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Northeastern University

Custom lettering, Custom typeface

Client

Northeastern University

Design agency

Upstatement

Creative direction

Scott Daase, Mike Swartz

Typeface, lettering, & seal design

Jesse Ragan

Year

2018
A black sign features the N monogram with motto, locked up with the Northeastern University logotype

The identity system in use. Image: Northeastern University.

XYZ Type helped Boston-based studio Upstatement design an extensive identity system for Northeastern University that included a typeface, a logotype, a monogram, lettering, and even illustration—but it all started because the school needed to remove the words “Boston, Massachusetts” from their seal.

Northeastern had grown and expanded beyond their original campus, and they asked Upstatement to create a simplified seal, untethered by location and optimized for use everywhere from screens to enormous signage. Knowing this challenge required typographic finesse, Upstatement partnered with XYZ Type—and the project grew from there.

Two Northeastern University seals, old and new.

The Northeastern University seals, old and new.

A close-up of the old Northeastern University seal.

The previous Northeastern University seal.

A close-up of the new Northeastern University seal.

The new Northeastern University seal.

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Replacing a legacy of bad auto-tracing

The poorly autotraced historical seal that Northeastern University was using in all of its print and digital applications lacked nuance and became distractingly lumpy at large sizes. Upstatement tapped Jesse Ragan to make both the lettering and the illustrations clear and elegant in all applications, with a few updates.

He started by redrawing the torch, motto, scroll, and laurels with less visual clutter. Removing two words from the ring made space for “Northeastern University” to gain size and focus. No existing typeface was a perfect match for the historical lettering, so Jesse faithfully reinterpreted the glyphs in crisp, clean vector outlines.

Drawing letters on a curve presents special challenges, as letterforms can quickly get deformed or distorted out of visual balance, looking like they belong on a circus poster. Rather than warping the shapes in an arc or rotating each letter, Jesse meticulously drew them with a slight arch to the top and bottom of the letters and a slight fanning of the vertical strokes within.

The word "HER" is arched in two different directions

A demonstration of letterforms thoughtfully drawn on an arc.

I try to approach digital lettering with the same detail and care that would have been employed before computers, to capture the warmth that comes from making something by hand. Otherwise, why bother with custom lettering in the first place?

Jesse Ragan, XYZ Type
The 1912 American Type Founders catalog rests open to a spread showing the typeface Jenson Oldstyle

Jenson Oldstyle, from the 1912 American Type Founders catalog.

The 1912 American Type Founders catalog rests open to a spread showing the typeface Bookman Oldstyle

Bookman Oldstyle, from the 1912 American Type Founders catalog.

The 1912 American Type Founders catalog rests open to a spread showing the typeface Clearface

Clearface, from the 1912 American Type Founders catalog.

The 1912 American Type Founders catalog rests open to a spread showing the typeface Century Oldstyle

Century Oldstyle, from the 1912 American Type Founders catalog.

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Thinking outside of the seal

After demonstrating dramatic improvements to the seal, Upstatement persuaded Northeastern to dig deeper into rethinking their identity system—a lot deeper. Their broad strategy included replacing off-the-shelf Baskerville with a brand new logotype and a matching typeface, inspired by the lettering in the seal. The two would function seamlessly together for department name lockups and any future unexpected growth.

Jesse stepped in again. His design process started with the “test characters” N U a e h i n o r s t v y, since the letterforms in the school’s name established the tone of the logotype and carried it into the supporting typeface.

Lacking a direct reference for the lowercase letters, Jesse showed Upstatement a variety of typefaces that were popular around the time of the school’s founding and resonated with the capitals in the seal. Through collaborative discussions with the design team, he established a new visual style distilled from several faces offered by American Type Founders in the early 1900s: Jenson Old Style, Bookman, Century Old Style, and Clearface.

Speare, Northeastern’s custom typeface, doesn’t directly match any of those references, but it captures the spirit of a time period and the aesthetic foundation of the seal.

Demonstration text showing the typeface Speare

Speare, Northeastern University’s custom typeface.

Demonstration text showing the typeface Speare

Speare, Northeastern University’s custom typeface.

Demonstration text showing the typeface Speare

Speare, Northeastern University’s custom typeface.

Demonstration text showing the typeface Speare

Speare, Northeastern University’s custom typeface.

Demonstration text showing the typeface Speare

Speare, Northeastern University’s custom typeface.

Demonstration text showing the typeface Speare

Speare, Northeastern University’s custom typeface.

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The Northeastern University logotype and seal lockup

The primary Northeastern University lockup.

Working with Jesse and XYZ allows us to raise our game as designers and deliver effective, original, and memorable work for our client’s brands. Jesse is a great collaborator who helps us think through the possibilities early in the design process as well as tighten the screws on the final product.

Mike Swartz, Upstatement
Five different lettering assets for Northeastern University

Core lettering elements of the Northeastern University identity.

No, bigger!

As Upstatement developed the full identity for Northeastern, they scaled the seal’s ring lettering and motto to heroic sizes, establishing a dynamic contemporary system that highlights the school’s history. 

The logotype’s N became a monogram and a defining mark for the school. Large-scale use warranted optical adjustments, so Jesse sharpened the serifs and made the stems more delicate. In a clear embrace of the monogram, Northeastern’s in-house designers fabricated a life-size N, which has become a popular photo opportunity for graduating students.

A group of people are on a stage in formal academic robes, surrounded by banners with elements of the Northeastern University identity system. Above them, an enormous Northeastern seal hangs

The identity system in use. Image: Northeastern University.

The Northeastern N monogram and motto appear on red banners on a pole

The identity system in use. Image: Northeastern University.

A giant three-dimensional N monogram, with people in graduation robes and hats, resting on it

The identity system in use. Image: Northeastern University.

Three booklet covers with the Northeastern University monogram

The identity system in use. Image: Upstatement.

A graduation cap with a tassel featuring the Northeastern University seal

The identity system in use. Image: Northeastern University.

A Northeastern monogram logo with the reflection of a person working at a desk

The identity system in use. Image: Northeastern University.

A person in winter clothing walks in front of a large image of the Northeastern N monogram and motto

The identity system in use. Image: Northeastern University.

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Further reading and listening