IISc logo row: Call for empathy-led design has arrived

IISc logo row: Call for empathy-led design has arrived

Students of the IISc have protested against the institute's new logo and some alumni have even offered to redo it free of charge

The recent furore over the new brand identity for Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc) set me thinking. Has graphic design as a spectator sport reached India?

Between 2009 and 2012 a few significant fiascos happened in the branding world. Tropicana, the universal fruit juice brand, faced severe flak on social media for their new packaging and they had to withdraw altogether. There was a similar debacle with the fashion brand Gap. They succumbed to a quick retreat too with the reversal of their brand identity. And then there was University of California rebranding. The UC community of students, faculty and alumni resorted to an outcry against the new identity by posting a petition on change.org that garnered over 54,000 signatures. The press coverage followed with brickbats calling it “one of the worst rebrands in history”. This is about when Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram, NY, profoundly declared, “Graphic design criticism is now a spectator sport, and anyone can play.”

The connected brand

This is true. In this age of couch experts with relative anonymity throwing brickbats at any creative output, we are in an open arena. They can collectively decimate the work of a team that invested in an honest refresh. But the businesses and institutions also forget that all stakeholders are emotionally vested in the brand. It does not matter (perceivably) how far removed their interaction point is with the business, good or bad, they still stay connected. The partners, vendors, industry researchers and media, along with the consumers and users, feel strongly about the brand and the business.

Corporate branding focusses on consumers or users in the market to set themselves apart from competition through a definite purpose, values, persona and positioning. Within a business it is a unifying platform of belonging, participation and contribution for all stakeholders. In case of an educational institution, which in a way is a close knit community, it is important that the brand identity process is more meaningful for every stakeholder – the administration, teachers, students and alumni alike. The institutional branding is a sign of authority that demands reverence and almost a cultural identity that unifies people across time and place. So shouldn’t institutions such as IISc approach a brand refresh better?

Is there a right way?

The primary asset for any brand is a brand identifier. It is important to understand that an identity or a logo is a veneer – the front end of a deep set of purpose and values that represents the institution. The commissioning authorities and the brand agencies should understand their responsibility to engage the various stakeholders through a participative methodology. Through smaller group workshops they can gather points of view and mine insights. This will help foster a sense of ownership about the brand. So, the key here is not to merely change the veneer and leave the rest.

These interactive sessions helps in bonding across participant groups. Those participating  also, in turn, become advocates who will propel the change when it’s introduced to the larger community. The key task of this process is to institute a multifunctional steering committee that represents all target groups well. This is the true idea of co-creating a brand that is future-proof and eventually becomes timeless. However, the subjectivity of what is eventually released as the most visible part of the brand, like the IISc identity and tag line, should be orchestrated with great care. 

The IISc identity

Now let us talk about the new identity of IISc. Not that it matters, but my personal take on the aesthetics of the new IISc symbol and logo is not positive. The symbol looks like a five dollar marketplace job that has shunned the legacy of an institution with history.

Let me confess that my context for such a design exercise is limited. But I am reacting on the basis of what I have read, heard and seen. Indian Institute of Science is over a century old and without a doubt is the forerunner of advanced education and research in sciences and engineering. The alumni have contributed substantial breakthroughs in fundamental investigations and actionable solutions to real world problems. The new identity does not have the profundity of such an organisation.

It is quite vacant and unresolved. While the colour palette is inspired by the Indian flag, the form is a strange concoction of a flower, probably a lotus and an atomic symbol. The typography is abysmal with a transitional serif that is dated and regressive. Overall this is a quick job that is mediocre and is deprived of any intellectual stimulus. So if I was on campus or in anyway connected with the brand, I would protest against it too. I would have stayed with a simplified and contemporary version of the crest.

Good news and bad news

I am happy and scared all at once to witness this furore. I am happy because I see that a supposedly insignificant visual asset like a logo can get people worked up. This indicates that empathy-led design has grown and arrived loud in our country. I am scared looking at the future of couch experts who will dole out critique even if they are not experts. But the game is on.

(Shiva Viswanathan is a Brand and User Experience design coach at Zamstars. He was formerly MD, BrandUnion; ECD, Oglivy and Founder, Apparatus Media Lab)

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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