“Shine forth, Brown and Gold.”
When the University of Manitoba, a long-time client, engaged ED to update its marketing brand positioning, a logo update wasn’t on the mandated list of deliverables. The in-use logo was less than 20 years old – young by any university standards. But, through consultation with more than 7,000 employees, students, faculty members and alumni across the province and country, two questions kept coming up: will you update the logo? And, will you change school’s colours, the brown and gold?
Anecdotally, most were in support of a change to the official colours. While brown and gold were long-entrenched (there’s even a song dedicated to the school’s colours that dates back to 1939), many told us the colours were drab and unexciting. However, this kind of focus group feedback needs to be taken with spoonfuls of salt. Change is difficult in post-secondary education, and needs to be approached with a clear rationale.
What they told us: Our symbols don’t reflect who we are today.
The case for updating the visual identity emerged organically as consultation participants took a closer look at the symbols in the existing logo. They said they felt the crown was a clear reference to Canada’s colonial history – which was inconsistent with the university’s prioritization of Indigenous student success and its commitment to reconciliation. The book symbol in the logo was also cited as out-of-step with the modern university – some inferred it as a religious text, while others felt learning was no longer restricted to textbooks.
And so, our direction on this evolving project was made clear: explore an update that modernized the visual identity for the university, and expressed what the U of M stands for today – especially with respect to its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada. To this end, our design team immersed itself in a university-led course on Indigenous design principles, which would strongly inform our exploration.
What we saw: A path less travelled.
Prior to creative exploration, we gathered feedback from more than 7,000 university community members: in group discussions, online surveys, and one-on-one conversations. In each intercept, participants had a chance to tell us what they felt the university stood for, and what parts of its history and future were critical to its identity as a higher education institution. These conversations weren’t based in the context of the logo itself, which allowed for richer responses from those who fed back.
After years of embracing an award-winning brand expression founded in the idea ‘where you are shapes who you are’, it was no surprise that the resilience and resourcefulness of Manitobans featured prominently in the conversations. So too did the sentiment that the bison is still a strong symbol of collective spirit and has importance in many Indigenous cultures. The prairie horizon was also referenced – though participants noticed that the topography of Manitoba varies widely from region to region. Finally, the natural wonder of the northern lights was also referenced as a phenomenon strongly associated with the province.
A less overt theme of ‘opportunity’ also emerged and served as a visual cue. Participants spoke of the University of Manitoba – among the top 15 research universities in the country – as a place where people exceed expectations and can achieve and accomplish as much as graduates from better-known institutions. This inspired a notion of breaking limits and boundaries – a notion we implemented in the container of the graphic solution.
The updated University of Manitoba ‘crest.’
While the silhouette of the revised visual identity was crest-shaped, the new graphic was not contained in a heraldic shield – one of many attributes of the new symbol that would appear familiar but break with tradition. The visual identity was instead a collection of shapes, with negative space between them, creating a sense of openness in the logo mark. The most prominent of these areas runs through the centre of the symbol as a path that – by virtue of having no border – feels unrestrained.
On this path, in a deeper-toned U of M brown, is the bison – the embraced symbol of the province and its university. Unlike the previous iteration, this new bison is active, moving forward and upwards on this limitless path to indicate its ability to endure a challenge.
Under the bison’s hooves is the gold and brown prairie soil, itself presented on a slight incline to reference the varied topography of the province. Within these fields of colour, and literally grounded in the logo itself, is a flame – the national symbol for reconciliation. Its inclusion is a strong message of how deeply engrained the commitment to reconciliation is for the university.
Perhaps the most dramatic evolution is featured above the bison – with a secondary colour palette of blue to complement the traditional brown and gold. The blue tones are evocative of the sky, but its shapes also make reference to the aurora borealis. Further inspiration was drawn from the pages of a book, combined with the flowing nature of how knowledge transfers, whether through electronic signals or traditional storytelling. And finally, the blue colours and the flame symbol were noted as references to females as ‘water keepers’ and males as ‘fire keepers’ in some traditional Indigenous teachings.
The forms within the new mark lent themselves to a graphic system to flank the logo – using the colours and shapes to contain or multiply over photography to form powerful backdrops for visual storytelling. Standards for application of the new identity were established and incorporated into a graphic standards manual for use by the university’s in-house marketing team, and partner agencies and entities.
Despite having some self-identified skeptics at the outset of the project (not an atypical situation when rebranding a higher education institution), the visual identity was unanimously embraced by the brand’s working committee. Several participants in the process agreed to appear in a testimonial video to announce the new identity, and provided a full-throated endorsements of both the consultation process, and the resulting product.
The video was released online, and the visual identity was launched on social media channels – a bold move on behalf of the university because typically, the most vocal online feedback tends to skew negative. Despite this risk, the discourse online was supportive, with community members expressing an appreciation for both the rationale for the initiative, and the creative solution.