Why I... think designers are undervalued

August 12, 2005

The row over University College London's new logo shows that graphic design is just as undervalued and misunderstood as it has always been.

One thing that drove me mad when I worked as a designer before entering academia was clients' complete lack of appreciation for what I did. Many a time I was overlooked for a job in favour of the client's next-door-neighbour's son - and don't get me started on the managing director's wife.

These were the early days of Apple Macintosh computers. Everyone seemed to think that design was done by computers and, if it was done by a computer, then it must be good. It follows that if you can pay a pittance for a design done on a computer, that's better than paying a fortune for an expert. After all, it's only design.

We designers have only ourselves to blame: besieged by "WordArt Man" we've upped sticks and redefined design from a form of visual communication to high art, complete with a canon of the great and the good, mysterious ways and the ambition to have work shown off in a gallery rather than on the supermarket shelf.

And the more we build up the distinction between those of us who know "good" design and those who don't, the greater the gulf between audience, client and designer. No wonder people will do it themselves rather than risk a conversation with us, or look at logos such as UCL's and think: "£600,000 for that? I could have done better".

Whatever your attitude to designers and to the logo (I like it, incidentally), we're missing the point. Far from this being money wasted, it is an astute investment. It is only when you see the old and the new logos together that you realise the old one was looking, well, old. It sent out the wrong message, that UCL was an exclusive and old-fashioned institution. The new logo, however, suggests inclusiveness and openness.

I know what you're thinking: maybe staff at UCL want to be exclusive and old-fashioned, and anyway all this talk of what a logo "means" is just claptrap, the sort of thing designers use to justify their fees.

Well, I'm sorry, but it isn't. If design didn't matter, you wouldn't be driving the car you drive, furnishing your house the way you do or wearing the clothes you do. Design is important. It is a method of communication not just from top down, but from bottom up and from side to side.

We associate ourselves with designs, and create them ourselves from what is available, because we want to be individual while simultaneously belonging to the right group. Design, like an iceberg, is only 10 per cent visual - the rest is hidden beneath the surface, begging to be understood.

It does the discipline I teach no favours for colleagues in other areas to dismiss it as mere decoration - or, indeed, for designers themselves to hide it behind smoke and mirrors.

If, as I suspect, UCL's new logo corrects misconceptions about the university, then that is a good thing. And if it means that existing students and alumni shift their perceptions, seeing UCL as a place they belong to rather than simply attend, we're closer to the conception of what a university should be.

So is £600,000 a good investment? Yes: good design and a good brand are among an organisation's intangible financial assets. UCL's new logo, if it works, should bring money in and benefit everyone.

Jonathan Baldwin, faculty of arts and architecture and the School of Historical and Critical Studies, Brighton University. He  is co-author of Visual Communication: From Theory to Practice , published by AVA in November, £24.95.

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