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VOL. 41 | NO. 18 | Friday, May 5, 2017

Watkins College designs a fresh approach

By Linda Bryant

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Watkins College of Art, Design & Film is executing a rebranding campaign that reintroduces the 131-year old school as a bold and decisive player in the world of elite art schools.

The campaign also connects the school to its history as an approachable institution that teaches and trains in fields that are creative and empowering.

One of the main purposes of the rebranding is to attract more students by educating the wider community about the depth and breadth of the opportunity Watkins offers to future artists.

Expect Watkins to also show off its creative side more than it has in the past and in ways that are both subtle and direct. The new look of the school includes a new logo and the widespread use of a new color palette and fonts for internal and external communication.

Although the name of the school remains Watkins College of Art, Design & Film, a new logo and graphics scheme have been radically simplified and now straightforwardly read either Watkins. or W. (The use of the period of after the school’s name or initial is intentional).

New advertising for the school will be popping up in various places around town or online, and the school’s programming should be more “on message” and better communicated than it has been in the past, says Joseph (“J.”) Kline, Watkins’ president.

One of the first examples is a large billboard in Hillsboro Village advertising the school.

New president, new image

When Kline became president of Watkins in 2015, one of his first tasks was to take a hard look at what was and wasn’t working about the school.

Kline discovered Watkins’ many departments were acting as if they were separate entities, sending uncoordinated, unfocused messages about the school.

He also says he became intrigued by Watkins’ past and thought the story of the 131-year-old school had been obscured – or even forgotten, to some extent – over time. With the help of a supportive board of directors and Nashville’s GS&F ad agency, Kline initiated a top-to-bottom “rebranding” of Watkins.

The results of the campaign, which took several months to conceive of internally and six more to execute, have been rolling out since December and will continue to be introduced throughout 2017.

Kline, who has a Ph.D. in fine arts and was formerly the dean of the College of Fine Arts at New Mexico University, didn’t need to be convinced that Watkins was a good art school that consistently offered a solid educational value to students. It’s one of the reasons he took the job.

But he also knew that a reassessment and reintroduction of the school to Middle Tennessee – indeed to the entire country – would be critical in helping Watkins with its ambitious plan to become one of the top art conservatories in the nation.

“It became my priority to appropriately and thoughtfully bring everyone on message,” Kline says. “We had been in a position where all the individual offices were doing their own branding and marketing for their specific needs, and that lack of cohesion was not to our advantage. We needed to be a part of a greater construct that reveals the true identity of the institution at large.

Fast facts

Watkins College of Art, Design & Film is a regionally and nationally accredited non-profit, independent college of the visual arts, offering BFA degrees in fine art, film, photography, graphic design and interior design, and a BA degree in art.

In 2016, Watkins expanded its degree offerings by launching a master of fine arts in film production, the school’s first graduate program.

The Metro Center-based school has about 270 students, but can accommodate nearly double that amount without building more classroom and studio space. In the next five years, the school hopes to grow to about 350 students.

Watkins has a vigorous community education division that offers non-credit classes, workshops and camps in art, design, film, and creative writing for people of all ages, skill-levels and backgrounds. 

Watkins is a part of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, a 42-member cohort of schools that include well-known national art schools such as the Rhode Island School of Design, The Art Institute of Chicago and Parsons.

Among the entire cohort of schools, Watkins is the second-least expensive. Approximate tuition, room and board and fees at Watkins are about $30,000 a year. By comparison, the School of Visual Arts in New York City is about $55,000 a year.

The school if planning to launch an MFA in visual arts as a low-residency program and is in discussions with other area schools about co-sponsoring a fine arts teacher education degree.

-- Linda Bryant

“Rebranding wasn’t saying let’s slap another coat of paint and be done with it,” Kline adds. “The whole process began with an exploration of what Watkins was in the past, what it is now and what it should we be in the future. And, certainly, we realized that this [rebranding] wasn’t something we could do in a weekend.”

A brand ‘true to itself’

One of the first steps in the refashioning of Watkins’ image was to find an ad agency with which to partner. Kline says this step was critical and “took a great deal of thought” before the GS&F firm was brought in.

“We are a visual arts school, and our graphic design program is insanely good,” he points out. “We had to make sure that on every single platform our essential (brand) mission would come through clearly. We knew we had to nail it. We knew we had to do whatever it takes to ensure the (Watkins) brand is always true to itself.

“It wasn’t simply a matter of our materials not matching,” Kline adds. “Because we were so ‘all over the place’ we felt it might preclude the audience understanding what we stand for and what we want to be. These are not just image concerns, they are foundational concerns.”

Kline’s reasoning includes a cohesive brand message from the school that would help attract high caliber students, ones Watkins is searching for.

GS&F, which also has worked with Bridgestone, the Tennessee Titans and Carrier, met repeatedly with stakeholders from every department at Watkins, as well as with trustees and alumni. They pulled and analyzed information and knowledge from other institutions in the region to find ways to set the college apart.

“Before we started conceptualizing for the new visual brand, we undertook a series of preliminary audits to help us gain a better understanding of the current environment and where Watkins can stand apart,” says Johnny Whitman, GS&F senior art director.

Time after time, the GS&F team kept returning to the school’s history as bedrock for inspiration.

“Early on we dove into Watkins’ 100-plus year history, which included trips to the library and learning more about its namesake, Samuel Watkins. Then, we pulled a competitive audit for both regional and national colleges who’d attract the same level of students as Watkins.

“We looked for inspiration from international institutes that have exceptional visual brands as well,” Whitman adds. “We also looked at other types of organizations that are rooted in the arts, including museums and corporations.”

Watkins also wanted the rebranding campaign to reflect the growth of its creative programs. For example, in 2016, the school expanded its degree offerings by launching a Master of Fine Arts in Film Production, the school’s first graduate program.

A launch of an MFA in Visual Arts as a low-residency program is expected soon, and there are discussions in process with other area schools about co-sponsoring a consortium-style fine arts teacher education degree.

Changing lives

Watkins College, which was named Watkins Institute when it was birthed in 1885, was founded after Samuel Watkins died and bequeathed a Downtown Nashville property and $100,000 to the state of Tennessee to create a place for adult education.

Despite being orphaned at the age of 4 and lacking a formal education, Watkins managed to amass a fortune as a mason and brick builder. He was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Nashville when he died and wanted to leave a lasting mark by creating a school that would change lives.

As the rebranding process evolved, the pertinent players agreed they wanted to “elevate the same goal” of changing lives and keep it central to Watkins’ mission of educating and developing artists who make a difference in the world, Kline says.

“Watkins has been important to the cultural and educational dialogue of the great city of Nashville for over 130 years,” he explains. “It was founded to give educational opportunities, and it has helped a lot of people. Veterans returning from both world wars had the opportunity to pick up skills and reintroduced to civilian life, and somehow everyone’s grandmother took sewing classes at Watkins.

“Granted, how that (education) is delivered has changed, we are a fine arts school now. But we have a broad reach and continue to offer [adult education] through our community education and outreach programs.

“We embrace [our history] as a revered legacy and a thread in the fabric of the Nashville tapestry,” Kline adds.

“As we looked to find branding that would define the art school moving forward, we decided it should be appropriate to what we have been since 1885.

“It’s really been an interesting journey from teaching fundamental life skills, sewing and typing to a school that has grown to include an MFA in program in film that’s fully accredited.”

Brick red and a big W.

The rags-to-riches life story of Samuel Watkins and his willingness to give back to the community is now blended into the school’s image. It will be transmitted in various ways via visual symbols, quotes and phrases, colors and images, promotional materials on social media, billboards or TV commercials.

And some statements about life itself are in the process of being embedded in the school’s messaging. School promotions, already in the process of being rolled out, have accompanying messages such as: “The world needs more possibility,” “The world needs more intention” and “The world needs more curiosity.”

One of the most noticeable changes involves the school’s logo and colors, which have gone from a group of irregularly stacked circles that suggest rolls of film or a puzzle piece, usually used with accompanying colors of bright orange or blue, to a simple bold statement of the school’s name – or suggestion of it.

And the Watkins’ color palate is different now, too. The primary color of the day is a dark brick red with accompanying colors of dark navy or dark beige.

The brick red will be prominent in most of the school’s materials, promotions and outreach, is important because it points to the school’s legacy and “the rich history of Samuel Watkins, a mason,” Whitman says.

What people will see now, on the internet and social media platforms, billboards, school materials – from catalogs to stationary to T-shirts and other “swag” – are the word Watkins or the letter W but always with a period afterwards. (W. or Watkins.)

Whitman feels like the new logo was almost destined.

That’s because while GS&F was researching the school’s history a vintage photograph of the original school building that simply spelled out Watkins in all capital letters with a period at the end was discovered at the Downtown Nashville Library.

The discovery ended up being the inspiration for using the school’s actual name as its logo.

Prominent Nashville entrepreneur-turned-artist Cano Ozgener, a member of Watkins’ Board of Trustees, likes the results of the rebranding and calls them “modern, contemporary and straightforward. “

“It’s timely because of all the positive changes that are happening at Watkins,” Ozenger says.

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