An MIT Alumni Association Publication

How do you create a visual and messaging identity that not only reflects more than 150 years of MIT graduates but is also forward-thinking enough to represent the generations of alumni to come?

That was the question that the Alumni Association asked itself when beginning a rebrand process in 2019, a project that arose from the Association’s Strategic Plan priority of “focusing communications and building a world-class brand.” To help find the solution, the Association tapped Pentagram, a creative design firm with a client roster that includes leaders in industry and academia, including the Institute itself.

“Through their past work on MIT Technology Review, MIT Libraries, and MIT Press, among others, Pentagram demonstrated to us that their design prowess was matched by a keen understanding of the MIT experience,” says MITAA chief executive officer Whitney T. Espich. “We were confident that their previous efforts to study and understand our ‘only at MIT’ culture and ethos would lead to a brand worthy of our MIT community of better-world-making alumni.”

Partnering closely with the Association’s in-house Strategic Communications and Marketing team, the Pentagram team, led by senior partner Michael Bierut, began their work in earnest with a comprehensive discovery phase in September 2019. This period of learning included diving into the data culled from years of anonymized alumni attitudinal surveys and convening stakeholder conversations with the MIT Alumni Association Board, staff, and alumni volunteer leaders, as well as with Institute leaders and communicators. The firm’s research also took them on a tour of the Institute’s visual history.

“You can’t overstate the contributions to design of true legends like Muriel Cooper [MIT Press’s longtime design director and an MIT Media Lab cofounding faculty member] and Jacqueline Casey [an Institute graphic designer who achieved renown for her MIT Technology Review posters],” says Bierut. “In the 1960s and ’70s, they helped define a visual language that not only communicated the MIT experience so well, it also helped the world ‘out there’ understand MIT in a new way.”

Cooper and Casey were devotees of the Swiss Style of graphic design that had emerged in the first half of the 20th century, and were instrumental in ushering in typographic motifs that continue to dominate culture today, including the ubiquitous san-serif font Helvetica. Originally designed by Max Miedinger and called Neue Haas Grotesk, or New House Grotesque, it was licensed and renamed in the late 1950s.

“I would argue that any US academic institutions—and perhaps outside academia, too—that are using this style today owe a big thanks to MIT, who, in my opinion, have owned Helvetica from the beginning,” says Bierut.

Alongside the design process, Pentagram writing partner Andrea Jarrell developed a “manifesto” of sorts to provide language to accompany the brand.

“The MIT alum is joyfully filled with paradoxes,” says Jarrell. “In one breath, they’re talking excitedly about their restless need for progress, about solving the toughest problems out there to make a brighter future, and yet, in the next, they are passionately talking about the history and traditions that form their MIT-ness. To be authentic in both the words and the design, we needed to factor in the joy and quirky fun of the famous MIT hacks and Tim the Beaver alongside the gravity and respect for the society-changing advances.”

Bierut and his design team, including Sachi Chandiramani, understood that this dichotomy was a core part of the assignment. Their eyes turned back to campus, specifically toward the Infinite Corridor that connects MIT’s campus buildings between Kendall Square and Massachusetts Avenue. There, they found the quiet but important work of Glenn Silva, who has been handcrafting the department and faculty titles on the hallway doors for decades.

The serif lettering style Silva employed has visual ties with other parts of the Institute’s history, including the etched writing adorning the exteriors of the “Main Group” of original Beaux Arts buildings that date back to the Institute’s 1916 move from Boston to Cambridge. Simultaneously, Bierut learned that tyeface designer Tim Ripper had been designing a digital type based on the lettering of the doors at MIT; in fact, he was calling it Corridor.

143,000 Alumni, One Design

As Jarrell penned a manifesto on the MIT alumni experience, highlighting its many themes, the designers searched for a single path forward in terms of the visual identity. While the manifesto would be used behind the scenes as a guideline for expressing the spirit of the alumni community, the graphic branding elements would be viewed by all. The Association knew that getting it right was critical.

One major recommendation was that the mark focus on the idea of “MIT Alumni” rather than the structural entity, the “MIT Alumni Association,” to ensure that the alumni community felt that the logo represented them—the now nearly 143,000 living Institute graduates. In its new incarnation, “MIT Alumni” is the brand, and the MIT Alumni Association helps to facilitate the alumni experience, as it has done since it formed in 1875 with the mission “to further the well-being of the Institute and its graduates by increasing the interest of members in the school and in each other.” 

To ensure that the design with the greatest alumni resonance was chosen, Pentagram and the staff turned to the MIT Alumni Association Board of Directors as representatives of the broader alumni community. In March 2020, Bierut attended the Board’s quarterly meeting on campus to offer up three of the design directions for a new mark, or logo, that his team had come up with: two leaning heavily toward the Helvetica-inspired camp, while a third was rooted in the Corridor approach.

Upon hearing feedback from the volunteer leaders that each font might resonate with the community strongly for different reasons, Pentagram developed a concept that would allow for both. The new brand would have two official typefaces, Neue Haas Grotesk and Corridor, which the Association has officially and exclusively licensed as a digital type. The former would be used as a font for the new mark, “MIT Alumni,” while the latter could be deployed as a display font used to deliver core messages within the design.

“What Pentagram showed us was a design path that enabled us to integrate both fonts, both aspects of our community,” says Espich. “Our alumni and alumnae have a deep history of societal contributions yet are also futurists. They are rooted in technical excellence and pragmatism, while also always reaching for new knowledge and new understanding. There is no one way to define them. With this new mark, we seem to have found a solution.”

When Bierut returned to present the new concept to the MIT Alumni Association Board of Directors during their December 2020 meeting, it was met with resounding support. Subsequent presentations to smaller groups of MIT volunteers and Institute stakeholders further confirmed the early warm reception. The new visual identity—consisting of the two typefaces, as well as an updated color palette—officially debuted during the 2021 MIT Alumni Leadership Conference with a new alumni video.

“I like to think that our new mark is more than an exciting logo with beautiful fonts and color choices, but rather it is a story,” says Association president Annalisa Weigel ’94, ’95, SM ’00, PhD ’02. “It tells the world who we are as MIT alumni. In order for it to be successful, the alumni need to resonate with that story. Based on the smiles and nods of recognition I have seen on the faces of alumni, of all ages and stages, I think the new brand is telling our story very well.”

See the new brand in action in this new MITAA video

Comments

Joseph Horowitz

Sat, 11/13/2021 10:11am

This rather too-long article about the new MIT Alumni "brand" makes the Alumni Association sound like Burger King seeking a new marketing strategy. What are we marketing? And why? The video was just an ego trip. Surely MIT can come up with something more important than that.

Larry Seward

Mon, 11/15/2021 5:37pm

The two new fonts are the only manifest change described in the article, but are nowhere to be seen in the article. A side-by-side snapshot of the past and present is the minimum for making the 'brand' change visible.

The text: The new visual identity—consisting of the two typefaces, as well as an updated color palette... is the core of the article, but is hopelessly buried. Google finds it, most will not.

As an engineering change notice the article really falls short.

The video is equally obtuse. A quick eye will notice that the trailing 2 seconds screen shots of MIT ALUMNI and alum.mit.edu are displayed with the new fonts. Trying do demonstrate a typeface change with social video montage misses the mark.

The new brand design is powerful. The teams did a great design job. but fall short in this communication.

Hector Orea

Tue, 11/16/2021 5:55pm

The teams did a great design job.
I do prefer that we identify ourself just as a proud member of the whole MIT family.
As some one else said, we are not a brand, we are a community that deserves respect and all of us OUGTH to behave accordingly to merit that.