[Tom Biederbeck] An identity is often thought of as an unchanging thing. Yet identities and logos don’t live just in the realm of their owners. They’re subject to the hearts and minds of audiences, from employees to customers to the public. Truly great identities, though, have greatness within them, and somehow address the risks inherent in a wholesale makeover, when an organization adopts an entirely new identity. Anticipating how an identity will “live” over time is beyond the reach of focus groups, and demands equal parts art and science…as much intuition and experience as forecasting. The new Harvard University Press identity, by Chermayeff & Geismar, aims to be at once forward-looking, traditional, enduring and evocative. Tall order, well served.
I asked Sagi Haviv, partner at Chermayeff & Geismar, and Tim Jones, art director at Harvard University Press, how they went about creating a new identity for the venerable publisher at a crucial moment in its history: its 100th anniversary.
With 2013 being a centennial, had Harvard University Press anticipated a wholesale makeover of its identity?
[Tim Jones] Initially we had asked Chermayeff & Geismar to work on another project, not a complete new identity. Working with Sagi opened my eyes. It also tied in conveniently with our own ongoing discussions—which were not necessarily about our visual brand. Like any other organization, we had been talking about what our brand is and where it’s going. With the 100th anniversary, we felt there was an opportunity to put an identity system in place that would allow us to have consistency in how we present ourselves.
[Sagi Haviv] An identity is often something that’s very close to people’s hearts, and usually there’s an attachment to what they already have. It has a meaning to the institution. The way employees perceive their connection to the institution is always sensitive. We take a serious look at something like this when a client asks us to, and in this case they called and said, “We’re ready.”
What was the brief, and how did Chermayeff & Geismar approach it?
[Jones] We gave them a pretty open hand. Once we had asked them to work on the project, the three partners—Sagi, Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar—did in-depth interviews on who we are and what we’re becoming. They came back to us with a series of directions, and we worked with them on selecting one to pursue.
[Haviv] Tim recognized that the existing logo—a complex arrangement of a number of traditional elements—was difficult to work with, and that the name of the university was a bit obscured within the seal, especially in a digital context. We tried to figure out how closely we needed to keep the new mark to the older one, and generally how traditional we should keep the identity. Could we move beyond the books, the circle and the type?
We came back later with options. One wild card was this modern take, quite simple and geometric: six rectangles evoking books on a shelf, pages of a book or maybe a modern tablet computer. Somewhat to our surprise, the people at the press gravitated to the contemporary look. They were very much focused on the future. I have to say, though, that the new mark is not something that shouts “from now” or “from then.” It’s not of a particular time, and that was important to the Press.
How did you resolve the tension between traditional and contemporary in the new system?
[Haviv] To offset the ultramodern, geometric simplicity of the symbol we suggested that the name of the press should be in traditional serif typography to complement the symbol. We recommended the new identity use the name “Harvard,” as compared with the full name of the press, whenever possible: on book spines, catalogs, advertising, wherever the context is books, and there is no possibility of confusion with the university proper.
Is the type hand-drawn?
[Haviv] No, it’s Palatino. It’s a little counterintuitive that an available typeface would be used in an identity, but we did this on purpose. The typeface brings in the element of tradition, and it contrasts effectively with the geometric symbol. And the word Harvard looks great upper- and lower-case because the straight lines of the H on the left and the straight line of the d on the right frame the word mark nicely.
The Palatino is only used in the identity. We spec’ed other typefaces for advertising and so forth.
In this project, you stripped back the elements about as far as you could go. But you could’ve gone with a straight word mark or a lone symbol. You used both. Why?
[Haviv] We find that for a book publisher, it’s helpful to have a symbol. First of all, on the spines of books, it comes in handy to have a symbolic element that brings visual distinction and impact. Same thing for an iPhone app or a website. It’s just helpful to have something simple and memorable that becomes visual shorthand for the brand.
You said Harvard University Press is very interested in new media platforms. How does the identity enable that?
[Haviv] Look at the new favicon [shortcut icon] on the web page. The favicon next to the URL has to be rendered in 16 x 16 pixels. The new symbol works perfectly there. Try to imagine the previous seal in this context; it would never work. In general in the digital environment, there’s a necessity for reduction that on occasions becomes extreme. We often test our solutions in this environment.
[Jones] The system includes the core identity marks to be used on book spines, stationery for our offices, digital uses…all of that. The complementary typefaces are used for the website, press releases, book shows and exhibits. Some of the exhibition graphics are 16 ft. long…and the favicon is 16 pixels high. It’s a challenge—one that’s not unique to us, but one that Chermayeff & Geismar met in a way that’s versatile and effective…but the solution is unique to us.