A new RISD rebrand places a family of custom typefaces and a redrawn seal at its centre

Informed by interviews with faculty members, students and young creatives, the rebrand adopts a flexible type system and a simplified seal that enhances its hand-crafted quality.

21 October 2022


For a new rebrand RISD has called upon independent type designer and RISD alum Ryan Bugden, independent strategy and design studio Gretel and On Road, a London-based research agency that “specialises in understanding the next generation, with a focus on BIPOC youth and underrepresented voices”, according to a press release. Focusing on a family of custom typefaces and a redrawing of the institution’s more than 70-year-old seal, the rebrand aims to “reflect the institution’s vision, values and priorities,” while signalling the launch of a new guiding idea to “question to create, create to question”.

The rebrand comes after RISD faced significant criticism in 2020 in light of the Black Lives Matter protests, as students, alumni, faculty and staff expressed outrage at how deeply embedded racist practices and structures were in the institution. Since then, RISD says it is implementing a series of measures to tackle such issues. For this particular project, On Road conducted research and interviews to inform the rebrand. “Bringing the identity of a 144-year-old design institution into the 21st century requires an ambitious approach to spark change,” says Tarik Fontenelle, director of On Road. “Interviewing faculty members, students and young aspiring creatives led to an incredible body of work.”

Regarding the family of custom typefaces, the approach was to create something that would “flex in style while creating cohesion,” the release explains. The type system was therefore cut into two parts: RISD Serif, a headline typeface, which ranges from “complete” to “incomplete”; and the utilitarian RISD Sans, serving as the system’s straightforward neutral backbone, as Ryan explains. This idea of adaptability was central to the typographic system. Andrea Trabucco-Campos, creative director at Gretel, adds: “The system is informed by the principle that an education is never complete. This project is composed of a set of flexible tools and frameworks that will grow with the school over time. The continuous cycle of education moves from incomplete to complete and back again.”

Another cornerstone of the rebrand was Ryan’s redrawing of the institution’s official seal, designed in 1951 by sculptor, stone carver, calligrapher and late RISD faculty member John Howard Benson. In consultation with Benson’s family, the intention of the redrawing was to “simplify features, optimise for small sizes and bring to life some of the hand-crafted quality of Benson’s original sketches,” Ryan says. “We delved into the iterative history of the Benson family’s seal and worked to both honour its roots and give it a new finish. We brought that same iterative spirit to the typeface development process, in search of a dynamic typographic voice that could express the philosophies underlying RISD’s pedagogy.” The new identity will be rolled out across RISD’s physical and digital campus in a phased approach.

Reflecting on the project as a whole, RISD president, poet, educator and activist Crystal Williams highlights the importance of visually signalling change. “At RISD, we are educating artists, designers and scholars to challenge and create the ideas that shape the future and to design a more just, fair and sustainable society,” Williams says. “By strengthening how RISD presents itself to the world, this work will enable us to more powerfully share the incredible ideas and expressions that emanate from our community and more clearly demonstrate the critical role art and design play in the world.”

GalleryRyan Bugden: RISD Sans & Serif (Copyright © Ryan Bugden, 2022)

GalleryGretel & RISD: RISD 2022 Rebrand (Copyright © Gretel & RISD)

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Gretel & RISD: RISD 2022 Rebrand (Copyright © Gretel & RISD)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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