Applying the Brand: Colleges, Schools and Departments

Posted: July 15, 2015

Tony Poillucci Vice President & Creative Director

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Many institutions are comprised of different entities across campus. These groups can range from colleges and institutes to schools and departments. It doesn’t matter what you call it, any group that has their own identity and set of values will have a desire to express what they see as their unique personality to their various audience groups.

The challenge is often finding the best solution to express and exhibit that personality in a way that aligns with the overarching institutional brand (the university or college within which these entities reside). For the most part, what we’ve experienced is that the vast majority of campus units do want to leverage the parent brand in some way. The big question is, how do you do that while still maintaining some individuality and communicating what makes your college, school or department unique?

I’m Different and I Need My Own Logo to Prove It!

A common misconception is that a new and different logo is the only or best way to differentiate campus units from their parent college or university. This is NOT true. In fact, it can do more harm than good by diluting the parent brand and confusing audiences (we’ll show some examples later on).

It’s important to realize that there are other ways to express your brand (or sub-brand) without creating a new and different logo for yourself. A few ways to do this are:

  • Messaging and Content – What are your core values? What are you goals? What message do you want to communicate to your target audiences? How can you prove your value via stories that clearly align with your values and with the brand of your institution?
  • Visual Elements – Slight differences in the use of colors and textures can go a long way in differentiating a school of engineering (think precise, symmetrical, line patterns) from the school of fine arts (think contrasting, geometric patterns of different sizes and contrasting scale).
  • Photography – A picture is worth a thousand words. Use photography to illustrate your offerings and culture. You don’t need a professional photographer for this. Leverage the resources (also known as students) that you have on campus every day.

As with most challenges in the higher ed universe, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The best approach is the one that works for the organizational structure and culture at your institution. Take a look at the examples below to get an idea of how units at other institutions are managing their brand identity.

Johns Hopkins University

“A world class university takes strengths from each of it’s parts. Then, the sum of those parts is stronger.” This quote summarizes the approach that John’s Hopkins has taken with its new visual identity.

The new logo is based on elements from the traditional academic seal. Schools and divisions within the university have unique elements in their individual logos, but all are enclosed within the same shield shape that is used in the university logo.

Johns Hopkins University Logo

University of Maryland

Admittedly, we’re a little biased here because of our work with the Robert H. Smith School of Business. That being said, we thought it was worth mentioning that the University of Maryland has a section of their Brand Toolkit that is specific to Web Guidelines. These guidelines cover websites, social media and even email.

The University of Maryland has 14 different colleges and schools, each with something special to offer. With so many different opportunities for differentiation, it’s important that the institution maintain some consistency across these various brands.

We know from working with the Smith School, that they are proud to be a part of the University and that they wanted to demonstrate it on their website. They also have a lot to be proud of on their own, so they built a website around their individual brand that focuses on unique pillars and attributes, while still showcasing their affiliation with the university.

University of Texas

The University of Texas at Austin has done a wonderful job of bringing a very diverse set of uniquely “branded” (pardon the pun) campus units together under one visual approach.   Take a look at a few of the various school logos before unifying their branding.

A selection of visually disparate logos from the University of Texas at Austin, including logos from the McCombs School of Business, Jackson School of Geosciences, Moody College of Communication, School of Architecture, School of Information, School of Nursing and School of Social Work.

As you can see, there’s not much consistency here. In some cases, it’s hard to tell that these units are even a part of the same institution.

The new Visual Style Guide opens with this message:

“As communicators on the Forty Acres we are gatekeepers of UT’s visual identity. It is vital that we project a single and clear image that consistently positions the university as the leading public research university in the nation.”

Their approach to colleges, schools and units is clearly outlined in the Brand Guidelines. The approach is designed to be flexible so that all units can work with the system. The website provides multiple variations (primary, branded, informal branded, formal) of the logo for colleges, college offices, college departments, research centers and administration offices. This system “supports The University of Texas at Austin’s brand while providing a clear and strong unit or group identifier.”

A selection of logos from the University of Texas at Austin with branding consistently applied.

University of Virginia

“It is beneficial to use the University of Virginia logo in order to be aligned with the established strong brand of the University.”

The University of Virginia provides all School and Unit logos in their Graphic Identity Standards & Guidelines. Their approach requires each unit to use the same logo and provides acceptable variations on the logo signature.

A selection of three logos from the University of Virginia with clearly shared branding elements.

As we mentioned before, the logo is not the only way to differentiate a school or department. UVA also provides specific Web Guidelines for schools and departments. The Design and Navigation guidelines include header and footer info, colors and fonts, responsive design considerations, accessibility and more. The Graphic Standards provide more specific information regarding colors, font treatments and page width recommendations. They also provide Web Templates that are free for departments to use. The templates can be modified to fit the specific needs of the unit and provide an excellent starting point when resources are limited.

Along with the structure and design, the content on the website makes a huge impact. UVA took that into account as well. They’ve provided guidelines on Writing for the Web that do not limit departments from showcasing their identity, but provide helpful tips to ensure a delightful user experience.

The moral of the story is that there are many different ways to incorporate the institutional brand into the brands of units, colleges, schools and departments across campus. While it is extremely valuable to have a feeling of unity and to leverage the institutional brand, we understand the desire to differentiate and communicate what makes an individual unit unique. You’ve got a lot to offer and you want to share that with your audiences. Messaging, content, design and photography are just a few ways to do this. Remember, the best solution is the one that works for your school’s organizational structure and culture.