Design Within Retch: The University of California Thinks We're Too Dumb to Appreciate its Logo

The benchmark for disastrously unpopular product launches may be the Ford Edsel or it may be New Coke. Last year, however, the University of California system vaulted its own entry into this hall of shame, unveiling a logo akin to an Edsel with a case of New Coke in the trunk.

Reactions to the logo were mixed: People couldn't decide whether it more resembled a cat's ass or an unflushed commode. It was, as SF Weekly wrote last year, "a cheaper, crappier logo for our cheaper, crappier times." When the people — read: rich alums — speak, UC listens. Even more so when the people fulminate. The logo was repurposed to the circular file, and there was much rejoicing.

But not from everyone. The American Institute of Graphic Arts last month published a case study produced by a team of UC marketing apparatchiks. That 1,600-word missive explained how, in reality, the abortive UC logo was a smashing success. "We walked away from the logo itself in part because we knew that our broader communications strategy and the other elements of the visual identity system could advance without it," reads an excerpt. "Being able to move on with other elements of our work and the rest of the visual system is actually a tribute to the symbol's success and our overall strategy."

The petitions, the rancor, the passionate disdain: Perhaps those could be a tribute to a successful strategy as well.

In fact, that argument has been made. During the October AIGA gathering in Minneapolis, two of the logo's designers headlined a presentation titled "The UC Logo Controversy: How 54,000 People, the Mainstream Press and Virtually Every Designer Got it Wrong." (Incidentally, a concurrent discussion in a different room was called "A Parallel Universe of Unconventional Thinking").

Much as gatherings of film professionals may bemoan the general public's ineptitude in rejecting such cinematic offerings as Ishtar or Heaven's Gate, so, too, did the AIGA's jury lament the demise of the abortive UC logo. Among its comments: "It exudes optimism and breathes vitality and purpose into the visually beleaguered university system" ... "One of the best briefs that we saw in the competition" ... "Game changer. Moved the needle. Inspirational. A smart and progressive identity program that got lost in media hysteria based on misinformation and false narrative." (Italics very much theirs.)

Apparently, we all got it wrong. Every one of us. But that's okay. The University of California is willing to accept our apology.

"At UC, we believe we've built a solid, strategic brand foundation that is much more than any one symbol," reads its case study. "So, in typical California spirit, we're moving onward."

My Voice Nation Help

i think it's a dumb logo myself...oh well!


The UC logo apologists are much like LBJ in his defense of the Vietnam War, or the Republicans on practically everything they rant about.  Only they have the revealed truth.

A logo should quickly & easily evoke something, and should need an essay to explain it or a study to justify it.  Either the image works, or it doesn't.

As an outside who had a kid go to UC, this is vague, incomplete, and doesn't quickly and easily call to mind any product, service, agency, or program.


The UC denial is of the same mind-set as LBJ over the Vietnam War, or the Republicans over practically everything they rant about.  Somehow, only they have the truth.   

To an outsider who had a kid go to UC, the image seems incomplete, vague, and doesn't call to mind any product, service, or agency.

mrericsir topcommenter

I can't see the logo, it looks like it got stuck loading.

John LaForgia
John LaForgia

I see a toilet...but "a cat's ass"? Either way, reminds e more of a loading symbol for a software program or OS. If not for the indent at the top and the weird blue, might not be so bad, and a "loading, almost there" symbol would make sense to me for a college.


To be fair, the case explains how the identity system—which includes the logo, but also includes a program of colors, fonts, layouts, imagery, language and other communication tools—was successful. It describes how an identity program is a visual representation of a set of values. It also describes those values and the process by which they were determined. 

That process involved a study of 2,000 California voters and more than 10,000 parents and alumni. 

The case study goes on to describe how feedback was solicited throughout the design process, including an online survey of approximately 3,000  alumni, parents and employees prior to its rollout. The rollout itself is also described. It involved events at all 10 UC campuses that brought 60,000 people into direct interaction with the new UC brand (including the logo). The rollout took place over a 10 month period. 

Finally, the case study also describes the firestorm that erupted following an erroneous report in the San Jose Mercury News that the logo would be replacing the venerated UC seal and the petition that followed. It acknowledges that the logo was ultimately extricated from the system as a result of that petition.

The case study does not, however, state, suggest or imply that anyone was too dumb to appreciate its logo. In fact, given the extraordinary effort, time and resources that were dedicated to involving students, alumni, parents, staff and the public at every stage of the process one might more accurately infer the opposite—that the UC System places tremendous value in its constituents and stakeholders.

As for the panel discussion in Minneapolis, I moderated that presentation and the title was mine, not UC's. I am a designer, writer and educator and had no involvement with UC's new branding. The title comes from an article I wrote detailing the controversy—a controversy that I argue was the result of inaccurate reporting, the media's tendency to rush topical stories to publication without adequate research, social media's love of a good scandal, and a promotional video from UC that unfortunately suggested an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new point of view with regard to the logo. 

I can appreciate and accept that you have an opinion of the logo that differs from that of the jurors who selected the UC case study for recognition as a branding program. However, I think those differences could be more productively explored with less sarcasm and vitriol and more though and inquiry.

Kristin Rissanen Ikuta
Kristin Rissanen Ikuta

The old one is back, but we do have this ugly logo on our 2013 health flex spending cards.

Lynette Stone
Lynette Stone

hideous, the old one was classic, scholarly, dignified


Around The Web

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.