A New Look for Harvard University Press: Q&A with Sagi Haviv and Tim Jones

By Steve Kroeter March 21, 2013

Sagi Haviv

Tim Jones

Graphic designer Sagi Haviv: Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv (New York)

Profile     Book List

Director of Design and Production Tim Jones: Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA)



Harvard University Press is 100 years old this year. The venerable publisher, which has issued renowned scholarly series such as the Loeb Classical Library and the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures as well as numerous Pulitzer Prize-winning titles, is marking the anniversary by introducing a new visual identity—one that represents a significant departure from the traditional graphic imagery associated with the Press’s past. For some insights into how this all came about, Designers & Books talked with the designer of the new logo, Sagi Haviv, partner at Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, and Harvard University Press’s Director of Design and Production, Tim Jones.

Harvard University Press logo and visual identity, from 2012 to 2013 

Designers & Books: How did you start working with Harvard University Press on this project?

Sagi Haviv: Tim Jones initially approached us in 2010 to design an identity for a book series—a library of facing translations like the Press’s Loeb Classical Library. The identity study for the Press grew out of working together on the earlier project.

D&B: What sort of design brief or direction did the Press provide?

Tim Jones: From the physical book to e-reader devices, print ads to web banners and email blasts; physical and online catalogues; promotional kits to apps; printed flyers to online announcements; large-scale banners to the smallest favicon; and then all the way back to the most basic forms of communication—stationery, statements, e-mails, and memos—we needed a cohesive whole to visually communicate to and with our all of our constituents: authors, readers, media outlets, reviewers, libraries, and others.

We gave Sagi and Chermayeff & Geismar a free hand—and did so intentionally. We supplied them with as much background material as we could find—book spines and title pages from 1913 through the present, ads, banners, and a thorough history of the logos we have used throughout the past century—but our goal was to get a fresh sense of how we are seen and could be seen from without rather than from within. We felt the best approach was to give them a great deal of background and then let them do what they do best.

Selection of Harvard University Press titles with new logo
New Harvard University Press logo on an iPad

SH: When Tim first sent us the collection of printer’s marks that the Press had used over the years, we were struck by how many variations there were. It was almost as though the point was to be inventive with each design—the books and the “veritas” were the only consistent elements. These marks were mostly designed in the era before the idea had taken hold of using a single trademark consistently to build a brand. The sheer variety of the marks liberated us to propose something totally new.

Selection of historical Harvard University Press logos, from 1922 to 1960

D&B: What’s your starting point on a project like this?

SH: We always start by talking to people. So, in the beginning of the process we conducted meetings in Cambridge with editors, the design team, and other key people from the Press.

We did a little exercise with them about perceptions of the Press that was really enlightening. We drew a simple chart—a horizontal line with the word “traditional” on one side and “modern” on the other—and put it in front of everyone we spoke to. We asked them to put two dots on the line, one for where the Harvard University Press identity was at the time, and one for where it should be. Almost everyone put their second dot on the far end—the modern end.

When we began developing designs, we thought a lot about this continuum of traditional and modern.

D&B: You’ve done logos and identity work for many major publishers. Given Harvard’s esteemed place in the world of higher education and university presses, were there any issues or challenges you faced that were unique to this job?

New logo on a typical book title page

SH: One thing we recognized early on is that the name “Harvard”— which carries a great deal of weight—was, to a large degree, obscured within the existing mark. We wanted to come up with something that would put more emphasis on the name. Another challenge was to update the identity, and at the same time design a mark that would be appropriate to such a distinguished institution.

D&B: How many platforms for use of the logo did you need to take into account, and how do you address the platforms that will be here soon but didn’t exist when you were doing your work?

SH: Our general approach is to do something simple and appropriate that we find works in current, digital applications such as Facebook, app icons, e-readers, etc., as well as physical manifestations like print or, in this case, book spines. As for platforms that don’t exist yet—nobody can be sure of that! However, when my partners, Tom and Ivan, started out back in the 1960s, doing something simple made their work look good in limited production methods like one-color printing in newspapers—but those same simple trademarks now look great in digital applications. So we hope this approach will continue to work no matter what’s coming next.

D&B: Your new design is a big departure from the ivy-encircled, shield-shaped insignia it replaces. Did you have any qualms about proposing something so different from earlier Press logos?

New logo stamped onto spine cloth

SH: We put a lot of thought into proposing such a radical departure. The traditional–modern exercise suggested that everyone wanted a more contemporary mark, but we didn’t anticipate this final outcome. We presented five design solutions to the Press, three of which looked much more traditional and incorporated elements of the existing identity: books, shields, “veritas,” etc. We were surprised when the most important decision-makers immediately gravitated toward the most modern mark and became its staunchest internal advocates.

D&B: What was the initial reaction at the Press to the work that was presented to you?

TJ: I sat in on most of those first interviews with our core staff group—department heads from editorial, sales and marketing, rights and permissions, and design and production—that Sagi and Tom Geismar conducted, so I wasn’t as surprised as I might have been. From the initial presentation of options our group ended up identifying two finalists—but we had some degree of internal division between those two. After a second round of revisions it became clearer, but we did remain somewhat at odds. Honestly, I went into the day of presenting the final decision to the Press staff with designs for both directions in hand. The director of the Press, Bill Sisler, who had been very clear-minded from the first presentation, made the final decision.

D&B: How are you imagining that the new logo, which is completely abstract, will be “read”?

TJ: I want it to be “read” as Harvard University Press, period. I know that it will take years for it to get to that point—in part because Tom, Ivan, and Sagi were very clear that it does take time for a new mark to achieve that level of visual association—but that is our ultimate goal. I tend to avoid trying to impart meaning to the logo itself, though I have heard many interpretations, all of which carry weight—from the H in the negative space, to six window panes, to the spines of books on shelves, to the shape and form of a tablet, or even a book page. We can’t control how each person will read the design and I didn’t go into this hoping that we could, but I do think it is distinctively ours.

D&B: Did you encounter any resistance to a logo that completely walked away from using ivy, Latin, and shields?

TJ: Certainly there has been some resistance to the loss of those elements that are no longer present in the mark. But overall there is a great deal of excitement and appreciation about the new direction. It’s a dramatic shift, but we believe the new mark manages to acknowledge and incorporate our history and our place within Harvard University while also demonstrating our unique role and the broadness of our mission.


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Related post: Author Q&A with Ivan Chermayeff, Tom Geismar, Sagi Haviv: Identify


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