Institutional branding avoiding strong cultural stereotypes

Brand creation process for Rome’s School of Design

Custom Brand Development

So after the Aureliana branding creation case we had another challenge related to Rome, its culture and its design history. This time, far more difficult: the institutional branding for a design school.

Even if you are not a designer, you will understand that the challenge is very great. You have to do a job for professional experts in your area of ​​expertise. And these professionals will judge your work.

Comparatively, it’s more or less the pressure to take the final exam that defines your career.

And of course, it wasn’t going to be easy. In addition to the obvious difficulty and added pressure, the requirements were very demanding, as befits a highly prestigious institution.

Institutional branding without cultural stereotypes: the challenge

The fundamental requirement was that we should avoid any obvious reference to Rome. In other words: no ruins of the Colosseum, statues of Caesar, laurel wreaths or any of the common places that characterize any design that speaks of Rome.

Simply put: to avoid all cultural stereotypes surrounding a city with such rich history.

This requirement was given for two reasons: first, being a design school you must be more creative and think outside the box. Second, most brand designs in Rome avoid the aforementioned commonplaces.

In addition to this, we had the common requirements of any identity design job: that it be recognizable, memorable, easy to reproduce, adaptable, etc.

Brand identity process

Like any brand, the first thing is the name. We needed to use two types of identification. The first of these was institutional identification. In other words, what institutional brand were we referring to? This first identification was Politecnico di Roma (Polytechnic Institute of Rome).

institutional branding: old logo design

Then we had to consider the specific school or faculty belonging to that institution. In this case it was only for the School of Design, whose nominal identification is Scuola di Design.

This poses a new difficulty, since both names are fairly long. This represents additional work to make the brand legible while not needing a giant logo.

To get an idea, think about most of the institutional brands you know (academic, government, NGO, etc.). You will notice that the vast majority have logos (usually emblem logos) that are long and / or difficult to read. And one of the requirements for rebranding was … readability.

So we decided to start with the logo. While the wordmark was always present and we knew we’d need to use it, we hoped a good pictorial mark would lead us in the right direction.

And so it did!

A Goddess of Wisdom Knows About Branding

We knew that we shouldn’t use any cultural stereotypes from Ancient Rome. But we did it. Kind of.

Basically, we started playing with ideas and mockups and researching on concepts that represent Rome. Including everything, from arts and culture to politics, mithology, sports and anything you could think of.

With that information, we created a mood board (aptly named Institutional Branding) and added everything we thought it could help us.

All of a sudden, while one of our designers was playing with some doodles that had a slight resemblance to a bird, something shone between that vast amount of information:

Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare, and the sponsor of arts, trade, and strategy. Minerva is not a patron of violence such as Mars, but of defensive war only. Minerva is one of the three Roman deities in the Capitoline Triad, along with Jupiter and Juno.

She was the virgin goddess of music, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, and the crafts. She is often depicted with her sacred creature, an owl usually named as the “owl of Minerva”, which symbolised her association with wisdom and knowledge(…)

Goddess Minerva.
cultural stereotypes: owl of minerva
The owl of minerva in an Ancient Rome mosaic

And suddenly, it all became clear.

It took us literally 15 minutes to have the core of the idea, and a couple of days of refining.

Just in case: good brand design usually takes WEEKS, not minutes or hours or a couple days.

A great logo design

Ok, the header doesn’t sound too humble. But we’re proud romans, go figure! And with Minerva on our side, we fear nothing.

Jokes aside, we’re really proud of what we did, and the level of conceptualization we displayed in a simple, memorable and readable visual identity. Basically, everything we were asked for, which we expected to last weeks, done in 15 minutes.

And the result is the following:

logo concept: naming and creation

As you can see: the initials of Politecnico, Roma and Design. And then, the owl representing the school and wisdom for the word Scuola (school). And yes, we could have said “oh look, in fact there’s an stylized S letter” like many designers do. But we don’t like to do that. And yes, there’s some kind of stylized S, but it would be a lie. The School is represented by the concept, not the shape.

Designing without cultural stereotypes

So, while we cheated a little bit on the “no cultural stereotypes” requirement, the resulting brand identity was so strong we immediately submitted it for approval.

After a short presentation and explanation on the new brand identity, we were given green light, so we could start with the wordmark part.

Again, we avoided the cultural stereotypes on typography. Not only we avoided a Roman like typography: we avoided any serif typography!

Instead, we use a font that has a semi-automatic reference to one of Rome’s modern cultural icons. The man who loved Rome and painted the city and its people in all its grandeur.

Of course, we are not talking about any other than the great film director Federico Fellini.

Fellini used or filmed very recurring typefaces (probably because they were the ones that existed in Italy, which came from the time before the Second World War). These typefaces were very common in Art Deco, so we wanted something similar. Also, these typefaces are usually very legible since they were usually carved on the frontispieces of buildings and were part of the institutional branding of the period from the 1920s to the early post-war years.

In short: a very readable typeface, which did not have a serif and which was reminiscent of the typefaces of Rome in the mid-20th century, as filmed by Fellini.

Color and presentation

Of course, we had to consider logo colors and its psychology.

And again, we kind of “cheated” and used very important cultural references. And we simply took the reference from Rome’s passion: Football (or soccer, if you will).

Rome’s main football team is the Associazione Sportiva Roma. This team takes a cultural reference from Ancient Rome. So, by inspiring ourselves in this icon, we kind of “cheated”, because we use the redish color that represented Roman Emperors, and the gold color that represents the power of Roman Empire. So we “cheated by proxy”, so to speak!

Image for Institutional branding avoiding strong cultural stereotypes 4
Logo property of Associazione Sportiva Roma.

As you can see, we chose similar colors for immediate association with Rome’s soccer and also their transportation system. Simply put: we used the colors romans love and see every single day of their lives.

The final institutional branding

And without further ado, the institutional branding for the Design School at the Politecnico di Roma, including the technical construction

logo design versions
Brand identity and logo construction

Logo Testing

At the beginning of this article, we said that there were some additional requirements, including accessibility, brand recognition, ease of use and other technical and accessibility features.

Since our main business is UX Research for big companies, doing any kind of research or testing is just an everyday task for us. Nevertheless, we’re proud of being one of the few branding agencies in the world that use objective data research on a daily basis.

And as you may imagine, a project of this caliber wasn’t an exception. You can see some of the results of logo tests for different categories, including visual accessibility, brand recognition, application in context and logo visualization edge cases.

Conclusion

We had a lot of fun creating the institutional brand for that institution. And the main requirement (to avoid cultural stereotypes) turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Rather than go through a brand design process that could have ended in a trivial and mundane brand identity, we were forced to push the boundaries. And because of this, we achieve something completely original, that meets and exceeds the agreed requirements.

The brand identity has different levels of reading and meta-messages. There are different associations to Rome, from different angles: its history, its mythology, its art and culture, its sports passion, everyday’s life … in short, a simple and at the same time complex identity. Just like Rome, the Eternal City

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