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BACKLASH BOOGIEMAN: Brand Building in the Noise of Public Reaction

The University of New Hampshire recently released information about its rebranding project, namely, an updated logo. Immediate reaction and thus reactionary comments flooded the institution’s staff, including Student Body President Bryan Merrill who was quoted in Monday’s The New Hampshire Online’s article saying, “[I have not] heard anything particularly positive from the students and administrators I have discussed this with.”

As recently as today, there are plenty of news outlets covering the uproar, slightly turning its volume up with two separate Facebook groups created to volley outrage at UNH and who Meghan Abaspour refers to as, ‘out of university’ people (meaning the Mega Firm, Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv based in New York City). Ms. Abaspour is the creator of the “UNH Students against the change of the Thompson Hall Logo”Facebook page and said “We paid these ‘out of university’ people to create these [designs] and they’re subpar. If they feel we need to change it, [it should] come from someone who attends the university; something I’m proud to call my own.”

There’s the backlash. And there’s been plenty more piling up. But what about the work that UNH paid 100K for? And, why am I getting involved?

As part owner of a small but growing design firm that specializes in branding (a word so often misused and abused, like how the word “literally” has become merely an emphatic gesture – it’s actual meaning lost in a sea of unchecked ego) I feel I have a responsibility to respond. Also, I’ll be damned if anyone ever questions me on my value or my worth. Which, really, is what’s happening here. 100K does sound like an awfully big number for some pictures and letters, right?

Let’s try and break this down as if we weren’t simply having an allergic reaction to change, shall we?

DOES CONTEXT MATTER? YES. AND NO.

What happened in that room the day Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv revealed these logo concepts for the first time?

Luckily, I don’t have to guess. Although, I’ve been in enough board rooms with a power point, I probably could have. There is a video of the entire presentation currently accessible with the password unhwildcats2013 and I urge you to watch it even just to test how strong your gut reaction is.

If you’re not willing to watch the whole thing, I’ll point out some of the best parts. Interestingly enough, CGH’s founding partner (not just a “Graphic Designer” as he was titled in last Friday’s Foster’s article) Tom Geismar starts off by commenting on how difficult doing creative work for Universities is. He says, “Schools are the most difficult because they are democracies and democracies are always a problem.” Probably more provocative than he meant it to be, but I can’t help agree when I think of almost any critical issue put to a vote by the general public. We don’t always know what’s best for us. That’s just human nature.

Back to context. Geismar also prepared the UNH stakeholders (a broad representation of high level staff, admin, alumni and Student Body President himself, Bryan Merrill) to look at these brand new designs with some imagination. “A mark doesn’t have meaning until its used,” says Geismar. “First impressions are not important,” and “Try to put personal preferences aside.” All a sort of tactic in shooting for a clean slate when revealing what CGH no doubt spent countless hours concepting, developing, researching and tweaking.

When partner, Sagi Haviv comes to the stage to do the actual revealing, he leads with yet another preparatory statement, “[Seeing a mark] for the first time doesn’t tell the whole story, not even a part of the story – its just an identifier that comes to remind you of the institution…”

As any professional firm would do, CGH goes on to present two separate design directions, three visual concepts all-together. They explain the thinking that went into each, how the marks could be paired with the Universities name, how the mark would be expressed in various applications from print to web, t-shirt to blind embossed notebook.

In the end, they made the case that they met the challenge presented to them by their stakeholders and the challenge that every designer thrusts their work at themselves:

  • can it function in multiple contexts
  • can it support a system
  • how does it look up against “the enemy” (competitors)

Now, just to be clear, I’m writing this article in praise of the design process more than I am for the logo concepts themselves but in anticipating a question mired in my own coming backlash boogieman – so far, I don’t think anyone else has come up with anything even in the same ballpark as CGH. That’s different than me saying I wouldn’t do something differently. But, back to my main point…

If you follow the guidelines CGH set forth at the beginning of their presentation, I would agree with them that all three marks stand up to those criteria. Only because I can suspend my initial gut reaction and think forward to a time where the mark starts to represent UNH, celebrate New Hampshire, and live on as if it had been here all along. A hard trick to master. Particularly if you’re a young student. Particularly (I assume) if you’re a young student at a university without a graphic design program.

So does context matter? Should CGH be given the benefit of time and bank on their experience in creating other long lasting brand marks like National Geographic, PBS, WGBH, and a lot more that even a young student who has never heard the word “kerning” in their life would recognize? The answer is yes and no. Context, background, research – it all plays a part in how we see things. That’s why about 3/4 of that 100K was surely spent on what looks to the layman like surfing the internet, staring at ceilings, asking stupid questions and riding the waves of nostalgia. In order for newness to be born and to live on, we need to look forward and backwards. Then again, for newness to live a long and healthy life, it has to survive the fact that it is a wholly brazen and almost unacceptable change. Will these logos survive a series of blows, the first of course, this current backlash? They will. IF CGH shows true expertise in their leadership skills and refuses to bow to all suggestions. The nastiest and most dangerous of all being what many students and “activists” like Jamie Burnett are proposing: crowdsourcing. Mr. Burnett, in his NH Watchdog article last Tuesday suggests UNH hold a contest to design a new logo, open to all UNH students and awarding a prize of “well under” $100K to the winner.

This “idea” is simply dreadful and would end my career, extinguish my faith in humanity, and probably cause the feeling to go from all of my limbs, cause me to be numb and dumb due to under stimulation. But let me tell you why.

Let’s take that suggestion and break it down.

A contest to design a new logo. Which is also known as:

CROWD SOURCING. STOP IT.

Contest. What do you think of when you read that word? I think of race, luck, winner, loser. Odds. Chance. At no point do I think of balanced research, expertise, not even preparation. Sure, some contests require preparation – but if the participants already regard the challenge as something they can easily do, why prepare? Many things will happen if UNH holds a contest for a new logo and they all have consequences. Here are just a few:

  • Multiple entries from single participants – which can only point to quantity over quality. There will be some folks who push out “pretty pictures” just to get a crack at the prize money. Is that really the story you want your ages old, well endowed University identifier to have?
  • Special cases – what if an entry participant enters with a backstory so sad and weepy or adorably precocious that the “judge” of the contest feels obliged to plaster the campuses with the new laser cat logo? OK, that’s a stretch, but may I remind you that there are paintings selling for upwards of $5 million dollars, smudged by a monkey.
  • Canabalism – this may mean more to me than it does to you, but in many cases small firms or large firms that have the time (or menial staff tucked away in a beige basement cubicle) to pump out a couple of recycled logos with a U, N and H plopped onto them, enter these contests. You may get a slightly more sophisticated design (only slightly, you’ll never, ever get the A team’s work, trust me) and then crowdsourcing is seemingly proven to have yielded successful results. What about me and my firm? We start to lose work because prospective clients who formally respected our education, experience, taste and thought leadership make a mad dash for work that’s not as good but not nearly as “expensive.” Then my company dies and I live on the streets making you feel awfully guilty when you come out of Starbucks and I know you just paid in cash and have change in your pocket. Please don’t make me make you feel guilty.

Open to all UNH students.

DIY CAN BE DANGEROUS.

’ll keep this simple. One student, no matter how brilliant or tenacious or wired or devoted to UNH, can’t compare with the brainpower that sits in a room with a team that spends their every day evaluating graphics, turns of phrase, images, lines, details, colors, metaphors, people and what their brand loyalty means and where it comes from. Yes, I was a student once and I too thought I knew everything and wanted to be involved in every single aspect of anything as long as I could stick my name onto it. Let me be dead clear here, I was wrong. And I went to a school that had a graphic design program! Which, again, UNH, the school with the pool of students that would be creating this logo, has no such program.

And honestly, I’m not trying to single out students. I’m speaking to all non-professionals trying to complete a job that must be done by professionals. With the rise of intuitive, every-man tools like Instagram and Pinterest, we’ve all gotten some brain damage that leads us to believe that somehow we’re photographers and stylists. We’re not. I promise you, we’re not. Do you know what an F-stop is? Do you know what to put on ice cream so it doesn’t melt on set? No? There are people in the world that do. They are called professionals. Do you know how to write a creative brief? No? Never heard of it? Then don’t make a logo in fifteen minutes and act like you’ve solved the Cuban Missile Crisis but no one’s giving you credit on Facebook.

Open to all UNH Students. (I say this again to tackle this idea of keeping this project local).

LOCAL IS NOT A SYNONYM FOR BEST.

Much like the words branding and literally have become skewed, so has local. Local should strive to be the best but that isn’t always the case. Do you really want to be stuck arguing that Franklin Pierce was a better president than Abraham Lincoln or George Washington just because he was local? If you do, you’re arguing just to argue. You’d be great in the Accounts department!

Awarding a prize of well under $100K.

MONEY IS RELATIVE.

How noble to save a top rated university what amounts to less than three out-of-stater’s yearly $37,000+ tuition (and yes, that’s the conservative addition with bunkmates and cheapest “Silver Meal Plan”).

But I realize, money makes people crazy, uncomfortable, forgetful, criminal, etc. Though I honestly do not feel that I need to justify CGH’s contract money (I’m sure they were giving them the non-profit rate and that most branding projects for less difficult clients come in well over the million dollar mark) I would like to break it down a bit, just to put a little less room in between the number and the “out of university” villains of the story.

$100,000.00

Most agencies have an hourly that they base their pricing off of. Ours is anywhere from $125 – $200 depending on a variety of variables. A higher end firm with the clients that CGH has under their belt and the staff that they have, probably grab about $300 and hour (at least).

$100,000 divided by $300 = 333 (and then some) hours

333 hours divided by 40 hours in a work week (which I’ve NEVER had in advertising, try 75 hours and no overtime) = 8.3 weeks roughly.

CGH has been working with UNH since last Fall. So we’re over the 8.3 40 hour weeks they’ve been “paid” for. And really, that’s just accounting for time. There is no surefire way to account for talent, imagination, prowess, vision, ingenuity. Or even just the simple ability to deliver your logo file in an appropriate type that won’t pixelate if you put it on one of the big ass banners outside admissions. I doubt that stipulation (or any) are in the contest rules.

All that. All 333 billable hours to make a mark that represents a few buildings. A few buildings that represent the future, prestige, power, possibility, the dreams, the time and energy, the sweat and tears that are shed throughout the halls year after year after year. A simple mark for a complex and important story.

You may still believe that the CGH logo concepts for UNH are “subpar.” But maybe, with a little context, you’ll prepare your arguments next time and steer clear of putting yourself (a non-professional) in the shadow of the boogieman. Because if you make a logo that has one more drop shadow in it, I’ll have my remarks ready for you, too. Probably not a Facebook page. 253 arbitrary clicks just doesn’t seem worth it to me.

What I do ask for is a little perspective and maybe the tiniest bit of humility and I don’t know, this is a long shot but, gratitude? We should be grateful for the help of a professional (no matter WHERE they come from) willing to take our State and it’s wonderful institution seriously. To put the time in to come up with not just a pretty picture but a solution. That’s what we do in this business. We whittle it all down, we take it all in, we look as far ahead as we can and we find the solution. That is what you pay us for. Hold a contest for a free sandwich, a carwash for life, something, anything slightly less important than what houses and teaches the power of knowledge, and the wonder and necessity of a cautious, curious and worthy future.

You can see all of the CGH logo concepts nicely presented with some context here.