The Evolution of Dartmouth's Visual Identity

by Veselin Nanov | 1/24/18 2:35am

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Source: Courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library

A History on the Seal

On Aug. 25, 1773, four years after the granting of its charter, Dartmouth obtained an official seal. The coat of arms familiar to many of us from College memorabilia and apparel that we own and constantly encounter on others during our daily walks through campus is much different from that official seal. Indeed, the coat of arms was created much later than the seal, in the 1940’s at a time when the kitsch style of the former was largely outdated. Back in 1926 College trustees encouraged the use of the seal for official practices only but it was not until 1944 that the Canadian artist Thoreau MacDonald was commissioned to draw an unofficial shield. Since the shield came into use, it has become the main pictorial association that students, alumni and the general public associate with Dartmouth, leaving the seal to sink into relative obscurity. However, the coat of arms we associate with Dartmouth stems from the history of the seal and several updates it has been through since the founding of the College.

From the outset, the images on the seal corresponded with its purpose. College founder Eleazer Wheelock’s endeavors to establish the school depended on a trust established under the William Legge, the second earl of Dartmouth, and financed by a group of wealthy Englishmen, a group that included King George III. That trust had been set up to fund Wheelock’s Moor’s Indian Charity School in Connecticut, which was established to teach Native American youth the ways of Christianity. However, in the 1760s Wheelock received a request from the colony of New Hampshire to grant the school a charter of incorporation. The local governor granted Wheelock a royal charter that Wheelock was to compose himself. Wheelock transformed the nature of the school by allowing the admission of English youth and establishing a Board of Trustees in America. The latter group would assume governing authority over the institution. In attempt to maintain favor with his financial benefactors in England, Wheelock proposed that Dartmouth’s seal incorporate one of the seals of the noblemen who presided over the trust ­— however, the trust members were not flattered by Wheelock’s proposal. Instead, they continued to send funds on the sole condition that those funds be used for the education of Native Americans. That forced Wheelock to keep Moor's running alongside Dartmouth. Most resources provided for Moor’s were likely used for the development of the College.

Regardless, the college seal that the Board of Trustees approved in 1773 largely propagandized the mission of the school. The seal, meant for stamping official documents, depicts a shield guarded by personified versions of “religion” and “justice” who are illuminated by a triangle that represents divine supervision over the school’s mission to educate Native Americans. A group of them emerges from the woods and approaches the stately colonial building on a hill that houses the college. The Biblical phrase “Vox Clamantis in Deserto” shines down on the scene. Dartmouth’s seal departs from the heraldic tradition in which most other universities in the English-speaking world designed their coats of arms. Rather than a simple arrangement of objects, Dartmouth’s seal contains a shield with a crowded scene. This is the first sign that Wheelock intended to show that although he transformed his school into a university, it remained unlike traditional academic institutions in that it focused on the divine mission to enlighten Native Americans. The whole scene embodies the Western view that Christianity is the superior faith the Native Americans, depicted as small and unclothed.  God’s pronouncement shining down represents the Protestant ideal of enlightenment through the divine word. The person at the forefront carrying a cane seems to be a farmer. Wheelock provided husbandry and housewifery as subjects at Moor’s under the belief that a settled agricultural life was more civilized. Those details on the seal show the propaganda Wheelock wanted to provide to his benefactors in England and the general public. It’s unclear what the final of the seal were. Soon after the seal was adopted, the trust was exhausted and the American Revolution cut down any further communication between the colonial college and its British benefactors.

From 1817 to 1819 the state of New Hampshire took over the College and renamed it Dartmouth University. A new seal was designed for the institution, but no depictions of it survive. Afterwards, the College assumed the original seal from 1773. The line drawing of the seal was also used by souvenir merchants whose business grew with the rise in intercollegiate athletics at the time.

According to a resolution the Board of Trustees signed in 1926, the seal was to be used for official purposes only. That prompted the creation of the unofficial shield drawn by MacDonald. The seal and the shield were updated for the last time in 1957 when, while preparing for the College bicentennial, the publications committee discovered that the founding date on both was mistaken. The College moved from Connecticut to Hanover in 1770, but the Charter read 13 Dec. 1769. The new date contributed to the prestige of the College, making it a year older.

The New Visual Identity

For decades after the bicentennial, the College did not centrally modify its branding strategy. 

“A lot of the wordmarks and logos were inherited from previous usages,” Dartmouth vice president for communications Justin Anderson said. 

Anderson also shared a document, compiled by the design firm the school worked with in developing the new communications strategy, containing more than 20 wordmarks that different organizations on campus have used for publications, merchandise and marketing. The goal of the new communications strategy, Dartmouth announced on Monday, is to tell a consistent story.

The three central questions that guided the development of the new visual identity were: “Who are we?”, “Why do we matter?” and “How are we different?”

To answer these questions, the communications office turned towards the community. According to Anderson, they “wanted to share a story about Dartmouth that resonates with the people who know Dartmouth best,” which lead to a yearlong process of interviews and looking back through the school’s history to bring out what defines it most accurately.

A bulk of the work on the branding strategy revolved around Dartmouth’s digital identity. 

“What is very important with this visual identity is the fact that we very much live in a digital age,” said Anderson, describing the challenges of the task at hand. “And so all of the stuff that we create has to work digitally. It has to work on Instagram just as well as it works on an old-school letterhead.” 

The seal and coat of arms purportedly lack a versatility that would allow a visual representation of Dartmouth to simultaneously fulfill digital and more traditional needs. Before Monday, Dartmouth’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter avatars depicted Baker Tower projected against a blue sky, as other visual representations of the school were difficult to discern in small sizes. Even that profile picture was too blue, and it was hard to recognize as Baker because of size limitations. The goal of the communications department was to create a logo that would be immediately recognizable and also tells a story about Dartmouth. That’s how the “D-Pine” came about. Anderson commented that the new logo “takes two of the most distinctive marks associated with Dartmouth, [D for Dartmouth and the Lone Pine], and it puts them together for maximum impact and recognition. It is a bold mark that is celebrating Dartmouth and Dartmouth’s sense of place.” The inclusion of the Lone Pine creates a narrative about Dartmouth’s sense of inclusivity that reflects the general aim of the new communications strategy to build a story. 

In turn, having a consistent, authentic story about Dartmouth’s identity is important when controversial news about the school circulates online.

“You’ve got to be out there telling your story because if you are not, others will,” Anderson said. 

Prospective students and employees of the school are free to make decisions about joining the Dartmouth community using all available information. What the new communications strategy aims to do is sell the idea about Dartmouth in a way it has not previously been sold.

The admissions office utilized the new communications strategy early on, compiling a prospectus that has been already distributed to high schools in the U.S. and abroad. That leaflet is visually intricate and reflects the design recommendations the communications office compiled. Many of the pictures in the pamphlet have appeared on Dartmouth social media to better emphasize a clear consistency between the school’s digital identity and its marketing to prospective students. In response to a question about the ways in which Dartmouth is presented to international or domestic students who don’t have the chance to visit campus before applying to the school, Anderson said that it is important to introduce Dartmouth accurately. 

“In the past we were not clear about our identity and we shied away from certain things like our location and we are not doing that anymore … We are embracing where we are,” Anderson said. 

The admissions is also launching a new interactive website, content for which will be generated by undergraduate bloggers. Hopefully, the new centralized marketing strategy will not overshadow the diverse opinions that members of the Dartmouth community have with regards to the institution. As the global outreach of the school expands digitally, it is important that the College tell an accurate story, so that prospective students are not misled in their choice to attend Dartmouth or, for that matter, choose to attend a competitor institution. 

And while it took the College a considerable amount of time to develop a consistent visual identity online, students have been active in sharing their experience at Dartmouth for a while. Many individual bloggers, Youtubers and Instagrammers have already generated a considerable amount of content representing their life as Dartmouth students. Anderson said that the communications office is looking for ways to collaborate with students in building up Dartmouth’s digital identity.

Dartmouth’s seal and its coat of arms are part of the package that the communications office compiled with recommendations for the school’s rebranded visual identity, so those images are not going anywhere. Yet, it is likely we will see less of them in the upcoming years. The new logo and wordmark are rolling in as Dartmouth is approaching its 250th anniversary. Looking back at the school’s history, it is at milestone dates like this that Dartmouth examines its identity and generates visual representations that match the changes in its identity. While the new communications strategy celebrates the unique character of our school, it falls short of representing the challenges we face. Plans for expanding the student body and building new campus infrastructure and allegations of sexual misconduct by faculty members are just some of the problems facing Dartmouth on the eve of its 250th year. Other important issues surfaced last year when a New York Times survey found that a significant number of Dartmouth students come from very affluent backgrounds. The question of integrating minorities on campus and making Dartmouth truly accessible to the brightest young women and men globally despite questions of race, class, nationality and income loom above us as members of a community that has access to this institution’s outstanding resources. The new communications strategy is forward-looking like previous crest changes have been. To fulfill the promises Dartmouth makes to prospective members of our community, it must hold to the traditions that enrich the community and let go of those that stifle actualization.