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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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A Different Baton

The logo itself is not nearly as big a deal as what it represents. That’s true in a very literal sense: the logo itself only matters because of the thing which it is meant to represent, the University of California. It’s not objectively ugly, in other words, if indeed there is such a thing as aesthetic objectivity. The logo is subjectively ugly. It’s because of its context, because of its history, and because of our subjective experience of the logo that it strikes so very many people as “ugly.” For many, this is the last straw, a last indignity. Courtesy of @contrarianp and the Boston Review.

I say this not only for myself, but after reading a lot of comments on the petition being circulated, and doing periodic searches for “UC” and “logo” on twitter. It’s impossible to be comprehensive, of course—over 45,000 people have signed the petition—but it’s also impossible to deny that a lot of people are angry, that there is a virtual consensus that the logo is ugly, and that if the UC does anything other than scrap the logo altogether, they are sending the message that they do not care. I’ve followed this issue pretty closely, and literally the only voices I’ve come across who speak in favor of the new logo are supporting it in the pages of the Oakland Tribune, or the LA Times (or work for the UC itself). Well, that and two people that the UC’s own Creative Director re-tweeted. Outside of the UC’s own damage control, there is no one on their side here.

In that sense, it’s already game, set, match: if the point of a re-branding campaign is to spark new interest in the object which you are attempting to re-brand, this campaign has already been an absolutely catastrophic failure, demonstrably so. The results are in: people are talking about the UC, about what a bunch of embarrassing idiots they are. Forty-five thousand people have not only signed their name to a petition, but so very many of them have written impassioned comments that begin with phrases like “as a UC alum” and “I go to a UC” and then go on to express their dismay in a broad variety of very explicit ways. Read the comments, if you can stand scrolling through’s terrible interface. The UC community is angry. They are alienated. They feel unrepresented, even insulted. There are a great many references to the UC’s proud tradition, and to the way it is being erased and disrespected, and the distinct sense that they have the right to say so and be heard.

This backlash has become the primary story. A few design-blogs had written up the logo change in the days before the UC community began to rise up—and those posts are written in a very inside-baseball eye to design choices, speaking to and from the design community—but the story has completely changed in the last three days. “New UC logo a no-go with students and alumni”“New, simpler UC logo draws derision”All of the new articles on the issue will tell the exact same three-part narrative: logo is introduced, people hate it, university responds by citing design experts. The only reason those articles are even being written, in fact, is the logo’s demonstrative failure as a public relations campaign; the only interesting thing about it, the narrative hook, is that a logo which is supposed to make people think positively about the UC is having the absolute reverse effect. The logo isn’t just a failure: it’s an own goal, an unforced error. The university has shot itself in the foot.

Whats still at stake, though, is what will happen next, who will win. Because there is such a strikingly clear divide between the UC community—faculty, students, and alumni—and the people who run the place, who have the ability to make decisions about things like logos, and the experts they hire to manage public opinion. And it really is striking how clear this division is; as Angus Johnston pointed out, this LA Times article is typical in being unable to find a single UC student, faculty, or alumni who will actually defend the stupid thing. Instead, they quote design “experts” from outside the UC community, like this person:

Drastic changes in long-time logos disrupt “a sense of connection,” explained Kali Nikitas, chairwoman of the graduate program in graphic design at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. “It’s as if you show up at the same coffee shop for years and they start serving you a different coffee. Your routine is broken,” she said. And at colleges and universities, reactions can be particularly powerful, she added, “since people really love tradition and legacy at their alma mater. They are really passionate about where they go to school and view it as the cornerstone of their lives.” The older UC logo, she said, conveys a sense of stability while the new one looks “incredibly progressive.” She said that people probably will come to accept the new one and “in five years, no one will care.”

Now, there are several things to say about this, but let’s start with the analogy: this design change is not at all like being served a different coffee. It’s just not. People do not identify with coffee the way they identify with their alma mater. Coffee is a commodity: it’s a thing you buy, a thing you consume, and a thing you piss out of your body afterwords. The school you go to, on the other hand, will identify you for the rest of your life, for better or for worse. If you got your degree from the University of California, that’s now who you are, forever. And so, when they re-brand the school, they are re-branding you. This is why so many UC alumni are upset, why this is meaningful to them. They don’t want to be branded.

The rhetorical effect of the analogy, by contrast, is to make that fact go away, to make you forget that distinction and to paper over the fact that a university degree and a cup of coffee really are very different things. In objective terms, they may be comparable—the one costs a dollar or two, the other costs $14k a year—but this is exactly the point. Understanding them as reducible to their monetary value (or their market worth)As in, “An English major and a dollar fifty will get you a cup of coffee” is what’s at stake here: are these things objectively comparable (as commodities) or are they subjectively different, as experiences which we relate to in fundamentally personal and non-financial ways?

A big part of the response to the logo, in this sense, is not about the logo so much as its about the commodification of the university that the very fact of it having a logo represents. Take this comment from the petition, which was liked by 146 people:

“This new logo is absolutely ridiculous. Not only is it called a logo, but it is EVERYTHING our school is against. Might as well have slapped a McDonalds “M” on top of it and call it a day. It looks so corporate, and it looks CHEAP.”

Changing a “seal” to a “logo” is something people get upset about, full stop, because they mean different things: the former has a set of desirable associations that are absent from the latter, precisely because “logo” is a term of art for marketing, for consumption. And people don’t like that shift.

At the same time, there’s a fascinating blend class pride mixed in with the anti-corporatism of that comment; “corporate” is something that “our school is against”—something quite central to the “ourness” of the UC, in fact—but some corporations are also more corporate than others. Some kinds of corporatization are more objectionable; it’s much worse to be corporate like McDonald’s, presumably, than a less “cheap” corporation. But if it’s bad to be commodified and even worse to be given a low selling price, then I’m reminded of the old joke: The food is terrible. And such small portions!

Embedded in that comment, in other words, is the same contradiction that defines and circumscribes how we think about higher education in general. It’s something we want for subjective reasons—an experience, a rite of passage, a formative period in becoming the person we become—and yet it’s also something we want for quite practical reasons, albeit a practicality defined in subjective terms. If you have a degree from the University of California, to be blunt, you don’t have to work at McDonalds. You become less cheap, less disposable, less precarious. You become a person of importance and substance, a citizen, both in the eyes of the people around you and in your own self-image. We all know this. You can write all the “is college such a good value after all?” articles you want, and people will still want a good college education; precisely as it’s harder and harder to find jobs with a modicum of dignity, people come to place a higher and higher value on a university education, the traditional means of acquiring that social status, the ability to say “I pay taxes I have a job I’m an American citizen.”

This is a big part of why people are so upset about the logo, I think. Not only is the experience itself being devalued (by changing a seal into a logo), but commodifying the degree actually reminds people of the thing they went to school to get away from: the dehumanizing effect of a dehumanizing labor market, and the fear of social death that the specter of unemployment represents. Without a degree, you’re just a pair of hands, a unit of “work,” and since respectable blue-collar jobs are disappearing faster than the polar ice caps, education becomes the fetish object that will save us. If you have a degree from Cal, after all, you have a network, a place, a status, or at least that’s what you hope to acquire there: you hope to become a person who doesn’t have to worry about being left behind. For better or for worse, we’re all scared of being eaten up by the economy, and we all strive to shore up fragments against our ruin.None of this is even to touch on something which is, perhaps, the most important thing of all: the extent to which education is, can be, should be, or might be a humanizing and liberating experience on its own terms, that old-fashioned enlightenment stuff that goes along with the book, the star, the “Let There Be Light,” and the old-fashioned-ness of a seal.

This is what Kali Nikitas (and the geniuses at the UC Office of the President) don’t want to see, and what gets lost when we compare a university degree to a cup of coffee. That coffee will always be there, as long as you have the money to buy it. The sense that a university degree represents “stability,” on the other hand, or “a sense of connection,” not only will not, but as this entire episode demonstrates, it’s precisely the thing that the UC administration is trying to get rid of, the thing they don’t value. It’s no coincidence that every single aspect of the new logo (and the execrable video they made of it) is meant to show that the university is making a radical break with the past: that’s exactly what they are trying to convey. People like stability and continuity in their alma maters, because it gives them a sense that they are still part of the campus, still a part of the UC, and that it’s still a part of them. And they want those things to be reality, that dream to come true. But the UC administration thinks about their university like upper management thinks about corporate assets, and they’re threatened when other people claim to have a right to speak for and to represent it, when other people claim to have an ongoing stake in what the university is. That’s why they call the cops on protesters and make you get off the grass, and beat you if you don’t. They want to cut that cord. They want to represent us for us.

In 2009, when a wave of massive state funding cuts rocked the university—when a gradual slide turned into an avalanche—the UC student body, the UC faculty, the UC staff, and the UC alumni mobilized. Some people occupied buildings; some people marched; some people held signs; and some people wrote letters and made phone calls. The results have been mixed, but there have been results. The regents know that when they meet to raise tuition, they will need armed police officers to keep students out. When students mobilize to protest the privatization of the university, the university knows that it will pay a cost for pepper-spraying them, for beating them with batons. And the governor knows that raising tuition comes with a political cost. This is how the University of California community has managed to represent itself; this is how we have managed to have a small voice in how the university is run.

In 2009, however, the University administration responded to budget cuts by telling people to be quiet, sit down, and let them speak for us. They hired a team of designers—moving Vanessa Correa from Chicago, for instance, to be the UC’s new “Creative Director,” for a mere $140k a year—to begin the project of re-branding the university, of erasing its history as a public university and re-marketing it as an adjunct to Silicon valley. This is what people are protesting. When we mobilized, as a “we”; when we sought to strengthen and test the bonds that tie us together and make us as a community; and when we gathered to defend something we found to be important to who we are, the people who run the UC like a business decided to surrender to the market, and to help facilitate the University’s transformation into a state-supported University of Phoenix. It’s because they don’t know what they’re doing that they don’t see us protesting it; it’s because they can’t see themselves as we see them–and won’t hear us when we speak–that they can’t understand what it is we demand when we protest.

Most of all, there is such dismissive contempt in the idea that we are not only beasts of habit, but that we fear change and react instinctively. That’s what makes our opinions unimportant, what gives them the confidence that there is nothing really here, and we will all eventually forget our anger and accept what we are given. It’s truly remarkable, in fact, that someone like Kali Nikitas can both acknowledgesthe fact that people have strong, passionate feelings—that “people really love tradition and legacy at their alma mater”—while also asserting that these strong feelings are also pliable, easily manipulated, and essentially transient; people view the school as a “cornerstone of their lives,” she acknowledges, but when you change its logo from a symbol of “stability” to a symbol of “progressive change,” she also expects people will lie back and take it. But this is how the University administration thinks, as their words and actions have demonstrated for years: they own the product, and we buy things because they can make us want it, can control and shape our subjectivities. And “design,” for them, is just a different baton, a different can of pepper spray paint, and a more subtle means of controlling and corralling the animal spirits that roam their grassy lawns…

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26 Responses to “A Different Baton”

  1. Jonathan Dresner says:

    Shortly after I graduated, the “School of Languages and Linguistics” I graduated from was folded into the College of Arts and Sciences. It was my school, and we were proud of our participation in the only independent SLL in the nation, and then it was gone, a decision for which I’ve not yet forgiven my much-too-wealthy-to-care-what-I-think Alma Mater.

    The disconnect reminds me of how I felt when I discovered, late in life, that I have a mild chocolate allergy. Being a chocolate-lover was part of my identity as well, but in one fell swoop, it became something alien to me, and my food identity had to reverse accordingly from “Chocolate afficionado” to “the guy who eats the non-chocolate option, whatever that is”.

    It’s a visceral thing, and it stings like hell.

  2. Bears are Fat says:

    Actually, the ignorant complaints about this seem more damning for the University than anything else. Can UC graduates read or use Google? If they can, they’d know that this ‘mark’ does NOT replace the traditional seal, nor does it replace individual campus identities. People are responding to memes that are circulating on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. So maybe a Twitter-esque logo is actually really right on in terms of capturing something about your average UC alum.

  3. Susie says:

    I find the video about the logo very disturbing. It is so shockingly anti-academia that I thought first that it was a joke by someone who didn’t like the logo, then maybe it was a Sesame Street video.

    I don’t recognize or identify anything in that video. It in no way represents the school I went to.

  4. Gool says:

    Every single time the new logo gets used, it will be replacing what would have been used before, which is: the old seal. But go ahead, enjoy parroting the UC admin’s talking points.

  5. Bears are Fat says:

    Just because they are talking points doesn’t make them untrue. Anyway, an interesting aspect of this brouhaha is that what bothers the grads is that their University brand is ostensibly ‘cheapened’ (and see the blog post above). UC grads apparently don’t want to be associated with the riff raff. The comments are all about how this new logo looks like something for a community college, an online university, a for-profit technical college, etc. I don’t think they’re worried so much about the corporate university per se — they worried about being visually associated with people beneath them. The critique presented here by Bady tries to put a radical spin on what is a transparent issue of what we sometimes call ‘status anxiety.’ Rather than a bunch of bougie UC grads worried about the icons and accoutrements of their own superior social status, what we read is that they are worried about being ‘dehumanized.’ The new logo — colorful, feminine, democratic even — is basically too common. Since graduates of the UC system probably already feel anxiety about this vis-a-vis the much more prestigious private universities (Stanford, Chicago, Yale), their worries regarding the new visual identity are rather telling. And what kind of fantasy about the University of yore is Bady peddling here anyway? The University iconized by the traditional seal was still a disciplinary institution: a machine for symbolic domination. That University — yes, even the great public UC — was always about the canon and conformity, about certifying some knowledges and persons over others, and about quashing radical dissent and social change. Illich among others taught us all this long long ago. The anti-contemporary critique put forward here by Bady to my mind falls prey to the classic politics of nostalgia, in which all those old forms of domination are suddenly revised and mis-remembered through a warm-fuzzy affect. Anyway, Bady is also wrong: I’m not a UC alum (but I pay taxes in California, so it’s as much my University as it is theirs), I don’t work for UC, and I’m not a design professional. Nevertheless, I really like the new look. So there.

  6. Bears are Fat says:

    Hmm, let’s actually *look* at what the images in the video include. Here’s a partial list:
    a blackboard with math equations
    a geeky girl drinking coffee
    a painter
    a brain researcher
    an art museum
    a photographer
    an old guy on a couch reading a stack of books
    a dude with cool hair pointing some kind of sensor in a lab
    another guy looking through a microscope
    an opthalmologist I think
    a woman at books shelves in a library
    oh, and flip flops

    Yes, none of these things seems at all remotely related to the University of California.

  7. Susie says:

    The way those things are portrayed in that silly video is anti-academic. It’s extremely sophomoric and is more fitting for a middle school. If they put Albert Einstein in it, it would still be anti-academic.

  8. Bears are Fat says:

    The video is anything but sophomoric. It conveys a great deal of visual information about a very specific initiative (a new visual identity for the UC system, an identity that never existed before and sits alongside current UC campus identities), and it does so in an intelligent, coherent, and youthful, and very evocatively Californian, way. Funny thing is, ‘Albert Einstein’ as an icon of ‘Academic’ is exactly what a sophomore would come up with — and I’m sure there are some Albert Einstein posters on the doors of sophomore dorms at UC Santa Cruz.

  9. Bears are Fat says:

    For anyone who doubts that this isn’t fundamentally about status (or ‘distinction’ in Bourdieu’s sense), here’s a comment on this from a thread elsewhere: “it’s like replacing a vintage mercedes with a hyundai, a rose with a carnation, filet mignon with arbys.”

  10. P.A. says:

    I know it doesn’t replace the seal, but I still don’t want it associated with anything with my University. The point of a logo is to represent the institution it stands for. You can’t even tell this says “UC”, it looks like a loading symbol, and, frankly, looks a little childish. I probably would have been fine with it if they had used a logo where it would have been clear that it as a U and a C and where they had actually used the colors that most UCs associate with (darker blue with yellow). I understand the drive for a newer, modern logo, but they seriously just did it wrong. If you read many of the complaints, they disagree with the choice not only on the basis that it doesn’t really represent the UC system, but also on an aesthetic basis. If you’re going to give us a logo, at least make one that doesn’t look like a toilet flushing all of our tuition away

  11. Spot on. If anyone had bothered to ask a few people who work at UC (I work at UCLA in human resources), we could have told you that we use the open book logo or something similar on all official forms and memoranda. This is the first time I’ve heard about the new logo. I think it sucks, but the only place I see it being used right now is on the UC corporate website (surprise).

    We’ve got quite a few serious problems at UC, and they’re not going to be solved by formally disliking a fucking logo.

  12. Spot on. If anyone had bothered to ask a few people who work at UC (I work at UCLA in human resources), we could have told you that we use the open book logo or something similar on all official forms and memoranda. This is the first time I’ve heard about the new logo. I think it sucks, but the only place I see it being used right now is on the UC corporate website (surprise).

    We’ve got quite a few serious problems at UC, and they’re not going to be solved by formally disliking a fucking logo.

  13. Susie says:

    Hmmmm, either you are under 21 or you made the video.

  14. christopher says:

    Great article. As a graphic designer who has gone through a rebranding exercise of an alma mater, your words hit home – had I only had the power and insight to bring context outside of the practiced world of branding to my school.

  15. KB says:

    As a UC alum, my biggest problem is that it doesn’t look like a UC. It is, in design, a terrible logo. Why is the C only half there? Where is the U? And why is the UC wasting time with this “rebranding” when there are bigger problems? If they wanted a new logo, they should have put it to the student body to design: a group that is living inside the experience, wants to represent itself, and (from a corporate viewpoint) free. Put it to a vote, then the people that want to be involved can be, and those that care less about their school don’t have to bother. I think that fact that a UC employee, even working in the admin sector and not academic, doesn’t even know about the new logo (@Slow_Pendulums:disqus) might help emphasize how much disconnect there is between the UC corporate side and the actual schools.

  16. Bears are Fat says:

    That’s kind of perfect. You do realize that a large percentage of current students, and almost all of those people considering enrolling at the University, are ‘under 21′ right? That comment alone perfectly encapsulates the elitist bullshit underlying the response to this new logo for UC. It further makes me wonder if you actually understand what universities are *for*: among other things, educating people under 21. Your evident disdain for the actual people who inhabit the university is showing.

  17. Bears are Fat says:

    Again, so much of the opposition to this is based in ignorance. The new mark has been circulating for months as part of a campaign to increase public support for the university (‘Onward California’). What seems to have happened is that someone generated some internet memes making people think that the seal is being replaced (it isn’t), or that individual campus identities are being replaced (they aren’t) — the latter problem is especially apparent in this Bady piece where the author refers repeatedly to ‘Cal’ when surely he knows this isn’t just about Berkeley. That slippage (between the UC system and Berkeley) is problematic, and leads to inaccuracies. Anyway, so people are responding to memes that convey the wrong impression, and get all nervous that their diplomas are going to have this new logo on them — they aren’t. And the ‘aesthetic’ complaints are all bound up with peoples’ investments in a certain iconography of taste, distinction, and status. As Bady tellingly reveals in his writing here, the new logo is basically too feminine (his emphasis on how horribly inappropriate ‘pastels’ are reveals this). University iconography should be masculine, stodgy, stuffy, old-seeming. University iconography in other words should reproduce all the old codes associated with rule: gender, age, and so on. No doubt people’s identities are shaped by these things (and here Bady is also confused: he thinks design is both inconsequential {relative to ‘real’ issues like political organizing} and yet is faced with the sociocultural fact that design matters in the way it shapes subjects)… so it’s understandable that they feel like their identities are being infringed upon. But hey: does it matter that many of the *current* and *unchanged* individual campus visual brands don’t include the seal, and also include pastels? What about UC San Diego, which brands itself with the ugliest piece of architecture west of the Mississippi (its brutalist library)? Is that offensive aesthetically? What about Santa Barbara, which shows waves in its branding? What about UCLA, which has branded itself with just the letters UCLA in italic futura or something like that for a long time? Basically the complaints against the new logo are incoherent in relation to what already exists in the UC iconographic universe, based in ignorance, and visually illiterate: the new logo is obviously a ‘C’ superimposed on a ‘U’, while also evoking: an open book, a seagull flying above, a sunset, the sky, and the ocean. This whole sad groupthink response to it, driven mostly by internet misinformation, I think tells us a lot. Supporting info for this comment provided here:

  18. Guest says:

    Right. Who needs a faculty and alumni?

  19. Bears are Fat says:


  20. Brian Riley says:

    @Bears are Fat : Hey man, if you read the petition carefully, it carefully explains that we *know* that the logo was not meant to replace the seal. YOU are making a fool out of yourself.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Oh please, no one thinks this logo is going to appear on their diploma. If you’re going to bullshit at least keep it concise.

  22. Bears are Fat says:

    To the contrary: I’ve seen that comment, and comparable ones, several times on different threads.

  23. Bears are Fat says:

    Hey dude: Is the only place anywhere where people are discussing the new logo? Might it be possible that news reports, online discussion, Twitter memes and so on either stated outright or conveyed the impression that the seal was to be replaced?

  24. Bears are Fat says:

    For example: what impression do you get from this widely circulating meme?

  25. Anonymous says:

    Prove it. Show me someone saying that this logo will appear on their diploma.

  26. Brian Riley says:

    In fact, it was the (systemwide) UC administration that created that false impression by creating that promotional video that shows the seal being turned into the new logo (with the hand sweeping the book away, etc) — a complete debacle, any way you look at it.

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