julia foulkes

Welcome to the Neue School

This spring the New School announced a new branding identity, one based on a specially made font (called “Neue”) and a new combination of colors (red, white, and black) — all standing on two strong horizontal parallel bands. Both these bands and the font pick up on earlier visual graphics of the school, in the covers of early course bulletins and the building at 66 W. 12th St. designed by Joseph Urban.

Liza Harrell-Edge, the Digital Collections archivist, has put together a revealing review of the logos and designs of the past that give perspective on the neue. Two horizontal bands feature even in the earliest print course announcements from the 1920s; then the Urban building becomes the reference starting in the early 1930s. First a boxy grid contains the school’s name, then an off-angle picture of the façade after World War II, and then an abstracted vision of the Urban building and the new building joined to it in the late 1950s. The bands and the façade fall out of favor to a tree logo in the late 1960s, and individual bulletin covers for each semester and each division, an indication of the growing parts of the school such as Parsons and Lang, become popular in the 1970s and ’80s. The words “The New School” became prominent again in the 1990s accompanied by a shield, and then words without other accoutrement, just spray-painted, in the 2000s (the last significant re-branding).

When the famed graphic designer Paula Scher unveiled the new font recently she emphasized the broad research she conducted, and included a picture of an earlier bulletin of the school in the array of visual material she looked at. The past was a glancing part of a wide palette of references. Scher was most enthusiastic about the font’s algorithm, which allows for multiple choices of letters in three differing widths – constantly changing possibility. Adaptability, flexibility, boldness: these are the attributes the font+algorithm are supposed to convey about the New School itself. Three colors accompany the sans-serif, modern font – black (“because the New School is in New York, of course,” Scher explained); white; and Parsons red, a new Pantone color.

The reaction has been mixed, with a lot of attention to the V-like Ws. Embrace the VV, Scher exclaimed! The focus on a letter may be a sign of faculty tired of yet-another branding exercise, or the helpless flaying of those of us who know little about design. I think it is also indicative of what has changed: the New School is now a “design-led university.” If what that means is still being worked out, particularly in how we attach design to more traditional realms of the university such as the liberal arts, the assigned significance of (and debate about) a new font and color should give us a clue. But I am coming around to this re-design because of its ties to the past – horizontal bands of course bulletins and the Urban building; evoking German refugee scholars in the use of “neue.” I would like to believe we can be new and still bring the past with us. And perhaps the liberal arts and design need one another.