March 31, 2015

The Nevv School

Why I'm Not Interested In Hating On The New School's New Branding

The New School’s new branding by Pentagram lit up the social medias yesterday, mostly to disbelief and disgust and jokes about Star Wars.

Design criticism is a spectator sport now, and it’s impossible to rebrand anything in this day and age without everyone and their mother “joining the conversation”, as brands like to say. I’ve heard the loudest voices come from those who are deeply embedded within the community: new school students and alumni, or graphic designers, or very commonly, both. (Disclaimer: I am one of these people.)

There’s a lot to say about the new identity, which is why I’m writing a blog post about it in the first place, but one thing I feel strongly is that there is nothing that disinterests me more than complaining, and that I think we are all capable of doing more than simply pointing at the new design and laughing at it. In general, I want to try as hard as possible not to perpetuate the phenomenon of looking at work (work made by other human beings!) and responding with snark and pessimism. As designers we’re used to giving constructive criticism, but too often I find that what is supposed to be critique tends to be reduced to empty negativity.

As I write this blog post, here’s the top comment on Brand New in its entirety:

Typographic traffic jam. So heavy and distracting. That logo repeat pattern is, is … I hate this.

That being said, I’d like to follow my own advice and do more than just wag a finger at the naysayers, so I figured it’d be best to collect my thoughts somewhere where nuance isn’t hindered by 140 character limits.

Firstly, I should say that the identity does have its strengths, the whole wheat bread in our vegan, free range, locally sourced criticism sandwich. The ‘Neue’ typeface does look provocatively weird at large sizes, and the individual school logos, big and red, lock up nicely with the tiny ‘The New School’ as an anchor. At billboard sizes, you can really see the quirkyness that loudly declares that The New School isn’t just any university; the just-shy-of-acceptable-ness that Siegel+Gale accomplished with a spray paint aesthetic in 2005, replaced now by an algorithmic typeface that chooses from 3 widths of each character. The applications that blow up the type real big (sometimes bleeding them off) are definitely the most successful; you need to be able to see the odd joints and the differences between the widths clearly for the impact to work.

But the solid concept is in my eyes marred by what seems like an unfinished execution. The letterforms (especially at smaller sizes) are just barely not quirky enough; when over-applied (like they are on the homepage), they lose their edge and become amateurish; the details that were intended to bring the design to life become mistakes instead.

The typeface is full of potential not quite reached: the varying width logos wanting to be The Public Theater Identity really bad, but not quite playful enough, not removed enough from a generic modernist geometric sans to carry the full weight of the brand’s personality.

The weakest point of the whole thing for me though has to be the bizzare lack of any secondary or supporting elements. The only secondary typeface to be found is Irma, but the new and custom Neue is a modified version of that in the first place, so it falls flat when trying to stand against it. The repetition of red and black is tiring to say the least, (especially compared to the bright oranges, yellows, and teals that used to grace the website), and importantly, if the purpose is to highlight the diversity of the institution and its constituent schools, why go with a color that’s so singularly Parsons that you commission a whole new Pantone color in its name? (Yes, they named it Parsons Red.)

As a whole the identity comes off unexplored and unfulfilled. A custom algorithmic typeface to unite many divisions under one brand works well in theory, but not when it’s pretty much all you have to work with. Without a sufficiently contrasting typeface, without extreme scale, without colors or patterns or shapes or layouts, it’s unimaginative at best and sophomoric at worst (which is perhaps why it invites comparisons to student work from some commenters).

But despite all of those things, despite how much we shake our heads and lament the fact that our supposedly top-tier design school can’t even design istelf properly, we still have to remember that this identity, like all identites, is a work in progress. We have to grow with it and shape it and let it shape us back. I can only hope that what comes across to me as mud turns out to actually be clay: something to be molded and transformed into something at least a little more tolerable.

I’ll close with this quote from my friend Joe Evans, who actually worked on the water tower mural, because I think it’s a positive end note and I feel like it sums things up well.

The New School is a place for us to grow, learn and become better individuals thorough the experiences it has to offer. The new identity exists and is a reality and it has set the ground-work for “potential” through a visual system, but the work is not done. We must take advantage of this empowering identity of both unity and diversity and grasp the opportunity to collaborate and grow as school, not just as individuals.

Aside from my feelings regarding the new identity from a design perspective, my main hope is that we can see this as an opportunity to develop and greaten ourselves as a community, as a whole, as a university.

I was skeptical about the entire thing myself when I first encountered it, but it slowly grows on you and you learn to love it. It’s New School!