In the immortal words of Don Draper, ”the idea is to stand out, not blend in.” This applies to all facets of branding, including your brand’s identity.
As some of you know, I teach part-time at the Parsons School of Design, one of the colleges of the New School University. Recently, as part of an effort to raise its profile, the University underwent a brand identity “refresh.” I say “refresh,” but in reality it was a full-scale “start from scratch” change.The University has long suffered from a lack of recognition and clarity. Few New Yorkers, much less the greater world, knew any of the seven schools that make up the University, except for Parsons. This is the third change in the twenty years I’ve been associated with the school. And frankly, the identity that was put in place shortly after I joined, done in the mid-90s, remains my favorite. More about that below.
The University wisely decided to hire the venerated design firm Pentagram and specifically their famed partner, Paula Scher, to lead this latest charge. The results have received mixed reviews across the design blogs and have provided plenty of stimulating conversation in my identity design class.
Briefly, the concept behind the identity as I understand it, is to create a flexible, ever-changing program that hinges on a custom-designed typeface that intentionally utilizes letterforms of varying widths to create an innovative look. The identity is further underscored by two horizontal rules that pay homage to the architecture of some of the University’s signature buildings. Combined, these elements form the building blocks of the brand identity program and you can see it used below in the system designed for each of the schools under the university umbrella.
The custom typeface is what is supposed to make the identity and the program innovative. The unique quality comes from using this custom font throughout the program in all display or headline type. The algorithm written into the font randomly selects letters from one of three different widths to make up each word.
Where I come out on the success of the program is this: First, it is always a tremendous challenge to take on a high-profile assignment where you are collaborating with and reporting to a large committee, representing various factions and agendas. Then add in that some of those committee members are designers. Well, I tip my hat to the Pentagram team for completing the assignment in the allotted time. Second, the success of this program will be determined over time. Paul Rand, the legendary corporate identity designer of the second half of the 20th century was a proponent of the idea that an identity or logo had no meaning on its own. Only in the context of the overall program does the logo gain life. That said, the New School program can possibly fare better with age.
However, for me the single most important attribute of a brand is differentiation. In the case of the New School logo, for me, it fails in being visually unique. Conceptually, the idea of writing in a degree of randomness into the identity program is no doubt a new and very innovative approach to brand design. However, despite Paula Scher’s assertions that the typography made up of a variety of different widths is visually distinctive, I’m not buying into it.
In my view, it takes a sophisticated eye to detect and discern the visual difference provided by the various letterforms. You can argue that the University is trying to attract just such an individual, but I don’t believe the logo is different enough to make the vast majority of the audience stop and take notice.
While a heroic effort on many fronts, the new New School University identity doesn’t meet my criteria for uniqueness in brand identity. It presents as a non-descript sans serif typeface stacked on two horizontal lines that relate more to a math equation than to an architectural detail.
In ten years, a typical time span for an identity program, I hope the school considers a refresh of the Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv shield symbol. That symbol, with an exciting visual program to support it will, I believe, give the school a more identifiable profile.
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Strategy Studio is a brand design firm developing and implementing identity systems, interactive experiences and visual communications that tell the stories of new products and established brands–from Fortune 500 companies to non-profit organizations.