A Versatile Logo for a Dynamic Design School

By Karen Birchard

Three variously sized squares with the ability to shift and slide, filled with words or art, are the central feature of OCAD U’s new brand identity that was unveiled last week.

It’s never easy to change a name and image, so when the 135-year old Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto became a university back in 2002, that fact barely registered with the public. Canada’s oldest, largest, and, arguably, its premier art school had long been known as a college. Last year the government finally passed the legislation that changed the school’s name to OCAD University. But as Toronto’s fourth university, it needed a new visual identity.

The university decided to work with the Bruce Mau Design company. The firm’s team worked closely with the university to come up with a brand that wasn’t a staid logo but a flexible visual identity system that can also be a mini-gallery for students’ work, since artwork can be inserted into one of the squares.

“Students play such a pivotal role in the university so it was important to incorporate them,” said Bruce Mau Design’s president and CEO, Hunter Tura. “The squares can be a frame or framework to showcase the work of medal winners every year.” That means the system also becomes a visual historical record. “After 20 years, it will be an index of thinking, of what was coming out of the school.”

The squares also pick up on the university’s iconic Sharp building where the façade is reminiscent of a crossword puzzle. “It allows the university to be flexible as to how it presents itself,” said Tura.

As a public university, OCAD did not have the money a corporation or a retail operation might have for a rebranding exercise. So the project involved some thinking outside the box and lots of collaboration. It was a challenge for designers. “It’s one thing to do a logo for a company or a retail outfit because they know it when they see it,” Taura said. “But working for designers means everyone has opinions so it was important to hear those opinions.”

OCAD President Sara Diamond delivered a special lecture to the design firm’s staff on data visualization; the design team embedded itself at the university for several months; students and faculty were encouraged to make suggestions; Twitter and Facebook were widely used; and part of the contract arranges for an OCAD intern to be placed at Bruce Mau Design.

Both the university and the design firm call their experience a partnership. “It’s a really different way for a public university and  a private for-profit business to partner,” said Tura who now uses it as a case study and talks about the experience to his clients. It’s a good business model, he tells them, in an economic climate in which no one can afford to get it wrong the first time.

Karen Birchard is the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Canadian correspondent.

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