I’ve said it before and I’ll unfortunately have to say it again: Designing identities for higher education institutions is the most perilous realm of identity design and not too different from stepping right up front during Pamplona’s running of the bulls. The latest fiasco comes courtesy of the student body of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, a well regarded and large university.
This past Monday, banners, like the one above, started propping up on campus in preparation for a student and parent visit. This was the first public indication that change was coming. The previous week, a memo titled “How to better tell the Waterloo story” began seeding the fact that the university was about to undergo serious change to modify the institution’s perception.
In a recent national reputational survey, we learned that respondents see Waterloo as a regional university and very few people outside Ontario were even aware of Waterloo’s reputation or what sets us apart from other schools. Although we “owned” the innovation- and industry-connected categories, we were not known for specific strengths.
Over the past year, these teams have developed a positioning framework, which includes our vision, values, positioning attributes, and our promise - “building the future through innovation and experience.” They have also worked on a new identity to visually present Waterloo and a roll-out process and schedule for the new positioning and identity framework.
In late July, we will mount updated street pole banners reflecting the spirit of the new marketing-oriented visual identity for Waterloo. You will see new colours that will be associated with each faculty and bolder use of line, character font, and colour.
The memo further describes how decisions were made and what committees made them. Which is all a nice way to keep people abreast of what is going on, rather than just springing a new identity on the unsuspecting faculty and students. But that didn’t matter. Somehow, this past Wednesday, the new logo was leaked. And people freaked the hell out. How many people and how freaked out you ask? A Facebook group with 5,530 members as of this writing opposes the logo with knowledgeable and mature comments like “Yay for 12-year-old graphic designers!,” “my 12 year old sister could have designed a better logo using Paint,” “OMG LAZERS!!,” and “welcome to WacDonald’s can I get your order please?” There are more than 40 pages worth of comments.
The main complaint throughout is that the new logo is not dignified enough and it does not represent the school. But somehow, a crest, like thousands of other crests — who the majority of people don’t know what they stand for anyway — does. Unfortunately this is antiquated thinking. Universities can not get by with traditional crests in today’s über branded environment and, if you look around, most large universities operate with a “marketing” logo and use a traditional seal for boring things like diplomas or the back covers of their catalogues.
The new logo for University of Waterloo is actually an extreme, I will grant the whining Facebookers that. It’s not a comfortable logo to look at and it’s unclear what all those lines mean or are meant to do. Unfortunately, they don’t do much other than distract. But, in application this logo and its extended identity could be very interesting. However, this post and the controversy around it doesn’t have as much to do with whether the logo is good or bad — it’s neither really — but the propensity of students and faculty to cry foul with any change that has been carried out thoroughly by a range of committees. If they respect their university and its values they need to trust their leadership. Not whine about how 12-year-olds could do a better logo. Because they can’t.
Dear Waterloo-people-in-charge: Stick to your plan. Don’t succumb.