Before 2005, a key element of the Charity Commission’s logo was a crown. It was variously described by commentators in Third Sector as bureaucratic, stately, austere, reactionary and even authoritarian. But that was the year when the chair of the commission at the time, Geraldine Peacock, decided it was time for a change that would reflect the open, supportive approach she wanted the regulator to take – an approach defined by her mantra of "charity working at the heart of society."
The result was the now familiar title in lime-green lettering on a T-shirt, with backgrounds including Lowry-esque figures in a landscape and even the shadow on orange sand of a person with arms raised as if for an embrace. It was variously described by commentators in Third Sector as funky, half-baked, lacking in authority and even inspired by Opal Fruits – the pastel-coloured chewy sweets that were "made to make your mouth water". It has, however, done reasonable service for more than a decade.
This week, coinciding with the publication of its annual report, the commission has introduced a new logo that resurrects the crown and projects it as the dominant element. In a blog explaining the change, the commission’s chair, William Shawcross, says bluntly that "our old brand and logo did not reflect the new approach of the commission". That approach, he reminds us, involves greater use of its legal powers, a more proactive approach to risk and a greater use of digital systems.
Logos and branding are a means by which organisations try to make their essence and purpose visible at a glance. Sometimes they tie themselves in knots and convey only confusion. In this case, the message is clear and unequivocal. Where the previous logo tried, in its way, to be lively and democratic, the new one is devoid of life and bears a remarkable similarity to the crown-based logo of the new government website. It’s almost as if the commission has retreated into the royal precinct and pulled up the drawbridge. The message appears to be one of austerity and authority, where "charity working at the heart of society" is very much someone else’s business.
In a sense, this is no less than appropriate. The commission has rightly become a regulator first and foremost; it is a government department, so the crown is not entirely out of place; and funkiness doesn’t always sit well with serious purpose. As Shawcross points out, it is notoriously difficult to produce a logo that pleases everyone. But in this case it’s a shame they couldn’t come up with something a bit less back to the future.