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French business school logos: What are they telling us?

Over the course of 2018, several major French business schools changed their logos. What were the changes exactly and, more importantly, what do these changes mean? Logos are visual signs that “speak” to us. Through their text and graphic design, they communicate messages about the identity, values or promise of the organisation they represent.

This article presents the results of a content analysis of logos from the 38 French business schools appearing in the 2018 rankings of l'Etudiant. It decodes the meanings of the codes in this sector and looks at the current trends and the probable future evolutions.

The “modern” and the “traditional”

The first thing that jumps out at us when we look at the logos of these French business schools is that most of them (71%) prefer sans serif typefaces. This distinction is not trivial.

The sans serif typefaces are more recent than the serif typefaces. They grew out of twentieth century styles like the new typography movement or the International style. These logos using sans serif typefaces therefore usually communicate an image of modernity as opposed to logos with serifs, which communicate a traditional image.

Sans serif typefaces are also simpler than those with serifs. The stroke modulation is generally less marked. In this sense, they seem more functional and less sophisticated. Often used or developed for signage purposes, they appear more utilitarian than scholarly and intellectual.

It is interesting to note that this choice of typeface family seems to be a French specificity. In other countries, several large business schools like Stanford, Berkeley, Oxford or the Bocconi favour serif typefaces, thus emphasising years of existence, tradition, and scholarship.

Figure 1: Logo using a sans serif typeface (Kedge) versus logo using a serif typeface (Stanford).

Yet this choice seems consistent for institutions that provide practical knowledge and position themselves on the theme of innovation. In fact, only two schools (Montpellier Business School and ESC Clermont) mention their year of creation in their logo, further indicating that most of the schools emphasise modernity rather than brand heritage.

Also with regard to typography, most business schools (76%) opt for a logo in all capital letters. The use of uppercase (vs. lowercase) letters in a logo is generally meant to signal the GREATNESS and prestige of the organisation. Thus, it seems to be a logical choice for institutions that are usually referred to as “GRANDES ECOLES”.

However, if we restrain the population to the schools that have changed logos recently, we see that many of them (Toulouse Business School, EM Lyon, Montpellier Business School, ICN Business School) have switched to lowercase letters. This trend undoubtedly indicates the desire of these schools to appear more accessible, closer to students and less daunting or domineering. This change in form is in line with a change in content at a time when the teaching style is shifting from strict lecturing to greater student participation.

Figure 2: Toward less overbearing visual identities.

Another indication that seems to point in the same direction is the appearance of fast script typefaces for the slogans and digital campaigns of several schools (e.g., the recent “make an impact” of EDHEC or the “never stop daring” of Audencia). These typefaces also indicate the decision to appear more spontaneous and less formal.

Figure 3: Toward less formal visual identities.

The “reassuring” and the “audacious”

Two colours predominate the studied population: blue (42% of logos) and red (29%). According to Heller, these two colours conflict in terms of meanings. Blue tends to dominate when the intent is to communicate that “reason” prevails. Red, on the other hand, is associated with “passion”, whether good or bad. This interpretation is widely shared in the academic literature. Blue, which is a “cold” colour, is claimed to have soothing virtues. It is generally associated with calmness, reflection and rationality. A favourite colour of the French, it inspires confidence. Red, which is a “hot” colour, has properties that excite, and it is associated with dynamism, action, vitality and physical strength.

Figure 4: Most logos are either blue or red.

These associations suggest two main families of opposing logos. The blues make up the majority and are reassuring. They emphasize the theme of rationality, which is appropriate for educational institutions. The reds are more aggressive and they instead emphasize the themes of action and dynamism. Yet this choice is also appropriate in institutions where practice, initiative and boldness are encouraged. Many of the business school slogans also echo these themes (“makers” for EM Lyon, “create” for Toulouse Business School and Kedge, “make” for EDHEC and Montpellier Business School, and “dare” for HEC and Audencia).

The logos using warm colours are showing a tendency to develop. Among the schools that have recently changed their logo, many have chosen orange (ICN Business School, ESC Clermont, South Champagne Business School, ESC Pau). This trend seems to be moving in the same direction as the typographic changes described above. It reflects the intention of these schools to appear warmer and friendlier. This type of positioning is nicely captured in the slogan of the new South Champagne Business School brand (formerly ESC Troyes): “happiness is success.” This may also signal a change in the promise of these schools: to be less performance-based and more about well-being.

Figure 5: Toward warmer visual identities?

The “rigorous” and the “creative”

The choices of illustration are more varied. Yet here also, we can see a specificity of the French business schools. With the exception of ESSEC and EM Normandie, no school uses “traditional” themes such as coats of arm, books, laurels or trees. These themes are, however, widespread in foreign schools (Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge, Melbourne and Oxford).

We also see that most of the schools (66%) do not use figurative illustrations but instead have chosen purely typographic or abstract logos. This choice contributes to the design simplicity and modernity, and it also sometimes conveys the idea of rigor.

Recurrences can nevertheless be observed if we consider the meanings of the illustrations. For example, some of the logos seem to suggest themes of taking flight, discovery and exploration through abstract shapes like arrows or ascending curves (GEM, Audencia, ISC Paris) or more figurative illustrations like the representation of wings (ESC Rennes, ESSCA), spheres, horizons or wind roses (IESEG, La Rochelle, EDHEC, HEC, Kedge).

Figure 6: The promise of taking flight and discovery.

Another trend among these schools is the positioning on the theme of creativity through abstract compositions, textures or geometric patterns that suggest the world of modern art (EM Strasbourg, ICN Business School, South Champagne Business School). These logos, however, remain in the minority, even though the theme of creativity is expressed in several slogans (Toulouse Business School, Kedge).

Figure 7. Toward more creative visual identities?

What changes can we expect?

The content analysis confirms that the business school sector is governed by well-defined visual codes. Thus, a French business school logo in 2018 is usually blue or red, in sans serif capital letters, without illustration or with an abstract geometric illustration, and with an off-centre layout (aligned left or right). As the chart below shows, a whole series of variations around this model is then possible to express differentiated brand identities.

Figure 8. The galaxy of French business school logos.

By focusing on these characteristics, we see that these business schools have mainly sought to position themselves on the themes of modernity and innovation. However, the codes they have used are those of the twentieth century and the print era. The next step will probably include taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the digital age.

For example, the content analysis revealed that the notions of motion design and interactivity remain poorly integrated into the visual identities of our schools. Only Toulouse Business School animates its logo with a discreet hover effect on its website and only EM Strasbourg seems to have experimented with a dynamic visual identity. Moreover, 73% of the schools with a slogan do not have a version of their logo that incorporates the slogan.

Yet if we believe the famous graphic designer Paula Scher, it is becoming increasingly less viable to base an identity on a single fixed logo. Brand systems and dynamic visual identities are becoming unavoidable. These systems are also in line with several of the themes that the schools position themselves on: innovation, creativity, digital technology and diversity. They make it possible to develop the complete, coherent and diversified graphic charts that schools need today to sign a wide range of programs, campuses, chairs, foundations and research laboratories. Last, they are adaptable to different communication media and offer a personalized and interactive experience.

It is therefore likely that business schools will adopt what Paula Scher calls “liquid visual identities” in the future. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and the MIT lab provide two interesting examples of what these brand systems offer and what pitfalls to avoid.

This article was originally published in French

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