(james benedict brown) on the road

The. University. Of. Sheffield. Visual. Identity. (and the missing University Challenge contestant)

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 3 March, 2008


It’s been a year or so since the University of Sheffield shelled out a vast (rumoured to be six figure sum) to a London-based design agency for a new visual identity. Or brand. Or look. Or whatever bull you want to call it. The fundamental core of the university’s new brand is a white box that bleeds from the extreme left of every document, webpage and even building sign. Within that white box sits the crest (unchanged, thank the lord) and the serif words “The University of Sheffield” over four lines, punctuated with a full-stop that was probably justified on the grounds of suggesting permanence, strength or some other expensive justification.

The university has gone to great lengths to ensure correct use of this new logo, with an extensive website explaining the dos and the don’ts to ensure consistency of appearance. With new the corporate look (and it is very corporate, but then a lot is in the contemporary British academic world) the university website has been re-designed, and includes the home page seen above. Every department and division has been directed to mould their pages to a new template, leaving the School of Architecture with possible the dreariest and least inspiring homepage of any design course in the country. Like the horrible Microsoft-Word-designed welcome signs that direct sixth form open day visitors to our department, tens of thousands of pounds have been spent creating a format that makes every part of the university look like the rest of it. Our old departmental page (click that link for an archived version) may have been around a few years, but at least it was distinctive, easy to navigate and suggestive of being a design-conscious school of design.

But that’s the not biggest mistake. The biggest mistake is commissioning a design firm to create an entire design package and set of rules that doesn’t work consistently. Take the homepage screen-grab above. Promoting tonight’s episode of University Challenge, the university has delightfully cropped Phil Smith, the team’s valuable fourth member, out of the picture.

I emailed the team responsible for managing the home page to remind them that it wasn’t particularly sincere of them to leave Phil propping up the garish link boxes on the homepage. Their responce:

Thanks for your comments on the current homepage feature. I agree that
ideally we would have wanted all 4 contestants in the frame. However,
regrettably the image is not one of our own and was supplied to us by
the programme. Moreover, the Marketing department no longer employs
in-house graphic designers and there are limitations on manipulating
images that appear due to the way the home web page has been set up
within the content management system. We therefore had to make a
decision on whether to include the image or leave it out altogether.
Ultimately, we believed that it was much better to include the feature
celebrating Sheffield’s success, albeit that the image is not ideal. I
hope you agree.

You might have guessed that I don’t agree. But then I don’t agree with the university spending a fortune on a badly designed and inflexible visual identity package, especially if it means we no longer employ and nurture our own graphic designers. All I can do is complain loudly, blog with ferocity and retreat to the university’s only design based faculty. Not that you’d know we were design driven from our awful website.


5 Responses

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  1. Christopher Dowson said, on 3 March, 2008 at 13:31

    So it takes an in-house graphic designer to resize a picture? Tsk tsk, Sheffield Uni. In my dealings with various unis and their logos, they usually have a “tech guy” from the IT department who fancies themselves a photoshop whizz.

    Ironically, on my 1920×1200 display the 4th contestand now appears, but the nav bar that was covering him hovers somewhere around the 3rd quarter of the screen.

    So, six figures for an inflexible and badly written CMS? Sounds about right… I’m pretty sure I’ve come up with better designs on my lunch hour. :o)

  2. Welcome new readers « …ontheroad said, on 4 March, 2008 at 01:08

    […] funny thing happened on this blog yesterday. I wrote a post rubbishing the University of Sheffield’s corporate identity, and the site’s hits went through the roof. Does this mean I’m not the only who hates […]

  3. AnselAdams said, on 4 March, 2008 at 11:16

    In reality, the University website is not that bad at all. I have (in common with many web users) been to websites which are laid out and managed far worse.

    As for the forth member of the University team being cut off, not on my monitor. He is clearly visible.

    On a final note, you should really proof read your posts, as it always helps when criticising someone else’s work to ensure yours is free from mistakes.

  4. James said, on 5 March, 2008 at 01:03

    Thanks for your comments Christopher and “Ansel”. In answer to “Ansel’s” comments, I really thought we had moved on from the era of websites that advised visitors that “this site is best viewed on a monitor with a resolution of xxx by xxx” etc. The amount of money spent by the university on a coherent design presence should have afforded us a universally accessible design, and the means for our staff to adapt it to situations such as this.

    Secondly, I always proof read my posts, but since my eyes belong to a confirmed dyslexic they aren’t much use when reading something I’ve just written for the sixth time. Perhaps your next comment could be more specific and help me improve things? And may I also invite you not to hide behind a pseudonym. You never know: other users may share your opinions and be interested in reading your online work elsewhere…

  5. R u ready2Go upTempo? « …ontheroad said, on 9 March, 2008 at 11:13

    […] last week’s post about the University of Sheffield’s new corporate look, I was invited to speak at an open debate entitled Is the University of Sheffield School of […]

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