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It's all in the branding

Is image so important in education? Do looks and a logo matter? What do they say about an organisation and are they getting their message across?

We asked designer Jonathan Sands to cast an expert eye over some of the further education's new names and a few old favourites.

After April 1, 2001 everything changes in the post-16 sector. It will still be further education - but not as we know it. And as colleges, quangos, agencies and others prepare to embark on this learning and skills trek, many of them are sporting specially designed new livery while some are still flying their old FE colours.

In the commercial world, barely a day goes by without one business or another rebranding itself. Two hundred and fifty British businesses changed their names last year - British Steel now calls itself Corus, British Gas became Centrica and Unigate changed its name to Uniq.

I am about to do something here which I believe to be unprofessional in two ways. First, I don't think its fair to be critical of my peers' work without understanding the context in which the work was done. I don't know if the client was difficult, fair, passive, opinionated, clear in their brief or quite simply the client from hell. Moreover, I don't know how much time and money the respective designers were given to apply their craft.

Second, these identities are being viewed in isolation, which is an unfair test. It is the application of an identity that is far more important. How it comes to life to communicate the values of the business (or in this case, educational establishment) and how it adapts to different environments in which it is seen.

With these caveats out of the way, who said life is fair? And so, given a free mandate to pass judgement on others' work, I thought to myself, why not? Go ahead and enjoy it, let rip.

AOC logo First of all, let's kick off with AOC. The voice of FE colleges. I have just two things to say about this. It's elegant but lifeless. Seeing this for the first time not knowing who AOC are or what they do, I have little desire to go further and find out. The positioning of "O" could hint at "degrees", but I'm not sure if that's the intention or if it is that it's a good one. Elegant but dull, leaving the impression that the people who reside there are similarly lacking colour and personality.

Perhaps after this first mini review, you get my point that viewing brand marks in isolation is a little unfair, as there is a fundamental difference between brand image and brand identity. I wonder, if we were looking at the marks of Nike or Orange, unaware of the business context, what we would say about them. Of course, our view of these two marks is coloured by the years of investment in the deeper meaning of these brands. The mark can only be seen in a holistic sense rather than a subjective critique.

Learn Direct logo Next up, let's look at Learndirect. I quite like this. The two part "d" does suggest connection. Its also a neat little device with the "l" and "d" coming together to create a simple but memorable icon, forming a button device which reflects the online nature of the service. Moreover, the name itself is straight to the point, helping communicate the nature of the service.

Individual learning account As a general rule I like brand marks to try and express some element of personality, and so a mark that has an idea behind it always gets my vote. This is perhaps why of all the latest swathe of educational marks I think I like the "individual learning account" best. The friendly little character suggests accessibiity and the idea of stepping stones implies that we are here to help you progress. My only slight concern is that the figure could be a little childish for the target audience but I can see this could be overcome in the way in which he or she is brought to life and animated on and off line.

Campaign for learning logo The leaping figure for the Campaign for Learning could get the same thumbs up and in some ways it does, as it helps express the concept of reaching higher. Such characters are often the visual language of sport or dance (indeed my own company designed something very similar for Humberside Dance nearly ten years ago). So, whilst such an approach is perhaps refreshing for education, somehow I've seen it many times before and most times I've seen it rendered with more care and precision.

NGFL, NATFHE and DFEE Then we get three marks all in the same genre: NGFL, NATFHE and DFEE. The genre of boring acronyms. NGFL feels like it should be the coal board of twenty years ago - at least. NATFHE is completely unpronounceable and the ribbon device is weak and meaningless. The DFEE mark is at least simple and shows logic for the colour split, but again lacks any emotional appeal. Then again it is for a government department.

Connexions, Learning amp; Skills Development Agency logos On to the final three, Learning and Skills Council, Connexions and the Learning and Skills Development Agency mark - "the flying set square". If the latter was for a campaign to stamp out classroom violence then I'd love it. As it is, I'm not sure what it is for. Connexions at least try to communicate the nature of the organisation, which is to link social and educational support for young people. However, its rendition does remind me of an '80s menswear chain.

Learning and skills council logo Finally then, the Learning and Skills Council - that's the huge government quango intended to replace the TECs, isn't it? The logo hardly feels like a logo at all. The type seems very recessive and is dominated by the large 'greater than' symbol. I presume that's meant to signify improvement and growth. Wait a minute, this sounds familiar. Ah, yes, there's a similar device hovering above the new logo from Accenture, formerly Arthur Andersen.

Well there you have it, a couple of worthy gems in an otherwise pretty sober landscape. As I said at the start, it's not really right to judge a book by its cover. Unfortunately, however, first impressions do count. Branding is a serious business. In simple terms, brands allow companies to charge more to more people without necessarily adding anything extra in tangible value terms. Brands are marks with emotional values. They are "trust" marks, even "lovemarks".

All too often, however, too many people think that if you have a logo then you have a brand. Not true. In most cases, you have a "bland".

The same benefits of branding enjoyed by consumer product brands can be applied in education. It's here and now. Just look at someone with an MBA from Harvard or Insead as against most other universities. Look at the lecturers and professors these two places attract. Branding requires management and investment, but everyone has to start somewhere, and in the beginning branding is about communicating a set of values and goals. It is the raising of the flag symbolising the start of a new regime. It is about application and not about the fact that the vice chancellor's wife likes green.

Jonathan Sands is chairman of the brand identity consultancy Elmwood. He is a member of the RSA Council and the Design Council.

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