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August 06, 2004

My Letter to the Honolulu Advertiser

I made a journal entry a few days ago mocking the UH logo design choices, and forwarded the URL around town. This got the attention of one of the Honolulu Advertiser reporters, who asked my opinion about the whole design review process. As a follow-up to Cheyne's entry about the power of design, I've decided to reprint my letter to the Honolulu Advertiser here. Fire away.

Ms. Shapiro:

Thank you for taking the time to respond to me. I'm 33 and I live in Liliha. Here is what I have to say:

The decision making process concerning the new UH logo has one big problem: too much committee. Public opinion is a nice idea, but the public isn't always the best judge of design. Great design can be a very complex process; it is often as much about psychology as it is about art. For this reason, I believe that UH made the correct choice in going with professional graphic design firms as opposed to taking open submissions. There are technical and practical considerations which would be familiar to designers but generally unknown to the public. For instance designs 2-4 might seem simple and ugly, but they also "scale" well. Meaning, they would be just as identifiable if they were painted on a giant banner or printed on a ball-point pen. Imagine design #1 on a pen - it would look like a fuzzy rectangle. However, good design firms should spend the time to consider not only the positive, but also the negative connotations associated with their designs. Some of the designs are noticably lacking in this respect. Design #4 really does look illustrative of book burning, and it's not funny. I believe that at this point one design should be choosen based on its basic concept, and then sent back to the designers for revisions with input from the public holding "some" consideration. In this respect, the design I feel holds the most potential is #5, the ahupua'a. It is the most original concept of the bunch, but needs some work. Certain elements are somewhat disturbing, such as the two vertical elements of the "H." They just so happen to be the length, shape and approximate position of a woman's legs. This, and perhaps the torch flame, could easily be modified. Ultimately, the University needs to pick a direction and run with it, as they will never reach a public concensus. It's time to focus on the big picture - the consolidation of the UH system under a common brand.


note: edited on 8/7/04. Treena Shapiro works for the Advertiser, not the Star-Bulletin. Sorry!

Posted by Wendell at August 06, 2004 04:25 PM


Posted by kane on August 7, 2004 5:14 AM:

Well expressed thoughts and ideas.

Personally, I feel far too much time, money, and attention has been given to the entire issue of a UH logo.

In my opinion, the University would have been better served by making a contest eligible for all public school children, with the finalists receiving some form of scholarship from the University.

I agree with your point that great design can be a very complex issue, and the aid of professional graphic design firms would be helpful. However, perhaps professional input could have been pro bono, and limited to judging and selecting the winning logo.

Perhaps I'm missing the bigger picture when it comes to the discussion of a new logo. It all seems rather simple; a green U and a green H on a white background. Will the design of the letters really have an influence on whether someone does or doesn't attend the school? Or will someone not use a pen if the UH logo on it is fuzzy?

Posted by Dave on August 8, 2004 12:08 AM:

I've heard that some of the selected firms were on the committee that decided the current process. Can anyone confirm? Does this not show a conflict of interest?

Posted by Jenn M. on August 8, 2004 7:31 PM:

Wendell Yamada! Where have you been? I've missed your entertaining entries! =)

Posted by ruth on August 9, 2004 11:58 PM:

This whole logo exercise really strikes a deep nerve with me, not because of a logo per se, but the public reaction to work of artists in general.

Wendell, you said:

The decision making process concerning the new UH logo has one big problem: too much committee. Public opinion is a nice idea, but the public isn't always the best judge of design.

I couldn't agree with you more. I can almost guarantee that if the Nike logo were put up for vote, the public would be outraged at how "unimaginative" it is or how "uncreative" it is. They would complain that their third-grade son could do better.

The simplest, most recognizable visual identities take insight to create. Wendell describes the technical points well, so I won't go over those. But I will say that while there are many people with artistic skill, there are very few artists with the level of insight required to encapsulate all that a university is into a simple, archetypal symbol.

I'm not saying that I'm in love with the submissions from both rounds, but I at least can appreciate the insight it requires to arrive at even those ideas.

Posted by RON on August 10, 2004 5:55 PM:

".....there are very few artists with the level of insight required to encapsulate all that a university is into a simple, archetypal symbol."

Allow me to digress here..... If the UH logo contest is open to the general public, the employees, who are working for a graphic agency--are not by any law that I am personally aware of--barred from submitting their own personal designs. These particular individuals are the same people who drafted the designs that their agencies are now taking credit (or discredit) for. $5,000 does not mean a lot to an advertising agency, since that amount wouldn't even cover the office rent. But to an individual working in the same agency, $5,000 is a large sum and an incentive to produce several designs even. Anyway, $5,000 is a lot of money to me. I don't know about you. I am talking about tapping in to a huge resource and probably one maybe that would end up showing better results.

Posted by Mr.Wendell on August 10, 2004 10:35 PM:

Ron, you are correct in mentioning that an open submission policy would have tapped into a larger resource, but I suspect the real problem here isn't the ability to come up with an attractive logo. I think the design contest was just extremely tough from the way it was presented. It is very hard to define a concept ("all that is a university" - Ruth) in terms of a single design. It seems easy, but by being so non-specific, the University actually handed the design firms a tough assignment.

Creativity is best when you have boundaries. Say you handed a pencil and sheet of paper to a bunch of people and said "make me something." You give your people a virtually unlimited amount of freedom. Far from being a simple task, you'll find that even people with artistic talent will repeatedly ask for clarification and/or direction. A number of people will not be able to create anything at all.

Now try that again, but this time, say "make me a fish." The results would likely be much better. Your people know their boundaries and thus are free to run wild between those lines. You might get back a line drawing of a fish. Someone else might have colored the entire paper in and then erased the fish into existence. Maybe someone actually wrote the word "fish." Heck, maybe someone folded the paper into an origami fish and drew scales on it. The point is, by giving your people even the most general direction, you'll find that creativity suddenly took a giant leap forward.

Putting that into context, say the University went to these design firms and said "we want a U and an H." You'd probably get some mind blowing designs returned. If they said "we want a torch and a globe" - same thing. But when you say "symbolize everything that a University is" - you get the kind of results we've been getting. It is very hard define and then visualize such a broad concept - even for professional design firms. I think whoever is in charge of marketing at the University ought to have made a decision about what they wanted to portray before handing out the logo assignments. This would be a marketing-oriented decision, not an artistic one, but the logo is part of a system-wide branding effort, right?

That's why I originally said that the University needs to pick a concept (not a design) and then advance it forward. I think if you went back to the same firms (or even just one) and said "We like the ahupua'a concept. Show us more," the results would be a lot more imaginative, and the overall response from the public would probably be more favorable.

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