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Responses by Huy Vu, creative director, Rhode Island School of Design.

Background: In the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)’s 145 years of experience, we’ve never had a comprehensive brand identity. This has often led to competing representations and contradictory narratives of what our institution stands for. The goal of this project was to put some stakes in the ground: first, by articulating what makes our community and form of education special, and second, by creating a verbal and visual framework to bring our values and vision to life.

Design thinking: The identity is built on a guiding idea: “Question to create, create to question.” We landed on this after speaking with scores of students, faculty, staff and alums in search of a common thread about their RISD experience. Questioning the world around us is how we start any creative process. It is at the core of who we are, how we communicate and how we look.

In more practical terms, this idea is expressed verbally through a tone of voice that poses big questions and is oriented around ideas and actions over status and prestige. Visually, it is powered by a family of typefaces that embody the iterative process of creative thinking and a modular layout system that takes a backseat to the work of the artists, designers and scholars that make up RISD.

Challenges: The community of RISD is not a monolith, and we needed to involve a broad array of voices and perspectives that exist here. Design firm Gretel and global research and strategy agency ON ROAD designed an open, inclusive process during which hundreds of community members shared feedback and ideas through a robust discovery phase, open forums, and a microsite where they could track progress and participate.

Favorite details: While it’s a small part of the identity, I’m most proud of the redrawing of the RISD seal. Originally designed in 1951 by sculptor, stone carver, calligrapher and late RISD faculty member John Howard Benson, the seal has been the one consistent visual thread between our past, present and now future. In consultation with the Benson family, Ryan Budgen—a 2014 RISD alum in graphic design—redrew RISD’s long-serving mark to bring back the calligraphic character that had been lost over the decades. In an age where logos are getting more streamlined and rational, Budgen brought back the idiosyncrasies and quirks that excite artists and designers.

Visual influences: One of the most difficult things to do was not being overly influenced by larger trends within branding. We wanted to make sure whatever facelift we gave the institution was age-appropriate (we’re almost 150 years old) and flexible enough to feel at home on today’s communications platforms.

Specific project demands: Working during the peak of the pandemic was really a boon to this project. Suddenly, people were more willing to participate, and we also didn’t have any limitations in terms of when or where we could meet. It allowed the process to be accessible to anyone who wanted to participate.

Divergent paths: We’re all really hopeful, but the real test of this project will be in the coming years as we see how flexible and adaptable it is with the changing needs of RISD and its community.


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