regardless of intention, the icon and signature for Emily Carr University is a non-starter. While many will respond that this is a subjective matter, such a rebuttal would be better used in the context of fine-arts instead of design. An effective logo or wordmark is not solely based on aesthetic preference, and cannot be viewed through a “to each his/her own” lens. Certainly, there will always be personal preference in play when looking at a mark. That being said, certain practical guidelines help us measure the effectiveness of such an element.

Now, given the nature of this blog’s readership, I don’t think it’s necessary to complete a run-down of tenets that should be adhered to in creating a wordmark, icon, or combination of the two. That being said, certain obvious flaws exist in the new Emily Carr logo. Most importantly: it’s doing too much. The logo was built to be “organic” allowing the icon to be divorced from the wordmark, as time passes. Although theoretically possible, this is a very ambitious directive, almost doomed to failure from the outset. Drafting a single powerful form that can work well in an identity system is challenging enough, making it capable of adapting in the future is exponentially so.

While the previous logo was made a little awkward by its “jumping” letterforms, it had certain elements working in its favor. Limited contrast in the thick/thin of the stroke coupled with a relatively beefy line-weight made it adaptable at smaller sizes, even if that “Art + Design + Media” text was an awkward impediment. The width of the form nicely occupied the viewers field of vision, and the uppercase type and horizontal strokes lent stability to the form.

The new logo, however, is challenged by not better considering its limitations and potential usage. The name “Emily Carr University” is rather long, and therefore difficult to employ in small spaces. Adding “of art and design” simply complicates this matter. Given such concerns, a simple wordmark may have proven quite effective. Adding an icon invites too much visual noise, and using lowercase letterforms creates too many awkward “nooks and crannies” in the white-space of the form.

I’m sorry, I’m carrying on… (This is typically when my wife “glazes over” in our dinner-time discussions.)

What the committee must have loved handicaps the treatment

A greater issue however, is found in the icon, which intends to celebrate the school’s “vision, energy and innovation”. Now, I’ve worked on numerous marks and identities and as such, I believe I’ve developed the ability to sense a committee’s handiwork. Typically, we budget double on such projects, knowing the landmines present in these sorts of engagements. Logos are so terribly “exciting” that committee members all too often treat them as an opportunity to instill their individual creative visions, resulting in the worst kind of “too many chefs” scenario.

I can already see how this form delighted a committee. The rationalizations almost write themselves: “Here we have the moment of inception, the very beginning of the artist’s sketch… We connote the same gestural sensations present in the works of the school’s namesake, Emily Carr… We’re left with a circle: conclusive, holistic and part of the human condition…” (Okay, so the last one perhaps goes a little far, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find something of the sort in the identity documentation.)

Perhaps this is where the logo falls hardest. It aspires to such great heights, when it should have simply done the job; or, instead of trying to be architecture, the logo should have been a good brick. People tend to think of logos as identities, instead of as a single element in an identity. In this case, an icon was tasked with doing far too much heavy lifting, and sadly feels highly derivative of numerous logos–perhaps most notably that of Lucent. (This happens all too often with icons. It’s rare to create a mark that isn’t already in use in an existing logo.)

When looked upon from a different perspective, this general treatment could have worked. Consider if the “sketch” motif would have been considered more broadly, as the overall “glue” for the identity. As a result, we could have seen the sketch work itself through various applications and evolve as needed. It didn’t just have to be one “drawn” form, but rather a multitude of such forms. Unfortunately, by binding the icon to the wordmark as they’ve chosen to do here, there’s little room for the identity itself to flourish.

Paula Scher’s recent work for the New York Philharmonic is a good example of this. Personally, I dislike the mark she has created; nevertheless, upon closer examination, we find that the logo is simply one element in a system that works across a broad set of implementations.

What’s the big deal?

I fear that many at Emily Carr are somewhat shell-shocked by the negative reaction to their new logo. Some might even ask why so many are making such a fuss about a simple logo.

If Emily Carr were law firm, shipping company, or doughnut shop, very few of us would give this whole thing a second thought. As Massimo Vignelli remarks in the film Helvetica, “For us visual disease is what we have around and what we try to do is try to cure it somehow, you know, with design.” We’re inundated by designed pieces that do not work as they should, or were intended to. Most simply become part of the noise that we accept as unavoidable in modern-day world.

To the credit of those at Emily Carr, we can appreciate that they were likely working with very limited budgets. While the New York Philharmonic had the funds to contract Pentagram for the creation of their system, provincial funding has been cut drastically, leaving one in-house designer to work with a committee, which we can (quite safely) assume had divergent interests. (Who, in their right mind, wants to design for a room full of other designers?)

Nevertheless, what an institution like Emily Carr must possess (or at very least appear to possess) is a more sophisticated design sensibility than that held by the average design buyer. I don’t expect an accountant to be able to quantify the value of design, given its intangible nature; that being said, those of us who build our lives around design must understand and champion its importance.

The Emily Carr logo is a sticky point for me, as it casts a doubtful shadow on my otherwise fine education. This, in my opinion, is a critical concern for such an institution. This one generally standard element actually diminishes the value of the brand, given what they are. In comparing the approach taken here to that taken by RISD, the Cooper Union, or (my personal favorite) MICA, one is left with the sense that Emily Carr is a second-tier institution. That’s not an idea that I particularly like.

This situation forces us to ask: If those who educate us about design don’t value good design, why should anyone?

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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. Tim says:

    I think you are bang on money with your remark on a "committee's handiwork", and I posted a similar comment in defense of Cari Bird at "Brand New": It is very likely that the new logo is the result of a compromise between the internal factions of Emily Carr. I was part of a student group that had Cari's job at KHB in Berlin, and frankly, it was a very, very tiresome and frustrating due to school politics, and of course every department wanted to influence the outcome of the design process - horrible situation for a designer. The design department's head has to be firmly committed to support and defend the internal designer's decision and the disappointing result of the rebranding makes me doubt that this was the case here.

    I also agree with your last sentence - the logo is mediocre and Emily Carr is better than that.

  2. David Ronnie says:

    As a student currently attending Emily Carr, I was also a little disappointed that the students weren't engaged in any degree to help with the design of the logo. Surely, as students, we would have some worthwhile opinions on how we perceive the school (as well as how we perceived it coming in) to help form the identity. But more than that, I think it could have provided a fantastic opportunity for the students to get some "real world" experience. Not necessarily in the form of a "logo design contest" that someone referred to over on Brand New, but I think that there should've been *some* form of engagement above and beyond getting a couple students to animate the logo.

    While its already been established that the typography doesn't work, I think the wire-concept has interesting potential. As you mentioned with Paula Scher's work, the logo itself might not work completely in solo, but if its combined with a complete package that works WITH that logo, that changes things dramatically.

    I think if they took some time to extend this wire-concept a bit further as a branding notion for the entire school, it might have presented a more solid solution. And by this, I mean, a paint-palette formed out of wire for the painting program, an outlined letterform for communication design, etc. If they extended the wire metaphor throughout the entire package and had the "circle" as the all-encompassing mark, it would've been a way stronger mark. They still need to fix that typography though. Ugh.

  3. I'm sure this is the last thing you want to hear David, but pulling students into the mix would have been a disaster.

    I don't have anything against students, but including them would have added even more voices to the mix. (I once worked on a project with 17 different committee members, and I have to say: what an absolute cluster-fuck.)

    This is why you just make it easy and hire Pentagram... or for that matter smashLAB. ;-)

    The point is to get a few professionals at the table and let them do what they do. Design isn't about a collective love-fest or allowing everyone to say their piece. It's about what gets the job done.

  4. David Ronnie says:

    Eric, I thought about that but, even if they aren't necessarily ON the design team, do you not think there would be some value in student input at least in initial research stages?

    I agree completely with you by the way. I've had my own share of dealing with design by committee (never 17 though, yeesh!) as I'm more of a self-taught-been-working-and-now-returning student so I know your pain. I guess it just feels like another example of the school missing an opportunity to engage the students and let us actively participate in making the school a little bit more "ours".

    Although, this tends to be a bit of a long-standing beef of mine, so I'll let you decide how biased my opinions are.

  5. Zinni says:

    >> I don't have anything against students, but including them would have added even more voices to the mix. (I once worked on a project with 17 different committee members, and I have to say: what an absolute cluster-fuck.) <<

    AMEN!

    Working at a firm that is specifically works with associations has definitely taught me this lesson. There is not an initiative or project that happens without a committee and then the last second jump-in from the CEO.

    I don't want to bask on David's enthusiasm, but it seems like every time the rebrand of an art school happens we hear comments about how the students could have done it (and possibly better). The truth, as Eric has stated, is that this is a horrible idea. When dealing with such an organic and constantly changing organization such as a school the only way you can ever hope to rebrand it is if someone with outside perspective does it.

    There are times when you are just too close to the project to objectively approach it.

  6. David, I think the challenge comes down to the size of the student body, and the misconception that a good design team couldn't come to a reasonable understanding of the nature of the school.

    First off, opening this sort of thing up to the student body is a logistical nightmare. Do you just ask the design students? That will really piss-off the sculpture students. Do you ask foundation students, or the entire student body? Part-time? Full-time? Outreach students? Do you bring in alumni? How do you coordinate all of this? What are we asking them? Is this about aesthetic sensibility or to gain an understanding about the culture of the group? And is their perspective overly limited as they’re too close to the whole thing? (Heaven knows that our perspective is skewed when we’re in the middle of an experience like that.)

    The reality is that most competent design firms are relatively adept at gaining an understanding of the nature of the organization through some discussions and research. I've worked on brands where we've interviewed hundreds of people, and I can say without any hesitation that this has left us no more informed than when we've spoken with a few key stakeholders and gained a clear understanding of their challenges. Plus, it’s not as though we’re talking about branding a new technology that no one has ever used. (Most designers have a pretty keen memory of the general “art school” experience.)

  7. David Ronnie says:

    Fair enough Eric, I retract my previous statements. :)

  8. Josh says:

    I guess my main question would be is why ECU needed to rebrand at this time. What was the purpose? Was there a drop in enrollment or attracting competent teachers? Sure the mark could have been done a million different ways, but what was the reasoning behind it seems to be the more valid question at this point.

    Secondly...

    Sorry David, but I agree with the maestro and alumnist as well. Even when something as prestigious as branding the school is not involved, often contracting students for even internal advertising help is not the best solution.

    I remember our GD2 class back in school was asked to do a poster for a graduate program regarding some sort of technology. I'm sure I can find it somewhere. This wasn't a giant committee project, but despite the efforts of some students creating vision for the program, the end result was a structurally sound comp, but cliched solution that really had no effect on building interest in the program.

    That said though I'm a huge supporter of design education and not really so far removed that I don't understand the mentality and sentiment, an outside perspective is always the best and they have the experience to deal with the decision makers that students aren't prepared to in a professional sense.

  9. Roxanne T says:

    @Josh

    To answer your question, we had to rebrand as we received a status change from Institute to University in April 2008. You can view the full details here:

    http://www.ecuad.ca/homeu.html

  10. John says:

    Eric, I think that your writing may improve if you make a conscious effort not to repeat certain phrases. For instance, you used "that being said" four times in this post, and three of them are very close together. "Nevertheless", which functions roughly the same way, appears three times. It's easy to do this when writing and not notice it. Just something to look out for.

  11. @John - It's annoying to read a long list of interesting responses, and then land on your BS.

    I thought an institution such as Emily Carr would have taken the necessary steps to immunize themselves from a "design by committee" result. Unfortunately, it seems like even an Art & Design University is still vulnerable. Too bad. I'm sure Cari is a very competent designer, but competence is no match against an avalanche of competing creative input. They should have exercised due diligence and hired an independent firm.

  12. Pingback: Scribbling « Sam Dal Monte’s blog

  13. I had just seen the new ECUAD logo for the first time, when I ran across a similar logo of an art museum which uses a coil (can't find it now). I think the coil of light in the animation is stronger than the static wire coil. But that concept could have been pushed further.

    As for the discussion, I agree, the anonymity on the web apparently gives people license to be nasty, to the point where it's rarely worth engaging in a conversation.

    There must be places on the web where some etiquette of frank but respectful discussion is observed.

  14. Bartosz Bos says:

    Design By Committee is the New Black.
    Actually, come to think of it, I remember seeing a description for a new course called; Design by Committee. or Collaborative Systems in Design or something like that.
    Sigh....

  15. I'm a bit late to this party but it strikes me that the issue isn't as much the Emily Carr logo but the type of community discussion surrounding its critique.

    For a long time design criticism has been firmly in the realm of the likes of Steven Heller. However with the introduction of the internet into the critical process anyone can be a critic in the same way that anyone with a copy of Photoshop can call themselves a designer. Now I'm all for self taught designers, but we're a the point where its impossible for form commenters to establish authority on a subject.

    Due to this self publishing trend criticism is frequently degraded to subjective discussions about aesthetics. While many of us understand criticism from a functional standpoint, we are not the ones who's opinion is being heard.

    It seems to me that the first step is educating our peers in the industry. I cringe when clients are asked if they "like" something, yet I rarely step in when other designers express their opinions in the form of "like" or "dislike" even though we of all people should know better.

    Unfortunately, I don't believe that the general public will ever come to truly value design until we as a community can get together and critique objects based solutions instead of aesthetics.

  16. Joshua Lopez says:

    @Clayton

    lol thanks for the laugh I agree with you completely.

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