Doing Intelligent Design with the Society for the Study of Evolution

Towards the last quarter of 2010, the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) held an open contest to design its new logo. They constraints were that it had to fit certain dimensions and show the word “evolution” or “SSE”.

I’ve been a member of SSE in the past, and I’ve also been interested in the dynamic between values, visual communication, and scientific advancement. SSE’s mission is to promote the scientific understanding of organic evolution, and that role has always occupied it with controversies around evolution as science and cultural currency.

For these reasons I was very excited to give it a shot. I was also very anxious to see how some of my current and former peers would respond to this sort of public engagement around something so central to communication of values as a logo. Designers and organizations that actively seek to build relationships with their customers and stakeholders know that branding and identity creation and co-creation is extremely important for a holistic engagement strategy. I count many of the stakeholders involved as friends, so I took on this project with a very deep sense of urgency and meaning. However, because it was a contest, all of the design work would be speculative, and that is generally discouraged in the design community. Still, I was excited to see how the SSE community and its stakeholders would react to the range of designs.

As a result of the contest, the competition generated more than 40 logos from more than 30 designers. In the end, the kind of community discussion and open engagement I was hoping for never materialized. A letter about the results had this to say:

A slide show of the logos was sent to a panel consisting of the SSE council as well as a graphic artist and a publisher’s representative. Everyone was asked to explain what they liked about their favorite designs, and we took a poll. Originally, we had intended to send a selection of designs to our membership for a vote, but the council was unable to achieve consensus on which designs these could be. Neither was the council ready to adopt any particular submission as our logo. We did award the $1000 prize for the design that was most highly favored by the panel, but we will continue to work with to devise a logo that suits our needs.

As I read this I thought it was hugely interesting. A handful of things stand out:

  1. Non-experts (except for the graphic artist) are being asked to make strategic decisions about branding, identity, and design (somewhat ironic in my opinion given how science usually privileges expertise).
  2. A small number of people were involved in the selection process and were not ready to adopt any of the submissions.
  3. It would appear that there wasn’t a processes for achieving consensus.
  4. The formalized plan was scuttled because a non-expert group didn’t have a system for making clear choices.
  5. It wasn’t made clear at the outset how the designs would be evaluated or how the visual characteristics and metaphors should map to the organization’s goals and mission.
  6. Instead of using the absence of consensus as a strength to identify what values do matter to the community, the needs remain unclear.

As you can probably guess, it was probably a lively discussion among the group. In correspondance, it was acknowledged that the the diverse range of styles and content were useful for them to see. They also indicated that they would be more effective in working with a graphical artist to design a logo that expresses the identity of the society. That’s great for them, but as someone concerned with public outreach and engagement, I have to ask what the at-large community gains from the process?

Working with designers can be tough, but working with the right ones can be refreshing, especially when they are actively involved early in the process. It’s pretty clear from the context that the society was working under archaic assumptions about the role of design, where logos are pretty things that don’t do much other than identify the organization and that everyone’s opinion is both valid and meaningful. Designers know their stuff, and they can make informed judgements about seemingly minor differences.

But in fact, there is a reason why logos are called logos. They signify deep metaphysical commitments towards order and the identity of an endeavor. When you begin to experiment with their image and meaning, it can provoke strong reactions.

I do think that the process provided the SSE’s council with a better understanding of how the quest for identity formation reveals unspoken values and commitments in some interesting ways. That’s one of the better things that design does: it makes things visible. Values becomes lines on paper. Assumptions get turned into letterforms. Goals become shades of color. What is really cool is how the design process can activate those discussions. Indeed it can lead to co-creation.

The value of design is to create a substrate for the vocalization of values that people are unable or unwilling to share. This is participatory design, and there are a variety of techniques for making this a more robust process. The first iteration in design is always just a starting point, with many examples to continue the process with. The design process is a continuous one with multiple rounds of iteration and feedback. Values (usually derived from mission statements) are what SSE is effectively selling to its members and society at large. With values, there is never an end point or product. A logo is simply an indicator of those values; it can be honest or something different altogether.

Given the public controversy that can sometimes follow a group like this, engaging in a forthright community discussion about the values it intends and how they are perceived can itself be valuable for opening up the process of performing science for the lay public. I agree that it can be dangerous, but then again, physics has been very good at doing this–perhaps because its outcomes are used by so many people in everyday life and because its concepts can also be so abstract.

In general, designers are discouraged from doing speculative work–that is, work that is contributed as a reasonably finished product in anticipation of future compensation. Contests are speculative work, but they usually trade off the probability of a financial award with other benefits, usually in the form of some public exposure. Most designers will agree that speculative work and competitions usually devalues the profession (see AIGA’s policy on spec work). So one important part of a publicly engaging discussion is exactly that: publicizing the results. However satisfactory they may be, it opens up additional communication that explores people’s relationships and emotional bonds to a group like SSE.

I do feel it was unfortunate that the committee wasn’t able send the preliminary designs to the wider SSE community. They indicated that they didn’t have an effective mechanism in place for responding to such input. If I had been able, I would have told them about the wide variety of low-cost, low-effort tools available for that task, and I probably would have volunteered my services. I think it would have served as a fun and compelling way to engage in a discussion about science and society.

P.S. The visual identity system you see here is up for grabs;)

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