Some branding projects are a blank slate—a system you can build from the ground up with a cohesive image. Upon commission, the project for rebranding Syracuse University, tasked to Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, did not appear to be one of them. It wasn’t that they were asking too much—just the opposite. The university already had an official seal and a logo for the sports team, which weren’t really up for alteration. A bright tangerine orange is deeply associated with the school and its popular sports teams, so color was off the table, too.
“We were asked to do this brand identity, and some of the main tools one usually uses to do this work were put aside—color and symbols or iconography,” says Bierut. “I started thinking, maybe the solution was the way they use typography.”
Particularly for something as multi-faceted as a university, typography can be a way to create visual coherence across various schools and other parts of the institution. In the case of Syracuse, the hunt for the perfect typeface also unearthed an unlikely connection between past and present, and between the academic world and the rich history of type design. When Bierut and Jesse Reed, his associate partner at the time, discovered a typeface linking the university and the famous early 20th-century type designer Frederic Goudy, it set into motion a typeface excavation that resulted in the central element of the new school identity.
It started with Google. Bierut did a cursory search for fonts and Syracuse University, just to see what had been used before. When he came across references to Goudy—a legend among type enthusiasts for being a prolific designer of metal type and creating famous typefaces like Copperplate Gothic and Goudy Old Style—he knew they had something.”I started to see that there’s a real relationship between Syracuse and Goudy,” says Bierut. “That was the first inch into a miles-long rabbit hole.”
Plucked from the parameter-lining bookshelves in Pentagram’s New York offices, Bierut opened a hefty biography of Goudy and looked for signs of a connection to Syracuse. He found that Goudy had a relationship with M. Lyle Spencer, the first dean of Syracuse’s Newhouse school of journalism, which was founded in 1934. Goudy had even designed a typeface for Syracuse that was never quite realized—it looked as though he had started drawing the type and later abandoned it.
There was also a typeface Goudy created for the publisher Frederic Sherman, who ran a small press at the turn of the 20th century. The typeface, aptly named Sherman, also went unused, but the original matrices—the molds for casting letters that is used in metal typesetting, an early type design technique—had wound up within Syracuse’s rare books and manuscript collection. After his death Sherman’s niece, having read about the connection between Goudy and Syracuse in the newspaper, decided to bequeath the Sherman matrices to Syracuse’s library.
The graphic designer-backed production studio Dress Code explains the network of connections between Sherman, Goudy, and Syracuse beautifully in this short film about the project:
At the time that Bierut was digging through Goudy’s biography looking for type inspiration back in New York, however, he was unaware that Sherman held so specific a significance for the university. Nonetheless, he decided to forgo the underdeveloped typeface Goudy made specifically for Syracuse for the elegant and refined Sherman, whose connection to publishing reinforced a sense of scholarship and enlightenment that Bierut wanted to evoke. “It’s scholarly without being pretentious,” he says. “It looks like it has heritage without looking stuffy and old-fashioned. And that was really what Goudy’s skill was.”
When Bierut and his team presented their options for the new identity, his clients at the university told Bierut to speak to William T. La Moy, a special collections librarian at Syracuse, who subsequently pulled out the only set of matrices for this forgotten typeface from Syracuse’s collection. Not only did the Sherman type project the type of voice that Bierut thought particularly suited a university grounded in both rigorous academics and a hardworking, real-world ethos, it had a direct connection to the history of the university. And it’s the work of one of the most famous American type designers of the 20th century. For a designer trying to unify the identity of a sprawling institution with one typeface, this was like striking gold.
Bierut brought the typeface to type designer Chester Jenkins at Village foundry to redraw the font by hand, reviving the metal typeface for digital use. “What [Chester] was doing was full restoration back to the original intent,” says Bierut. Jenkins also did a sans serif version based on the same proportions, giving the university a proprietary font family to use across its new identity.
Ultimately, the type discovery was a stroke of luck in a project that could have been confined by its own constraints. The Sherman typeface became the starting point for the entire identity, which incorporates the seal, logo and color orange into a system that covers the university’s various colleges, its sports complex, its marketing efforts and any short-term initiatives that pop up.
Instead of having to choose a typeface that they thought spoke to Syracuse and its legacy, Bierut and his team stumbled up one that authentically conveyed its long history, dedication to scholarship, renowned journalism school, and even the qualities of the university that are less tangible. “Goudy is a quintessential American typographer, and Syracuse is essentially a hardworking, bootstrap-y place, too,” Bierut says. “Those students are ready to work in the real world and Goudy was very entrepreneurial—an American hustler in the best sense of the word.”
Goudy and Syracuse’s legacies have always been intertwined, but it took a little type-hunting to rediscover that piece of history. Now hidden beneath the university’s branding is a mystery solved.
[All Images: via Pentagram]