Sunday, February 8, 2015

State Agency Logos: Endangered or Extinct?

nys-dec-logoThe recognizable logos of our individual New York state agencies, symbolic of each agency mission and purpose, suddenly appear to be endangered, or extinct. They have lasted in many cases for 40 years or longer.

For instance, there was the familiar round NYS Department of Environmental Conservation logo, quite attractive really, with symbols indicative of its mission to protect our waters, our air, our land, and our mountains. As far as I know, the DEC logo dates to the agency’s very creation in law back in 1972. It must have an interesting origin story. And it was ubiquitous until late last year, appearing on DEC headquarters and many regional buildings. On searches in vain for it now on the DEC website. I had to eventually Google it.

Where has it gone?

APA LogoThen there is the Adirondack Park Agency logo, which went through several iterations from the Agency’s origin in 1971, but also containing crude symbols recognizable as the Adirondack Park – mountain ranges, mountain peaks. As a design, it’s OK, I suppose. But I know it evoked pride in the Agency mission to protect the Park’s natural resources for many years. How many times did former APA Chair Richard Lefebvre, and how many times has current APA Chairwoman Leilani Ulrich “pinned” a guest or a staff member with the agency logo as a small token for meritorious service performed? Countless times. So, the APA logo is still found on many lapels, not only here but around the world. It’s not in favor any more, apparently. I searched the APA website. I found it, but it required a search of now apparently “historic” documents.

Why has it gone?

New York State ParksSame with the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. I liked its maple leaf logo. It made me proud because I was an outdoor educator and the maple leaf as a symbol of what I was doing and why I was doing it sure worked for me. It still makes me proud to see it. But it’s gone ! Go to www.oprhp.ny.gov, and I challenge you to find a copy there.

Name your favorite state agency. Where have their emblems gone ? Why are they endangered? I have a guess. Since each agency is now represented by one common logo, showing the outline of the state, with the phrase State of Opportunity, and only the name of the agency to suggest its mission and purpose, clearly Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office directed the change. How surprising is that?

OK, but why? Why does a Governor want to erase logos and brands emblematic of mandates and missions created in law as part of the state’s public service? The answer comes in part thanks to Times Union staff writer Casey Seiler, who reported the change back on December 11th. Seiler wrote:

“Telling New York’s story as a state of opportunity for those seeking to live, work and start a business is a top priority of this administration, as is making government more accessible to New Yorkers,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi in an email. “This redesign is a reflection of both those efforts.”

But if that philosophy is the beating heart of the branding effort, its skin and bones consist of strict rules for how state agencies present themselves visually, in everything from brochures and banners to business cards and media-kit flash drive casings.

In addition to specifying typography, font size and rules for positioning state logos — they may not be tilted, ever — the guide establishes color palettes for eight general categories of state agencies and government entities, from those providing health and human services (purple) to divisions handling recreation and the environment (olive).

Only a few “legacy logos” will be preserved — including ILoveNY as well as existing tags for the New York Lottery, the MTA and the StartUp program. The use of the state’s oldest logo, the Great Seal, will be “available for use only by the Governor’s office or with permission of the Secretary of State.” The state coat of arms will be used in legal documents such as vehicle registrations.”

Design resistance is futile: “Because these elements and their relation to each other are so essential to the New York state brand,” the booklet states, “the guidelines around these primary brand elements are very specific and not open to much interpretation.”

NY State of OppprtunitySeiler went on to report that the state contracted for several hundred million dollars to re-brand itself, a la ILoveNY and NY Works, but to include every logo except the great seal of the state. I presume that is still trotted out on occasion.

I am sure marketing experts told reporter Seiler that something important is gained by re-branding. After all, the state spent a lot of public money on it. I may be told what that is, but what has been lost?

Symbols are important, just as words are, of the enterprise, the mission, the purpose. When a state homogenizes all its agencies under one logo with State of Opportunity, it is signaling to me, one citizen of the Empire State, the following: our state agency missions, legislated though they may be in the public’s interest, are less important than conformity to authority. As the article stated, “design resistance is futile.” As the Governor’s spokesperson implied, the former logos did not connote “opportunity” and were not “accessible to the public.” What double-speak. The Governor wanted to control and homogenize every agency’s image, and it happened.

I have a nagging suspicion that there are many state workers who received the “design booklet” who are, maybe at this very moment, not conforming – but offering resistance in their own ways. They may be proud of their agency logos. They may simply like them. I say bless them and keep it up. I hope the old logos make a come back someday.

I’ve experienced re-branding. When the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks was merged and the merged identity became Protect the Adirondacks in July, 2009, I remained the merged organization’s executive director for a little bit and I shared the motivation to re-brand in order to show the world we had changed and grown and that a new era had started. I was initially an enthusiastic participant. We hired an Adirondack firm to help re-brand us (the bill was quite a bit less than the state’s). Jettisoned was the Association’s logo (its corporate seal, actually) a drawing of a great white pine tree set against a field, with mountains and a rising sun in the background. It had dated to 1901-02, and it was beautiful and exuded authenticity. We even knew the name of the artist. Many people in the former organization loved and honored what that seal stood for. It was replaced with a computer rendering of the mountains, organizational name with exclamation point. I did not remain with the merged group. For me, much more was lost through the merger than a corporate seal.

So that is my overall point. In re-branding state agencies, how much more that is meaningful may be lost beyond a suite of symbols dating four decades which depicted, quite artistically in the “modern” sense legislative mandate, mission and purpose?

 

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David Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.




14 Responses

  1. Bill Ingersoll Bill Ingersoll says:

    The style guide paraphrased in Seiler’s article is no different than one used in a corporation. I used to work for a large multinational company that had its style guide posted on its intranet for any employee to read. You could download a clean copy of the logo, but it had to be placed a certain way, never tilted or skewed; only certain fonts were acceptable, and the approved color palette was indicated down to precise CMYK numbers. The website also provided PowerPoint and Word templates with these standards built in, leaving less room for interpretation.

    So on the one hand these sets of rigid branding guidelines are very common in the corporate world. When that same company updated its logo and its brand style, every employee had been “educated” months before the official switch was made. There were monthly e-newsletters leading up to the date the new logo became official, and “brand workshops” where employees could become “brand ambassadors” to help get the word out to new employees.

    Therefore what I have to question in regards to NYS is to what extent the various state agencies had input in the rebranding process, and whether this was something everybody knew was coming. The impression that I have was that the logo changes were an edict from Albany that no one was expecting. This means that there will be untold numbers of stationery, forms, signs, uniforms, vehicle emblems, and so forth that became obsolete on the day the rebranding became official. Did anyone do a cost analysis to determine what the impact would be to replace all these old branded items? Were the agencies notified about the change with enough time to stop purchasing items with the old logos?

    In regards to DEC, their logo appears on thousands of state land boundary signs throughout the state. If the governor happens to notice them on his next summer outing to the Adirondacks, will he force the department to replace them all? That could be entertaining.

  2. There are different ways to take the phrase “New York State of Opportunity”. In light of programs like the one where businesses can be totally tax free for 10 years, one way it can be taken is “We can be bought”.

  3. Pete Nye says:

    Yes, this move is indeed a sad, short-sighted, costly, and dictatorial one. But who’s surprised? Of course, there is one sure way to undue this, but since New York City just re-elected him, it’ll take us a few years. Maybe this policy should just apply in those very few places that actually voted for him.

  4. Rick Fenton says:

    It would seem more than a little awkward for DEC, a large part of whose mission is regulation, to be firm with those subject to its regulation, when the name of the game now up in lights is “opportunity.” Perhaps the new handbook includes some guidance about a new regulatory language.

    Law enforcement – Profit retention consultation
    ECO – Environmental Concierge of Opportunity
    Enforcement action – Compliance opportunity
    Consent order – Agreement opportunity
    Fine – Donation opportunity
    Remediation – Beautification opportunity

  5. Nan Plantier says:

    Hi Dave,

    Great article! Just a little correction for the record though. DEC was in existence before 1972. I was working there in May 1970 when Henry Diamond became the commissioner of the new and exciting agency.

  6. Colvin says:

    Mr. Gibson is right on target. Creating this new NYS “brand” was a huge waste of money and yet another way to demoralize state agencies which I imagine were proud of their respective logos and not consulted in advance about the change. Reminds me of the old saying “if it ain’t broke let’s fix it until it is.”

  7. Charlie Morrison says:

    This certainly appears to be a purposeful effort to destroy the individualistic identity of these agencies and further subordinate them to Governor Andrew.

    DEC was created not in 1972 but by a State enabling that took effect on July 1, 1970. Thus, by State law I was transferred to form the new agency from the State Office for Local Government where I was director of a State environmental commission, along with 500 air, water and solid waste engineers from the Health Deppartment and 2,000 Conservation Department employees.

    In 1972 the Environmental Conservation Law was codified from existing State law, as drafted by Phil Weinberg .Also in 1972 Stan Legg, formerly on State DPW-DOT staff and then Deputy Commissioner for Administration at DEC, was working on a study to support establishment of the nine DEC administrative regions as they now exist.. red a thoDOT.)

    For the first year I reported directly to DEC’s first Commissioner, Henry Louis Diamond. During that year we hired a NYC firm, I believe – I forget the name – to design the logos. We looked at a number of alternatives and very quickly selected the simple but meaningful design that served to identify and unify DEC so well for all of these years. In short order the logos was installed on the parapets of our building at 50 Wolf Road where anyone going up and down the Northway could see it.

    DEC is being cut to ribbons and the gradual quiet elimination of the logos to destry the agency’s individualism is all part of its diminishment. Not that cuts at DEC are anything new. They began at the end of the Rockefeller era, as soon as the agency was born and even while all of the new environmental laws at the State and federal levels were creating added responsibilities. It was continuous but under Pataki about 850 State Purposes-funded position were lost and another 800 have been lost since then.

    Losing the logos is akin to taking down the flag and surrendering.

  8. Scott says:

    At some point we should start contemplating what the ‘Empire’ in “Empire State” really means in NYS.

  9. Wally Elton Wally Elton says:

    At the very least, an incredible waste of money. But I suspect this, too, will pass.

  10. common sense says:

    This is sad. Not your reporting Dave, but the loss of history and pride with these logos. I understand responsible change, but this is politics spoiling the history of many thoughtful agency banners. SUNY was the only exempt agency from what I understand…..why?

  11. roamin with broman says:

    Stupid idea by Der Kuomoczar.

  12. Marco says:

    I have mixed feelings about logos. A brand of the hapless, a symbol of hope, a statement for their hubris? I don’t know…don’t really care. I want clean water. I want clean, undeveloped land. I don’t want commercial development in my playground. I would love to know at a glance whether a piece of ground is open for hunting, fishing, hiking and camping, or, is private. It will be difficult to replace all the DEC signs, and more expensive than simply keeping the old logo. Can I then assume that anything unmarked is open? Ha…I think I’ll find trouble in my quest for a logoless ambivalence. We will see.

  13. Harley says:

    I suspect most of you are overlooking the true agenda here! What this is really about is agency consolidation and this is the first step.

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