- Greg Elliott
New ACLU Identity: Familiarity Breeds Contempt
NEW ACLU LOGO
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” It does this through legal representation, litigation, and lobbying efforts. It has been around since 1920, and has undergone over a half dozen logo changes in that time. However, except for a time in the 1980’s, all of the logos have contained some depiction of lady liberty.
The previous logo was a fairly-well-recognized mark, but after 15 years there was a need for a refresh. The rationale behind the change is one that we hear often: a simplification for digital applications, and greater use on social media platforms. That, combined with a strong (negative?) visual connection that the Statue of Liberty has to the city of New York, precipitated the dropping of the lady liberty icon. The biggest thing going for the ACLU is that it is already known by its acronym, and a simpler mark would still allow quick brand recognition.
ACLU LOGO COMPARISON
Actually, this review is a few months past due. I first noticed the new identity last fall, but couldn’t find the right time to write about it. The goal of the Brand-New blog posts is to always highlight the latest changes in brand identities that most of us may be familiar with. Sorry. But with several high-profile ACLU cases coming before the Supreme Court over the past couple of months (Trump’s Muslim immigrant ban, Trump’s military transgender ban, and a cake shop owner’s discrimination of homosexuals), now seems like the perfect time. I also need to add the caveat that I am generally in support of the work that the ACLU provides for its clients. I believe that in a legal system that often skews to those with great power (government) or money (private industry), the ACLU provides rigorous legal defense for those who may otherwise may not be able to defend themselves. However, support for a brand's mission doesn't correlate to support for its visual identity. When it comes to the ACLU, it feels like the visual execution was overseen by an overworked public defender, or a new intern.
I actually like parts of the rationale used for the rebranding. Yes, the previous logo was due for a refresh, and yes, it needed to be simplified for broader application. And due to the organization being commonly referred to by its acronym, a simple word mark makes sense. However, I’m less convinced of any New York City bias that the Statue of Liberty presented. I think that may be a D.C. (or Dallas or Detroit) inferiority complex coming to the surface. Be that as it may, the logo and identity needed a change. And I actually like parts of the identity. I just think that the primary mark is blah, and there is a lack of overall cohesiveness in other elements.
So, what's wrong with the primary mark? Well, I love a strong simple logo as much as anyone. I believe simplicity is at the core of any good logo. And the ACLU is not the first organization that has committed itself to the simplicity mantra – most for similar rationale that the ACLU uses. But simplifying the primary mark shouldn’t require it to be completely devoid of any meaning whatsoever. This latest iteration feels like it belongs on a college sweatshirt (and actually, that application was part of the brand rollout). I can hear the chant now…A.C.L.U. A.C.L.U. Goooo Individual Liberties! All kidding aside, visually, the logo certainly doesn’t differentiate itself. It could represent any number of other organizations. Perhaps because the ACLU is so well known by its acronym, it becomes easier to excuse a rather mundane word mark and give license to take the viewer (and the visual brand) for granted.
And when looking at the identity and its presentation, specifically in the affiliate applications (below), there seems to be an acknowledgement that the acronym alone (crafted by Tobias Frere-Jones) is a weak visual anchor. In virtually every application, the simple primary logo allows the freedom to add too much information underneath, which creates a chaotic, disjointed logo. The fact that the descriptor lines are poorly-spaced and poorly-proportioned certainly doesn’t help. Although it was a nice touch to use Century Schoolbook, as rule #33 of the “Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States” specifies it as the official font to be used for all Supreme Court filings. Kudos!.
One thing I think the new identity gets right is the way it depicts brand imagery, specifically the engraved photos that are a reference to Presidential portraits on US currency. This provides a unique illustrative element with strong visual appeal as a compliment to the stark, bold, simple logo. It also allows different people and events to be depicted in a very similar manner. Although not the exact same illustration style, the photo treatment also feels like somewhat of a nod to the previous logo’s Lady Liberty.
When it comes down to it, I’m torn as to whether I think the simplification goes too far, or not far enough. While the word mark is boring and nondescript, the secondary logo execution feels clunky and overworked. And when the logos are used in-line with other copy, I believe the logo will just be overlooked in many applications. Additionally, by designing an identity that intentionally allows affiliates leeway in how it is presented, a sense of uniformity and order is sacrificed. Like most judges, I want order in my court (identity).