Established in 1986 and originally named the London Institute, University of the Arts London (UAL), as it was renamed in 2004, is a network of six colleges — Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, Chelsea College of Art and Design, London College of Communication, London College of Fashion, and Wimbledon College of Art — devoted to art, design, fashion, and media offering courses at all levels from foundation and undergraduate to postgraduate and research. Spread throughout London, the six campuses serve over 20,000 students through approximately 1,200 staff. Last week, Creative Review was first to show a new identity for UAL designed by Pentagram partner Domenic Lippa, that led to a zesty range of mostly negative reader comments. Stating that UAL did not like its identity, specifically, its visual performance, Pentagram instituted an all-Helvetica approach. Kill me now.
Some choice quotes from the CR article that quotes Lippa and UAL’s director of communication Dee Searle:
“[The previous identity] spoke of separations rather than the value-add you get from six of the world’s top art and design colleges coming together.”
“[There] was a lack of respect for the identity, it wasn’t working for them,” [Lippa] says. “They didn’t like what they were using.”
“As we were starting from a point of rejection of the old identity, people wanted something to use in a cleaner way, and I think were pleased we didn’t try to over-complicate it and try too hard,” says Lippa. “The temptation is to make something ‘too’ designed.”
For Searle, it’s important that the new identity not be seen as a straight-jacket but, she says, “rather as a unifier which lets the distinct characters of the colleges come through. It gives us something quite bold and striking but not dominating. It’s a very practical project and will benefit the work of the colleges.
Helvetica was chosen specifically because of its “neutrality,” Lippa says, but also because the typeface is robust enough to reproduce at smaller sizes.
— Creative Review
First, let’s get the review part out of the way so that I can begin my rant against Helvetica. The old logo was quirky but not in the right way, for the most part. The stars/asterisks, positioned to reflect the location of each college within the London map was a nice concept and properly resolved, but the extra long name set at an angle was too distracting and unnecessary. I can see how it would be a painful logo to work with for all the different communication materials a university has. The new logo solves all those problems and any other potential application problems by urging people to refer to the university as UAL now and by setting everything big (or small) in Helvetica. What could go wrong, right? Absolutely right. Nothing can go wrong when there is nothing on the line, graphically speaking. The identity is a path of least resistance to something that will work well no matter what and the applications demonstrate it: everything is Pinterest- and ffffound-ready with big, bold Helvetica, flush left, on a grid. Woo-fucking-hoo. Lippa acknowledges the risks of wanting to do something “‘too’ designed” and we’ve all seen over-designed identities but that doesn’t mean that the other extreme is the better solution, even less so for a university that is meant to convey the creative potential of an art and design education. That doesn’t mean the identity should feel like a Project Runway project, but something that at least pushes identity design forward in favor of expressing the values of an institution would have been welcome. What this identity tells me is that UAL is nothing more than a widget-maker: in this case, students with cookie-cutter skills and no differentiating qualities. So, no, I don’t think this is a positive redesign. Partly for the reasons above, but mostly because Helvetica is the worst possible choice in serious identity design in the twenty-first century. Skip to last paragraph to read why.
As it concerns identity design we all recognize Helvetica as a bastion of the rise of the practice of corporate identity in the 1960s, deployed with unrelenting passion by the likes of Massimo Vignelli and Unimark in the U.S. and Total Design in Europe. It helped shed decorative logos and present a unified front for corporations of all sizes in the most serious of manners. It was, in a way, a unifying technology of the era, establishing a specific standard for how logos should look. And that’s my biggest issue with Helvetica: It’s 1960s technology, 1960s aesthetics, 1960s principles. You know what else is technology from the 1960s? Rotary-dial telephones. The BASIC computer language. Things we’ve built on for the past 50 years and stopped using as the new, more functional, more era-appropriate products took hold. Today there are dozens of contemporary sans serif typefaces that improve the performance and aesthetics of Helvetica but yet some designers still hold on to it as if it were the ultimate typeface. It’s not. Just because it’s been glorified in a similar way as the suits and clothing in Mad Men doesn’t mean it’s still the right choice. You don’t see people today dressed like Don Draper or Lane Pryce — the business-person equivalents of a business typeface — because fashion has changed, attitudes have changed, the world has changed. But, like cockroaches, Helvetica seems to be poised to survive time and space, no matter what. When you see someone walking down the street, today, dressed like a 1960s business person, you (or at least I) think “what a douche.” That’s the same thought I have when I see something/someone using Helvetica.
The main argument of using Helvetica is that it’s “neutral.” That is absolute bullshit. There is nothing neutral about Helvetica. Choosing Helvetica has as much meaning and carries as many connotations as choosing any other typeface. It has as many visual quirks as any other typeface it was meant to shun for needless decoration. Helvetica is the fixed-gear bike of typefaces: it’s as basic as it gets, but the statement it makes is as complex as anything else. Standing for independence and going against the grain, supposedly not caring about what others think or of being duped for the upgrades and improvements that “the man” forces upon us. Helvetica is old. Helvetica is clunky. No business, service, or product deserves Helvetica in the twenty-first century more than anyone deserves to sit in a dentist chair in the 1960s.
Am I wrong? Probably. Do you disagree? Probably. Do I care? No, as long as you don’t use Helvetica.