Eduvation Blog

Branding Misfires II: 2015-2017

Ken Steele completes his review of 12 higher ed rebrands in the past 2 years that sparked a backlash from campus stakeholders and alumni.

 In part 1, we looked at half a dozen new visual identities that caused outrage, either because they were too crazy creative or deadly dull. But there were also some competent rebrands that nonetheless met remarkable opposition, often because stakeholders were too emotionally attached to what they had before:

Western Sydney University (Australia):

When its name changed from “The University of Western Sydney” in 2015, WSU also abandoned its 13-year-old logo, which featured a “bluebird” icon. Although the former logo felt pretty cool and corporate, students nonetheless had become emotionally attached to the bluebird, and launched a #SaveTheBlueBird campaign on Twitter. The new identity was more contemporary, and pretty conventional: a deep red shield with the letter “W”. Comedian Aamer Rahman mocked the expenditure for student audiences, but the administration stuck with the new look.

Aamer Rahman comedy video

Penn State University (PA):

When one of the largest universities in the world changes its visual identity, plenty of people take notice! Penn State, with almost 100,000 students on more than 20 campuses, had been using the same brand identity for 30 years when it finally launched a rebrand in 2015. The new look was much cleaner, focusing the shield on just the head of the “Nittany Lion” shrine, and using a modern slab-serif typeface. The illustration was fairly realistic, of the stone shrine itself – but as a result the lion’s eyes seemed blank, unblinking, almost zombie-like. Football fans were relentless in attacking it, and a petition on attracted about 4,000 signatures – but remember, that’s just 4% of Penn State’s enrolment. They rightly stayed the course.

Berklee College of Music (MA):

Berklee’s former logo was barely a logo at all: simple type in the corner of a red block. It didn’t reproduce well at small sizes, and in 2015 Berklee unveiled a rebrand that focused on the single word, “Berklee”, with a new icon (the “natural” notation). 500 students signed a petition objecting to the new identity, and particularly the loss of the word “College” – about 10% of the institution’s enrolment. The administration ignored the minority opinion.

University of Leicester (UK):

The former shield, in use for 20 years, was an awful orange colour, with intricate details and a Latin motto, and used a very dated typeface for the wordmark. Anything would have been an improvement, and although some students objected, the new identity features more sophisticated typography and understated colours.

Linköping University (Sweden):

Since its founding in 1975, Linköping (pron. “Lingschoping”) has used a variation of its official seal as its visual identity. To celebrate its 40th anniversary, LU hired Stockhold design firm Futurniture (who yes, does some work for IKEA) to develop a radically new brand. The result was a bright blue block containing bold initials, “li.u” – much to the chagrin of almost 5,000 students, who expected something more conventional. Even though the students collected alternatives and held a poll on their Facebook page, the administration stuck with the bold new look.

Wheaton College (MA):

This private liberal arts college near Boston is almost 200 years old, so students and alumni were naturally shocked when it unveiled an industrial-looking new identity in early 2017. The look does little to convey the desired brand attributes (forward-looking, inclusive, personal). It’s cold, impersonal, and reflects a design aesthetic from the 1970s. A petition attracted 1,200 signatures – 75% of the school’s enrolment! Unfortunately, the administration is stubbornly planning to launch this ugly new identity in August 2017.

Wright State University (OH):

After 20 years, WSU revised their cherished logo featuring the Wright brothers and their biplane. The designers tried to simplify it, moving to some sans-serif type, eliminating the shadows, and darkened the colours – so far, so good. But they also eliminated the figure of Wilbur Wright, and added some inexplicable swooshes that made it look like the plane was tumbling out of control. And from then on, the rebrand tumbled out of control too. Despite spending a reported $250,000 on the graphic design alone, administration abandoned the rebrand and stuck with their former logo.


So to sum up: you can’t please everybody when it comes to a university rebrand. You can expect 20-30% of your stakeholders to express displeasure. If it’s less than 10%, you’re doing really well! If it’s more than 70%, you should probably reconsider the design.

Check out other Ten with Ken episodes about Branding.

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