First off, I don’t know any inside information from the state or GS&F. However, having run an agency and worked at a couple, here are principles to understand about logo design.
Principle 1: The client affects the cost more than they realize.
I picture that 10 rounds of original ideas were pitched before this direction was picked and then it went through another 10 rounds of tinkering by committee. This project likely involved multiple meetings, pitches, and mock-ups of how each option would be implemented in print, web, and video.
Principle 2: Clients make revisions that sometimes remove the original thought put into it.
I also imagine that by the 10th round, designers wore down and said, “What do they want? TN in a box?” Then it was showed as a comparison so the client would see how much better their ideas were. I learned early-on as a designer to never show a design I didn’t want picked. Even then, a good design can be revised into a bad one. I’m not saying that’s the case for this logo, but these kind of things can happen in any graphic design project.
Principle 3: Generic is the new cutting edge.
Think about iconic logos of the past (literally iconic) and compare them to Facebook’s logo. In fact, compare this Tennessee logo to Facebook’s logo. If Facebook’s logo (or LinkedIn) is today’s standard of logo design, Tennessee just got a logo that is just as nice as one of the biggest companies in the world.
Principle 4: Legal usage affects cost.
The state of Tennessee is not a mom-and-pop shop. They don’t have the “luxury” of using a crowdsourcing site to purchase a stolen design. This logo is going to be used by thousands of employees at hundreds of locations in every medium possible. It’s not a $5 project, nor anywhere close to a $2,000 project in terms of agency time or logo usage. It’s possible the agency merely broke even, hoping to get the next round of work, which would be implementing the logo in thousands of projects.
By comparison, what was spent on this logo is the equivalent of 30-feet of a 4-lane road. Yes, $46,000 is a lot of money, but most likely, the state got what it paid for (and asked for). The other choice would have been to hire a low-level designer for one year to design our state’s logo and then keep them on salary for the next 20 years plus pension. So, send GS&F a thank you for saving the taxpayer’s money and hope that logo design will someday be liberated from one or two letters inside an iphone or android shaped box.