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Issue 141

University at Buffalo: Sugar Cookie
by Steven Chodoriwsky

Somewhere deep inside an industrial kitchen on a university campus, a work-study student is mixing ingredients together for a cookie. It is rolled out from standard sugar cookie dough, hand-cut with a template and prepared for baking on large trays. After the cookie bakes and cools, the student applies a white coating of icing and pipes an outline of royal blue frosting. This cookie is emblazoned with the university logo or, formally speaking, its primary academic mark.

“Our primary mark represents the strength and power of the university’s academics. This is the university’s logo and most recognizable mark. It must be presented in its original format, never altered or manipulated, in all communications,” states the school’s website on the topic of its visual identity.

So, it is not any old cookie, but one of a particular species, hard-branded, produced in weekly limited editions and sold exclusively by various vendors on this particular school’s grounds. Variations on this approach are doubtless being cooked up across American campuses, and have been for some time.

The cookie is not especially tasty. But it’s when this modest product—this between-classes sugar transmitter, this nerdy display of school spirit—becomes an artifact of design being put to work that things get a bit more complicated. For a contemporary university, the corporate brand, including colour palette and typography, is deployed at all scales, ensuring a comprehensive system of visual intake. Once identified as school property, artifacts of all persuasions must conform to withering style sheets: the ubiquity of the message is key. Upon creation, artifacts might circulate deep within campus or far beyond it.

A gargantuan vinyl-print banner, hook-mounted over a library entrance, correctly and inoffensively mixes two sanctioned typefaces to transmit a pithy motivational slogan. A cotton-blend hoodie with the school’s secondary academic mark—a historic heraldic shield—is nestled under a parka during a winter semester trudge from cafeteria to classroom. The lock-up on the letterhead exhibits the correct graphic modifiers. The fine print of a keychain is set in Sofia Pro, just as it should be. The eyes and horns of resident mascot Victor E. Bull are a piercing Hayes Hall White, on a faux-fur body in UB Blue.

But amid all these iterations of university representation, our cookie has some ideas of its own. From the hands of work-study students—working shifts between classes, representatives of an overworked, overcharged student body—these one-of-a-kind edible facsimiles of the university’s primary mark might present a productive slip in that visual system.

First, each batch of blue is just slightly off-colour from the sanctioned CMYK 100-53-0-0. The precise hue is difficult to monitor in the mixing bowl. “No values other than those listed on this page should be used. Tints and shades of these colours are not permitted,” states the school website on the topic of palette.

Each student’s hand-piping has a special unsteadiness. The bulky, showy swoop of the original logo gets botched; or, its copyist loses interest and removes it altogether. On the assembly line, there is no time for close attention to the thins of the serif, which taper just so on the original logo.

Problems for the baker also arise at the magnetic centre of the logo, the interlock of the school’s two-letter acronym. Each and every individual cookie artifact fails to render this complex knot as the design think-tank intended, wherein the curved floor of the “U” merges with the midpoint of the “B.” Instead, we get “U” cowering behind “B,” and this lack of finesse gives it an amorphous feel, like an icy open field with a wobbly little trim.

Designers with different levels of skill and patience negotiate inconsistencies between batches. Icing bulbs up at corners and crevices. It’s an approximate, half-memorized path of piping, the food service worker meandering on and off course, like a student cutting across the quad, roughing up the lawn and frustrating the intentions of an old campus architect.

Of course, while all these quirks can be romanticized creatively, the reality is that the work-study student is on the clock and there isn’t time to linger over any one specimen. And perhaps it’s unfair to fault a baker for their draughtsmanship considering the imprecision of their tools. After all, in food services, it’s most important for a worker to keep getting it close enough, getting the gist of it, to keep moving the trays forward. Some are bound to look better than others, but they’ll all taste about the same.

The cookie is a noteworthy object lesson in the field of graphic design, to help us examine the co-existing agendas of the corporate and the corporeal in a contemporary university setting. It is a vehicle of design culture on campus, circulating elements of both standardizing statecraft and vernacular transgression.

At the end of the assembly line, these quasi-creative moves are cling-wrapped, boxed and distributed to campus food outlets, lodged into clear Plexiglas cases right before the cash register, sold back to the school that bakes them and eaten by the student body that draws them. As a consecrated host, the cookies are ingested to sustain students’ attendance of classes in the school that hosts them. “Ours is a living brand, and accordingly, this is a living document,” states the school website in its branding guidelines.

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