Is There a Designer in the House?

Let’s say you have one of the best-ranked art and design schools in the country, but your visual image is a little musty. You’re in need of a new logo, one that will telegraph your strengths. What to do? Stage a contest for the student body? Make it a faculty project? Enlist the help of successful alumni? Not if you’re the School of the Art Institute, which hired North Charles Street Design Organization, a Maryland outfit, and TimeZoneOne, a New Zealand firm with a two-year-old Chicago office, when it needed a new look. Jonathan Lindsay, SAIC vice president for marketing and enrollment, says the school chose not to do the job internally because “the exercise was a big one–a branding and marketing initiative, with the logo being a subset.” Now, after a year of work with the two firms in tandem (as reported in the student newspaper last week), SAIC is getting ready for the official rollout. The new logo is a bare-bones black-and-white combination of the school’s initials and name also available in a semitransparent version, and it has some faculty and students stewing in their paint pots.

Lindsay says the old logo was being applied inconsistently and had begun to look dated. It had been in use since 1990, except for a few years when there was an attempt to market the school and the museum as twin aspects of the same institution–Art Institute of Chicago the School, and Art Institute of Chicago the Museum. Unfortunately, Lindsay says, museum officials, content simply to be the Art Institute of Chicago, never bought into the plan, and it had to be abandoned. This time, he says, the school began by hammering out its primary message (a “global vision”) and supporting points with North Charles Street, which then suggested modifications to the old logo. After deciding against that proposal, the school gave TimeZoneOne (subject of a 2004 Reader story) the job of coming up with something totally new. Richard McDonald of TimeZoneOne (which got a toe in the door by doing a pro bono logo for the Gene Siskel Film Center a couple of years ago), says the graphic design work was done in New Zealand, where the U.S. dollar goes about twice as far.

SAIC professor and former visual communications department chair Frank DeBose says there are people in the department who “probably could have been called upon to do a logo.” On the other hand, when the research is taken into consideration, “it’s a huge job that requires a team or a firm. We all have our opinions,” he adds. “I’ve heard it said that, even if it didn’t happen in-house, then why didn’t it fall to some local group?” DeBose, who was one of a few faculty and administrators asked to rank the proposals, says he respects the committee’s decision: “When you make this kind of change, there’s always compromise.”

But Ilan Geva, an SAIC instructor and partner in a Chicago branding and marketing firm, Strategy & Beyond, says the message projected by the school is that “they don’t trust their professionals within to do the job.” Geva says he judges competitions all over the world, and this design, “in my opinion, is average at best,” a mere “veneer” that “doesn’t represent who we are.” According to Geva, SAIC sees itself “as the premier art and design school; they claim among their faculty they have some of the best in that field. Then how come they don’t trust it as a project among the students, with the guidance of the faculty? Or do it internally as a project of the faculty at least witnessed by the students?” Geva, who says he teaches as a way of giving back, sees this as a lost opportunity for the school. As it is, he adds, “It will be the equivalent of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, ordering his own shoes from Adidas.”

School Notes

Other news from SAIC: After a $700,000 mortgage and auction fees are paid off, the school will net close to $1 million from last week’s sale of the mansion left to it by former professor John W. Kurtich, along with another million from his estate. Proceeds will be used to establish a research library for architecture and interiors. . . . An expanded department of architecture, interior architecture, and designed objects will move, along with some administrative offices, into the 12th floor of the Carson Pirie Scott building by next fall, when three new master’s programs will be offered in that field. The new space will include the GFRY Design Studio, established with a $100,000 grant from Motorola in memory of its former marketing whiz, Geoffrey Frost. . . . Three buildings on Wabash acquired by the school in the late 90s have been sold and will be torn down to make way for condominiums. . . . No one on either side of a very interesting lawsuit filed against the school last year by associate professor Barbara Guenther is talking about it. The pending complaint charges violations of the Equal Pay and Civil Rights acts, claiming that Guenther and other white females are being paid less than white males and female and male faculty of other races. Guenther is seeking back pay, punitive damages, legal expenses, and an injunction that will require SAIC to conform with the law.


After 133 years of volunteer work by people who’d rather be singing, Apollo Chorus is looking to hire its first paid administrator, a part-time gig they’re hoping to fill by March. The chorus also broke with tradition this year by electing the first nonsinger anyone can remember to their board: WFMT announcer Lisa Flynn. They’ll be issuing a new CD of Handel’s Messiah, to be recorded at a 3 PM performance at the Harris Theater on Sunday, December 18. . . . Ray Frewen, fired by Tony De Santis last week after 12 years as artistic director at the Drury Lane Oakbrook theater, says the instigating incident was a paycheck due him for his long-running kids’ version of A Christmas Carol. “It’s my adaptation. Our arrangement had always been that I would be paid for my children’s show work separately from my salary,” Frewen says. Then “I was called into the office to be told I wasn’t being paid for this one. When I questioned that, he gave me the check for it and then told me I was fired.” In the last few months De Santis, who’s 91, has been put on the witness stand at the George Ryan trial and suffered the failure of his plans to present original programming at the new Water Tower Drury Lane Theatre (now a rental venue). Asked about the future of Drury Lane Oakbrook, he said, “This is one of the most successful theaters in the United States, and nobody can change that.” (Click.). . . . Chicago’s smoking ban grabbed attention last week, but the city has also finally approved a new Performing Arts Venue license. According to the League of Chicago Theatres, the PAV cuts paperwork, allows smaller theaters to locate in more neighborhoods, lowers the license fee to $55 for any theater with fewer than 500 seats, and gives a pass to donation-only venues with fewer than 100 seats (though they still need a city-issued occupancy card). The league will sponsor a free clinic on the new license on Monday, January 23, at the Cultural Center; call 312-554-9802 for info. As for smoking, the city says it’s still illegal in theaters–and there’s no exception for lighting up onstage.