Twenty years ago, in April 1989, Central School of Arts and Crafts (est. 1896) and Saint Martins College of Art (est. 1854) merged into what is now called Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (CSM).
On Monday, I went to a panel at the college’s Cochrane Theatre, celebrating the 20 years since the union. Geoff Fowle, former director of the Graphic Design course, hosted the panel of graduates from the last 20 years, who discussed their experiences before, during and after studying at CSM.
After the panel, we were invited to a reception with Geoff and other members of staff and alumni, which lead to some interesting discussions. While sipping our drinks, my tutor asked my opinion on the university website. This was a very thought-provoking question and I wanted to share my ideas here.
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When I joined the college (in 2002), CSM was part of The London Institute, a “constellation” of five art and design colleges in London: Camberwell College of Arts, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Chelsea College of Art and Design, London College of Fashion and London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing). Two years later, the institute got a university status and was renamed to University of the Arts London. In 2006, Wimbledon College of Art joined the group.
Each of the colleges has it’s own unique teaching style, approach, campus life, and list of famous alumni. According to the Times Education profile of the University of the Arts, “The London Institute resisted the temptation to apply for university status after it was formed in 1986 because the art, design, fashion and media colleges that had come together for administrative purposes were world-famous in their own right.”
But in 2001, Sir Michael Bichard, the rector of the London Institute at the time, encouraged the change.
Since the grant of the university status, there was a series of branding exercises that led to the place it is now – a consistent approach that leaves a shell without identity to each of the university colleges.
Let’s take the graphic design course as an example. There is a major difference of teaching and practice approaches in the Graphic Design course of CSM compared to the ones in LCC or Camberwell. Studios, tutors, and students are different, so are the self-definitions and the anticipated outcomes of each course.
Below are excerpts from the description of each course on the website:
CSM: “The philosophy of the graphic design course at Central Saint Martins is that students define their goals, experiment with ideas and challenge current practices to produce work that is outside commercial constraints.”
LCC: “We seek to produce graduates whose understanding of visual language means that they will be a confident, influential and proactive participant in an increasingly diverse design community.”
One would agree that each course promotes a different teaching and professional philosophy.
Camberwell: “Great ideas are at the heart of the best graphic design and great ideas are also at the heart of this course, which encourages you to develop your own distinct and independent voice.”
Visually, however, when a user is going to the University of the Arts website to look for a graphic design course, he sees no difference, for the website does not reflect the brand uniqueness of these institutions. The university has one logotype and the colleges have their names added in the same font, albeit in a distinct colour. The website looks exactly the same for all six colleges, except for the different colour palette. Thus, each of the colleges in the university website carry the same homogeneous look and feel and there is no distinction and sense of individual identity to the colleges.
I guess the biggest question for the university and their branding agency is that: should each college have their own identity or should they all share the same university brand and trademark?
I believe it can go in both ways.
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The BBC websites for its various channels could be a good comparison. The BBC has a distinct branding that we all know and cherish, but offline, online and on-air the BBC has a series of channels, with their own identity and branding.When you navigate to the BBC One and CBBC sites or the BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4 sites you are aware that you are on the BBC sphere and at the same time know that you are on a distinct channel of the brand.
The channel has it’s own distinct look, approach and visitors.
It looks and feels different, and it still keeps the same safe and familiar environment of the BBC brand.
Each of the channels is designed by a different design agency, but they all follow the design guidelines provided by the BBC, and while there are shared similarities, the feel is different.
It is plausible to expect that the university brand will be prominent presence on the website, but six different and distinct colleges should not dissolve and become almost anonymous parts in the general scheme.
As a student and as an alumnus of Central Saint Martins, I always felt more part of the college, rather then the university, and I believe the college I went to, as well as each of the other colleges should have its own identity, under the united presence of the University of the Arts.