As a design writer I’ve written quite a few articles about logo design and have read hundreds more. I watched as certain rebrands break through to become mainstream news, often accompanied by a chorus of derision—think the London 2012 Summer Olympics, the University of California, and more recently Uber and The Met in New York City. I’ve enjoyed the articulate and intelligent responses to these feeding frenzies, as the likes of Michael Bierut, Armin Vit, and Christopher Simmons have patiently argued the case for design as process and outlined the folly of instant condemnation. But I have never encountered a logo design story about an organization for which I cared deeply and disproportionately. Until now.
I never got to choose which soccer team to support. Aston Villa is the biggest club in Birmingham, where I was born, but while some school friends had the luxury of cozying up to whatever club happened to be riding high, our family had strong ties to the Villa, where my granddad was on the board of directors, and later club president. From the age of 12 we had season tickets, went to every home game, and witnessed the occasional triumphs, the sporadic disasters, and hours and hours of tedious mediocrity. I’m based in Amsterdam now, but still tense up on Saturday afternoons, huddling over my smartphone to watch the scores come in. And this season has been worse than most. Much worse. The claret-and-blues are marooned at the bottom of the league, facing imminent relegation to the second division. The club is a mess—laughed at by the media, derided by its own supporters, and pitied by other fans.
In this bleak context, the announcement that Villa would change its club badge for next season came as a surprise. The two main changes made by SomeOne design practice were to render the lion on the crest more detailed and ferocious-looking, complete with spiky claws, and to remove the motto “Prepared” from the logo. It is part, a Villa spokesman said, of a “complete overhaul of the club’s visual identity in order to make us more effective in the digital age.” SomeOne’s executive creative director Gary Holt explained the importance of greater definition in digital logos in this eminently sensible interview with Creative Review.
Of course people were quick to point out that in this most abject of seasons, the removal of the motto seemed apt (we were anything but prepared) and the addition of the claws seemed ironic (we have been anything but ferocious).
One fan compared the change to the Emperor’s New clothes. Another wag tweeted, “Is it true that Trading Standards forced Villa to remove ‘Prepared’ from the logo as it’s false advertising?”
But I was shocked by my own response. I was, and am still, completely incapable of analyzing the changes with any sense of professional objectivity. I am discombobulated by the fact that journalists I know on platforms I like are talking about my club as though it’s any other big brand.
I know this is petulant, but I can’t help it. And now that I’ve been on the other side I have so much more sympathy for the University of California students and the Met museum patrons and even, yes, the angry Tropicana drinkers who turned on the company back in 2009 over its packaging design change.
After that fiasco, the New York Times came out with a report (that Michael Bierut referenced in his excellent essay “Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport”) in which PepsiCo admitted the company had failed to appreciate “the deep emotional bond” juice drinkers had with Tropicana. This line used to make me laugh—who invests that much meaning in pulped orange? But I’m not laughing now. Does my attachment to a team of preening, posing, and absolutely useless soccer players make any more sense?
In that same piece, Bierut touches on the irrationality of sports fans in the context of his own redesign of the Big 10 Conference identity. In 2013 supporters of Everton, another English soccer team, forced the club to scrap plans for a new logo. In fact the eventual redesign was produced through a series of polls that invited them to vote on almost every element. Earlier this year, the new Toronto Maple Leafs logo was unveiled, with 13 veined lines to symbolize the team’s 13 Stanley Cup wins. But not everyone was pleased, and some fans complained that it didn’t resemble any real genus of maple leaf found in the natural world.
People build their identities on certain foundations, be it the sports team they watch or the college they attended. This makes change fraught with complexity, as the University of California discovered. To recap, in 2012 the state university system unveiled a new visual identity for the overarching UC brand (which includes the 10 campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Diego, and San Francisco. ). When a whopping 54,000 people signed a petition against the new logo the press had a field day and eventually the institution backed down.
Many in the design community were dismayed. In a strongly worded follow-up to his original review of the changes, Brand New’s Armin Vit rounded on the detractors: “Shut up. Seriously. Shut. Up.” He argued, as did Christopher Simmons, that design is a complex, careful process that couldn’t be reduced to ill-informed public lynchings of logos that don’t immediately find favor with the mob.
Until last week I would have agreed with Bierut, Vit, and Simmons. And then I found myself in a situation where my own blind prejudices and deeply held (yet nonsensical) convictions were confronted by some very sensible design thinking, and I balked. Calm and reasoned analysis never stood a chance.
Simmons makes an interesting distinction in his considered piece on the UC outcry. He focuses on what he knows about the design process in general and this project in particular. But he admits, “I’m not a student, prospect, employee, or alum of the UC system, so I’m not the audience. What I like, feel, and believe doesn’t really matter.”
Of course, the design community shouldn’t pander to the will of keyboard warriors and petitions that amplify the view of a vocal minority into unstoppable, immovable public opinion. But anyone involved in a redesign process needs to respect the “emotional bond” Tropicana overlooked and understand that when it comes to fanatics—be they juice or soccer obsessives—there is a place that common sense just can’t reach.