This is part one in a three-part series. The first observes on criticism towards brands, the second on criticism towards design, and the third engages on the state of design criticism.

Criticism, by its very name, rings certain confusion in the practice of 21st century communication. With the arrival (and protection) of web anonymity, it is easy to see how criticism borders the line in misrepresenting itself with ‘personal attacks’. In comparison, the nature of criticizing (regardless of political, literary, or art disciplines) in its early years was solely presented as an engagement channel to debate with good intentions and positive discernment towards a common objective. But with the current conquest of technology in our daily communication, the art of critique, once deemed necessary to have professional knowledge in understanding criticism, has been despairingly reduced to ‘assumed negativity’ and ‘expressions of discontent’. Needless to say, the empowerment of technology enables anyone to be a critic today.

In describing the exploitations behind online criticism, one article lashes out at the social media bullies by equating their intimidation to cries for attention. The article, albeit crudely written, brings to light an unsettling observation where online petitions, blog posts, tweets and status updates hold authority over companies and brand acumen, but grazes partially on the damage of ‘finding faults’ being done to brands. To sum things up, criticism today is as simple as typing, “I don’t like this” into a comment box or hitting a ‘dislike’ button.

Criticism today, is an impulse to be heard.

Part One: Brands

While the stories behind strong companies/brands of today (Nike, McDonald’s, BBC, etc.) are largely attributed to successful communications between bold approaches (staying resilient, non-conforming) and confident thinking (belief in the brand), the shrinkage in today’s attention span is slated to force them in rapidly molding their marketing strategies, often to consumers’ obtuse preferences. And the University of California is one such case.

As the latest member to join the club of logo retractions, along with existing fellows like Gap, Japan Airlines and Waterstones, the recent uproar in the University of California new logo is a page torn out of the Gap rebranding disaster in 2010, right down to even gracing the headlines of major wires (Los Angeles Times, The Daily Californian). With an unfortunate combination of a misleading video and visual delivery, the logo takedown was the result (and victory declaration) of their students and staff disgruntlement.

There is nothing wrong in having opinions, feedback, and criticism. If anything, it is how progress functions.

But for the sake of discourse, criticism should always be articulated constructively with the sole intention on improving, not insulting.

Yet for a reader, the impulse to write snappy statements seems far more convenient than producing constructive or effective suggestions, as the latter would require applying an extra effort in critical thinking and discernment (a mixture of analysis and judgment) into processing the statement’s message. In addition, one point often overlooked in a majority of responses and rebuttals is the intention to empathize from the other side of the fence, which in this case pertains to the students and staff’s sudden outcry for the logo.

“I don’t want the UC logo looking like a flushing toilet”. — Terrance Bei

“What I do care about, deeply, is the danger this mob mentality poses to the practice of logo and identity design, which is, no way, a democratic process: People in leadership positions make these decisions; it’s their responsibility to get buy-in from whatever number of people they feel is required to push their decision forward — sometimes it’s five people, sometimes it’s endless focus groups. But the process and the final decision is between client and designer. Not between mob and online petitions. Do you feel left out and that your voice doesn’t count? Too bad. Then make yourself be part of the process and work your way to influence those decisions that so infuriate you and understand the process and hear the conversations that lead to specific decisions. Otherwise it’s just noise.” Via Brand New – Follow-up: University of California

The staff and students of UC should not be mistaken for shouting at a ‘simple’ logo. They were shouting because they were introduced to a decision without their opinions sought upon (think democracy, elections, and voting). They were shouting because they were apprehensive in being misrepresented by a logo, and that change should be inclusive and harmonious.

Yes. But they were shouting at an unfinished project, misled by improper visual deliveries.

“First, in logo design, people prefer complicated things to simple things. Simple things look too easy to do, and it baffles people that professionals must be enlisted to design something like the USA Today logo, which is basically a blue circle. “How much did they pay for this?” and “My four year old could do this” are responses so predictable you wonder if they’re hardwired into people’s brains.”

If the Internet can provide them a platform to witness change—a change that was only possible due to their voices in it—then they would be more than willing to devote in. Sadly, from the supporters’ reasons posted on the petition page, a majority of them stopped short at “I did not like this” without offering further suggestions. As mentioned earlier on the shrinkage in attention span, the generation of today just do not possess the time to read through concepts nor the perspective to see the bigger picture, such as the logo application on the entire rebrand output.

Criticism in all aspects should be constructive—not destructive. It is a delicate communication skill that needs patience and knowledge to comprehend, at times by taking a step back, breathe, and consider the final picture. Adding white noise to a conversation about logos is the same as being silent in a brainstorming session. Useless.

Neville Hew
Neville is a designer working with brands.
Neville Hew
Neville Hew

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