Oxford University Press’s new logo is unfathomably bad
appearance vs. reality in art & business
Art and business objectives are so often in direct tension that it’s almost impressive, if also totally infuriating, when a choice manages to violate every conceivable aesthetic and capitalistic interest at once.
Your eyes are not deceiving you. In a move I fear augurs the end of serif fonts entirely, Oxford University Press has replaced one of the most recognizable and revered logos in academia with . . . that.
Put aside for a second that we’re talking about a venerable institution founded in the sixteenth century and differentiated by $150 scholarly volumes sold to like ten experts outside of libraries—this is a crime against graphic design. The most soulless, regurgitorial AI could have done better, let alone something pretty sophisticated like Looka, the AI-initiated, human-customizable branding tool that Substack helped me use to make this newsletter’s logo, for instance.
Even within the aesthetic limits of the flat, sans-serif style du jour, Twitter topped OUP’s design by a mile:
There is no shortage of creatively unflattering metaphorical comparisons to the actual new logo in other quote tweets (“a shitty bagel chain!”; “a shitty tire company!”; “a shitty Obama ripoff!”), but personally, I find it too painfully devoid of aesthetic impact to even merit such comparison. It would be a boring, forgettable logo for a shitty bagel chain, too.
It is worse, though, when such a logo replaces a world-class symbol of scholarly excellence. A maxim I remember from business school: a brand is a promise of a repeatable experience. You want to consider a rebrand when something is changing in a meaningful enough way that failing to do so would risk leading to mismatched customer expectations. But OUP’s mission is still “to further Oxford University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.”
The press’s stated rationale for the rebrand, rather, boils down to a desire to signal commitments to (1) digital transformation and (2) diversity & inclusion. Both are reasonable, even admirable goals—but bad reasons for a rebrand. The first, even per CEO Nigel Portwood, has been an ongoing journey at OUP “For many years now.” The Oxford English Dictionary went online in the year 2000. There is absolutely no reason to think digital innovation would have been held back by a little Latin in a logo.
The second is touchier, and, I think, falls into a trap closely related to one I discussed in my recent Lit Hub essay on literary moralism: “conflating the privilege of writing with privileged identities, élite talent with entrenched power.” I fear OUP has mistaken its symbol of scholarly excellence with the historically narrow definition of who could achieve it.
The way to rectify the latter is not through the symbol itself here—this was not a Washington-Football-Team-type situation. OUP clearly does still want to publish élite scholarship; it is not pivoting into a self-publishing platform or something. But taking action on the substance is harder than on the symbol, involving things like hiring a more diverse workforce. This in turn would likely require paying employees more, low wages being a notorious barrier to inclusion in prestige jobs and snobbist industries.
I’m not surprised OUP would prefer a splashy one-time marketing expense. It’s what other storied institutions have done before it. The Metropolitan Museum of Art did it in 2013, for example, which I remember vividly as I worked there at the time. The current red logo replaced the iconic da Vinci “M” explicitly “with the intention of giving everyone, not just the privileged few, a chance to explore new worlds.”
The New York Times confirms my memory of how unpopular this change was with the public, though it fails to mention the most common complaint we received (confusion with the opera; aesthetics were actually secondary), as well as the gripes of low-to-midlevel staff. For us, the rumored $2M rebrand came as a double-insult, the opportunity cost of actual wages being used to erase the visual manifestation of why we’d been willing to work for so little in the first place.
I’d be curious to know if OUP employees feel similarly, as I probably would have only been able to articulate the first half of my annoyance at the time. It wasn’t until I left the museum for management consulting and specifically worked on a series of innovation strategy projects that I started to connect these “the world is changing/we are inclusive” prestige rebrands directly to one of my pet themes in art and business alike: appearance vs. reality.
“Try to be brutally honest with yourself: is the goal actual innovation? Or is really to appear innovative?” I have asked these questions of many senior executives now, assuring them I am not being glib, explaining that these objectives are often in fundamental opposition to one another. Leaders of élite institutions would do well to ask themselves similar ones before rebranding—and beware even if their goal is admittedly appearance.
Because what is the implicit message, really, of using a flat, ugly logo to signal “changing times,” let alone inclusivity? That iconic beauty and excellence was the province of rich white dudes—and can only be expanded by lowering our standards. And what a load of horseshit that is.
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