12 Jan 2022

Behind the New HBS Brand Identity: Q+A with the Designers


by Shona Simkin

The new year also brings a new brand identity to Harvard Business School (HBS). In December, after nearly a year of research, design, and collaborative effort, Marketing & Communications revealed the new wordmark, font, color palette, and patterns that will represent the School in all current and future advertisements, websites, publications, and collateral. We talked with James Aris, creative director, and the two project leads from Stoltze Design Group, Clif Stoltze and Katherine Hughes, to learn more about the new identity.

Why change the HBS brand identity, and why now?
James Aris:
Usually you update a visual identity because the desired brand perceptions—what you want to convey to the world—have changed. That wasn’t really true here, the desired brand perceptions were largely the same: engaged, global, inclusive, innovative, inspiring, and visionary.

But we were already in the process of looking at redesigning our website (including implementation processes) for a variety of reasons and that drove the timing. Redesigning our web system first would have locked us into the previous identity for another five to six years. If we wanted to refresh it, now was the time.

The process was highly inclusive and collaborative–we had representatives from the MBA Program, the Doctoral Programs, Initiatives, Executive Education, HBS Online, External Relations, marketing faculty members, and senior associate deans and the Dean.

What are some of the most important aspects of the change?
James Aris:
The wordmark has to be considered the most important change, because organizations don’t change their primary mark very often. Going into the project, we weren't sure we were going to change the primary wordmark but, in the end, the committee decided to change it due to the new mark’s friendlier nature and smaller footprint.

As designers, what are some of the first questions you ask in this process?
Clif Stoltze:
We started by exploring different ways of interpreting what the School wanted to project. One of the main things we wanted to establish was how true to the overarching Harvard University brand we should be and where the School fit within the overall Harvard spectrum—traditional on one end and more progressive on the other.

Katherine Hughes:
Even though the brand pillars of the School hadn’t changed, when those brand pillars include being forward looking, being the vanguard and innovative, something that feels a little bit stale isn’t appropriate. We’re always balancing the pragmatic and the expressive and the expressive elements help the identity to convey the organizational values and brand pillars. One of our goals was to create an organically expandable system, so that there was the opportunity to have all of the different constituents of the school represented in a clean and systematic way that also highlighted their unique qualities.

James Aris:
One phrase that came up at some point was “traditional elements reimagined in a modern way,” and in my mind I boiled that down to “tradition reimagined,” which I liked as a sort of overarching design goal.

What was involved in changing the font and colors and creating the new patterns?
Clif Stoltze:
We wanted a font with an enduring quality–not too trendy, more modern and contemporary and like something that hasn’t been around for years. It was really an interesting exercise. We looked at more contemporary fonts, we looked at opensource and custom design options, and in the end we landed with Graphik from a highly regarded type foundry in England. It had that friendlier modern feel, with details like circular dots on the ‘i’s, and it had an extensive spectrum of weights and various levels of condensed or expanded versions. From a practical point of view, because we were working directly with an independent foundry, we were able to negotiate obtaining the rights to use it online and distribute it to all employees with one upfront payment rather than paying an annual fee.

Katherine Hughes:
Two of the things we kept coming back to were these ideas of flexibility and longevity. The font can be used across all HBS collateral—it’s one of the key visual elements that unifies the system and makes it feel visually distinct at the same time.

With a larger color palette that’s anchored in the crimson you can have combinations that appeal to very different audiences—from those engaged in the tech community to alumni who have a strong emotional connection to the campus and their experiences at HBS.

For the patterns, it again comes back to pragmatic vs the expressive. The beauty of them is that they can be on hand for projects with a short timeframe and also be combined with photographic elements. We wanted to honor the things that are well recognized and beloved at the School, but find new expressions of them that drive them forward and make them feel contemporary. A lot of the patterns are taken directly from the architecture and environment because we recognize the emotional connection that people have to places like Baker and symbols like the shield. How can those be reformed and recreated to be contemporary, expansive, and flexible, but also reflective of those other symbolic elements of the HBS experience? How do we create something that evokes pathways and networks and something that’s expansive and evolving? We thought the patterns were a nice visual metaphor, but also rooted in the solid experience that students have at HBS.

What are some of your favorite aspects of the new identity?
Clif Stoltze:
I love the flexibility of the identity. During the process of exploring design directions—including font options, approach to color, and custom artwork—we produced extensive design examples of how these components might work together to accommodate both traditional and more progressive applications while still feeling like a cohesive identity. The various examples we showcased in the online style guide only hint at the wide range of possible solutions yet to be created.

Katherine Hughes:
The type is what I love the most. I'm really thrilled that we landed where we did. I think it’s so clean, so open, so friendly–it really feels like a huge step forward without looking like a huge step forward. There are many who might not even notice the change, but from a design and typography point of view, this system will be so much more flexible. We’ll be able to do much more than we could previously and find more ways to push the brand and express different voices, which is really exciting.

James Aris:
The smaller wordmark footprint is fantastic and the consistency of having a single wordmark where we previously had two will be great for our market presence. The wider color palette with colors that can all work with crimson will increase flexibility and longevity. I really like the architectural patterns–they’re traditional but with a modern spin and are great for creating cohesion across materials.

Post a Comment

Comments must be on-topic and civil in tone (with no name calling or personal attacks). Any promotional language or urls will be removed immediately. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.