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Branding & Belonging

A message from Dean J. Scott Miller. This message appeared in the Fall 2021 Humanities alumni magazine.

Recently, BYU and the College of Humanities have been engaged in talks about branding—rethinking who we are and how we want to communicate that to the broader world. As we consider the fate of our current logo (a stylization of Michelangelo’s paved oval pattern filling Rome’s Piazza del Campidoglio and now the Joseph F. Smith Building courtyard), I have been thinking about the role logos, symbols, and brands play in our lives.

Photo of Dean J. Scott Miller
Photo by Rebekah Baker

From the time I first saw ancient Fremont pictographs on boulders near my hometown, I have been fascinated with the miraculous power of images that stand in for words or ideas. Learning to read Japanese only reinforced this fascination, and I am happy to be in a college that teaches a panoply of scripts, including Greek, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari, Cyrillic, and more.

The miracle of writing involves tremendous labor, both to invent and to acquire as a skill. We draw a sign (or, in the case of the Incas, knot a cord) and expect it to stand in for something otherwise spoken aloud. Given that sounds have multidimensional attributes, writing is a poor substitute for speech. But we are a clever species, and the variety of our writing systems reflects marvelous innovation as we convert sounds into signs, or even recover long-lost scripts. For example, Mayan was finally cracked when linguists found chocolate residue in a mug labeled “chocolate” (kakaw).1 Unfortunately, pure sound transcription alone denies us important differentiations between similar sounding words (is the sound /ríjd/ referring to the written word read, Reid, or reed?), and, as this example suggests, we have yet to invent a perfect writing system.

Our cleverness with scripts is reflected in our fondness for brands, crests, flags, and other emblems—shorthand for belonging to company, family, or nation—that invite us to focus our attention in a simple, even stylized, way. These very basic symbols reduce complicated organizations into forms that can be visually compelling but lack depth and nuance, short-circuiting true understanding. Symbols can also rob us of a clear sense of context and meaning and can efface crucial differences.

During my time as dean—in addition to receiving wonderful praise on behalf of our faculty, students, staff, and alumni—I have also been called a racist and an elitist. Both stung. I felt that I had been essentialized, stripped of my multidimensional and uniquely complex identity, and given a one-dimensional label that allows for no nuance, no individuality, and no humanity—only affiliation with a phrase used as shorthand for “bad.” Those so labeling me willfully chose epithet over imagination. It takes real imagination to see people in three dimensions; on the other hand, both commercial media and also civil strife do not flourish unless we are willing to see things in basic, often binary, terms.

Oversimplifying complexity is the dark side of branding; like tweets or sound bites, it demands brevity over accuracy, stylization over detail. Fine for shoes, but in the world of human interaction, it can often lead to or even promote enmity. Wars often arise from a sense of righteous indignation or in reaction to the unbearable humiliation of being insulted or dismissed by another. Once war begins, both sides motivate soldiers to fight by getting them to think of the enemy in essentialist, often dehumanizing, terms. Peace, on the other hand, seems to prevail when we seek to imagine others richly—accepting, even welcoming, individual nuance and complexity.

We should constantly consider the import of symbols and phrases we use to describe others, as well as those we associate ourselves with. In one way or another, as we seek to be identified primarily by the name of Christ, we must face this enigma: How can we be open and loving in a world where people cannot imagine the complexity and divinity of those with whom they disagree? While symbols have their place, we should be wary of the “lazy” communication that symbols can offer. As we interact with others in a dizzying array of contexts, may we invoke a more productive kind of communication that involves greater imagination for human possibility, mutual understanding, and grace.

This article was included in the Fall 2021 issue of the Humanities alumni magazine.