Mace in progress

Yesterday in London I saw the University mace in the early stages of its construction. (A ceremonial mace is the centrepiece of university ceremonies, for instance carried at the head of the procession that starts graduations. In a sense it is a symbol of the University’s authority to award degrees.) Making the mace will be a six-month project, involving countless hours of painstaking work. Noted silversmith Clive Burr was selected for this project earlier this year, following an evaluation of some of the country’s top craftspeople. It was fascinating to visit his studio, where the latest Mac can be found next to a 150-year-old engraving machine, while his team work by hand on various intriguing and beautiful items. Although it is early days it is possible to see the mace taking shape. One nice detail that has been completed is a tiny rose, based on those carved at the front of the main building.

My favourite brands 2: WSU

My enthusiasm for Washington State University is of a different order from my love of Bic pens. Whereas Bics are a tactile part of my everyday life, WSU is an organisation I admire from afar, mainly for the way they do their branding. At meetings I often summon the WSU website to whatever online device comes to hand, and prceed to froth at the  mouth with enthusiasm… Their ‘World class. Face to face.’ is a great concept, one of the rare HE brands that actually means something. But what I really admire is the relentlessness and creativity they show in applying it. It really does permeate everything they do, and their communications demonstrate this excellently – eg video clips of students describing what ‘world class’ means to them.

Go Cougs!

My favourite brands #1: Bic biros

The Bic biro is a design classic. I love them so much that I buy them in industrial quantities – even though, at work, I could use pens provided by the university without having to buy them myself. But the Bic is more real than just any biro – the Platonic ideal form of a ballpoint – all others are just copies, versions and clones. I’m only talking about the clear Medium Cristal kind – I don’t have any feelings for the yellow Fine ones, and as for new-fangled gel pens and what not – no thanks. (The only Bic innovation I applaud is the new sawn-off version of the classic pen – exactly the same, only shorter – short enough to fit in the pocket of another design classic, the Levi trucker jacket.)

So why do I love them? There’s something comforting about their universal availability; wherever civilisation has spread there will be Bic pens along with sanitation and clean water. They’ve written love letters, ransom notes, novels; drawn fake tattoos, doodles, fabulous works of art. Added to that, their originality – when they came out, no-one had seen a transparent pen before – the stunned populace reacted with amazement – ‘Good lord! It’s a pen that looks like a thermometer! What will they think of next!’

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, there are some great Bic-related photos on Flickr (in the Bic-porn section: )

The Edge Hill brand #1

I sometimes get asked ‘what does the Edge Hill brand mean?’ A solid brand concept can seem elusive in higher education – with many institutions providing degrees that are moderated to assure a consistent standard, how do we really distinguish ourselves except by place? (Is higher education a product like pasteurised lager – identical wherever you get it, but consumable in a wide variety of settings?) The defined ‘missions’ of universities in the UK have many similarities; all unis want to show strengths in research, teaching, knowledge transfer, access etc. No university would stand up and say, for instance, ‘we’re the university that’s all about access – don’t expect us to be particularly good at research, or to innovate – we’re all about the access, baby…’ Even though to do so would give them a ‘clear brand proposition’.

So a university brand is more like a cocktail (sticking with the alcoholic metaphors) – taking the qualities and strengths we have and serving them up as a unique mixture.
Edge Hill doesn’t have any slogans or straplines. What we do have are some underlying concepts, a sort of brand DNA. Part of this is that Edge Hill defines itself as the University of Choice. Obviously this isn’t saying we’re the best by any standards anyone chooses to apply, but rather that we’re the best at being the kind of university we are, and the best at meeting the needs of those who share our values and aspirations. (Our soaring popularity suggests that many people agree with us.)

Expressing this is the daily work of my department. Working with departments and individuals to amplify the stories they wish to tell – the stories that collectively influence the image of Edge Hill out there in people’s heads, using words, images, experiences. …

I haven’t mentioned the logo. Read any book on branding and you’ll experience the author grabbing you by the throat, screaming ‘a brand isn’t just a logo!!!’ . I agree with this up to a point. A visual identity, including a logo, is at best a visual expression of a brand. For me its chief power comes from consistency of application. Universities are diverse organisations, clusters of ‘knowledge businesses’ and a logo, well applied, helps show that the whole sprawling endeavour actually shares a common purpose.

As for ‘what does the Edge Hill logo mean…’ Another time.

All of human life…

For a while I’ve toyed with the idea that Edge Hill University courses touch on the whole of a human lifespan. Here’s what I mean: Midwifery deals with pregnancy and birth, so that gets you started. Early Years programmes deal with the 0-5 age range, taking you up to compulsory schooling. Now, you may not know this, but Edge Hill trains teachers – to teach Primary, Key Stage 2/3 and Secondary levels. We also have programmes for the whole school workforce – so basically there’s a course for anyone who has an impact on children in a professional role. Then there’s child-branch nursing, the academic study of childhood and youth, and post-compulsary education too…

And finally we end up with palliative care of the dying, covered in many Health professional development modules. See, all of life…

Hang on, what happened to adulthood? How do Edge Hill degrees touch on the rest of life? Well, really it’s hard to find areas of life that university courses don’t deal with in some way. Business and commerce, law, culture, the environment, politics and society, healthcare… our graduates are up to their elbows in the stuff of all of these areas and more.

Not sure what to do with this idea. Maybe we could reorganise the prospectus into sections corresponding to Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man, rather than Faculties – ‘infant (mewling/puking)’, ‘whining schoolboy’, ‘lover (sighing)’, ‘soldier (beard: like pard)’, ‘justice (beard: formal cut)’, ‘pantaloon (slippered)’ and ‘second childishness/oblivion’.

My Comic Valentine

Unfortunately I failed to get along to ‘Romeo and Juliet’ last night, the first film in the Short Cuts romance season. Residual flu is my excuse. But I gather it went well. Meanwhile romance is in the air in some research by student psychologist Gill Elliott, who is investigating the psychological effects of being reunited with lost loves.

Personally I received no Valentines cards, from loves lost, found, or unsuspected. Perhaps just as well. One year the folks at Channel 4 sent me a life-size chocolate heart as a promotional item for ER – shaped like an actual heart with ventricles and valves. Chocolate of course is always welcome.
I did get one mystery gift – a Marvel Comics calendar. Like most people I have a few decorative personal items in my workspace. A while ago I bought this poster to display on my wall:


– and in so doing came out as a comic-book reader. Since then, various kind souls have given me comics-related items – the mystery calendar being the latest. Mugs, models and books have arrived, often without any particular excuse like a birthday – people just seem to just like giving me this stuff. Sometimes I feel like demigod in a forest, finding offerings of food left outside my cave. Is it to placate my wrath, or invite my blessing for the harvest?

But I do think the way people use their personal workspace says something about them and about the place they work. I once went on the Body Shop factory tour (Littlehampton’s top tourist attraction.) At one point you see the cubicles where the staff work. Curiously, there were no photos, calendars, postcards, mildly witty coffee mugs or cartoons torn out of newspapers in evidence – none of the personal detritus most of us have. Massive posters of Body Shop corporate sayings glowered over the whole cheerless setup. At least at Edge Hill we can put up the odd poster and pretend to have a life…

The hairy heart of Andy Butler

Applied Semiotics

Years ago, studying Communications as a postgraduate, I  became a  fan (in the full  pin-ups-on-the-wall,  throw-underwear-at-the-stage sense)  of  Semiotics, the ‘science of signs’  founded by theorists such as  Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders Peirce. (The website Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler remains in my view the best introduction.) I was fascinated by the concept of meanings being actively created by people – this seems truer to me than the idea that meaning can be passed on intact, denoting the same to the receiver as it does to the sender. In marketing communications, it would be nice if meanings could be propelled into people’s heads like silver signification-bullets, delivering a payload of information+emotion in non-negotiable form. But no. People draw what meaning they want from any set of symbols you put in front of them – the game is one of stacking the odds so that as many people as possible are likely to interpret your communcations they way you want them to. That’s as precise as it gets, and why I think of marcoms as being a kind of ‘applied semiotics’.

My  recent dealings with road signs have reminded me of all this stuff. Road signs are nice, definite, solid signifiers referring unequivocally to specific signifieds (bits of material reality such as the Edge Hill campus.) Or so you would think. It has been a long haul – we hope to work with the Highways Agency to get the university signed from the M58, but it’s a lengthy process. In the meantime, Lancashire County Council have done a thorough job of signing the main campus through Ormskirk, as well as our site in Chorley.

However, I just noticed a sign by Ormskirk church – pointing westward towards a ‘College of HE’.  This is bizarre on a number of levels – driving out towards the coast would always have been taking one further away from the insitution (whatever we were called), and I could swear this sign wasn’t there before. Could this be the ‘signifier with no signified’  that semiotics says cannot exist? Perhaps some kind of ghost-college has started appearing out on the Moss, hovering over a misty field, displaced there by the arrival of the university…

I suppose I should  do something to get it removed. In the meantime if anyone complains I could refer them to the works of Saussure to contemplate the fugitive nature of meaning.

What is the Circle and why are you next to it?

The Circle is a small car park in front of the main University reception – the current picture shows a worms-eye view of it. My office is behind one of the windows overlooking it. When I came for interview I was invited to ‘park on the Circle’ and sent a map with a key listing many things, not including the Circle ironically, though as it was the roundest thing on the map I did end up in the right place.  Before arrriving I studied the map with interest – after all, this was the miniature academic city I was hoping to inhabit. One or two things fascinated me – who was ‘John Dalton’ and why did his office take up a quarter of the main bulding? What was the Boiler Room – an industrial-themed nightclub for students?

Arriving early I explored the campus. After a while this became a kind of torture – the mixture of collegiate buildings, trees, quadrangles and modern facilities made me really want to work here – and I still had to pass the interview.  Even seeing that the Boiler Room was in fact a room with boilers in it did little to shatter my illusions.
(Grinders wasn’t there in those days – if it had been I would have expected a rather louche nightclub for those who had tired of the Boiler Room – or a machine shop. A coffee bar would have been my third guess, though now we seem to have caffeinated beverages available in every enclosed space the odds are that any new development will involve a coffee bar.)

‘Clustered around a bright light, being told stories’

Last night, for the first time in 25 years, a movie was shown in Ormskirk. There used to be two cinemas in the town – the Regal (now a Tesco) and the Pavilion (now a nightclub.) Since then, huge multiscreens have appeared nearby, but to there has been no way in the town itself to see film as it ought to be seen – projected at a size big enough to absorb you into its alternative reality. Back in 1981 The Warriors was the last film to be shown at the Pavilion… which made it the natural choice as the first film to be programmed by Edge Hill’s Short Cuts film Society. It was a good night with around 120 people, including a sprinkling of local VIPs. The title of this post comes from Dr Peter Wright‘s excellent introduction – reminding us of the primal appeal of cinema as ‘a story told in the dark’, and outlining some of the ways that even ‘trashy’ movies can be thought-provoking. His talk situated the film in a number of contexts – as a text with origins in Greek literature; as part of late 70s culture (along with Shergar and the Royal Wedding); and as a film produced just as home video was threatening the industry. That wasn’t bad for a ten-minute talk, and left me envying the Film Studies students who get to spend serious amounts of time thinking in depth about this kind of stuff.

As an Ormskirk resident, the renaissance of cinema in the town is a small miracle. And, as one of The Warriors characters says, ‘Miracles is the way things ought to be.’

Valuing degrees

The perennial issue of the rewards of being a graduate has come up again, triggered by new research commissioned by Universities UK. The focus is on increased earnings, whilst acknowledging that ‘the vast majority of graduates don’t measure the value of their degrees in purely economic terms.’ I suppose I must be one of those. As an art student in the early 1980s, I actually assumed I would be unemployable and have been pleasantly surprised ever since at various organisations’ willingness to give me work. The ‘value’ of the experience was in learning to think and be creative, acquiring the confidence that comes with meeting adult expectations, doing some ‘rite of passage’ stuff (which I’ll leave to your imagination), and generally stretching my horizons. This ‘investment’ has been paying interest ever since.

Higher education was ‘free to the end user’ in those days. In fact, we got grants. And you could claim dole in the holidays. And if you worked, your pay was tax free. And the banks gave you free Sony Walkmen the size of housebricks if you opened an account. (Older students thought we were a lot worse off than in their day, when they really had some perks.) So it was easier not to think of the decision to study in financial terms I suppose.

Nevertheless there is something unique about the university experience that should make it one of the things to do before you die, like swimming with dolphins only dryer (most of the time.)