FAQ about Visual Identity at Brown

Brown’s Office of University Communications has prepared this list of frequently asked questions for members of the campus community who want to learn more about the University’s Visual Identity Policy and Strategy. The policy document itself provides information about the actual identity standards, but this page answers such questions as why Brown has its policy, what departments are discouraged from independent logos, and what to do if your unit’s logo does not comply with the visual identity policy.

Questions answered in this document:

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does Brown need a visual identity policy?

Having a strong, recognizable, University-wide visual identity instantly distinguishes Brown and its programs from other universities and organizations. A visual identity policy establishes the standards to easily identify the departments, schools, offices, programs, initiatives and other aspects of Brown that contribute to its national standing and excellence.

Clear policies and standards release departments from the burden of creating standards for use on their own, and limits duplication of resources across the University by minimizing the cost of design, trademark, legal and other expenses associated with maintaining an identity. It also prevents the University’s strong identity from being diluted.

Institutions with weak or disjointed identities find it difficult to defend against trademark infringement if an entity can make a claim that the university cannot establish consistency in use of its registered marks.

Who is governed by the policy?

The policy applies to all faculty and staff communications representing academic or administrative programs, as well as students of the University who seek to use the Brown identity or Brown trademarked logo in their communications.

Why did Brown update its policy in 2016 after establishing its current visual identity in 2003?

The University in 2003 approved a visual identity for Brown that established the University’s current logo and branding. However, the full set of guidelines for maintaining this identity was maintained in paper document form, and by 2015 were unknown to most of the campus. Only a brief summary version of the guidelines had endured online, omitting key information required by designers and vendors.

In addition, the original visual identity guidelines for Brown’s current logo had not been adapted to align with new uses of technology. Therefore, offices and departments across campus needed new guidelines for conveying aspects of Brown’s visual identity across all forms of media.

Two sets of separate consultants commissioned by Brown — in 2015 and in 2016 — to assess structural and programmatic aspects of Brown’s efforts to strengthen its international standing and its relationships with its many audiences highlighted Brown’s visual identity as an area requiring attention. This reinforced the need to revitalize efforts that had been in the early stages for about a year prior to the first consultant’s report.

It was important to align evolutions in the use of visual identity across Brown with 1) the need for adaptability to digital media; 2) the entrenchment of uses that violated the original identity policy, but now had come to be mainstream; and 3) the original principles for strengthening Brown’s visual identity.

What’s the difference between a visual identity, a brand and a logo?

A visual identity encompasses the visual elements that represent an organization or entity. These can include an organization’s name, set of colors or often used design elements (lines shapes, etc.), specialized fonts, slogan, and a logo.

A logo is a fixed element of an overall visual identity and is a concrete symbol, usually a designed graphic, that on its own is a symbol that represents the organization. Logos are often trademarked and protected from infringement, while you can’t trademark an identity system, which has several elements that may change in their overall relation to each other when applied to a specific communication.

The brand is the totality of the “what” that the visual identity and the logo stand for. It’s the attributes and characteristics associated with an institution or organization that the logo conjures when a person sees it. For instance, a diner seeing the registered Taco Bell symbol while driving down the street may think “Tex-Mex, fast, young, hip, zesty, creative, late-night, snack-size” while the same diner may see a Chipotle sign and think “Tex-Mex, fresh, sustainable, meal.”

People often confuse “brand” to be synonymous with logo, but a logo represents your brand, which is the “who” or “what” that an organization means to its audience and stakeholders. It usually takes years or significant financial and media resources to build a brand. A logo is an image on a page.

What is the “brand” that Brown’s visual identity represents?

The Brown University brand encapsulates:

  • 250 years of history and academic excellence
  • Our mission “to serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry… ”
  • The unique character of our Open Curriculum
  • A reputation for leadership in research
  • A strong faculty of teacher-scholars that works closely with undergraduate and graduate students
  • A network of more than 100,000 alumni/ae
  • A diverse and inclusive community engaged in social action

Why does Brown promote a unified identity instead of departments with separate logos?

In a glance, a unified visual presence identifies every school, department, publication, pathway, or website as a part of Brown, ensuring that every unit or program benefits from Brown’s well-established reputation, while reinforcing the collective excellence of the University as a whole. Each unit within Brown shapes what Brown is “known for.”

In addition, a unified identity is a best practice for effective engagement with audiences. In today’s multimedia world, there is so much competition for the average person’s attention that quickly recognizable names and logos help us cut through the cacophony of options to find the things we care about, trust, and believe in, and the people and organizations that matter most to us.

Why have so many programs at Brown and other universities had independent logos if this isn’t a best practice? And what are the implications of continuing this practice?

Most universities are working to reverse a previous trend of departments and programs within their institutions developing independent logos. Universities have found that significant resources are invested by departments trying to start from scratch building their own brands while missing out on the benefits of the well-established identity of the institution.

In the early 2000’s, with the growth of technological tools to make it easy for departments to manage their own websites and distribute communications, departments sought new design approaches to distinguish their presence from others across their universities. The social media boom of the late 2000’s further fueled this trend as departments sought distinct avatars to represent themselves on Facebook and other platforms. The intent often was not to establish a separate identity, but rather a “unique look.”

Consultancy firms began building business promoting marketing strategies based on investment in building reputations around new logos and brands. And, to avoid shifting resources outside the institution, graphic design offices at universities began contending with extensive requests for logo creation.

The unintentional consequence was a proliferation of logos that led to fractured and disjointed institutional identity — higher education institutions seemingly made up of dozens of separate “organizations.”

Amid a proliferation of communications made easy by technology, key stakeholders were confused about what programs were associated with individual universities. Some audiences raised questions about whether programs intentionally were attempting to disassociate from their institutions. The derogatory marketing term “logo soup” began to be applied to colleges with disjoined identities.

And many departments began to find that they struggled to establish brand recognition and a reputation on their own. They were investing significant staffing and financial resources to “build recognition” of their programs around the new independent logos they had established. As a result, many programs within institutions, including at Brown, of their own volition began re-associating their programs with the university identity. Many institutions have sought to strengthen and unify their visual identity through policies.

Developing “sub-identities” or “affiliate identities” based on the core institution’s identity, rather than independent logos, is the best practice to avoid disorienting audiences and stakeholders, and to ensure a unified and cohesive identity.

What if my unit’s visual identity does not comply with the visual identity policy?

Brown understands that staffing and financial resources are involved in changing a visual identity across communications. We know that many offices that are not in compliance today were in violation of the pre-existing 2003 policy, but may not have realized it.

Academic and administrative units with visual identities and logos developed and in use before August 1, 2016, that are not in compliance with the visual identity policy will have two years to phase out the visual identity and to develop one that is in compliance with the policy. The Office of University Communications is available to work with offices that must update their logos or identities.

In clarifying the policy standards, the team that developed the visual identity was very attentive to reviewing existing identities to determine to what extent the policy could be updated to account for evolutions in use over time that did not have the effect of diluting or weakening the principles of the identity. Many uses that might have been considered violations of the 2003 policy were determined to represent innovations and are not considered violations of the 2016 policy update.

However, some uses distort or compromise the trademarked identity in ways that could not be accommodated. These are the uses that departments will be expected to phase out.

How did Brown develop the updates to its visual identity policy?

The visual identity policy was updated through an inclusive process that involved key units on campus that are prolific or influential producers of communications, and an assessment of Brown’s needs for its visual identity.

The Vice President for Communications charged a working group of professional designers from various offices on campus to: assess current uses of the visual identity across campus; be responsive to questions over use that included colors, fonts and styles; adapt the 2003 approved identity for use across digital media; align the established policies with best practices for use for complex, decentralized organizations; create flexibility for offices and departments to have affiliated identities to represent the individuality of their programs; and build a strategy that aligns Brown with its peers in maintaining strong brand representation.

What if my question is not answered here?

Our Marketing Communications staff and designers in the Graphic Services Unit, now part of the Office of University Communications, are available to answer your questions. Email [email protected].