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The History of and Story Behind the NYU Logo


New York University is proud of its logo. So proud, in fact, it's created an entire manual entitled 'New York University Graphic Standards and Logo Usage Guide' to make sure no one's having any fun at its expense. But then again, why wouldn't it be?

Created in 1969 by one of the most renowned graphic designers of the 20th century, it's an emblem that's become as much a part of the university's DNA as secret sororities and frat parties.

But what exactly is it? And what does it all mean, anyway? If you've ever found yourself wondering about the story of the NYU logo, you've come to the right place to find out.

The History of New York University

We all know the name and most of us have a good idea of what goes on behind its doors. But how many of us know its history? In case the story of NYU has you as baffled as the story of the NYU logo, here's the potted guide for you.

In 1831, a man named Albert Gallatin decided it was high time the US got a university that admitted students on the basis of merit rather than birthright or social class.

As no one else seemed inclined to make one, he decided to found his own. The result was New York University, an establishment that began with a handful of students and a rented room at Clinton Hall and which now boasts a student body of 51,848 and more buildings than we can count.

Over the course of its 189 years, it's pumped out 5 Fields Medalists, 38 Nobel Laureates, 31 MacArthur Fellows, 3 Marshall Scholars, 26 Pulitzer Prize winners, 8 Turing Award winners, 37 Academy Award winners, one Supreme Court justice, 17 billionaires, 30 Emmy Award winners, 5 U.S. governors, 25 Tony Award winners, 12 Grammy Award winners, 6 Rhodes Scholars, and (deep breath), 1 Mitchell Scholar.

With an honorable mission state and a habit of producing (or maybe just fine tuning) some of the county's brightest and best, it's easy to see what makes it such an internationally renowned institution... not to mention one sorely in need of a logo.

The Story of the Logo

By the 1960s, New York University had grown to such an extent, it had taken over what seemed like half the buildings in Greenwich Village. Of course, it hadn't, but how was anyone to know? A NYU building looked much the same as any other brownstone.

And therein lay the problem. Without a means to pick out the university's buildings from the rest, students were spending more time trying to find their class than in it. Sensing the university's rate of growth had overtaking the abilities of even its own arts department, NYU decided to appeal for outside help.

When it arrived, it was in the form of Tom Geismar, a man with a reputation almost as prestigious as their own and a knack for a canny emblem.

The Designer

If you're going to get a logo, make it a good one. Fortunately, NYU were in safe hands with their choice of designer. Born and raised in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, Geismar studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University before earning his master's degree in graphic design from Yale University, School of Art and Architecture.

After a brief flirtation with the army, he set about launching his own design firm, Brownjohn, Chermayeff & Geismar, alongside his old Yale classmate, Ivan Chermayeff, and graphic designer Robert Brownjohn. By the 1960s, Geismar had already developed a stellar reputation.

His radical work for Chase Manhattan Bank had effectively changed the face of the banking world, while his designs for brands like Gemini Consulting, Xerox, PBS, Best Products, Univision, and Mobil had been similarly applauded. Who better, then, for NYU to task with the creation of their brand new logo?

The Designing Process

Many moons after creating the iconic NUY logo, Geismar sat down with to discuss his creation. Speaking about the creative process that went into its making, he explained how the idea for the emblem came to him almost immediately.

After sketching out a few different possibilities, he settled on the final product: an upheld white torch on a dark background. "The only thing around at that point was the university shield with runners holding torches," he explained. "My idea was to extract the torch. By putting it on a square, we made it so you could apply it to all these building entrances," he added.

"Plus, it made it easy to create the idea of light. The torch represents light and knowledge, so the torch could be a light color on a dark background. We thought the idea of a torch made sense considering the university seal. We went through several iterations of the torch, some more abstract than the others.

This one is very understandable." Any indeed, it is. But that hasn't stopped some people speculating about its deeper meaning...

The Theories

The meaning of the white torch against a dark background is fairly self-explanatory. As Geismar himself has confirmed, the torch represents light and knowledge; its setting against a darker backdrop thus signifies the replacement of ignorance with enlightenment.

So far, so NYU. But what's with the violet? There's no end of darker hues in the color spectrum, so why did Geismar settle on violet for the background?

So far, the man himself has declined to elucidate. In the absence of a concrete answer, people have decided to come up with their own interpretations.

As writes, some of them believe violet was chosen as a tribute to the violets that once grew around Washington Square and the buttresses of the Old University Buildings. Other's believe it's more likely to be a reference to the flower of Athens, the seat of learning in ancient Greece.

Both make sense. But as to which one is true... who knows? What we do know is that it works. As does the rest of the logo. As rightly notes, it would be difficult to imagine any other logo that so succinctly captures what the institution is about. And that, in its essence, is exactly what makes it so great.

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Lily Wordsmith

Written by Lily Wordsmith

Lily Wordsmith is a freelance writer who has had a love affair with the written word for decades. You can find her writing blog posts and articles while sitting under a tree at the local park watching her kids play, or typing away on her tablet in line at the DMV. In addition to her freelance career, she is pursuing ebook writing with an ever-growing repertoire of witty ebooks to her name. Her diversity is boundless, and she has written about everything from astrobotany to zookeepers. Her real passions are her family, baking desserts and all things luxe.

Read more posts by Lily Wordsmith

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