Due to popular hatred, the University of California has withdrawn its new logo. This is no cause for tears; the proposed image, a stylized C emblazoned upon a U, looked like a plus-size strapless dress smeared with unicorn poop. The outrage, however, is noteworthy for its place within a bigger phenomenon. If crowdsourcing builds things, here we see the emergence of crowdsmashing: the Gap Logo Debacle of 2010, the London 2012 Olympics Hot Pink Logo Fussquake, the Syfy Brand Identity Conundrum. Something about logos and rebranding can just piss a mob right off.
How to explain the outrage? The most common response is “Well, people hate change.” But as Aaron Bady recently wrote in an essay about the UC logo fight, there is “such dismissive contempt in the idea that we are not only beasts of habit, but that we fear change and react instinctively.” People do, in fact, often like change. They love novelty: tablet computers with smaller screens, iPhones with bigger screens, new Batman movies, “Gangnam Style.”
What people dislike is change for change’s sake forced upon them without consultation. Think of a brand not as a symbol or an ad campaign. Imagine instead a tiny homunculus with logos for eyes. He lives on your shoulder and whispers in your ear all day. “You are hungry; a Subway foot-long would fix that.” That’s a story he might tell. Another is “Your Mac is slow; you bought a new Mac; you are happy.” Stories with you as hero and the brand as supporting character.
People don’t like their stories messed with. You expect a certain continuity, and when the opposite happens—Dylan going electric, season two of Friday Night Lights—you react out of proportion to external measures of the offense but very much in proportion to the internal anxiety and anger you might feel. This is why I still cannot talk in a cogent way about the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica, even though (1) years have passed and (2) it was about spaceships.
Logo outrage is born the moment that a brand’s stories take a bad or uncool turn. It’s like when George Lucas adds 3-D effects to the original Star Wars—it messes with your memories, and that means that it messes with your expectations for the future (because you need your memories to make new plans). So now it’s less fun to go back and watch Star Wars. As it is less fun to attend a UC Santa Cruz reunion when you associate the school with unicorn poop. It’s not just that some lines and colors have changed—possibilities have been taken away. No wonder people want to go to their windows and yell “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take gradient blends anymore.”
Such mass Bartlebyism is a newish thing. I remember my father watching TV when Sperry and Burroughs merged to create Unisys. “My God,” he said. “That’s the worst word I’ve ever heard.” I still don’t understand why he was so offended by an office-automation merger. He taught English. I was only 12. But today he would not have to be annoyed alone, thanks to the ambient tribal identity afforded by the Internet. For the first time, the question “I wonder who else hates this?” has an immediate answer, and people who see the arc of their lives flattened by bad branding can find each other and grieve over the lost logotypes of youth.