Michael Bierut | Essays

Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport

Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872.

Part One: There's Something Wrong with Vinny

It's an imaginary summer Saturday afternoon in suburban Cleveland in, say, 1969 or so. I am 12 years old. My father is cutting the back lawn, and so is our next door neighbor Vinny. Each of them decides at the same time to take a break under a small tree that stands at the border between our yards. They talk about the weather, the Cleveland Indians, typical stuff. Then Vinny says, "Hey, Lenny, did you notice that new packaging for Tropicana?"

My father is taken aback for a moment. "What, you mean Tropicana, the orange juice?"

"Yeah," says Vinny. "Did you notice they changed the packaging?"

My father is baffled. "The packaging? You mean the carton it comes in? The way it looks?" Vinny nods. My father looks doubtful.  "I can't say I have."

"Well, they changed it, all right," says Vinny with a slight edge to his voice. "There used to be curvy lettering, and a picture of an orange with a straw through it. Now it's plain lettering and the orange and the straw are gone." Vinny looks at my father's blank expression. "I can't believe you didn't notice." 

"I don't know, I'll have to, um, take a look. It sounds like..." My father isn't sure of his words here. "...quite a change." 

"Well, I don't like it," declares Vinny. "In fact, I'm going to write a letter to the company and tell them how much I hate it. You should take a look and write something, too."

My father nods, and then looks over his shoulder. "Well, listen, Vinny, I think I'd better check in with Anne Marie. Take it easy." My dad walks back to the house and into the kitchen, where my mom is at the sink. They both look out the window at the back yard. "Anne Marie," says my dad, "I think there's something wrong with Vinny." 

Of course, this never happened, at least not in 1969. But forty years later, Vinny would not be seen as someone to be watched carefully and perhaps medicated, but rather as a spokesperson for a highly desirable audience. In 2009, PepsiCo Americas Beverages commissioned Arnell Group to redesign the packaging for its flagship juice brand, Tropicana Pure Premium. Thanks to the internet and social media, what followed the introduction of the new packaging were not a few unnerving backyard conversations with eccentric neighbors, but an outpouring of complaints from consumers as well as demands that the suddenly beloved previous packaging be reinstated. The New York Times told the story. 

It was not the volume of the outcries that led to the corporate change of heart, [PepsiCo North America President Neil] Campbell said, because "it was a fraction of a percent of the people who buy the product." 

Rather, the criticism is being heeded because it came, Mr. Campbell said in a telephone interview on Friday, from some of "our most loyal consumers."

"We underestimated the deep emotional bond" they had with the original packaging, he added. "Those consumers are very important to us, so we responded."

The response was to throw out the new package design and return to the old. The people had spoken, and not for the last time.

Part Two: Everybody Wants to Go to Harvard

Earlier last year, the University of California quietly unveiled a new logo. Much has changed since 2009, including the notion that you can quietly unveil a logo. The logo was, eventually, inevitably noticed. After Tropicana, after the "epic fail" Gap debacle, after the seizure-inducing London 2012 affair, no one should have been surprised by what happened next. In fact, you almost had a sense that we all knew our roles in the drama to come: New logo? Game on!  Graphic design criticism is now a spectator sport, and anyone can play.

The review on Brand New, Armin Vit's amazingly popular logo review website, was mixed. The new UC logo was contemporary and abstract, and sat at the center of a smart and attractive new visual system, a very professional job by the University's in-house design team. Significantly, it was meant to represent the University of California system, the holding company, in effect, for UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and the other schools in the network. All of them would keep their existing logos. Brand New commenters tend to be other graphic designers. Some liked it, some didn't.

There was no such ambivalence on the part of the UC community of students, faculty and alumni. They basically went crazy with rage. A petition on Change.org — "Stop the new UC logo" — got over 54,000 signatures. The outcry spread to the general press coverage, who called it "one of the worst logo rebrands in history", "revolting" and "a fiasco." Some in the graphic design community attempted to rally around the embattled designers, including Armin Vit, who wrote a none-too-subtle response to the critics that included the suggestion: "Shut up. Seriously. Shut up."

The University held their ground for a week or so before capitulating. Said Daniel M. Dooley, UC's senior vice president for external relations: "While I believe the design element in question" — you can almost hear him choking on the word logo — "would win wide acceptance over time, it also is important that we listen to and respect what has been a significant negative response by students, alumni and other members of our community." "Pleasant news," said the opponents. "Awesome victory."

Dooley decried the "false narrative" that had surrounded the controversy, specifically the idea that this newfangled modern thing would replace the century-old traditional University seal. (The official line was that the seal would continue to be used on old-looking stuff like diplomas.) As usual, no one had expressed much passion for the good old seal until it was threatened by the arrival of the new logo. Suddenly, people were lining up to testify to its virtues. 

The University of California seal, of course, is nothing more than a banal pastiche of the kind of stuff of which university seals are always made: open books, celestial bodies, slogans, type arranged in circles. Which is exactly the point. As one surprisingly revealing Brand New commenter, a UC alumnus, said, "Please take the time to look up the websites and logos of Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Princeton, they all feature the seal or coat of arms of the university to the left of the institution's name. Lesser and/or newer learning institutions will tend to have newer, more corporate designs because a seal or traditional coat of arm would not be a good fit, almost usurpatory in fact." In short: don't you dare mistake my alma mater for one of those second-rate places that doesn't have a proper seal as its symbol. (Cruelly, the same commenter pointed out with undisguised distaste the logo of Armin Vit's own college, "a second-tier private school in northern Mexico called 'Anahuac University.'" In this case, Vit is right: shut up.)

But all the UC logo dissenters remind us of how different designers are from regular people. Designers tend to overvalue differentiation and originality. We are taught this in design school. The best solutions are created ex nihilo, break new ground, resemble nothing else in the world. Everyone wants to stand out, or else what's the point? But this isn't true. Most people don't want to stand out. They want to fit in. More precisely, they want to fit in with the people they like, or want to be like. At one point in the debate, Armin Vit linked to a Google image search result of university seals. Did anyone wonder why they all look the same?

When people imagine going to college, what most of them are imagining is going to a place like Harvard. If you're not going to Harvard, it's best not to have some funny-looking logo reminding you of that fact. Once you've graduated, the University seal stands for the experience you've bought and paid for. Changing it after the fact is like coming into people's houses, taking away the things they own, and replacing them with things they didn't ask for and don't want. No wonder they get mad.

Part Three: When the Chips are Down

In October 2011, the exhibition "Graphic Design: Now in Production" opened at the Walker Art Center. Co-organized by the Walker and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the show surveyed a wide range of contemporary work with a strong bias towards small-batch work by sole practitioners, small studios, and people with no professional design training. The work on view, by designers and artists like Daniel Eatock, Keetra Dean Dixon, MetaHaven, Mike Perry and Christien Meindertsma, was strong and provocative, and the show was largely well reviewed.

Most of the exhibited pieces were experimental and designed for extremely limited audiences, if they were designed with audiences in mind at all. The biggest exception was an area devoted to contemporary identity design. Elsewhere viewers were invited to contemplate the mysteries of, say, the "poster
 Daniel Eatock created by setting a blank piece of paper on dozens of upended Magic Markers. In the entrance corridor they confronted the familiar, frankly commercial logos of Starbucks, Comedy Central, AOL, and Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits. The contrast was stark and rather disorienting.

This area was curated by Brand New's Armin Vit and Bryony Palacio-Gomez, whose online commenters are invited to vote on each new identity presented. At the Walker, the installation's designers created a charming low tech homage to Brand New's digital polling system: visitors could vote on the redesigns by placing poker chips in two transparent tubes in front of the "before" and "after" versions of each logo, creating a bar-charted popularity contest in real time each day the exhibition was on view.

After the Walker, the next stop for "Now in Production" was the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. This represented a challenge. The Cooper-Hewitt is in the midst of a multi-year renovation, and the museum building is closed. This means that alternate venues had to be found for all its exhibitions. The New York team found an interesting one: Governors Island, a 172-acre decommissioned military base and National Park 800 yards off the southernmost tip of Manhattan, reachable only by ferryboat on weekends during the summer. The exhibition opened in Building 110 on Memorial Day weekend.

Building 110, located adjacent to the point where the ferries load and unload, is not particularly suited to museum-quality exhibitions; its low ceilings and rough surfaces are quite different from the clean, well-lit galleries at the Walker. But it had two notable characteristics. Not only was it the only air-conditioned building on the island during one of the hottest New York City summers on record, it housed the island's only indoor bathrooms. To get to the bathrooms, one passed down a long corridor like that in a typical public school. The Cooper-Hewitt's exhibition designers had the inspired idea to start the show in the corridor, and it was there that they located the logo voting apparatus. This guaranteed that it would be seen not just by a self-selected audience of graphic design enthusiasts, but by a cross-section of the general public: moms with strollers, skateboard kids, joggers, tourists.

It was fascinating to watch their reactions and the shifting tabulations. I was surprised by how often the civilians got it "wrong," voting enthusiastically for the cartoony old version of the Comedy Central logo, the needlessly fussy and insecure pre-redesign Starbucks, the dated Clarissa Explains It All-era Nickelodeon splat. After a few hours of air-conditioned anthropological observation, a number of precepts emerged, almost all of which rang as true in my professional experience as in Building 110.

First, in logo design, people prefer complicated things to simple things. Simple things look too easy to do, and it baffles people that professionals must be enlisted to design something like the USA Today logo, which is basically a blue circle. "How much did they pay for this?" and "My four year old could do this" are responses so predictable you wonder if they're hardwired into people's brains. (Invoking the Target circle or the Nike swoosh as a counterargument is a red herring: imagine the four year old designers that would be invoked if Target unveiled its Unimark-designed dot-in-a-circle logo today.)

Second, people prefer literal things to metaphoric things. People like actual splats on their Nickelodeon logos, not metaphoric splats, actual drawings of Saturn on their SciFi logos, not metaphoric alternate alien spellings. And they react with suspicion, if not outright contempt, when designers refer to the mystical characteristics of colors and shapes, to meanings that are open to interpretation or that will emerge only upon examination. (A rare and legendary exception to this is the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo. Everyone loves that arrow!)

Third, and most crucially, people prefer the thing they're used to rather than whatever new thing you're foisting on them. Now, some will point to evidence that people like new things when the new thing is really good: in debates like the one over the new University of California logo, many will argue that the problem was that the new logo wasn't well-designed. In a piece on what he calls the "crowdsmashing" phenomenon, New York writer Paul Ford argues that people, in fact, like change. He equates change with "novelty," naming as examples "tablet computers with smaller screens, iPhones with bigger screens, new Batman movies, 'Gangnam Style.'" Sorry, change isn't introducing an iPhone with a bigger screen that you can voluntarily purchase. Change is replacing a perfectly good map application on your iPhone with a new one. And you know how that turned out.

Part Four: Please Tell Me This is a Joke

I know from personal experience how much consumers dislike change, and I have a clue why. Several years ago, Pentagram received an assignment to redesign the logo for the Big Ten college athletic conference. This wasn't change for change's sake. The existing logo incorporated a number eleven, FedEx arrow-style, to acknowledge the fact that the number of teams in the conference did not correspond to the conference's name. Now the conference was expanding to twelve teams, requiring a new logo, and ideally one that didn't incorporate its own obsolescence. 

If there's one group that gets even more agitated about logos than college alumni, it's sports fans. That made this particular job, which combined both, a perfect storm. Moments after our new logo (which incorporated the number 10 into the word "big") was unveiled, the reaction started pouring in, almost all negative: "Epic fail," "looks like it took 25 seconds to make," "the gayest thing I've ever seen," and, of course, the inevitable conclusion that it looked like "a four-year-old from Chicago designed it in her sleep." What is it about four year olds, anyway?

Then there were the emails that were sent to us directly. "You should be completely embarrassed." "Lame and boring." "So bad." "Please tell me this is a joke." "My 13 year old could have done better with a blank piece of paper and a pencil." (This last represents a kind of progress, at least.)

Reasoning that people who took the time to look up our email address and send a note — no matter how filled with swear words — deserved a response, we replied with regret for their disappoinment in our work and our hope that the logo would grow on them. And we always ended with an acknowledgement of the passion of our correspondents; as I told Fast Company, "It's that exact same passion that fills the seats at every game." Almost every person we answered to wrote back. Some softened their criticism, some did not, but all expressed surprise that anyone wrote back at all. Clearly, part of the anger this change aroused was based on the idea that it was being imposed on them by remote, detached "experts" with no concern for the feelings of loyal fans, fans who have their own unique histories with their brands, histories that had abruptly been rendered null and void.

And this sense of alienation, more than anything else, is the fuel for the rising tide of logo crowdsmashing. Here New York's Paul Ford got it exactly right: "People don’t like their stories messed with. You expect a certain continuity, and when the opposite happens...you react out of proportion to external measures of the offense but very much in proportion to the internal anxiety and anger you might feel." In this case, our (wonderful) client held firm, the anger subsided, and two years later people do seem to be getting used to the logo.

Part Five: How Many Psychiatrists Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?

Whether it's from the general public or the professional design community, this kind of criticism always has an underlying tone: I could have done better. And you know what? You may be right. But designing a better logo usually isn't the hard part. 

Six years before Tropicana outraged its brand loyalists with its new package, another company changed its logo to great outcry. The company was UPS, the logo was the "package, bow and shield" mark designed by Paul Rand in 1961, and the outcry was mostly limited to the design community. But loud it was, so loud in fact that it became the hottest subject to date on Speak Up, a fledging blog created about a year before by two young Mexican émigrés who have been so central to our story, Armin Vit and Bryony Gomez-Palacio. The discussion ran to 169 comments, overwhelmingly negative: the redesign by Futurebrand was "crap," "shit," "pointless," "stupid," "hideously unoriginal," and so forth, and those quotes are from only the first dozen or so comments. Many of the commenters proceeded from an assumption that a logo by Paul Rand, especially one with 40 years of history behind it, should not on any accounts be changed. Many of them were also certain that if it had to be changed, they could do better.

I read these comments with mixed feelings because of something that was not widely known. From late 1996 to early 1999, I worked with a team at my firm on our own redesign of the UPS identity. We were hired for a simple reason: surveys kept showing the company was inaccurately perceived as being slower, more inflexible, and less technologically adept than their competition. If a logo from the Kennedy administration carried around by 80,000-plus boxy brown trucks wasn't reinforcing this perception, it certainly wasn't changing it. The mission was to disrupt external perception by somehow changing the face of the company. But how?

We came into the project similarly intimidated by the Rand legacy. On top of that, I personally had sentimental feelings about the brown truck, which seemed to me as much an American design icon as the Coke bottle. So my first idea was my favorite idea: don't change the logo or the trucks at all. Instead, repaint 10,000 trucks each in red, orange, green, purple, yellow and blue, and leave the remainder brown. If UPS already "owned brown," this would give them the next best thing: owning the entire spectrum. And imagine how fun it would be to spot a new color on the road. You could just hear the happy voices of America's children shouting, "There's an orange one!" I called this The M&M Strategy, and after I unveiled it at the first design presentation, I poured a big bag of M&Ms into a glass bowl in the middle of the conference table, convinced I had hit a home run.

The client didn't buy it. Nor did they buy any of the design proposals we would make over the next two years of work. We received a lot of encouragement and intelligent guidance, and were paid well and treated with respect. Some of the recommendations almost got across the finish line. I remember a presentation to top management in a carefully guarded facility where one of the options had gotten far enough to be painted on a spare UPS truck. It looked great. If you ask me, everything we presented looked great. But none of it was accepted. (I learned along the way that we were not alone: at least two other well-known firms had been similarly engaged before us and were similarly unable to attain the ultimate consummation.) Our suspicion was that the client simply was not ready to make a step this dramatic. I was reminded of the joke about the number of psychiatrists required to change a lightbulb: one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change

About four years later, UPS finally was, evidently, ready to change, and the Rand logo was superseded at last with the swooshy, shiny, gradated logo that we all know today and that 
 at the time was so widely criticized by the design community. But not by me. Did I like it? Not really. (I agreed with my colleague Tracey Cameron, who had studied with Rand at Yale and called it "The Golden Combover.") Was it better than the logos we had presented? Not necessarily. But Futurebrand had done something that we and the others had failed to do: they had convinced the client to accept their solution.

The basic starting point of Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport is "I could have done better." And of course you could! But simply having the idea is not enough. Crafting a beautiful solution is not enough. Doing a dramatic presentation is not enough. Convincing all your peers is not enough. Even if you've done all that, you still have to go through the hard work of selling it to the client. And like any business situation of any complexity whatsoever, that process may be smothered in politics, handicapped with exigencies, and beset with factors that have nothing to do with design excellence. You know, real life. Creating a beautiful design turns out to be just the first step in a long and perilous process with no guarantee of success. Or, as Christopher Simmons put it more succinctly, "Design is a process, not a product."

I do not propose here that this complex process should be an excuse or a crutch. Few things in the design world sound as sad as "the client made me do it."  Nor do I argue that the final result shouldn't be held up to scrutiny. We should be judged by what we make. But perhaps the question in these logo discussions could be more than: could I do better? Perhaps we could also ask: what was the purpose? What was the process? Whose ends were being served? How should we judge success? But we seldom look any deeper than first impressions, wallowing instead in a churning maelstrom of snap judgments. Should we be surprised when the general public jumps right in after us?

Part Six: I Had A Dream

Ah, the general public. Years ago, people like my dad and our neighbor Vinny would have been no more likely to have a backyard conversation about orange juice packaging or university seals than particle physics or the Treaty of Westphalia. Yet I dreamed of a day when regular people like my dad would be aware of graphic design, of typefaces, logos, packaging, when these things would be discussed as seriously as movies or books. And look how it all turned out.

Thoughtful criticism of graphic design once seemed to have a bright future. Ten years ago, a growing number of blogs on the subject provided more than any curious person could absorb, led by the pioneering Speak Up. In 2009 Vit and Palacio-Gomez, finding the traffic generated by frantic logo debates too irresistible to ignore, closed it down and launched Brand New, replacing the discursive, eclectic writing of their earlier site with the addictive, shallower thrills of up-down votes on logo after logo after logo.

That same year, ID Magazine closed after 55 years in print.  Last week, F&W Media fired the senior staff of the US's oldest design publication, the 73-year-old Print, and announced they were moving the magazine's operations to Cincinnati. (Although this was supposedly in the service of "synergy," it's more like a wayward Soviet diplomat being summoned back to Moscow, where a posting to Siberia was usually followed by an appearance before the firing squad.) From 1994 to 2006, I helped edit five anthologies of graphic design criticism, culled from magazines, journals and blogs, nearly 1,400 pages of thoughtful, in-depth writing about our field. With the drying up of so many oases of intelligence, I wonder if it would be possible to scrape together enough content for a sixth volume.

"Pretty pictures can no longer lead the way in which our visual environment should be shaped. It is time to debate, to probe the values, to examine the theories that are part of our heritage and to verify their validity to express our times." That was Massimo Vignelli, writing in 1983, in a call for criticism that is yet unfulfilled. What do we settle for, thirty years later? A seemingly endless series of drive-by shootings punctuated by the occasional lynch mob, conducted by anonymous people with the depth of barroom philosophers and the attention span of fruit flies. 

All this is happening at a time where more people than ever are engaged with design, and where designers, when given a chance, can be articulate, inspiring advocates for the power of design. We need these voices more than ever. Maybe it's time to stop shouting from the sidelines and actually get back on the field.


Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Graphic Design, Technology

Comments [67]

Great article Michael, I'm curious as to your personal opinion on the 'simplification' trend of logos today. I've recently found myself debating with my team over the merits of a logo referring to something that has cracked, actually showing a crack, cartoon style in the symbol, as opposed to a more stylised crack that, truthfully, could be construed as something else by the audience.

Is the USA Today logo design a stroke of genius? I love it but I'm a designer and I also happen to be scandinavian (+3 in Simplicity).

And when you look back at the Big 10 rebranding is there part of you that thinks you should have designed a tiger facing off against an armoured elephant against a complex background of gradients and shaders instead?
David Lundblad

Interesting read, Michael.

I followed the UC rebrand and it's comments, and was dumbstruck by the comments of Vit; "...here is what you need to know: shut up. Seriously. Shut. Up." How can I or anyone else be expected to take a designer seriously who pops off with that sort of nonsense?

After 30 years in the business (as a designer/art director/creative director, studio owner), I have seen ample rebrands, some good, some not so good. I would put the UC rebrand squarely in the "not so good" category. Despite a handsome looking campaign and a respectable series of collateral built around the new logo, I still think the general public were just in their criticism of the new mark. UC could have done so much better. As for Vit, well, maybe he should just stick with letting people vote on Brand New and keep his acerbic comments to himself.
Cooper grad

Excellent read this morning.

It often crosses my mind how someone in advertising, like, say, Peter Arnell— an ad guy, is more properly stationed to deliver identity redesigns than someone like Mr. Bierut— someone in the design industry. I used to illustrate Peter's Ad Age articles. I HAD to read em. They were reasoned, aimed at CMOs and satcheled with all the lofty brand-speak that you don't hear from some of us (Michael included). They unambiguously SOLD ideas and solutions, as apparently he did. I can't believe he sold that Tropicana package. Sure, it was European looking, sparse and clean. But it actually wasn't bad. It looked Massimo Vignelli esque. I think what prompts some of this crowd smashing is the idea that someone like Arnell, an outsider to designers, is selling what we can't.

It should come as no surprise that my old cohort, Mr. Collins, also wears those fabulous circular Corbusier tortoise shell rimmed glasses. We should all invest in a pair. Really.
Felix Sockwell

Thank you Michael for writing this, and for reminding me that I've lapsed in my role as a graphic design critic. You made me realize that instead of just tweeting this link with my three-word/acronym/emoji opinion in front of it, I should take the time to write my own blog post responding to the issue at hand. Which I did. I hope your points are the beginning of a new golden age for design criticism.
Alissa Walker

Curious to see Armin Vit quite so extensively cited as some kind of authority in a piece about what's become of graphic design criticism.

In 2011, in a special feature about graphic design criticism, Grafik magazine asked Vit where he thought the most interesting and progressive design writing and criticism could be found.

Here's his thoughtful reply:

"To be honest, I don't know and I don't really care. I have very little patience for criticism these days. Either do the work or shut up. Critique with action not words. Words are so twentieth century."

He went on: "There may be a few people that still enjoy reading that kind of stuff, but I think for the most part design criticism (at least in graphic design) is dead, and that's not saying much as it never really lived much."

And there our sage took his own advice and shut up. Not long after that Grafik shut down. Without platforms that can fund proper investigative research and a high standard of knowledge and writing, because readers find this useful, value it, and are prepared to pay for it, it isn't going to happen any more.
Rick Poynor

As usual, Michael, you've eloquently provided substance that ties together a wide range of ideas milling in the design universe. I too remember thinking how great it could be if people noticed design, cared about it, thought about it. And yes, I've noticed that they are noticing but usually frivolously, thoughtlessly. This 'caring' has overridden the profession's ability to act thoughtfully because the real underlying problem of design remains: as a mentor once said, "people see design as the icing on a cake, not as an integral component of the batter." It is sad to get what we wished for, and find it is not as we hoped…

I never expected to feel nostalgic for 'the good old days' of invisibility, but in invisibility there was room to try to solve real problems without being sideswiped by manufactured indignation. In design classrooms, we constantly struggle to get students to react at a deeper level than "I like it, or I don't." Now we need to figure out how to get the public to do the same.
Jan Conradi

This is a really interesting call to action for the design community. Part of the problem with the internet is that it is so easy to post a snap judgement, a hurtful quip, a snarky tweet that we tend to do it almost without thought—like being a backseat driver of design. I am as guilty as anyone for doing this, including a snarky comment about one of Michael's own projects in something I wrote that was not only cheap and unnecessary, but factually incorrect. I was being a jerk, because putting words down on paper is easy, but saying something interesting and useful is much harder. (Sorry about that, Michael.)

While I do think there is a lot of value to design critics, I think that what is unique about this situation is that the critics can also be the makers. Designers are in a unique position to not only critique, but to make, and to use their making as critique. (I wrote about this idea a couple of years ago here.). We can not only be more considered and thoughtful with our words, but we can be more critical with our making, with how we approach the projects we make. I hope we not only think harder, but we make harder, too.
Mitch Goldstein

Loved it!!! Thumbs up! Like like like!!! (Just kidding...)

Your point is important as are the comments that Rick Poynor has added. Together they serve as important examples of criticism extended to considered (operative word!) conversation that has the potential to drive the field forward.

Louise Sandhaus

Great article! I would also point out, in 1969 the average person had no expectation (dread or desire) about logos "getting on them" in a physical literal way. It's appropriate for people to take it personally. Whether the layman (or the pro) can articulate themselves, these marks do become part of "our story", as you say. And that's putting it mildly. Also, in '69 we didn't ask every person what they thought about everything under the sun the way we do now. The technology wasn't there yet and neither was consumer culture. (Or market research for that matter. Or "comment culture.") Now, even the TV news shows ask "tell us what you think" as a routine part of reporting the news. The result is we've cultivated a generation of a-holes/opinionators.
Shawn Wolfe

Really amazing essay which articulately sums up my MFA degree. The key thing being that the lightbulb has to change.

I wish you'd do a continuation on what richer design criticism actually _means_. I hear for it called so often, always conveniently at the end of an essay, but it seems to be used as just a vague refrain to think about these things deeply. Of course I agree, but what are actual ways that does a richer, deeper design criticism help bridge the gap between public and designer (in both directions?)

I don't know what that looks like yet and I'm curious to see suggestions. I suspect it means a lot more listening of the target audience (cf. amazing Big Ten logo redesign story) by the designer; and judging design by what it does rather how it looks.


Thank you. You have perfectly captured the reasons that I no longer design logos (except under contract by someone such as yourself). I have long considered it the Rorschach test of design - what each person sees in the mark is individual and sometimes psychologically complex or bizarre. I also stopped taking part in the logo fights years ago for many of these reasons: without knowing the backstory it is difficult to impossible to critique, in most cases. The most instructive criticisms of logos are on a technical level, such as Felix Sockwell did with the Brazil world cup logo, not changing the intent, but correcting obvious problems:

I remember way back when Critique magazine still existed, they did some logo redesigns, and the best was of Grape-nuts (i forget who by, sadly), where the average eye wouldn't notice the difference, but the drawing of the letterforms were all just fixed. It was perfect and highly instructive.

Your point about the absence of knowledgeable, in-depth design criticism is a bigger issue. It seems that independent (i.e. non-designer) design critics are as few as they were 10 years ago. It's of interest to me, and I've considered taking it up at times, but ultimately the resulting loss of all my design friends would not be worth it. :)
marian bantjes

what Louise said ;-)

…and thank you for providing a fine example of the kind of design criticism I can actually get through – and enjoy reading – because I, like Armin, have grown weary and stopped reading most of it.
Lydia Mann

One of the wonderful (and possibly ironic, depending on your POV) consequences of writing the long bit of design criticism "American Mutt Barks in the Yard: Emigre 68" in 2005--as an outsider, struggling self-taught amateur, and reflexively self-critical writer--is that I now teach design. Ha! Life! I teach design criticism, writing to visual-arts students, and a branding course. I advise thesis students in undergrad and grad school. I teach seniors in their thesis years, and I teach writing and thinking and reading to every student before whom I am honored and grateful to stand. I owe much of what I do today to my impulse to write critically about what I experience. Criticism lives everywhere incognito, by other names, and its fugitive mindset persists in many of us. I try my best to pass it on.

One of the first things I tell my students is that criticism is an appreciation of values. Design critics appreciate the values of a work of design from as many perspectives as possible. The ugly can be ergonomic. The pretty can be fragile. The angelic can be awkward. People encounter design in context, and time is always the ticking context: what is useful today is useless tomorrow (today's InDesign is tomorrow's Pagemaker). This imaginative openness is a kind of literary, as well as moral, ideal: to see the world from many points of view.

Consumers, to the contrary, tend to be binary critics: thumbs up or thumbs down, to buy or not to buy? Consumers see the world only from their own points of view. Paul Ford's helpful insight into our behavior online ("Why wasn't I consulted?") reveals the motive behind the explosion of our self-absorbed voices. Because the internet makes it easy for us to answer, we expect to be asked--but mostly, oddly enough, within our roles as consumers. To be asked for anything more than a thumbs up or down on a law, logo, or leaf-blower would be a burden (unless we are rewarded with an online coupon or something).

And so it is a combination of technological circumstance (the internet makes it easy: click, click, boom), social circumstance (we are tethered to net devices all day long), and labor circumstance (while choice empowers us as consumers, our modes of unbundled/freelance/part-time employment disempowers us as workers) serves to set the stage for a kind of psychological, tech-enabled release of our frustrations. We express our frustrations less frequently at the complicated causes (the powerful don’t care to hear from the servants) but at the simple aesthetic expressions of those who are trying their best to entertain us with impossible dreams of better lives (companies selling us juice, education, movies, and apps, and those deciding what pretty pictures to put on those juice containers, college degrees, movie trailers, and app buttons).

The impulse to be heard (to which I am giving in this very moment) is given license and expression online. There is value in that, as there is value in passionate debate about the emotional attachments aroused by brands and severed by rebrands. There is also value in looking at ourselves with as much passion and energy and focus as we expend on logos and symbols and labels. It's easy to be snarky about what someone else has done. It is much more difficult to live according to our own standards. The consumer critic has it easy: the anonymous gladiator lives or dies, while the one who wields the thumb clicks to the next screen. The critic who examines his or her own life has it rough, and wants it that way: to be and how to be, that is the question. I am happy to be a design critic and thoroughly confused, as ever, about how to go on being one.

Wow. Excellent essay, Michael!


Simple and complex aren't the only contrast, of course: simplicity and richness are another. Some of the rebranded corporate logos are as banal and boring as the new names they come up with (thankfully, I can't think of the worst examples right now, but you know what I mean).

In my work, I think of cities and the buildings that make them as being made up of order and richness. The old buildings, like the former bank Pentagram is in, have a pleasing combination of both. The giganto glass towers going up all over town have too much simplistic order and too little visual richness. Walking along the edge of the Bank of America tower on 42nd Street is boring, at best.

Congratulations on the NYC signs, and thank you for not using Helvetica.
john massengale

I've started wondering what I would say when we open Blunt: Explicit and Graphic Design Criticism Now this April (before I hand things over to our keynote speaker, Rick Poynor). Reading this article and its comments gives me lots of material. So, thanks. Otherwise, I expect to see everyone there that professes to want to indulge in that elusive creature, graphic design criticism.

Kenneth FitzGerald

Yes, here:
Kenneth FitzGerald

> Curious to see Armin Vit quite so extensively cited as some kind of authority in a piece about what's become of graphic design criticism.

Ha! And you weren't. So there.

(Point being: Michael was citing me as an enabler/conduit for this new kind of discussion in regards to two blogs I started, edited, managed, and grew. He never said anything about my writing or "critical" writing abilities).

For whatever it's worth — and not that I feel the need to defend myself against passive agressive attacks but to establish where and how I see myself in this topic — and in lieu of Michael's title: For the past two or three years, whenever I am talking about the growth and popularity of Brand New and my role in it, I describe myself a "commentator" never, EVER a critic — I'm the Bob Costas/Marv Albert/Dennis Miller of logo criticism. Brand New is not journalism or design criticism, it's entertainment.
Armin Vit

Physical design can be analyzed on it own terms, but graphic design is judged with greater confusion because it represents many things, some physical, and some mental--a much more neurotic area of design for sure. People like their university seals a certain way because they all want to go to Harvard in the 1920s--interesting point -- though wouldn't a corporate logo be more appropriate given the profit-driven business of universities today?
Just think of the most powerful brand of all time: the Holy Cross. Nobody would argue that it's too simple or corporate. It's simplicity and powerful connection with Jesus's physical death connects us to the story in a powerful way. Can you think of a better rebrand of that! I think not.
In JC's time, it was believed that things had a special power, beyond what was observable. A logo, the cross, connected them with that power. Without it the cross is just a geometry. The problem with the University of California's logo is that the logo doesn't connect us with anything recognizable about that university, its tradition. It's not even simple--you can't really read it. And if you did it would look like a toilet flushing from above.
R. Mackintosh

Also, it seems like in graphic design, the user comments usually agree with that of more long form graphic design criticism--but the long form can explain why it is that we come to these quick decisions. Like this essay explains our quick reactions to logos--because of this connection that we have. For those with no concept of university seals or the University of California, any critique would be meaningless.
R. Mackintosh

Or in short: Content is Everything
R. Mackintosh

Fabio, the traditional UC seal contains a book and light rays, the new mark is its modern reinterpretation containing the same symbolic elements and consisting of a "metaphoric" book forming a U and an equally metaphoric light ray forming a C.
Kirill Mazin

A decade ago Central Michigan University decided to change its logo. The university had a seal, but used it solely for official documents. As with many schools, the logo was an illustration of "Old Main" that had been developed for the institution's centenary in 1992, and this had come to be called "the outhouse."

In 2002 the AVP for University Communication hired a firm in Okemos, Michigan named Fahrenheit for the upgrade. He was insistent it had to be a word mark and, reviewing the trends in academic branding, he turned out to be right. Fahrenheit developed two or three dozen fairly conventional solutions, and they were presented publicly.

The shit storm that ensued was out of all proportion. Many protested the nominal amount, $12,000, that had been paid for the work. Others asked why the job had to be farmed out when so many talented people worked within the university. No one argued that their 4-year-old could have done better, but several suggested that students could have.

The AVP, seriously chastened by the adverse out pouring, turned to me as if to ask, "What should I do?" I recommended he apply a new at that time Emigre font, Fairplex, to one of the completed designs. He purchased the font, it was sufficiently collegial, and the debate died down. People got their way eventually because a secondary mark, the "running C", designed by a student, became the school's athletic logo.

As has already been said here many times, in an era of flash mob voting applied to everything from American Idol to the Grand Rapids "Art Prize," democritization is only the first baby step toward effective criticism. The latter takes time, and only a few will be patient enough to be thoughtful, let alone insightful.

We should be thankful for this.

david stairs

Kirill, a book with light rays is a pretty powerful set of options--but i didn't see that at all in the new logo. It works in theory, but you can't really see the metaphor at all. I could see an animated graphic version of the cover to Neon Bible (Arcade Fire) being a cool, modern way to show book+light rays. Also, the Media Lab's new logo is an example of something modern but not bland--geeky to fit the brand.
R. Mackintosh

Yep. And there we have it. "Criticism" is a crowd-sourcing of surveyed opinions on what font or colour looks best.

Graphic designers--practicing professionals and students alike--treat their discipline as mere fodder for their latest project. The discipline, i.e. history, is simply a grab bag of typographic styles from which to rummage about and pilfer. It's simply one surface that is as good as the next.

Every time I see a fawning website or exhibition or book which displays the work of Wim Crouwel, my blood pressure rises. Yes, I think his work is fantastic, but where is the accompanying contemporary analysis? the accompanying attempt to come to terms with the questions about representation and modernity that Crouwel engaged with back then, but whose issues are still with us today?

We actually have MORE monographs, magazines and exhibitions of graphic design now than 10 or 20 years ago. But ironically, while we have a few specialized writers who do make the effort to engage contemporary work with the deep thinking that is needed to thicken the meaning and increase the value [read, "regard"] of what we do, the vast majority of what is made is relatively vacuous. Bierut's post suggests that criticism starts with writing. Well how 'bout it starting with the active pursuit of making work which is thoughtfully critical? I often tell students to "Ask bigger questions" with their work (a request which is more often than not, met with blank stares), questions that may take a lifetime to answer.

Such questions will probably be met by the public with scorn, derision and a claim that graphic design is about delivering a clear message. But you know what? Sometimes, we have to figure things out for ourselves before we can deliver that "clear message."

I hope to see you all at Blunt. Along with my other co-organizers Jason Tselentsis, Jiwon Lee, Ivanete Blanco and Kenneth, I'll be grinding my axe there too.
David Cabianca

Fabio, yes, that's precept 2 in part 3 of this piece. "People prefer literal things to metaphoric things." In terms of bland, are these bland:
http://onwardcalifornia.com/ or http://www.kirillmazin.com/brand/uc_buttons.png? Truly?
Kirill Mazin

The issue isn't whether the UC design itself is good or not--i didn't say it was bland, i said the Media Lab isn't. The point the essay brings up is that it was rejected because people associate universities with some type of ideal. I said the new logo is probably more appropriate if you think about it.
So the point I take is that you need to understand history and the minute details of politics and people to do "successful" design. Maybe a bit of cynicism. Remember, Frank Gehry is "successful." Not necessarily good.
Metaphors are more difficult to pull off, but not impossible. Though a logo can probably succeed in spite of abstraction if there is a degree of authenticity to it.
R. Mackintosh

I dislike the inference that designers are like some super-human benevolent entity put on earth to gift the ignorant "general" or "civilian" or "regular" or "consumer" populations with cool logos and books about Wikipedia articles. I find so much of this essay to be fraught with this rather alienating language. We're communicators. People are communicators. We're people working with people, on the same level, to improve the tools for communication for the whole. Unfortunately the rate and high levels of information we exchange create situations where the competition for attention is what is valued higher than our omnipotent ideas of content, clarity, form, and beauty. You can thank commodity culture on overdrive and the insatiable extrapolation of user data for that. There is no way to just walk back on to the field when the field is no longer occupying the same space. Things have shifted socially, politically, and economically, and constructive solutions need to be brought forward that address these shifts and our new role in a shared space. I propose that these new conversations first and foremost seek to strengthen the bonds between designer and audience rather than patronize.


If our common goal as designers is to raise the expectation of what the design can be, the UC debacle is to all of our disadvantage. Inherent in the rejection of the UC logo system is the belief, both from lay people and design professionals alike, is that a school won't be perceived as "serious" unless its logo looks and feels like it was designed in 1787. That's pathetic.

Design blogs and consumer petitions operate in form and principal like focus tests. They are not "democratic". They are inherently reactionary. They tell us what the public thinks now, their reactions to something, not how they WILL perceive something, or come to accept something in the future.

The issue isn't whether or not one perceives that the UC system (or Tropicana for that matter) as well conceived, or whether the form was beautiful, or whether or not it was "believable". The issue is about our ability as a design community to be able to make progress the next time when a designer attempts to raise the expectation of of what something can be.

We shouldn't be the ones who make our clients and public fearful of change. We need an appropriate forum for criticism, we need discussion about the role and purpose if identity design in the 21st century, we need some blog posts that may be even longer than the one Michael just wrote, unless some genius can figure out how to get that kind of nuance into a tweet.

paula scher

Okay, a preview. There is a nomenclature problem at the heart of this. What Michael Bierut is terming "criticism," isn't. Vignelli's "Call for Criticism" essay has not been an inspiring declaration (for me) but something that must be countered to get to a true criticism.

The flaw is evident in the text Bierut quotes from the essay, that (Vignelli's) criticism is "to examine the theories that are part of our heritage and to verify their validity to express our times." He and most designers see criticism's purpose as affirming design's accepted wisdom, not to question it, or (gasp) propose an alternate reading. This is why designers call for more designers to write: challenging dogma isn't on their agenda. Rationalizing it is.

However, Marian Bantjes is on target with her assessments. What's needed for a design criticism is more non-designers writing, largely for the reason she states: you'll be vilified for even entertaining the thought that a major design figure or dogma is a candidate for a less-than-luminous assessment (never mind what you actually write).

Lastly, the plug was pulled on the Looking Closer series not because there was a lack of critical voices to feature. It was because too many of the approved, professional voices petered out. These are mutually exclusive.

Overall, I don't have a problem with what Bierut or Vignelli want—just don't call it criticism.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Great article.

The most professional resource the design community can muster to discuss logos seems to be Brand New, where designers are nipping away at each other with barely any knowledge of a brief, while those in the know who are tied up in confidentiality agreements and must remain silent.

But props to Armin for doing something nobody else did so well; Brand New is shaping conversations and moving the industry forward.

I've long been a believer that the branding industry needs a specific group/resource that can (more professionally, and not beholden to client confidentiality) help business/media/public understand the value/cost of design, and provide the public with real and useful tools to influence, mediate and educate the public and other constituencies about how and when to best respond to identity work.

Armin Vit wrote,

"If you only read this paragraph and happen to be either in favor of the petition or have signed the petition and further expanded your thoughts and put them in writing of why this logo is so bad,here is what you need to know: shut up. Seriously. Shut. Up."


"Don’t succumb to the mob. They do not — DO NOT — know better than you."

But one person's mob is another person's community. William Drenttel wrote,

"Designing for Social Change is one place to begin. It’s a toolkit of strategies, case studies, and stories, offering new opportunities for approaching social design in our communities. It presents students and schools as active participants, designers and design firms as social innovators, and communities as both rich laboratories for experimentation and receptive locations for creative approaches and new ideas."

The "mob" that Vit complains about so angrily are the students and graduates of the University of California. Such arrogance and top-down direction is okay in graphic design?
john massengale

Thanks for that good sense, Kenneth. Exactly right.

Not only is the debate going round in circles in this latest lament for the lack of graphic design criticism, but they are the wrong circles.

Designers don't on the whole make good or lasting critics because they quite understandably can't achieve the necessary detachment from the profession and the milieu to maintain a truly critical stance. Nor do the usually want to put writing first when it comes down to it.

Michael Rock, one of the most incisive and promising graphic design critics of the last 20 years (back in the 1990s), realized this long ago when he drew back from writing to concentrate on being a partner and designer with 2x4 — a smart move financially, I'd wager.
Rick Poynor

@Marian Bantjes:

Oh, how I miss Critique magazine! I still cherish my complete collection.

On criticism and discussion:

I do agree that designers have this 'common goal' to raise expectations in the work they create. However, I also think designers need to take more initiative in expressing their opinions—whether it's through the method they do so…or simply just doing so. Any kind of activity in this 'community' (sometimes not felt like one) is great. I often stop at a point when I'm browsing around where I say, "Oh, that's it?". As in, that's all that's out there? No more resources? But, I guess it does take some initiative to create something new.

Nevertheless, once you create this buzz and have discussions rolling it only creates further opportunity for more discussion. I don't know what it is, but as a student I feel like a lot of other students have this reluctancy to express their opinions, and I've seen this in many other schools. So my point being, a much greater initiative to express criticism/thoughts/opinions should be encouraged on all levels. Reactionary sites and blogs only live within the platform or site they reside on, but what can be done further to make people take what they've been relentlessly typing away about and go do something?

I think when this happens, at that very moment, you start to see change and new ideas in people's work. They are that much more apt to act as game changers. We should be well aware by now that a high percentage of our population are creatures of habit. I think UC should have kept their logo—which I think is great—and lead by example.

...but this is only a student's point of view.


As if to emphasize the title of this excellent essay, the San Francisco Chronicle has a followup this morning on the UC Logo controversy — in the ENTERTAINMENT section.

Enough said.

Christopher Simmons

Overall, I don't have a problem with what Bierut or Vignelli want—just don't call it criticism.

Kenneth, you gave me real pause with this. It occurs to me that what I really want is something like — what's the word? — journalism, or, if this isn't too confusing, "critical journalism."

For years, my complaint with academic criticism (if that's a name for what you're advocating, sorry if I'm guessing wrong) has been its lack of specificity. For that reason, I am intrigued by the "explicit and graphic" promise of the of the Blunt Conference.

Designers don't on the whole make good or lasting critics because they quite understandably can't achieve the necessary detachment from the profession and the milieu to maintain a truly critical stance.

Rick, I agree with you here. Even beyond the issues of critical detachment are the more concrete factors of client confidentiality and a reluctance to directly attack fellow professionals.

To independent writers and critics I say: bring it on, and don't hold back.
Michael Bierut

"Critical journalism" — yes! That was what we tried to encourage with Eye and the term we used for it. I still believe it's one of the ways (not the only way) we might write probingly about graphic design, and all design. And it's that possibility that we are losing as design magazine publishing inexorably goes under. People who don't see what the fuss is about should seek out some issues of, say, Print from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s. An amazing magazine in terms of its content and the level of discussion, incredibly high editorial standards, and often taken for granted back then.
Rick Poynor

Over the holidays, I was back at my mom's apartment and went through my old book shelf and found my copy of Looking Closer 2, the pages worn, crumpled sticky notes popping out of dozens of pages and passages underlined. It nearly brought a tear to my eye.

This book is a big part of how I used to learn about design. Now I scroll through tumblr and read critical theory from far outside the field and try all on my lonesome to make some sort of connection between our visual culture and the ideas at stake.
Kevin Yuen Kit Lo

I was one of the 54,000 Cal alums who were jumping up and down yelling against the new logo. I had many things against it -- including its ugly colors, which morphed blue and gold into. . . I'm not sure what they were -- and including its odd shield-like shape, which reminded me and many others of. . . is this a family website?. . . a certain waste product that emerges from our rear ends.

But my number 1 complaint was that the logo meant nothing. A "C" -- actually, a C that was not even clearly a C. . . What does that mean? Even though I'm a proud Berkeley graduate, the letter C does not signify California to me. The old seal -- corny, cliched as it is -- SIGNIFIES "university" and "California". Shouldn't the seal of the University of California in fact signify those things? A seal need not have words in it -- though there is nothing wrong with words -- but it has to have SOMETHING that somehow connects the seal to the thing the seal represents.

Modern is not necessarily bad -- but it has to be representative of the institution AND nice to look at it. I happened to be teaching at Beijing University in 1983 when its new seal was introduced. I loved it then and I still do. The characters in the center read "Beida" which means Beijing University in the say way that "UC" means the University of California.

There! My rant is done.

John Plotz -- UC Berkeley School of Law '75.
Secular Humorist

Independent criticism is next to impossible--educated design minds don't just pop out of nowhere and write without getting paid by somebody--unless they practice enough to afford independence in their criticism. Most design magazines themselves are now lorded over by marketing people (not experts anymore) with little design education--but I guess these are the "independent" ones. I'd rather listen to an authority than some rabble rouser. They are probably the ones who start these logo hate mobs.
What is old or novel isn't really important in any design, only what is good and real--and authentic.


I think Michele Champagne's efforts with The New Design Smell is a recent example of the sort of critical design journalism you're calling for, especially if you follow her twitter (@newdesignsmell). It does take someone with the guts to defy 'marketing people', financial gain, job opportunities, and the general compulsion to 'like' everything. Another point is that discussions that take place in the comments are never the same as discussions that take place on message boards. Are there any critical design message boards in existence? I'd love to join one or help build one (Anons welcome!).


Great essay Michael.
In this case of the University logo design, it is the management of the university that failed twice to prepare its students and alumni for this change. This emotional response is a reaction of the heart not of reason. We can try to reason with them as long as we want to, but these are two different conversations, two different paths. The seal is Martin Cranes' ugly old comfortable lazy boy, which can be an eyesore for one (two:) and an essential part of one's being for the other. The reaction was largely sentimental precisely because for what it represents. University as an institution lies somewhere between a family and a nation. Belonging to these institutions makes us too emotionally involved therefore very often not able to have a appropriate distance to form an objective opinion. We love our symbols and the idea of a change so fundamental, that it could threaten our own belief system is for most of us unbearable or unacceptable. Sudden change is rarely met with universal understanding. To continue with your metaphor, the old seal in our story is more of a gas lamp, it is dated, it smells and it's not very safe, but it has been providing us with light for generations. Electric bulbs are better option, but a home cannot go from gas light to electric in one night.

This is not a case of a horrible logo (I quite like it) but a case of a poorly executed rebranding strategy. The University of California should have spent lot more time and money in preparing the students for this change, getting them involved, excited and part of the process (not the design, of course) To help them be the change, rather then ordering it to them.

Where the university management failed for the second time was when they didn't stand behind their decision. Even after the first fiasco, they could have saved their face. Two years from now, after the emotions would cool down a bit, they could have stated creating a new chapter in the life of their university enriched by the unprecedented brand recognition.
Jan Sabach

I'm the Creative Director at the University of California. Kirill Mazin, also on this thread, is UC’s Art Director and the lead designer on the now logo-less identity system.

A few quick things to point out:

John Massengale:
One person's mob is not another person's community. A community shares a set of values that results in collective goals and actions. A mob is group of people (and that is where the similarity ends) that behaves in a disorderly manner and, as a group, is not susceptible to reason.

The mob (yes, it was a mob) that demanded the suspension of the UC logo was incited in large part by misinformation and in many cases, a complete lack of information altogether. We are still fielding emails from Berkeley alums infuriated that the “Cal” script is going away.

Paula Scher:
“The issue is about our ability as a design community to be able to make progress the next time when a designer attempts to raise the expectation of what something can be.” Yes. Absolutely.

There is deep unintended irony in the title of Michael's post. The post ultimately doesn't enter into the fray of the "discussion" of the logo. It's hard to call a post this long "too little" but in this case it is certainly both that and, sadly, too late.

More importantly though, Paula's point that designers need to find an effective way to support one another in situations like this is significant. In regard to the UC logo, a few designers and design educators did just the opposite, thereby also demonstrating their own profoundly antiquated and ideological views about the nature of graphic design ("autonomy of a logo/design object", etc.). Unfortunately, the mob simply took this as fodder for their fight, even as they cried “elitist, arrogant designer!” at any design professional who bothered to argue on behalf of the work.

Clearly, I agree with Paula. Why, I wonder, does a university have to look like it's stuck in the 18th century? The modern American university has existed, in roughly its current form, for only 60 years. The shape it will take in the next 60 is up for debate. It is being debated right now. Creating something that is visually relevant, reflects the visual vocabulary of California, and reflects the actual innovation happening on the campuses as well as the impact of that innovation on and in the community seems logical. It's also needed.

More broadly, yes, design criticism would be nice. But ultimately the words will be wasted unless they reach beyond the confines of a limited network of designers talking amongst themselves. Design criticism isn't just for designers. It shouldn’t be. And frankly, given last month’s shenanigans, it would imprudent for our community (this, John, is a community) to ignore the lessons that we (at least here at UC) have learned.

At the end of the day, the defense of the design is less significant than the defense of the people, things, and institutions the design itself serves. Kirill and I are not upset — or even sad — that the logo has been put to pasture. While it was good — very good — work, there’s still much more good work to be done. Sadly however destroying this logo has also damaged the credibility of UC as its ability to advocate for itself within California and beyond.

Vanessa Corrêa

Great article and really interesting to see the debate it has caused.

Designers may be great at designing and the working practices that go along with it, but does this skill put them in a good position to offer critical opinions on the work of others? Perhaps not. Obviously a clear and informed understanding of design is essential to anyone wishing to seriously comment on the successes or failures of a piece of work, but being a designer may make you far less suited to playing the critic role.

One thing that’s always difficult for designers to remember is the fact that it’s highly likely that they’re not the person the design is aimed at. They may, in fact, be pretty ignorant as to the mindset of the target audience. Forgetting this is easy and we’re as guilty of it as anyone. We see a new logo unveiled on a design website and instantly react to it based on personal preference and taste. Having this immediate first impression isn’t necessarily a bad thing (and is unavoidable regardless), but bearing in mind that the design in question may not need to appease us is something that we should always bear in mind.

It’s no surprise that a designer seeing something out of context, which isn’t intended to appeal to them in the first place, is not always impressed. This certainly doesn’t mean that the design is ‘wrong’.

Whether the work is genius or shit, you can be sure that the designer being critiqued has put more time and consideration into the intended audience than the commentator giving their opinion after having seen a logo for 10 seconds on a website. Without knowing the bigger picture, criticism can often be based on insufficient information and become somewhat nearsighted. Filling in the blanks on a brief you’ve never read is fine, providing you don’t convince yourself you have all the information.

In addition to this, designers have a tendency to focus on the minute details. This is completely understandable, as it’s part of our jobs and the details do matter. But there’s a lot more to a full and rounded critique of a branding project than simply dissecting the kerning or colour choice.

Social media and blogs are now ingratiated into the way designers discuss design. It can be a genuinely positive thing and it’s certainly not going anywhere. The speed and efficiency at which social media platforms report on new work is both informative and entertaining, but it does mean that no branding campaign will ever be allowed to fully roll out before it’s been over analysed by the design press and commented on by under-informed, self-appointed experts.

Essentially, you’re not going to be able to appease picky, opinionated designers who are viewing your work out of it’s intended context. So there really is no point in trying. What you can (and should) do, however, is aim to create consistently brilliant, original and appropriate design work for your clients and their audiences. Design which speaks to the right people in the right places in the right way.

Easier said than done, but most worthwhile things are.
Mat Dolphin

It seems everyone is a critic; look at the comments to the article-critique from designers on content and not the technical rules of english prose and form. As a designer I am not qualified to comment on the technical expertise of this writer, so I don't. Likewise, few are qualified to comment on design with useful critique, but in our highly visual culture, largely digital, exposure leads people to feel like experts.

Designers need to explain their reasons for design to help define their vision and why it works. A good, trained, talented and qualified designer should be able to clearly articulate his/her design choices. That is the most useful education they can provide to help the uninformed better understand and appreciate design.

Thank you, Michael, for your insights into the world of branding from a graphic designer’s perspective.

As you point out, we (the public) typically assign little value to the process of graphic design after the fact (e.g. in response to a cleverly simple logo: “My four year old could do this”…)

Is it any real wonder, then, that people starting their own business typically forgo the services of a graphic designer?

I guess this explains the proliferation of graphic pollution along Main Street in anyone’s home town, with every second mom-and-pop-store shop front sign-written in Papyrus Font…
James Thomas

I often joke now that the only people who like brand identity design changes are brand identity designers.

I think the issue we are currently facing is that most change is met with suspicion and apprehension, and people tend to react poorly to situations that make them feel suspicious and apprehensive. Most people look at identity changes with the following questions:

--why is this being changed now? what was wrong with it before? will I be getting something inferior now?

--am I getting less (product/experience/whatever) and now required to pay more money?

--what is the company/entity/whatever hiding by making this change? am I being duped in any way?

I have seen the most beautiful designs rejected by people/consumers/the public over and over again, and it is not because the design is considered ugly, or actually *is* ugly. It is because it is unfamiliar, or unrecognizable from the previous iteration. As a species, we get used to what we see on a regular basis. Once we are faced with anything foreign (ideas, food, attire, make-up, piercings, packaging, logos, etc) it feels weird. It is only over time that we get used to it. Then we begin to feel an affinity with it. Sometimes we begin to love what we used to loathe or fear.

I can't think of many designs that, when introduced, were universally loved. It is only over time that they become part of our daily vernacular. Let's face it, if the Apple logo came out today, I am sure we'd say, hmmm....the company is NAMED Apple and they are SHOWING an Apple?!?! How literal! How pedestrian!

Bottom line is this, for me: brand identity design is a subjective discipline, and very few logos are universally loved OR hated instantly. We are also living in a day and age now wherein people/consumers/the public weigh in on *everything.* When brands and logos are now all expected to come with a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, why wouldn't we expect that anyone and everyone would want to comment on the way it all looks and makes them feel?
Debbie Millman

The apple logo is not just an apple, but it's an apple with a bite. That is what makes it so interesting and memorable I think.
Tushar Gupte

Thanks Michael, for this reasoned call for a more meaningful dialogue. It is increasingly rare to find a source where this dialogue is encouraged.

Let's put the general public aside for a second (as that's a whole other matter). Within the profession, it was hard to be in the middle of this whole UC Logo debate. I personally really appreciated the thinking and vision of the system— the applications looked promising, they felt true and new to me, and communicated an interesting aspect of what California aspires to be. I just wish the mark was a bit more graceful, that's all. In a sense, I wish the mark did the well-executed system more justice. 

But this somewhat moderate opinion was under-represented. It was either "You hate the whole thing!" or "You love the whole thing!" The discourse was  "You're either with us or against us!" That's not terribly productive.

Designers are an opinionated bunch, obviously. We won't always like each other's work. That's a given. But it's never black or white. When we disagree as designers, we should be civil about our disagreements, too. ("Agree to disagree," as they say). But contributions like Armin Vit's somewhat tongue-in-cheek "Shut Up!" rant and the unfortunate last part of Christopher Simmons' AIGA post subtitle "How…Virtually Every Designer Got it Wrong" are not really all that conducive to dialogue. 
julio martinez

So many designers can be articulate, inspiring advocates for the power of design. Where are their voices?
Something is wrong with Graphic Design Criticism if all we can do is talk about is No-go logos. It is time for us to write about the read/write culture. Thank you Michael.

Aaron Swartz NYC Memorial Service, The Great Hall at Cooper Union Saturday, January 19, 2013 from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM
Carl W. Smith

It's hard to comment with any depth using a medium like twitter--it seems to encourage a very short attention span. A thoughtful post about a logo is replaced by a snarky comment--then on to the next 20 posts per day. Everybody sounds like the same annoying hater.
Commenting seems to encourage the most shallow social behavior. It's an obnoxious barroom conversation for sure, meant to impress not to be thoughtful.
Ed Nai

Great article. It brought to mind the fantastic – and, in a cartoon about a rat, rather unexpected – speech on criticism delivered by Peter O'Toole in Ratatouille:

"In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. The bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends."

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I realise that Ratatouille is a great film about design. It may be set in a kitchen, but it's essentially a design studio that happens to produce food. It's about the hierarchies and challenges and joys of design … and doing it all in the face of criticism. I may need to watch it again now!


Everyone here probably knows that American Airlines came out with a new logo and livery today, presumably part of a comprehensive brand overhaul. So far there are 433 opinions about it posted on Huffington Post. They are almost overwhelmingly negative, and fall into three categories: (1) American is an Awful airline with horrible service and a new logo isn't going to fool anyone, (2) My seven-year-old could have done it (thought I suppose that's an upgrade from the more typical assertion that a 4-year-old could do it), and (3) It cost too much money which could have been better spent on x, y or z.

Debbie is absolutely right: We The People hate change. Our first reaction isn't to see the positive or the possibility, its to suspect the motivation. I'm not 'wowed' by the new AA logo, but if I stop for one second to imagine how it plays in a terminal next to United or Southwest or virtually any other US airline, I can see how beautifully different it will be. I can see how it will cause me to give them a second look.

If design is going to succeed (and by succeed I mean flourish) we're going to have to find a way, as a profession, to help people see beauty in possibility, rather than suspicion, fear and resentment.
Christopher Simmons

A logo doesn't even begin to do its job until it has been in use and finds its way into serving the purposes for which it was conceived. Criticism on the first day is meaningless and superficial. Evaluating the effectiveness of a brand identity upon its initial appearance is a fool's game and, apparently, there's no shortage of fools willing to play.
Daniel Pelavin

Does anyone else see the irony of commenting on this article? ;-)
Greg Quinton

To me, the UC branding shows that logos are not dead! First off, let's just get past the 'educating the public' stance and people are idiots thing. Yes? Yes. A logo is symbolic, it has an audience and it is presented in context. The designers underestimated their audience's concerns are Mr. Bierut and a few others have pointed out. The presentation video over-confidently brushes aside and dismantles the seal where that didn't even reflect the plan to continue its use. The clean-up job on the seal itself was actually very nicely done. I said it over on Armin's site, but people got scared. The seal is symbolically important (even if it's not itself notable or used with enthusiasm). Students are concerned about the import of their degree and in historical context, members of the UC communities are very concerned at present with educational value and finding reasonable work. Graphic designers might need to re-prioritize a human centered approach given how easy it is now to rally negative feedback? Is that too obvious to say?

"Does anyone else see the irony of commenting on this article? ;-)"

Ha! Of course. Fortunately, the conversation here is a little more involved/evolved. To me, that's the crux here. Perhaps its not a problem exactly that everyone has an opinion or that the internet makes broadcasting snap (negative) judgements so easy. We might just accept this as part of reality while seeking out new channels for discourse. Design Observer proves the internet isn't just a shouting match. (Though, still, ideally it'd be nicer if people took more time to read other people's comments and respond and interact more. Wouldn't that be great.)

Seems like a number of people here feel like Brand New is the best place to find critical brand discussion on the webt. Rick Poynor points out Armin's comment "Critique with action not words." That tells me something about the tone of Brand New. The site obviously has a lot of intelligent professionals in its comments, but still, it'd be nice if the conversation could go further. Design Observer has raised comments entry bar ever so slightly with a password id. I would love to see Brand New with a character minimum for comments. You get great insights anyway but enough with the one liners. Tell me why. Give me a 300 character minimum that could filter out too many repeated words so you couldn't just copy the same sentence four times. It'd be great reading.

Mr Bierut has elicited dozens of thoughtful comments quite naturally because of not just this piece but because of his name and this forum. How do we make more of the web like this? Someone above pointed out people don't generally do in depth criticism for nothin', but why not more of it right here? I like Design Observer but the five articles published more recently than this one? Four for them have no comments at all! Why is that? Is no one reading these architecture pieces? Do the people writing them care that they are eliciting any reaction? In contrast, what about this article garnered 57+ comments? Sounds like it's something people care about. As well as it being a good place to discuss such things. Would love to see brand analysis going on right here.

Peter A Jacobson

>For years, my complaint with academic criticism (if that's a name for what you're advocating, sorry if I'm guessing wrong) has been its lack of specificity. For that reason, I am intrigued by the "explicit and graphic" promise of the of the Blunt Conference.<

I name it criticism. What is mostly being advocated for here (and is in "Call for Criticism") I'd call "professional review." When particular opinions are not engaged due to contractual constraint or fragile egos, you don't—and can't—have criticism.
Kenneth FitzGerald

This is a great article. But have we considered that the public reactions might in fact be appropriate and even useful?

Consider the examples of Tropicana, Gap, London 2012, and the U. of Cali—Tropicana looked clinical, Gap accidental, London eccentric, and UC commercial. None of these logos, in my opinion, captured the appropriate character or emotional tone representative of their respective organizations.

Maybe the public got outraged in these instances because their favorite brands had been given a personality graft that just didn't fit. In other words, these marks missed their mark. I'm not at all astonished the public had something to say about them.

I don't exactly blame the designers in these cases; our work is a result of partnerships with clients—both bear responsibility for the result. But it's worth considering whether our general instinct to push highly succinct, sterile-looking logos has been misapplied in situations where the client's institution is one of richness, history, complexity, movement, and emotion.

Sometimes people dislike change because it's unknown. But sometimes they dislike change because it's headed in the wrong direction. I look at these public reactions more as opportunities for learning rather than for lamenting the alleged ubiquity of poor taste.
Patrick Gibson

Great brand identities are created to both communicate and absorb meaning. Some are designed to initially say more, others to better absorb ideas and evolve over time.

When the design's meaning is explicit, it's far easier for people (building 110'ers) to relate and "like" the design. Ambiguous or unfamiliar solutions are tougher to love at birth.

That's why some of the most successful logos of the past were designed to bridge both worlds—delivering enough explicit meaning for short-term comfort, while allowing deeper meaning to grow over time.

The challenge is to tie into explicit meanings that give the design a chance for short-term survival, without stunting its future growth.

As for sniping, it does have its place. Brand identity changes that discard hard-earned equity, that project false-character, or are shoddy in construction, deserve a drive-by fuselage of ill-willed words. Michael, you were widely credited with muttering, "I wish I were dead" in reaction to an important identity change. I concur.


(billboard +)

Why does your new logo for billboard have BETA under it?

See links:
Carl W. Smith

Carl W. Smith

Like graphic design, gd criticism is 10% substance and 90% hot air. How's that for a drive-by?
Ed Nai

This is a great article. I wish I would have seen it earlier in the semester, when a design professor of mine brought up the new UC logo issue to our class. He mentioned how hideous it was, and proceeded to talk about the the equity that would have been lost should the UC system replace their seal. Where would the reputation go?

I asked what his thoughts were on graphic designers being subject to public expectations, market "demands", and preconceived notions of an audience, to which he responded that a designer's job is to communicate a message, and not partake in beauty contests.

I don't know what's more depressing: the fact that some designers accept themselves as slaves of the market, or the idea that following expectations is being seen as communicating a message effectively.

And the real paradox about the UC rebrand effort (to me, at least) is that students aren't really complaining about the more functional and purposeful pieces of design around campus (confusing parking lots, undecipherable maps, chaotic posting boards, etc...), but something that is, to some extent, subjective and irrelevant when taken out of context.
Gabe Ferreira

Great article, Michael.

Sadly, everyone now is a critic. And since you can buy a logo online for $99, or even more alarming, crowdsource it for free, a la Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, the water is indeed being muddied by more and more self-proclaimed critics and marginal designers.

I thank God for clients that know the difference. And the designers who take the time to educate uninitiated clients so they don't fall prey to this insanity.
Glen Gauthier

I think it was 1958 or ’59 when Camel changed its cigarette pack to “give it more white space.” I was shocked! As a Camel smoker, I was almost ashamed to be seen plucking a cigarette out of that weakened wrapping. It would be the equivalent of McDonald’s taking all the meat out of the Big Mac. In my heart, I knew that Camel would come to their senses and reinstate the goopy old package, which they did. Meanwhile I saved several of the new packages, and have them to this day to remind me to never mess with success.

Jobs | July 14