In the late 90s, Yale’s visual identity had a case of multiple personality disorder. Yale’s branding—seen on everything from its admissions brochures to its signs to its official stationery—was extremely disjointed.
There was, and still is, only one person in charge of crafting and maintaining Yale’s brand: the University Printer. At the time, this person was Greer Allen, a designer who firmly believed that each department deserved a brand unto its own—unique colors, typefaces, icons, and all. Allen thought the variety of visual marks reflected the intellectual diversity of the university.
“This is a university,” he would say. “We don’t have a corporate identity.”
Then, in 1998, John Gambell became the new University Printer. With the help of his small team, Gambell kick started what was perhaps the university’s most ambitious branding project in its three hundred year history.
Gambell didn’t agree with Allen’s approach to branding, and neither did Gambell’s supervisor Linda Lorimer, then-Vice President for Global and Strategic Initiatives at Yale. “When you look at all the work of Yale,” Lorimer told him at the time, “You’d have no sense of it coming from the same place. I want Yale’s work to have a family resemblance.”
The campus, as Gambell described it, was “unintelligible graphically to its public.” So, in April 2000, the university published a report called A Framework for Campus Planning, laying out a plan to address the problem of Yale’s disorienting signage. But, according to Gambell, the project was about more than just the signs themselves. It forced Yale to coalesce around a single visual identity for the very first time. The signage initiative, Gambell said, “got at the heart of the university community’s sense of itself.”
Many people were resistant to the plan at first. It asked that departments hand over ownership of the presentation of the “Yale look” to the University. Departments often didn’t understand why they needed to give up control of their graphic identity. But Gambell pushed forward, determined to make the campus more intelligible.
The initial designs for Yale signage were relatively complex and ornate—a far cry from the minimalism that characterizes them today. About the new signs, Gambell said “It struck me that any particularity about them should come from the material and the letterforms themselves. It seemed to me the perfect moment to create a typeface that was unique to the university.”
Gambell reached out to Matthew Carter, a typographer famous for designing typefaces like Georgia, Verdana, and Tahoma. Now 77, Carter crafts type with the precision of an industrial designer and the artfulness of a sculptor. He is obsessed with letterforms and takes care to perfect every last curve, serif, and extender.
“I think it was the first typeface I’d designed that had this sort of dual identity,” Carter said of the Yale font. “It needed to be used for ordinary printing and for signs.”
Creating a typeface that works well on street signs posed a number of interesting problems. “Unlike a book or a computer screen, you never see a sign for the first time in ideal conditions. You’re at a distance, or at an angle, or driving 70 miles-per-hour around a corner at night.” he said. “The challenge was figuring out how to make the type both elegant and legible under a wide variety of conditions.
Carter was inspired by a late-fifteenth-century Venetian typeface that first appeared in De Aetna by Aldus Manutius—a book published in 1495 that is part of the rare book collection at Beinecke Library. He chose De Aetna as his inspiration because he felt it was the first book in history where the upper and lowercase letters looked as though they were from the same typeface. Every type designer struggles with making upper- and lowercase letters work well together, since capitals came from the classical Roman alphabet while lowercase letters did not emerge until much later.
Carter and Gambell then collaborated for years to perfect the Yale typeface, the first version of which was released in 2004. The two worked at a level of detail that is perhaps unimaginable to the average reader. An early draft of the typeface hangs on the wall at the office of the University Printer. “Matthew [Carter] felt that the bottoms of the letters needed a little more footing,” Gambell said, pointing to the part of a T where the stem meets the base. “They needed a little more weight—a sense of horizontality. There was a feeling for me in some of the settings that the e was trying to do a forward roll. And so, he moved it back a little bit.” Every letter, Carter said, was equally important and equally difficult to create. What made the process even more challenging was that the type changed shape ever so slightly when it was fired onto the porcelain and enamel of the signs.
“Once they started to implement [the Yale typeface] around the campus,” Carter said, “it was a pleasant and funny experience for me. Yale had never had campus signs, and suddenly they were everywhere. They were on trash barrels, on the fire department, on the sides of buses. That was a little unexpected.” He simply hadn’t thought of his typeface being applied in such a wide variety of contexts. “I’d walk on the street and say, ‘Oh my God—there it is again!’”
Gambell believes the signs have had a profound effect on the collective psyche of the university. Because of the signs, “the buildings became fungible,” he said. “And the programs became, maybe paradoxically, even more important as entities that existed quite independent of their physical locations.”
Even as Yale’s signage system became more consistent, its overall brand remained largely incoherent. Many departments still had their own visual marks, and the university wasn’t yet in the mood to enforce strict branding guidelines. Graphic design simply wasn’t something that most administrators or department heads thought much about. So Gambell organized what he called a “stealth campaign” to push people to care more for the Yale brand and to create a family resemblance across the university’s many entities.
One of Gambell’s first attempts at creating the university’s logo was the Yale shield, a mark that his office developed after a conversation with Linda Lorimer. President Levin used this logo to represent the college from 2005 to 2006, but he became convinced that his audience did not understand what the shield was supposed to represent. Levin encouraged Gambell to move away from imagery and towards a simple typographic approach. “It startled me, to be frank,” Gambell said. “We’d already put a lot of effort into promoting [the shield.]”
Despite his initial surprise, Gambell now sees Levin’s request as a positive turning point in the development of Yale’s graphic identity. At last, top administrators were taking a direct interest in branding. “They began to understand that it would be to their advantage to create a clear, consistent, memorable, distinct brand,” he said.
After talking with Levin, Gambell partnered with Michael Beirut of Pentagram, a storied design agency that has designed logos for the likes of Citibank, United Airlines, Tiffany & Co, and Nike. “We tried it in a number of different typefaces and configurations. In a circle. Just a Y. All kinds of different things.” Eventually, the two men settled on a decidedly simple solution: the Yale name. The Yale typeface. Four letters. Compact. Memorable. Well known around the world. “That’s what we ought to do,” said Beirut.
Despite his excitement at the new development, Gambell couldn’t singlehandedly force departments to use Yale’s new logo on their materials. “I had to persuade people,” he said. He’s spent the better part of the last few years convincing departments and administrators to use Yale blue (a specific color trademarked by the university) and the Yale logo, which was officially released in 2007. He also holds workshops in his office for faculty to teach them about the principles of good graphic design.
“It’s one of the least prescriptive of all branding programs I’ve ever run into,” he said. “It only asks one thing absolutely: and that is put the Yale logo somewhere in some form. That’s the only thing we ask everybody to do.” The gesture is a small one, but Gambell says it goes a long way towards unifying the work of Yale.
Not everyone has embraced the new logo with open arms. Many of the STEM areas of the university, in particular, feel that the Yale typeface is too evocative of literature and history. Too old-school. “I think John [Gambell] would be concerned not so much that a department would decline to use the typeface, but that they would come up with a really bad design for their identity,” said Matthew Carter, laughing. “How you deal with that administratively—well, I’m glad I don’t have to do that.”
Part of Gambell’s job, however, is doing exactly the sort of administrative work that Carter seemed to dislike. The University Printer is trying to figure out whether it will introduce another typeface—another iteration of the Yale identity. Gambell didn’t seem very excited about the prospect. “I personally think that the logo as it stands is great,” he said. But his office is open to new ideas. They are currently playing with the idea of reintroducing shields or creating a more modern, sans-serif version of the Yale typeface for the STEM departments.
Gambell pointed to the Yale University Art Gallery’s graphic design as an example of beautiful branding that doesn’t quite fit with the current guidelines. “There has to be a way in which Yale’s identity and branding are articulated such that the YUAG is encouraged rather than discouraged,” he said, then adding, “I cannot get them, for the life of me, just to put a plain old Yale logo on their stuff, which would totally solve the problem as far as I’m concerned.”
Yale is a world-renowned institution, but its logo has a sole keeper. So Gambell sees his job as bigger than just administrative work. “We’re institutional therapists,” said Gambell. “We provide a mirror to the university’s communications. It’s nice when we can change their ideas not just for the sake of changing them, but when we can make them serve their purposes better.”