May 12, 2013

Bob Keyes: At the Maine College of Art, good things come in fives

Graphic designer Sarah Mohammadi earned her degree from Maine College of Art on Saturday, capping an educational experience that she hopes will yield travel abroad and the chance to work professionally overseas.

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The “E” in the new Maine College of Art logo, with its five horizontal bars instead of the usual three, is symbolic of MECA on many levels.

Courtesy photo

She got some real-world experience by pitching in with MECA's recent design process that resulted in a new logo for the Portland art school. The college unveiled the logo last week, just in time for Art Honors on Thursday and graduation on Saturday.

The logo went up on the school's Congress Street facade on Thursday.

The design process involved students and faculty, as well as a team of professional designers.

"The experience was pretty amazing," Mohammadi said. "It was a professional setting, so it set us up for what we can expect in the real world. We do projects in classes, but the research phase and the design phase are much longer. In the real world, it's not going to be like that."

The students and their collaborators had three days to research the logo, develop a concept and present ideas to the school administration. The final result is a modern, sleek logo that works literally and symbolically, Mohammadi said.

"I think it's clean, it's playful and it embodies what MECA is all about," she said.

The logo presents the school's acronym in four capitol letters, with "Maine College of Art" spelled out in small caps below. While the other letters are shaded in gray, the large "E" is red-orange, with five horizontal bars instead of the usual three.

The bars beg the obvious question: What do they mean? The answer is layered, and is embedded in the school's mission and history. On one level, the five bars represent the five floors of the Porteous Building, the school's downtown campus.

The five bars also symbolize the school's educational philosophy, which encompasses community, ethics, place, studio and agency.

And, they represent the five educational tracks, which include the Bachelor's of Fine Arts and Master's of Fine Arts programs, art education, continuing studies and pre-college.

The red-orange color choice reflects the stairwell that binds the college together and links the Porteous building to its historic past.

To the outside world, coming up with a logo might seem like a straight-forward process. And lord knows, there are enough badly designed, confusing and ugly logos out there to suggest that many firms and companies present them with little forethought.

That is not the case with MECA. The new logo was four years in the making, and the process spanned multiple administrations.

Way back when, the school hired the Portland design team of Charles Melcher and Margo Halverson, who work together as husband and wife. Both have long associations with the college. They engaged the services of Eddie Opara, a partner at the New York-based design firm Pentagram and a college buddy of Melcher from their days together at Yale.

As a trio, they came up with a plan for MECA. In the meantime, Don Tuski joined the school as its new president.

You might imagine what happened: Different administration, different ideas. Melcher, Halverson and Opara presented their work, and MECA said no. The school asked them to start over.

"It got a little sticky at this point," Melcher said. "Eddie was still interested, which surprised me. Margo was still interested. But I was fed up with the whole thing."

Halverson prevailed on her husband to stay with the project. Her reasoning was that a new logo and visual identity for the school offered the chance to create a lasting legacy. They love MECA, and care about its well-being.

Opara suggested convening students and faculty to drive the new process.

(Continued on page 2)

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