Watkins College of Art

W. is for Watkins

February 9, 2017

The college undertakes a rebranding and in the process makes a new case for itself.

By Ron Wagner


That’s how students and alumni know it. That’s how Nashville knows it. And, with the completion of a six-month rebranding collaboration with the advertising agency GS&F, that’s how Watkins College of Art, Design & Film now knows itself.

“It’s incredibly important that we have a strong, clear, and distinct visual identity,” says Watkins president Dr. Jay Kline. “And now we do.”

When Kline was hired in the summer of 2015, he knew he was going to be leading an institution dedicated to nurturing and promoting creativity. Over the years, however, too many expressions of originality had begun to work against each other. “We weren’t using our brand very well. Our marketing materials were kind of across the spectrum. There really was no consistency, and when you don’t have a consistency in brand it’s difficult to have a consistency in message,” Kline explains. “So, from my first couple of days here I said, you know what? We need to get together, figure out who we are in a real sense, go through the branding process, and reintroduce the institution with this refreshed look.”

GS&F presented the finished product in late December, and over the next weeks and months the public will glimpse what impressed Kline and the rest of the Watkins community.

“We’ve just started to introduce it on our website,” Kline says. “It is directional. It points the eye toward a specific idea. The colors contribute to the sense of the institution. People won’t just notice the colors and the logo, though; they’ll also notice the new ideas about Watkins that this brand represents, in everything from our stationery, to our materials, to our advertising, to how we talk about ourselves. It will be everywhere.”

Such bold, ubiquitous campaigns are GS&F’s specialty, which is one of the reasons Watkins chose the company. Other GS&F clients include Bridgestone, the Tennessee Titans, and Carrier.

“They have a lovely reputation. We had a really good feeling from the initial meetings,” Kline says.

As a Nashville-based company, GS&F knew how important Watkins was to the city’s educational and cultural landscape. And after exploring multiple directions, inspiration for the institution’s future look came from its past.

Johnny Whitman

Johnny Whitman

“The school has been around since 1885, and we thought that most people didn’t realize that,” notes GS&F senior art director Johnny Whitman. “We got to the point of research that one our designers went down to the Nashville room in our library, where the books are so old you can’t take them away … We found some photography of the original building, which was in downtown Nashville, and over one of the entrances it just says ‘WATKINS’ really big, with a period in all caps. And we thought that was such a solid statement.”

The next challenge was to link those origins with the present, which Whitman and his colleague did by drawing from the life story of school founder Samuel Watkins. His tale is a compelling one.

Despite becoming an orphan at the age of four and lacking a formal education, Watkins built a fortune working with his hands as a brick manufacturer and builder. At the time of his death, he was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Nashville.

Watkins, however, never forgot his origins, and he became convinced that his legacy should be to elevate those who, due to circumstances, were forced into a certain station in life. At his death in 1880, Watkins left a downtown site and $100,000 as an endowment to the state of Tennessee in order to create a place that would pioneer adult education and offer opportunities for advancement.

Over the decades, those opportunities became critical for hundreds of thousands of people: immigrants who, sponsored by local citizens, took elementary school classes; those who flocked to the school during the Great Depression to acquire new skills; women who joined the workforce in increasing numbers starting in the 1930s and 40s; and servicemen returning from World War II.

Today, that DNA remains at the core of Watkins College, which believes not only in the elevating power of the creative economy, but also in ensuring that those most equipped to drive it—artists—find their proper place at the wheel. Not surprisingly, the rebrand reflects this history in literal and figurative ways.

“We landed on this red-orange (color) because of Samuel Watkins’s history as a mason,” Whitman says. “And if you look at the Watkins mark, it’s very simple. It’s got this nice, high contrast to it, and it’s very architectural.”

Adds Kline: “Samuel Watkins wanted to offer a place where lives were altered. That’s also the argument for art and for artists.”

The simplicity of the upgraded brand belies the complexity that went into its creation. GS&F met repeatedly with stakeholders from every department at Watkins and pulled and analyzed competitive audits from all schools in the region to find ways to set the college apart.

“There are other art schools in town, but Watkins is the only fully accredited art school in middle Tennessee,” Whitman says. “It shouldn’t be mixed in with the other art schools in town. It’s elevated. When we presented to the faculty, they said it was kind of like a mic drop because it’s so emphatic. It’s just Watkins, and nothing else,” Whitman says. “It’s sophisticated, but it’s subdued. The Watkins mark is not trying to scream.”

Watkins Color Palette

Screaming was also something Whitman was trying not to do as he and his team came down the homestretch. He would have been relieved with a positive client reception under any circumstances, but as a Watkins alum (class of 2013, graphic design major) there was extra urgency to do outstanding work.

“I was to the point of actually having nightmares that I was hanging out with my professors, and they’d be like, it just doesn’t work. So [that] gives you an idea that it was fun, but it was a ton of pressure,” Whitman says with a laugh. “It was really nice being the senior art director on my alma mater‘s (project), but you hope the professors that taught you how to do graphic design approve of your design of their school.”

Based on early returns, they’ve done just that. Kline had no idea a Watkins graduate would end up playing such a key role in the new look, but in retrospect it only makes sense: Of course great work would come from the school’s graduates.

“It’s a terrific brand. It’s clever. It has gravitas, but it has a lot of energy,” says Kline. “It looks backward but also forward. It reminds people why Watkins’s mission has always mattered, and why it matters even more going forward.”