At a focus group in Manhattan last spring, an assortment of 17- and 18-year-olds gathered to discuss the redesign of Cornell University’s admissions viewbook.
Arielle Patrick, at the time a high-school senior and now a freshman at Princeton University, was a frequent contributor to the discussion. But her focus shifted often from the glossy red pages of Cornell’s viewbook to Yale’s thin volume, which was spread out in front of her.
“It just looks like Yale,” Patrick said at one point.
Not in a literal sense, of course. The cover of Yale’s viewbook does not feature a picture of students basking in the sun on Old Campus; instead, it bears only the school’s name in four bold white letters on a deep blue background.
Seen on a table during the focus group, scattered at ﬁrst among dozens and dozens of other viewbooks, Yale’s stood out to the students.
Yale offcials like to think the University is naturally distinctive. But in this case, Yale is unique by design – from the not-quite-purple-but-very-dark blue of its official color to the almost calligraphic lowercase a of its official typeface.
In a recent interview, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel described the logic behind the sparse cover simply.
“Yale’s got a good name,” Brenzel said. “Do you really need to say more on the cover than, ‘here it is’?”
Indeed, as with so many other four-letter words, “Yale” conveys a great deal of meaning. But so do the letters themselves.
Type is experiencing something of a renaissance these days. With the rise of personal computing, hundreds of typographical choices are constantly available to even the most casual of users. But there is no avoiding Matthew Carter’s work. Carter is among the most prominent typeface designers in the world – notably responsible for the ubiquitous Microsoft-commissioned mainstays Georgia and Verdana as well as Miller, the News’ typeface of choice.
For Yale, he designed a typeface called, ﬁttingly, Yale.
In a telephone interview, Carter emphasized the historic elements of the typeface. But, 15th-century roots aside, he said, the typeface must also meet modern demands, given its wide usage.
“The typeface has to be used in a great many contexts, from student papers to official publications,” he said. “So it can’t be too bizarre or historical. But it needed unique character, too.”
This balance is diffcult to achieve – and it is hard to say whether a typeface can ever really capture the spirit of a school.
If nothing else, however, Carter hopes that the Yale typeface conveys a spirit of dignity. Carter did not want the letters to look as if they belonged on “food packaging,” and they surely do not. The handsome serifs (a kind of ornamentation at the ends of letters) make the typeface seem stately, just as the loopy lowercase g brings welcome levity to the design.
And while the typeface may capture a sense of Yale’s élan, it is – perhaps thankfully – not a physical representation of Yale’s campus.
“Would you really want the lowercase l to look like Harkness Tower?” Carter asked.
Such letters would of course be gaudy, but they would also be virtually illegible.
The Yale typeface was ﬁrst designed in 2004 for the blue signs that now adorn all Yale buildings. Readability, then, was at a premium during the design process – almost above all else.
It was a 2000 report by the New York architectural ﬁrm Cooper, Robertson & Partners that ﬁrst identiﬁed signage as a weakness on Yale’s campus. David Gibson, a principal at Two Twelve Partners, which served as a consultant to that study and would later design a signage program for the University, said in a recent interview that signs are an important component of a welcoming campus.
“The best way in the past to tell a Yale building apart was to see a sign that said, basically, ‘don’t come in here,’” Gibson said, referring to the small gray placards that designate Yale facilities as private property. “Having signs makes people feel like they belong.”
For University Printer John Gambell, who helps to oversee Yale’s visual identity, it was important to keep the signs subtle – more in the background than the foreground.
To that end, decorative elements and ledges were lopped off of some proposed models in favor of straightforward blue porcelain.
“Our attitude,” Gibson explained, “was that, for Yale, less is more.”
But in a sense, this ostensibly minimalist approach required some very involved work.
The blue of the signs, just as on Yale’s viewbook, is an exactingly chosen shade, dubbed Yale Blue. The tone is precise and evokes the hue of a blue graduation robe from generations past that was found in the Secretary’s Office.
Yale’s typeface has even older origins – dating back to a 1495 book by Pietro Bembo called De Aetna, a copy of which sits in the collection of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
To be sure, few if any on campus are aware of all the thought that went into these selections. But Iris Shih ’07, who works with Gambell, said it would be hard to imagine that such decisions are made at random.
“Nobody looks at the Yale typeface and thinks it came from the 20th century,” she said. “So it’s worth digging for the history, because it really does show through at some level.”
No matter what people see in the Yale typeface, though, there is no doubt that students and faculty see those letters quite a bit.
Even leaving aside the signs and brochures, the typeface is everywhere: from business cards to displays at the Yale University Art Gallery, from cocktail napkins to Economics problem sets.
One student – who asked not to be named in this article – even has a poster of the letters on his dorm wall.
The Yale typeface has spread almost as a YouTube video might.
“I thought of it as a kind of viral way to promote Yale’s identity,” Gambell said. “We recommend and cajole, but we don’t say ‘thou shalt use the Yale typeface.’ ”
With few exceptions, namely the School of Art, this approach seems to have worked for Gambell.
Michael Bierut, a partner at the design ﬁrm Pentagram who regularly does work for Yale, said having a custom-designed typeface helps ensure that people across the University will actually adopt it.
“You could just ask everyone to use Bembo,” Bierut said, referring to a typeface similar to Yale. “And then someone who didn’t have Bembo would use Palatino, and someone whose eyes aren’t so great would use Georgia, and someone else would just use Times New Roman.”
With a typeface named Yale, however, even master’s aides designing ﬂiers know what to select.
And for Bierut, who is currently redesigning Yale’s viewbook, there is no doubt as to which font or color to use. The cover will be in Yale Blue, the text in Yale.
The new viewbook will be almost completely different from its predecessor. But its cover, Brenzel said, will still just say “Yale.”