London-based creative college Ravensbourne has worn many faces in the past decade, both physically and in its brand identity. From a black letter ‘R’ in a red roundel when it was known as the (much wordier) Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, to a geometric mark inspired by the architecture of its new buildings, and finally to a brand new framing device created by NB Studio.

Its second new look in six years comes at a time when the college is looking to achieve university status, and move itself into the international arena.

“All brand identities evolve over time,” says Ashar Ehsan, Ravensbourne’s director of external relations. “Some take a revolutionary approach, and some evolutionary. There was great excitement and energy for the relocation to Greenwich Peninsula—however, Ravensbourne now operates within a complex, ever-changing creative world. Ambitions in gaining university status, greater international profile, and cultivating greater integration with industry required Ravensbourne to reflect, review and ultimately, evolve.”

That’s the party line at least, but it seems their current identity has been problematic for some time, as NB Studio’s Nick Finney explains: “Anecdotally we heard that while people liked the logo before, it wasn’t really working for them. It wasn’t easy to use, it breaks the word [Ravensbourne] in three places, and that’s not great if you’re appealing to a creative community who have a high rate of dyslexia. It’s not great for the high yield of international students that will find it hard to pronounce. It’s spiky, it’s cold, it’s difficult to use because of all the gradients. These are all things they knew before, otherwise they wouldn’t have asked us to pitch.”

Finney and his team were invited with 11 other agencies to pitch for the rebrand, then part of a shortlist of three before finally securing the tender. The process involved little design, but an effective challenging of the brief that Ravensbourne seemed not to have expected.

“The brief itself was very clear,” says Ehsan. “We wanted a brand identity not just a logo. As Ravensbourne embarks on a new phase of development, we wanted a visual framework that could help us communicate, persuade and engage on a global stage. We also wanted a brand that allowed us to show the amazing talent within Ravensbourne.”

But the college was only looking for a temporary solution, a patch-up to tide them over until they could find the resources to undertake a comprehensive redesign.

“One of the pages in our presentation said ‘interim is an inconvenience,’” says Finney, “so we were just thinking, why do this in half measures? Why do something that’s sort of a bit like, but not the final thing? Why not work at the final thing—university status—and then work backwards from there and project to the vision rather than go halfway. That was the main part of our challenge, one of the things we thought was important.

“You’re going to spend all this money and presumably you’ve got to some half-decent agencies, and we think you should just go for it, and start with the end in mind.”

The result is a simple framing device that’s flexible enough to work as a logo mark, while offering a blank slate for reinterpretation and innovation by students.

“We’ve really just given them a black frame with an ‘R’ in the corner,” says Finney.

Naturally the simple final product has come under fire from the student body, many of whom have produced satirical versions of their own on the college’s Facebook page, in among a stream of highly critical comments. “It’s exactly what we wanted to see really,” says Finney. “They don’t realize it but they’re already using it and doing what they want with it, and that was the objective.”

Such a critical response seems to be the status quo where rebrands are concerned, particularly for creative institutions. Pentagram came under fire in 2012 and 2015 for their redesigns of London’s UAL and New York’s New School respectively, both falling victim to the simple fact that people don’t like change.

Finney was acutely aware of the politics of such a project, and consequently worked with a steering group of faculty, students, and stakeholders alike to ensure the final product was as well-received as possible. Even so he’s unsurprised by the negative feedback.

“I’ve obviously been reading all the comments because it’s a good laugh. It’s funny to read below the line because people get so angry on the first few days, and there’s a lot of negativity. But now we’re getting a lot of support for it. We’re seeing lots of nice write-ups on social media now. But the college themselves are thrilled with it and we just want them to go and grow with it. We have a vested interest in making sure they move forward with it and that we can help them to do so. We want them to become the university that they aspire to be. And they’re well on the way.”