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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