Yale's Brand, Then and Now By Jordan Cutler-Tietjen


It’s the 19th most used letter in the English language. Like the face of that alluring boy in your orgo lab, it’s bilaterally symmetric. It’s svelte yet geometric. And it’s the most succinct metaphor for convergence, or, depending on how you see it, divergence, that I know — a semiotic Robert Frost Rorschach test. If you haven’t already guessed, I’m talking about that ultimate penultimate: the letter Y. And I’m sorry to say that, although it might compose 20 percent of “yours,” it’s zero percent yours. Because Yale owns it.

Let me clarify. By “Y,” I mean Yale’s particular “stylized rendition” of the letter depicted above. By “owns,” I mean that it was registered as a Yale trademark on March 2, 2010. This iteration of “Y” is intended to be used specifically for “promoting the interests of Yale University alumni,” per its trademark application. It shows up on dining hall waffles, Yale T-shirts and admissions packets. It is the intellectual property of the university, which is to say that the university can sue any person or institution that uses it without authorization. It’s meant to provide a unified image of Yale — but which Yale?

Perhaps it belongs to the Yale Corporation. But, then again, is it the Corporation or the board of trustees? University President Peter Salovey announced the 19-member group’s informal name change last March.

Maybe “Yale” does not mean “me” or, rather, “us,” as in Yale’s student body. Aren’t we participating in the production and reproduction of Yale? Or are we simply submitting to it?

Still, questions of definition miss the point. After all, the University’s identity is being inscribed on pages, in stones and through screens, all the time and all around us. At times, the school seems to cohere, awash in identical swatches of “Yale Blue” — CMYK color model code (100, 75, 8, 40). But sometimes, the paint peels back, and underneath the smooth, blue, branded hue appear fingerprints. These are just some of the stories of the people that left them.


Yale’s visual identity is headquartered at the Office of the University Printer. I got lost trying to find it. After spending 15 minutes walking up Whitney Avenue, down Grove Street, around nondescript buildings and onto side streets, I finally peeked into Connex Credit Union and took their elevator up to the second floor. There, I found Maura Gianakos, a project administrator who assured me that I wasn’t the first to be disoriented by the location, and John Gambell ART ’81, the University printer himself.

It’s his 20th year in charge of “articulating Yale’s graphic identity in practical terms,” as the office’s website puts it. On a day-to-day basis, this entails overseeing interior and exterior sign design, publishing pamphlets, viewbooks and other administrative material, and, he says, fielding questions like, “What’s the appropriate brand marking? What’s Yale Blue about? Can we use other typefaces besides the Yale typeface?”

Illustrations by Lauren Gatta

If these inquiries surprise you, you’re in good company — they would have shocked Carl Purington Rollins, Gambell’s earliest occupational ancestor. Rollins was hired by the newly founded Yale University Press in 1908 and would come to create an era Gambell defines as “the first time the University really payed attention to its graphic identity.” A man with a small nose and petite ears who wore large circular glasses, Rollins was notoriously particular, often demanding manuscripts be reprinted and re-typeset if he noticed the slightest errors in punctuation. He stepped on so many toes that he was actually fired, and then begrudgingly rehired as primary typographer. But he requested a different title: “printer to the University.” From then on, he oversaw every piece of copy that went through the press until his 1948 retirement. Many of those early century books still sit in dormant piles in the Press’s basement, a reminder of the way Rollins’ eagle-eyes created the first unified picture of Yale.

The half century that followed saw the University expand dramatically: the schools of Nursing, Drama, Architecture and Management were founded, and the number of undergraduate majors ballooned. Although Yale continued to invest in top-end designers, this academic differentiation spread to Yale’s brand. It became piecemeal, with aesthetics that varied from department and a lack of codified authority to back it up — something that would have appalled Gambell. Gambell’s immediate predecessor, Greer Allen, allowed the various arms of Yale to market themselves in the way they saw fit, resisting the modernist design school of centralized corporate image production in favor of individuated stylings — what he called an “anti-corporate identity of quality.”

When Gambell was hired in 1998, he aspired to synthesize Rollins’s and Allen’s ideologies: an aesthetic dialectic, if you will. He understood that the University required the sort of unity that a “stable graphic identity” would provide. But he also understood that the University had to accommodate variety, for variety could be essential to promote one image. So he initiated a series of rebranding initiatives that were at once traditional and revolutionary, often controversial, sometimes overt and sometimes barely noticeable.


At the start of the 21st century, Yale commissioned a design review. The results suggested that Yale should improve its signage, which was, as Gambell recalled, gray and inhospitable. Gambell decided that, instead of ornamenting the new signs with elaborate curlicues or colophons, it would be classier to “use type and type only” to make them look cohesive. He headed a Yale typeface committee that included representatives from the Provost’s Office and the Office of Public Affairs & Communications, as well as the dean of the Art School, among others. The committee reached out to Matthew Carter, a typographer responsible for classics like Georgia and Tahoma, to orchestrate a commission. Carter said he had just the thing: a work-in-process font that harked back to “de Aetna,” a 15th-century Venetian travelogue written by Renaissance poet Pietro Bembo.

Yale New Roman

Font lovers might recognize his name. It’s what the Monotype Corporation called its 1928 typeface, which was used for book printing worldwide, including by the Yale University Press. But when Bembo was digitized in the 1980s, Gambell said, it “ended up looking kind of puny, like it was starved.” So Carter’s goal was to fatten it up and flesh it out.

Over 30 fonts — some italic, some bold, some sans serif, some for street signs — composed Carter’s original typeface family, simply called “Yale.” The strong serifs and snake-like tails on the letter Q carried over from “de Aetna” to Carter’s design, but many of the letters were simplified to keep the text as timeless as possible.

Four years ago, Carter refreshed the font offerings once again, releasing YaleNew Roman in an OpenType format. Now, any Yale student or affiliate can download and insert it into their Yale-related communications. What’s more, Yale’s bureaucratic hierarchies have come to be represented with font lingo. Italic entities, like the Office of the University Printer, report to small cap organizations, like the Office of Public Affairs & Communications, which in turn report to the University president.

If, as sociologist Bruno Latour hypothesized, “technology is society made durable,” then fonts make a particular Yale permanent. But the irony of the typeface is that it’s not being used for the signs for which it was originally intended. Or rather, it has had to be exaggerated to be appropriately visible.

“The same optical realities apply to things that are large but seen at a distance as, say, postage stamps, which are small and seen up close,” Gambell explained. So the letters you see plastered on Harkness Tower, around Cross Campus and up Science Hill are thicker and more spread out than the original Yale font. Yale has had to manipulate its own products to meet new requirements.


In 2006, Gambell assembled a series of “sacred objects” that he hoped might solve “the blue problem,” which was twofold: First, and most pressing, was the curious and aggravating tendency of Yale’s printed materials to, after sitting around for a while, near the worst possible hue: crimson. This was easily solved by instituting the regular application of an in-line coating, a layer of varnish that prevents blue pigments from oxidizing towards purple.

But a larger issue remained — which blue was the right blue? Yale Blue’s ambiguity is so iconic that it inspired both professor Jessica Helfand’s beloved first-year seminar “Blue” and WYBCx’s music and culture zine named after Gambell’s roundabout approximation of the color: Relatively Dark Blue Neither Purple Nor Green.

What’s more, Yale Blue’s history brims with conspiracy theories. This is because, despite Yale Blue’s fame — it has its own Wikipedia page — the color’s origin story is unknown. For at least Yale’s first 50 years, Elis weren’t associated with navy in the slightest and instead wore an earthy green. Time passed, events were lost to history — or hidden from this reporter — the crew team suddenly started donning dark blue pants and handkerchiefs, and, in 1894, blue was declared Yale’s official color.

A pair of azure silk squares were among the “sacred items” Gambell gathered. They had been waiting in a vault in the University Secretary’s Office. The squares were believed to have been cut from century-old graduation robes and were therefore the closest Gambell could get to Yale’s ur-blue. Hopeful, he sent them to a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be scanned, but the machine spit out a shade that looked completely different from the squares themselves. Recipes for color have to change when they are transferred from paper to screen or silk, and perfect matches across mediums are practically impossible. Another dead end.

Not everyone felt blue about this unresolved quest. As The New Journal reported in 2002, Allen, the former University printer, once quipped that the Yale Blue question, “if ever settled once and for all, would leave Yale a bland, boring and uninteresting University.” His radically post-modern take: If your university is constantly changing, then change its color along with it.

Gambell didn’t see it that way. He issued an official swatch book, which specifies an official Yale Blue — halfway between Pantone Matching System’s 288 and 289 delineations. But he built in wiggle room. If you’re printing on coated paper, ask for Superior Printing Ink Co.’s “HB 6254.” If you’re printing on uncoated, ask for “HB 6255.” If you’re using effervescent accent colors, you can substitute with a lower intensity blue, like PMS 654. If you’re designing signs, as Gambell and his team initially had to, you can use a brighter blue, like the ones that likely bedeck the building you’re sitting in or near right now. There’s even a “Yale Gray,” “PMS Warm Gray 7,” intended to be designers’ go-to secondary color.

And just last week, things changed again. Pantone expanded their offerings dramatically over the last decade. Gambell just decided to use Pantone 655 for coated and Pantone 2955 for uncoated. They’re much richer than 288 and 289, he explained.


How do you combine all of these little evolving pieces — each of which is meant to symbolize Yale all on its own — into one essential signifier? Gambell initially proposed a dual design: Yale’s coat of arms on the left and the Yale name written in Yale font on the right. But focus groups soon suggested that the coat of arms doubled down on “associations with elitist European culture” and “a certain amount of military stuff,” so he ditched the shield and stuck with the name: pure, simple and necessary.

“Really the only thing our branding system absolutely subscribes to is putting a Yale logo on things,” Gambell said.

But it wasn’t Gambell’s first choice. Paul Rand — perhaps the most famous graphic designer of the 20th century and a Yale professor — had thought that Yale was unequivocally missing the boat by not branding with slab serifs. Slab serifs are blocky, thick fonts used by almost every athletic program in the country. This was originally because icons that ended in points instead of corners were harder to stitch into jerseys. So Rand had proposed his own logo, a “Y” next to a photograph of a bulldog. Rand, a titan of the industry, was hard to disagree with, especially for a young up-and-comer like Gambell, who called Rand’s design “extreme” and “beautiful.” But higher-ups like then–University Secretary Linda Lorimer eventually swayed him, contending that the athletic font de-legitimized Yale’s status as a primarily academic institution.

Indeed, Gambell said that he now thinks of most universities as having at least two visual brands: “One they share with collegiate athletics across the board. … The other is their academic one. There’s a time and place for the two different presentations of the university.”

In fact, two is a gross understatement. By my count, Yale has trademarked eight versions of the letter Y and more than 60 wordmark iterations of its name. These trademarks were registered as long ago as 1924 and as recently as 2 ½ years ago. A black-and-white sketch of Harkness Tower and the illustrated lyrics to the Yale fight song are also Yale property. According to Paul Murawski, Yale’s director of marketing and trademark licensing, his year-and-a-half-long tenure has seen “renewed interest in some of Yale’s more ‘vintage’ marks such as the leaning bulldog.” By his approximation, 150 outside companies, including places like Urban Outfitters and Forever 21, are official Yale licensees. They are allowed to affix Yale trademarks to their goods and distribute Yale merchandise without fear of repercussions.

Yale University Press

In 2009, the Yale University Press’s trademark was phased out in the name of standardization. It was designed by none other than Paul Rand, at a time when the Press wasn’t technically an arm of the larger University. After it was subsumed, Gambell and company decided it was time to replace Rand’s artful but unbalanced icon with a simple print of the Yale name. Unlike many of the other rebrandings, which were relatively pacific events, this enflamed Yale Daily News commenters and design aficionados alike. Here was a clear and noxious example of corporate cronies co-opting longstanding tradition and choking uniqueness, they said in chorus.

After commissions and focus groups and committees, Yale’s summative logo was designed to disappear into the background, and for once, it had stuck out. That’s when I remembered something I had forgotten: the “Yale” logo is boring. To anyone unacquainted with font facts or historical collegiate tidbits, its nuances and complexity are illegible. We treat it as background because it’s designed to be. All three elements — font, color and logo — are synthesized on residential colleges placards. I saw a few on the floor to the left of Gambell’s office as he led me out, presumably broken or defunct. The top one read “Head of College House.” And above that, “Calhoun College.” The Yale logo seemed to shrink in comparison to those two words and what they have come to mean, though perhaps they should read as equally egregious, considering that Eli Yale also owned slaves.

Logos are inherently flawed. If you had to take on the job of representing 12 schools, 14 colleges, hundreds of buildings and thousands of people, you would be too. “Yale” is so simplistic that it’s bound to fail. But it fails in the right way. It looks the same large and at a distance as it does small and up close.


If you’re headed to the Jonathan Edwards dining hall anytime soon, there’s an app you should download. Yale Grill notifies you when your grilled chicken or “Beyond Burger” are ready to be picked up. Phil Vasseur ’20 designed it as a side project to improve his coding chops.

When I showed it to Gambell, he couldn’t help grimacing slightly. The blue background of the menu looked too light — eggshell-colored, really. The “Y” in the app icon was dwarfed by the grill and steam surrounding it. The font was not from the Yale suite. But Gambell wasn’t surprised. “Apps are the wild west right now,” he said. He sketched out his ideas for a coordinated design on a yellow legal pad: a big “Y” with colored lines beneath it to differentiate departments.

The University Printer’s Office is still brainstorming, so Gambell wasn’t offended by Vasseur’s aberrant user interface. Most students have no idea that Yale has an official swatch book or identity website. And Vasseur’s app didn’t begin as an official Yale endeavor, so he wasn’t obligated to use matching colors anyway. But if Yale Grill is picked up at the other 13 dining halls, Vasseur will have to decide whether or not to conform to the Yale brand. Perhaps it will be a divergence, or perhaps, a coming together.


Lauren Gatta

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