The New School, home to Parsons School of Design, is one of the most design-centric universities in the country. In the past two years, The New School has been working to integrate design thinking into the curriculums of all five schools within the university, from the liberal arts college Eugene Lang, where students can major in Journalism + Design, to the New School for Social Research. “I call it a design-inflected or design-inspired curriculum,” university president David Van Zandt says in a phone interview. “Almost everything we’re doing around the university has an eye toward design.”
But faculty felt that The New School’s visual identity, created in 2005 by branding agency Siegel+Gale, didn’t adequately convey the school’s design-mindedness. So last year, the university tapped Pentagram partner Paula Scher for a rebrand. The result grounds slick design in a technologically sophisticated typeface that is meant to catapult the university into the future.
From Edgy To Artsy
The New School was founded in 1919 by a group of leftists “to oppose outrages against intellectual liberty,” as the school’s original proposal put it–a contrarian stance that permeates the school’s curriculum to this day. Siegel+Gale’s logo had a graffiti-inspired airbrushing effect that fittingly acknowledged the school’s social progressiveness and nontraditional approach to education. But for all its edge, as Van Zandt says, the look lacked sophistication. It also failed to visually communicate the connections between the five schools and thirteen subschools under the larger institutional umbrella.
“The issue The New School has as an institution is that there are different levels of fame and understanding about the individual schools,” Pentagram’s Paula Scher says. For example, Parsons is one of the top five art schools in the country, and Mannes, within the College of the Performing Arts, is one of the top music conservatories, but Eugene Lang, the liberal arts college, is less well known. Not everyone automatically understands that these all fall under the New School umbrella. “We had to create an identity system where, no matter how you listed the schools, they’d always look like they were part of the same organization, even if the departments changed,” Scher says. “It had to be flexible.”
An Algorithm-Based Typeface
Scher’s elegant visual identity, unveiled today, conveys that all the distinct schools are under the New School umbrella by printing the names of each school (Parsons, Lang, Performing Arts, Social Research, etc.) underneath a main New School logo.
The identity uses a complex custom typeface, called Neue, in which each letterform comes in three distinct widths (regular, extended, and very extended). Neue, named for The New School, is a customized version of the font Irma, used in the environmental graphics of the University Center and designed by Dutch typographer Peter Bil’ak. Scher commissioned Bil’ak to draw and program Neue with an algorithm that scrambles the letterforms’ various widths, so a given word typed in Neue can be printed in a wild variety of permutations. This means that each distinct school’s name has a striking, individual typographic flavor (the A in Parsons is wider than the A in Lang, for example), but they’re still printed in the same typeface.
The effect is a bit like the words are being reflected in a funhouse mirror: a stretched-out H, a scrunched-up E, a fat O in one word and a skinny one in the next. Scher says it’s the only typeface she knows of that uses an algorithm to systematically alter the widths of each letterform.
A Refined Logo
The two bold bars underscoring the new logo draw inspiration from the university’s Joseph Urban building, on 12th Street and Sixth Avenue, so the new identity will blend in with the school’s architectural aesthetic when added to signs. The identity program will be printed on banners in Parsons Red, a bright, orangey color. “Going into the New School neighborhood, you’re going to hit a lot of red, a lot of double stripes,” Scher says–similar to how when you see a bunch of purple banners in Manhattan’s West Village, you know you’re in NYU territory.
“What I like about the typeface and logo most is you can’t not recognize it,” Scher says. “It creates a language for the school.” This distinctive and flexible language, when used by all schools, conveys their unity as an institution–and will perhaps imbue the lesser-known schools with some of the good reputation of the more recognizable ones.