In Defense of the New UC Logo

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So. As you have probably heard, because I and approximately one bajillion other journalists have reported on it, the University of California has a new logo. Some people have not taken too kindly this. You probably haven't taken to kindly to it. But guys: Calm down. Take a deep breath. Don't panic. It's not that bad.

I should probably start by saying that I'm neither monster with a heart of lead nor an undercover Stanford fan. I grew up in Berkeley with parents who both worked on campus; they, the vast majority of my extended family, and many of my friends went to UC schools. I rappelled down the face of Wheeler Hall as part of a Cal Day activity when I was eight, took classes in Tollman as a high-school student, went to ill-fated frat parties and wrote for the Daily Cal during my summers home from college. When I think about my childhood, I think about eucalyptus trees, the Bancroft library, Yogurt Park, Tightwad Hill. I have never given money to my actual alma mater (no matter how many times it begs me to!), but I donate annually to UC Berkeley. The University of California is an institution that I value more than almost any other. And: Somehow, I do not think the new logo is a poorly designed abomination that indelibly cheapens the University and/or looks like a toilet.

When I spoke to Steve Monteil, media relations director for the University of California Office of the President, on Sunday, he seemed genuinely surprised at all the internet hate. "It's all in the eye of the beholder," he told me, which is certainly true. I personally like the meaning behind the new logo; I like that it's bright and modern-looking. (I realize this may cause you to never trust my judgment again, but the point is, it's a matter of opinion — and, for what it's worth, Monteil also mentioned that the award has gotten good reviews from various design publications.) But aesthetics aside, there are other, better, less subjective reasons to — well, if not like the new logo, at least not be enraged by it.

As the university has noted, the new logo will not be replacing the traditional seal. I repeat for emphasis, because everybody from Salon to Twitter has gotten it wrong: Nobody's diploma is going to come with the new logo. It is not going to be embossed on the President's stationery. It's doubtful it'll even ever make it onto a sweatshirt. The new logo is but one of many visual tools in the university's arsenal; in fact, were it not for this particular kerfluffle, you might not even noticed it — after all, there's a reason the new logo's been in use for weeks and people are only pissed about it now.

And as UC officials have also noted, the old logo — while, yes, wonderful and distinguished and elegant; no disagreement on that front — has some flaws (even if non-design-y-type people may not notice them). It looks terrible small, for example. It's not customizable, either; if, for example, UCLA wants to modify the seal using its particular colors, or a campus LGBT group wants to incorporate a rainbow into it, they're largely out of luck. And finally, by virtue of its wonderfulness/distinguishedness/elegance, it's just not always appropriate in lighthearted contexts. The new logo's virtue is that it's nimble and simple and scalable — not that it's as attractive as, or, really, any kind of improvement on, the seal.

The most trenchant critique I've heard of the new logo is that it's corporate, that it reeks of branding. And, yes, that's entirely true. It does look corporate. The university has openly acknowledged that this is part of a concerted branding effort, and that it commissioned a team of designers (in-house, BTW) to work on it. But the problem with this argument is its underlying assumptions: first, that looking corporate is the same thing as being corporate, and second, that the University of California is somehow above branding, that giving a fuck about marketing somehow distracts from its mission.

Here's the thing: Colleges and universities, particularly private ones, spend millions of dollars a year on branding. They have whole offices devoted to it. Because that's what they need to do to stay competitive. With UC facing a truly unprecedented budget crisis, if this is what it needs to do to keep up — in a fight for students, for talent, for resources; in a fight where it's being outgunned and outspent at every turn by private colleges; in a fight that's looking increasingly unwinnable, considering the state of California has decreased its financial commitment to the university by a whopping 60 percent since the Nineties — well, I'm all for it. And anyone who cares enough about the University to be truly incensed by a logo should be too.

Full disclosure: My mom is a high-ranking administrator in the Office of the President. I promise she didn't pay me to write this.

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