Summer will soon enter the dog days. Back-to-school season is around the corner. So, to get into the mood, today I talk to Nick Adam and Bud Rodecker of the Chicago-based Span—which just rebranded Nazareth University in Rochester, NY.
Various design firms have taken on similar roles for colleges and universities, but to make their concepts succeed, Span created a design studio on campus. The rebrand bestowed official status to the school’s informal name, Naz. This was a strategic choice, as the school is no longer a faith-based institution, “and the name Nazareth confused many would-be students—our work embraced notions of belonging, which brought us all (designers and clients) to question the message the traditional academic ‘shield’ or ‘coat of arms’ projects into the world,” Adam and Rodecker explained.
I’ve never known of an academic rebrand where the designers took up residence on campus, but it was a smart idea. Here, they discuss how the invasive strategy worked.
In this period when colleges and universities are under the microscope for charging too much, triggering debt and otherwise appearing as businesses rather than institutes of education, how did you approach this branding project? What was your mission?
Nick Adam: Our rebrand of the university has been successfully embraced and celebrated by the student body—that was our mission. The contemporary state of rebranding colleges and universities is often met with student rebellion against the rebrand. The rebrand of many academic institutions often faces rejection upon introduction. This reaction typically comes from students and alumni who feel that the new brand doesn’t accurately represent their lived experiences. Knowing that a smooth launch with acceptance was our goal, we engineered a process to lead our clients to this result.
Our purpose was to genuinely portray the actions and prospects of this educational community while ensuring that their own members—students, alumni, faculty and administration—fully embraced our work. One of Span’s goals is to connect with our clients and their constituents on a personal level. This involves tailoring distinct approaches for each project. As a designer still repaying my student loans, I hold strong opinions regarding tuition fees at schools, particularly concerning the extent of their financial resources and how they allocate them. Institutions of higher learning allocate an annual budget for essential publications and viewbooks. With careful consideration of this existing budget, we designed a one-week intensive design process.
Bud Rodecker: Our Chicago studio would temporarily set up at their New York campus. During this week, we held daily meetings and workshops with our clients. In the evenings, at our hotel, we prepared for the next day’s session, with one Chicago-based designer available for assistance. The following day, we presented our progress and sought approvals. At the culmination of our five-day effort, we delivered a comprehensive 101-page graphic identity toolkit, summarizing our collaborative accomplishments.
Span believes that brand identities should genuinely mirror the entity and its future direction. To truly comprehend their path forward, we needed to engage with them directly. As we did, we encountered a community characterized by courage, inclusivity and innovation. In response, we collaboratively crafted a brand identity that authentically conveys these exceptional qualities to the wider world.
Adam: The scope of higher education communication extends far beyond financial matters, and there is much at stake. What is the learning experience truly like? Who are the educators shaping minds? Who comprises the student body benefiting from this education? Discussions surrounding governance, diversity and rejuvenation empower potential students and their support networks when making this substantial financial commitment. Our on-site design process aimed to deeply immerse us in the school’s ethos, facilitating an understanding of what the institution offers, who its stakeholders are, who benefits from its offerings, and the trajectory it follows.
After taking a deep dive into the inner workings of the school, what did you do to make the work distinct rather than a generic university identity
Adam: Our collaborative team included the president and the administration. Additionally, we went on guided tours led by students, observing a student body marked by mutual support. Conversations with them revolved around their experiences at Nazareth, shedding light on their vision for the institution’s future. The space and the community exuded a distinctiveness that was anything but generic. Guided by a principled approach, Nazareth favored standing out.
In dialogues with the students, we learned that within their circles, Nazareth is affectionately known as Naz. A century ago, the university’s foundation was laid by four Ph.D. Nuns. Today, Nazareth stands as an inclusive learning community encompassing individuals from diverse backgrounds and faiths. Opting for Naz as the core logo introduced an element of separation from its faith-rooted past. The three letterforms, N-a-z, were derived from the students themselves, forming a pivotal strategy in our journey to revamp the institution’s image into one that radiates inclusivity.
Adam: Our discussions with the administration centered on envisioning the community as a hub of belonging. This introspection led us to reevaluate the tradition of the academic shield—an archaic emblem steeped in a martial history symbolizing protection and separation. In an era of profound transformation, we considered the implications of a school heavily relying on a heraldic gesture. In response, we emptied the shield and used it as a masking element to look through.
Traditionally, many educational institutions communicate monochromatically, and Nazareth was no exception with its subdued purple and gold palette. However, upon witnessing the dynamic and responsive nature of the Nazareth experience, we recognized the limitations of a monotonous approach. The university’s iconic purple and gold hues were enriched to pay homage to Naz’s history and its proud alumni. Simultaneously, the color spectrum expanded and intensified to convey a wider range of experiences.
What was your biggest challenge in conceiving your concept and then making it happen?
Adam: Your question uses the phrase “your concept.” I’m not sure we can call the concept ours. If we created something that was ours, it would be the unique process that led to insight and being successfully embraced by the student body. Work like this is intentionally “with” the client, stakeholders and community, as opposed to “for.” Through this approach, everyone has a fingerprint in the work. The biggest challenge was ensuring that for one week all the key stakeholders could clear their calendars and participate in creating their visual identity. Honestly, this wasn’t hard for them as they were motivated to have such a role in a highly fiscally responsible manner.
How many levels of approval did you have to go through?
Rodecker: During our one-week on-campus design process, we’d host three town hall meetings daily. These meetings were with the leadership and would open to larger audiences, including faculty members and students. We gained insights, feedback and approvals in these meetings which kept the project moving forward. Seven unique directions were designed and presented within the first 36 hours. By day five, the university had consensus.
I presume that you are pleased with the outcome. What pleases you most?
Adam: Our work designing brand identity systems with our clients and getting to know so many different communities and their ecosystem is an honor. The pleasure of this work is seeing it in use. As this work is for a university, I take great pride in seeing the selfies the students and alums take while wearing expressions of their new brand identity. This is quite different from the social media that occurred when students rise against a rebrand. Our client (the university administration and stakeholders) are also filled with pride rather than being under siege. Weeks after Nazareth started using their new brand, the city of Rochester, NY, held their annual Pride parade. Across the news coverage and social media are photographs of people celebrating life and each other. Many of these people happen to be from the Naz community, and I only know this as they chose to wear clothing adorned with the new brand. On the red carpet celebrities are intentional about the designers they wear. It is a pleasure to know that on the street, in a moment of community celebration, students chose to wear the new brand identity with pride.