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The Architectural Inspiration Behind Pentagram's Rebranding of the New School

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All images courtesy of Pentagram
All images courtesy of Pentagram

The New School, the 96-year-old New York City institution focused on offering an progressive, design-inspired education, already has a rather ambiguous name. Combined with the fact that the university is actually composed of five sub-schools (e.g. the renowned Parsons School of Design and the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts) and it's suddenly clear why the school recently unveiled a new "visual identity," crafted by graphic designer Paula Scher from the international design studio Pentagram. At the center of the school's new look is Neue, an algorithm-based typeface that highlights the design-centric spirit of the school and its flexible, ever-evolving nature. Incorporating three different widths, the letters can be customized for each sub-school while maintaining a coherent institution-wide aesthetic. And as it turns out, the new typeface that's now all over the street signage and interior walls on campus takes a page or two from the existing architecture, including the striking brass and glass University Center building designed by Skidmore Owings & Merrill and opened in January 2014.

First, the two stripes in the school's new logo echo the striations on the facades of both the University Center and a 84-year-old landmark building designed by Austrian-American architect Joseph Urban(↓). In a phone interview, Paula Scher says the original Joseph Urban building, completed in 1931, was a "memorable" and "distinctive piece of architecture." Since the Urban building was already the basis for S.O.M.'s University Center design, Scher thinks it made sense to continue weaving the stripes into the spirit of the school. As for Neue, the entire typeface itself was derived from Irma, the font that had already been used for the graphics seen in the University Center.

According to Scher, integrating architectural influences into typography (which then goes back to branding the building and site) is a common approach in her design process. She mentions that the identity Pentagram designed for the new Miami Science Museum is "totally based on the architect's drawings," just abstracted.

After the reveal of the New School project, reactions were quite mixed, with plenty of online commenters feeling incensed about the new look. Scher, however, is confident that her work presents a rule-breaking approach to typography, a true "new school." She's also hopeful that people will warm up to it over time, pointing to NYC's New Museum, a staggered stack of metal boxes (with a logo that's a stark silhouette of the building itself), as an example. "Everybody thought it was too strident," she says. "Now it looks normal."

University Center—Photo ©Martin Seck, courtesy of Pentagram

Joseph Urban building—Photo by Brian Blazak via Docomomo

Photo ©Martin Seck, courtesy of Pentagram