Up the school! Or, a passive-aggressive letter to the headteacher on the occasion of the unveiling of a new logo

school logo on inside of jumper

Dear headteacher,

Welcome to your new role! As a parent of two children at the school with another still in primary school, I’m delighted to see your commitment to making ours an outstanding school in line with your new motto and values.

The problem is the new logo.

In the course of my annual visits to Jo Brand Plus of Harehills Lane (where I am always welcomed like an old friend) I have made a study of the state of the art in school insignia design. In this there appear to be three basic genres:

  • The first, preferred by primary schools, is the “Earth Child” trope: brightly coloured trees, linked hands, happy blob children or some combination thereof.
  • The second is the “Modernist Corporate” style, in the spirit of the late Paul Rand’s IBM, FedEx and Enron identities. The school’s current logo falls into this category. Here a thoughtful designer has considered the ascenders and descenders of the school name in lowercase, along with the relative lengths of the words to create a tightly locked up wordmark. It’s a little weak but is done with integrity.
  • The third – and by far the hardest genre to execute successfully – is the “Heraldic Achievement”. Some schools have this ready-made in the form of a local family coat of arms, or, if a church school, the crest of their sponsoring religious establishment. A few manage to combine local insignia and scholastic symbols – books, quills, etc. – to make their own convincing heraldic combinations.

The thought process that leads a school like ours to the Heraldic Achievement is easy to imagine. We inhabit an old country where aristocratic deference has deep roots. What better way for a mid-century secondary modern to announce its arrival at the top table of outstanding schools than to put on the clothes of elite institutions that pre-date it by centuries?

To achieve the desired effect, the heraldic design has to play by the rules. As the aspirant newcomer here, you do not make these rules. They are determined by the holders of archaic positions such as “Maltravers Herald Extraordinary” and “Rouge Dragon Pursuivant”. I Am Not Making These Up.

Our school’s new logo makes a brave start. A blue field with a white Yorkshire rose feels genuine, if a little generic. It could apply equally to hundreds of other schools in the county. Except that the rose used is the East Riding version, which has a sepal pointing upwards. Traditionally here in the West Riding the rose is the other way up with a petal at the top. Who knew? I do now because I have taken the trouble to Google for this important detail.

The credibility rating starts to go rapidly downhill when we add the motto to the shield. Heraldically, this should be on a scroll below the escutcheon, not plastered straight onto the field. Not only is this distinctly unheraldic, it is also ham-fistedly done. The geometric sans font worked well within the Modernist Corporate style but has no place in the traditional genre that this logo attempts to emulate. Then there’s the distribution of the words in a semicircle above the rose. Because “Aspire” is a shorter word than “Succeed” the whole arc ends up being lopsided. I fear I shall look at this and cringe every time I send my children off to school.

Finally, the name of the school perched like a black granite tombstone at the top of the shield adds nothing to the ensemble. The way the word “School” is orphaned on a line of its own raises the question of why it was needed in the first place. In many uses of the logo this wording will be redundant or duplicative, and its overall effect is to make the whole thing thoroughly pedestrian. This is such a missed opportunity to add a distinctive charge to the black band. Rouge Dragon Pursuivant would call this band a “chief”. It is commonly used to make a coat of arms unique – but never simply by slapping the name of the holder on as text.

All these points may in themselves appear to be nit-picking. But cumulatively they make our school’s new logo the exact opposite of its ethos. A school on course to being outstanding would have the creative sure-footedness and intellectual curiosity to get these details right. It would know from its careers department that design is a job, done with skill and care, with users engaged, contexts considered and alternatives sweated over.

How can the situation be saved? We could stick with the Modernist Corporate approach. The current design could be improved on but has a clarity and originality that is lacking in the new logo. We could even hark back to the noble spirit of the school’s foundation in the 1950s. The award-winning GOV.UK website, for example, successfully marries the genuine heraldic device of the Crown with the clarity of Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear’s road sign typography from that era.

But if you are determined to head the kind of school that has a coat of arms, I plead with you to do it properly. I myself attended a 450-year-old school that took its heraldic identity from a founder with a walk-on role in Wolf Hall. There I got to know the attitudes that still pervade the institutions your highest-achieving students must navigate if they are to realise their full potential.

Please ask yourself how our sons and daughters will be received when they arrive at the doors of an Oxford or Cambridge college that has a grant of arms from around the time of Magna Carta. Will they be taken seriously? Or will the new “aspirational” logo elicit a silent sneer? This should not matter but it does. The elite networks of this country are tilted against some of your students enough already. The last thing they need is for an unthinking act of cargo cult design to subtly undermine their life chances even further.

Regards,

Matt Edgar

Parent

Eagle eyed readers have pointed out that I have published a 1000-word tirade without showing you the actual logo. This is mainly to protect the innocent. You can get a glimpse in this video of my lightning talk at Bettakultcha…

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mattedgar

Product strategy and design leadership in web and mobile media. Before that I was a newspaper journalist and history student

5 thoughts on “Up the school! Or, a passive-aggressive letter to the headteacher on the occasion of the unveiling of a new logo”

    1. Hi Jess, Yes, I really did send the email, and I got a reply. Extract as follows: “Of course we did consult with designers when putting together a selection of draft logos that were shared with the student council, the parents forum and the school governors. The final decision on the uniform and logo design was taken by the governing body. Therefore, with the greatest respect, this is now [the school’s] logo moving forward from September.”

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