TN Logogate Episode I: A New Hope?

Buckle up, this one's a doozy. 

On May 20, 2015, news that a new logo for the Tennessee governmentt leaked. The logo was designed by reputable Nashville based agency, GS&F. The whole project is reported to have cost $46,000, which has a lot of people up in arms despite being relativity reasonable for agency work. There was a fair share of negative media attention (I'll talk about that in the next installment) and a lot of criticism from both the design and layman communities. Hell, the new logo even has its own, very satirical, Twitter account.

The new Tennessee logo as represented by all media outlets in its low res screenshot glory.

The new Tennessee logo as represented by all media outlets in its low res screenshot glory.

Here's what's going around town. It's a screenshot from the filing with the Patent's Office. The official release of the logo isn't planned until next month (June 2015 for future readers.) Already this logo is set up to fail because everyone's first impression is of low quality.

For the sake of this post, I've digitally rendered the logo. I'm am not and will never claim to be a typographer, so I'm sure that I totally blew the subtleties of the lettering (it's a custom job. More on that in a bit). My apologies to the creators. Please don't hate or sue me. Here's a side by side comparison of the current and new logos on an equal playing field. 

If this is your first time seeing it, are you disappointed? I was initially. The tristar, as it is lovingly known, is so iconic and the new one is, well, as my coworker put it "an Adobe logo." After the dust settled, I asked myself "is it really a bad logo?" It's not what I expected. Maybe I expected the tristar to still be incorporated, I don't know. The more I look at it, though, I don't think it's a bad logo.

First, a little bit about the current logo. The tristar is based on State's flag. Well, not even based on...it's the flag cropped.

The Tennesse Flag. It's pretty rad.

The Tennesse Flag. It's pretty rad.

The flag was adopted in 1905 and designed by Colonel LeRoy Reeves of the Tennessee National Guard. The three stars represent the three Great Divisions of Tennessee:  East, Middle and West. The circle represents the unity of The Divisions and it's color is for the "true blue" love for Tennessee. The red symbolizes Tennesseans being true-blooded Americans in war and peace. The blue bar on the right edge has no meaning. It was an aesthetic choice to break the sameness of the red.

Folks in Tennessee LOVE the tristar. Why wouldn't they? It's iconic and timeless. A lot of TN natives have it tattooed. Many local businesses incorporate it into their logos. Pro sports teams use it in their branding. Nashville apparel brands DCXV Industries and Project 615 have made bank off of incorporating it into many of their designs. This morning, I went to a local coffee shop, then passed a medical center, fuel truck and an auto shop, all of which used the tristar. It's all over Nashville.

Just a handful of the Tristar being incorporated in to various different applications.

Just a handful of the Tristar being incorporated in to various different applications.

Obviously, with as much love as there is for the three-starred ball, there are a lot of people really upset to see it go. Someone even made a pretty nice piece of propaganda in its defense.

The rally cry sweeping twitter.

The rally cry sweeping twitter.

What's the problem with the tristar? Nothing. Then why the new logo? Well, I think that the love for the symbol IS the problem. The tristar represents Tennessee's culture and history as a whole. It's a way for people or businesses to proudly say "Hey, I'm from Tennessee and I love it!" That's awesome but does it say "I represent and speak for the governing body of the State of Tennessee and all of its departments?" Unfortunately, no.

The Titans aren't paid by the state.  The bartender w/ the tristar tattoo isn't suggesting "I proudly work for The Tennessee Department of Transportation during the day." It's a regional marker that doesn't have much to do with local government. The want for separation makes sense, especially when you consider the aforementioned private healthcare and energy companies that are using it. If the tristar represented the government then it wouldn't be completely crazy to think that someone could assume a business using it has some government ties. I don't care much about politics, but I do know that the government's authority in private healthcare is a sensitive issue as well as it's potential profit from oil (lookin' at you, Dick Cheney). Sure, 99% of folks wouldn't make that assumption, but if the possibility is there then that's a liability.

The tristar is not getting the axe all together. The flag isn't going anywhere. I highly doubt that it'll get removed from historical plaques (I'll be mad if it is). It's getting a more specific purpose while the new logo is only to be an internal representation of the Tennessee government's offices and departments. Its kind of like good cop/bad cop. Or, like the tristar is a rockstar and the new logo is it's manager taking care of all of the dirty work.

So that's it for my thoughts on repurposing the tristar. Now, let's look at the new logo. 

My rendering that surely doesn't do the subtleties justice. 

My rendering that surely doesn't do the subtleties justice. 

Most criticism seems to be purely aesthetic. It's boring, sure, but not tacky. Form is absolutely important, but function can't be discredited. I'm not saying that this is best solution. The state abbreviation is a little too obvious for me. I don't know what the design brief or the other proposals look like, though. Regardless, it's the solution that the client chose. Maybe we can do some backward analysis to get an idea of why this was chosen.

• The Type. It's a custom lettering job (which I'm surely misrepresenting here but its gotta be better than that screenshot). A sans serif would have been way too plain and not authoritative. A slab serif, while possibly prettier, also would be too stylized. They do best on gig posters and in sports branding. The sans serif was very much the right choice. I assume that it's based on a preexisting typeface and given some modern considerations/improvements. Maybe it's traditional? They date back to Latin writings are frequently seen throughout America's history. It's also functional. Serifs help make letterforms more distinguishable from one and other and read better at smaller sizes, which is why they're commonly used for copy.

• The Flag Reference. It's still there. Instead of seeing a crop of the flag, we see what represents the flag "hung" vertically. The inclusion of the blue bar makes it a direct reference and also gives it some weight, stabilizing the logo. The elements referenced don't have regional meaning. Maybe thats ok? Like I said, the Tristar represents all of the regions and unity in more of a cultural sense. Maybe this is an objective way to reference the flag without implying what the tristar represents. The government represents it's people. This logo represents an entity. 

Here are my general thoughts on the whole thing.

• It's functional. I think that this is where the new logo really excels.

  • It's shape makes it versatile to use in multiple applications.
  • It's direct and to the point. No bells or whistles. No false impressions or clutter.
  • It's readable at large and small sizes due to it's simplicity, contrast, and utilization of serifs.
The new logo at various scales. Nothing is lost in translation as the logo shrinks. The Tristar works similarly but this isn't about why the new logo is better. Instead, about how it also works. 

The new logo at various scales. Nothing is lost in translation as the logo shrinks. The Tristar works similarly but this isn't about why the new logo is better. Instead, about how it also works. 

 

Speaking of functionality, how is the new logo is going to function? The Governor's Office says that it's going to be used to replace the many logos for different TN gov't departments and unify them under one symbol (kind of like the blue circle in the tristar unify's Tennessee's regions. That's neat!) 

A screenshot from WSMV's story showing a screenshot of the new logo on top of what are probably screenshots of some of the many department logos.  

A screenshot from WSMV's story showing a screenshot of the new logo on top of what are probably screenshots of some of the many department logos.  

What is DIDD? A place where conservatives and liberals hang out? I couldn't differentiate these from a local business if I didn't know what they were. It's nice that this new logo brings everything home so, when you see that logo on a building or letter head, you'll know its government business.  Also, instead of having to pay for dozen of logos, you get the job done with one! Oh, and most of these are disgusting. TDEC?! I'm not sure that that was even considered good in 1997, The Golden Age of Too Much Stuff.

Those department logos are pretty indicative of when they were made and have a really short shelf life. Stuff like gradients seen in those department logos were stylish at the time but didn't last long. Why should we assume that current design trends would be any different? It's smart for the government to have get a logo that they can theoretically use for 100+ years. I think that the new logo is pretty timeless. It looks like it was made in the digital age but utilizes the minimal and intentional tactics of the past. Also, if you want something to be timeless then its probably good to look back to the past instead of trying to make something completely new.

Yale University's academic logo and word mark. It was the subject of a little controversy when it was also used to replace the logo for Yale University Press created by legendary designer Paul Rand. That shift was done so for the sake of cohesion. 

Yale University's academic logo and word mark. It was the subject of a little controversy when it was also used to replace the logo for Yale University Press created by legendary designer Paul Rand. That shift was done so for the sake of cohesion. 

Look at Yale's academic branding. Remind you of anything? I don't know about you but I don't think Yale is cheap or boring. Yale is prestigious and respectable and, frankly, really smart. This modest logo pushes the school's reputation instead of something more aesthetically adventurous. When you think about it, isn't that something you want your government's identity to suggest? 

Like I said, the new logo isn't cool. I feel like a lot of people are getting hung up on the fact that is simple and  "mundane." I think that that's the point. I really believe that all of it's modesty was 100% intentional. 

from Twitter: a proposed logo in response to the new logo by Nathan Tinius (@NathanTinius)

from Twitter: a proposed logo in response to the new logo by Nathan Tinius (@NathanTinius)

from Twitter: a proposed logo in response to the new logo by Shane Read (@srcreate)

from Twitter: a proposed logo in response to the new logo by Shane Read (@srcreate)

Above are two different amateur proposals posted to Twitter in response to the new logo (I say amateur in that they were unpaid pursuits. They were made by professionals). I think that it's awesome that these two designers cared enough to take time to make their own interpretations kind of like I care enough to write this post. These are fine logos and I think that they'd work well for tourism or a more commercial use. Do they say what a government logo should say, though? 

As designers, we have to remember that there are lots of different areas of design, just like medicine or law. My expertise is more rooted in pop culture and entertainment. I get excited about posters, cool packaging, and brewery logos. I don't get too excited about a new typeface meant to improve upon Times New Roman I don't know a lot about tight layout grids (though I respect them.)

There was a team of designers charged with creating a typeface for road signage that was easily readable at high speeds and a wide range of scale (thus, Highway Gothic was born). Its the kind of design work that is effective, incredibly functional, and usually totally overlooked. I think of these kinds of designers more as engineers. I always think of architects: there are the architects that make cool, unique buildings (Frank Lloyd Wright) and then there are the architects that design multi purposed buildings that are efficient and don't fall down (every other architect I've ever met).

For non designers, remember that professionals made this. The team that made this logo are educated and well trained designers that work for a reputable agency. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, a lot people tend to forget there is a science and art to design. We have no idea how much time went in to research or how many other proposals and revisions that there were.  It's not always about what your seeing but the thought and intent behind something, even if it comes across as boring. Designers are used to this kind of thing. Michael Beirut wrote a really great article about the casual critic. 

At the end of the day, design, in the aesthetic sense, is completely subjective. I'm not trying make people like the new logo but I'd at least hope that they may respect it and, more importantly, respect the designers and process.

In the next post I'm gonna talk about the media's handling of the new logo and response to it. In the meantime, consider this: The new Tennessee Gov't logo cost $46,000. The BBC logo cost $1.8 million. What do they have in common? They're letters in blocks. 

UPDATE: a few interesting things have come up since I first posted:

  •  I've been told (via facebook) that the tristar can't be copyrighted or trademarked either because its a public domain symbol or because it's been used so often and variously. That means that it can't be used as is and by itself. I'm not sure if it could be used as an element but if it could be it wouldn't work well because it would lose a lot of readability at smaller scales.
  • Correct The Record (@RecordCorrect) and another very informed designer pointed out that the tristar has never been used as a logo by the government. It 's a state symbol (that isn't changing) that has been used in various logos but never existed as a logo itself. 
  • I've stumbled upon a much clearer demonstration of one of the many ways that the new logo will be used. Here is a before and an after of the 23 sub agencies logos:

Whether you like it aesthetically or not, you can't deny that they definitely look like they're playing for the same team much more than they did before.