With alumni like Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, and Donna Karan, Parsons School of Design is no stranger to the power of a great brand. And since we teach there, we're certainly no strangers to Parsons. So our interest was piqued a few months ago when a faculty e-mail announced that the school would now be known as "Parsons The New School for Design," reflecting the fact that New School University would now be "The New School."
Since it preserved the name "Parsons" but clarified our tie to The New School, the new title sat well with us. The e-mail went on to explain that The New School's other seven colleges would be renamed accordingly, and a new logo would be introduced. Then we saw the new logo.
Created by brand veterans Siegel & Gale, it scraps nearly every convention of academic branding. It has no shield and not even a nod to heraldry. Instead of a school color, there's a school palette. Instead of a single mark, it has several visually similar marks. And instead of well-mannered, serif capital letters, there's stenciled, spray-painted, graffiti-inspired text that Alan Siegel, speaking to AdCritic.com, describes as "hipster typography and blurry lettering designed to capture the irreverent, urban flavor of the university." The net effect of all this misbehavior is something that feels less like a school and more like a soft drink.
LEGACY EMBLEMS. In a New York Times article about The New School's new name, our outstanding president, Bob Kerry, was asked about the recent trend of university rebranding and renaming initiatives. His answer was honest and direct: "My view is that you never argue with the customer about your name."
What some might argue with, however, is the idea of schools as lifestyle brands designed to appeal to students seen as customers. Advertising was once considered déclassé and unsuitable to the refined realm of the academy, and if schools did any selling at all it was based not on differentiation but on a common standard of excellence (think Ivy League). As a result, school logos have traditionally drawn on shields and flags and other heraldic imagery that suggested legacy, exclusivity, and academic honor.
The New School's previous logo reflects this, albeit with a twist. Eight turning squares, one for each college, form an abstract shield. Designed in the early 1990s by Chermayeff & Geissmar -- which has created identities for PBS, NBC, and Chase Manhattan Bank -- the shield was paired with Matrix, one of the first computer-created typefaces. The logo was celebrated as a modern take on a traditional symbol, uniting the past and future with elegance and simplicity.
CHASING AUTHENTICITY. The replacement of the shield with visual cues intended to link the school with a young urban culture reflects The New School's embrace of lifestyle marketing as a recruitment strategy. Which makes sense: As colleges refashion themselves as brands, their icons must shift from symbols of defense and exclusivity to symbols that identify and empathize with a target audience.
But the method is not without its pitfalls. In fact, the new logo exemplifies the dangers of exploiting pop culture forms such as graffiti. Like Alan Siegel, many a marketing exec has been enticed by the vibrant street art, but the problem with an institution's use of graffiti, as The New School case shows, is authenticity.
Though Siegel & Gale Chief Creative Officer Howard Belk has emphasized that the graffiti "was painted, not Photoshopped," that isn't enough. While dissertations could be written on what makes an artform "authentic," most everyone would agree that corporate graffiti isn't. Graffiti is almost always the critique of an establishment rather than the symbol of one. It's telling that one of the only shared marks for graffiti artists is the circled capital A of anarchism.
MUSEUM PIECE. While it may be true, as Belk went on to note, that "graffiti has been a medium for voices with alternative views," any institutional attempt to harness that subversive quality is doomed. British ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi learned this lesson back in May, when it tried to introduce a campaign via graffiti in London's East End. Within days, The London Times reported, street artists hostile to the ad campaign had begun defacing it.
What approach might The New School have taken instead? While designing a new identity for the Tate Museum in 2000, the British firm Wolff Olins created a logo that's remarkably similar to The New School's, with more successful results. Like Siegel & Gale, Wolff Olins was asked to create an identity that would unify several locations with different missions. They were also asked to create an identity that would empower museumgoers, rather than the institution of the museum itself. The resulting identity is all about shifts of focus: The "Tate" is blurred and the specific locations are sharp.
Parsons could also have learned from a logo closer to home: that of its biggest competitor, the School of Visual Arts . Created by SVA faculty member George Tscherny, it depicts the sun -- a classic symbol of education -- painted in fluid, Matisse-like brushstrokes by Tscherny himself. In so doing, the mark references both the hand of the creative artist and the tradition of the academic emblem.
FOLLOWERS OF FASHION. Like the Tate, the SVA logo succeeds by avoiding the thorny language of graffiti, which is impossible for any institution to control. Both reach out to their "customers" with big ideas rather than stylistic rationalizations. While it's true that higher education is a business of youth, exuberance, and constant change, it's hardly as fluid as fashion, which is seldom the same from one season to the next. Yet the Chanel logo
, designed in 1925 by Coco Chanel herself, has remained unchanged and in fashion ever since.
Diagnosis? In choosing its new logo, perhaps The New School should have asked for a little advice from its more fashionable alums.