Written by Maliya Naz
Four Pillars For Inspiration
Northern Michigan University (NMU) is located on the shores of Lake Superior in the city of Marquette, a beautiful natural environment for a holistic education. NMU has also been newly designated as a Rural Serving Institution (RSI) and has strong connections with the Indigenous People of the region. Despite its undeniable appeal, being an RSI in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula isn’t without its challenges. The campus is a multiple-hour drive to any major city and Marquette is one of the snowiest places in the United States. When NMU’s College of Graduate Studies & Research (NMUGS&R) asked C-90 to create a visual identity to increase their visibility and public awareness, the design firm said it presented a fascinating design problem.
Chris Ritter, Co-Founder/Creative Director at C-90, said: “Through our research and interviews with students and faculty, we found that some of the most unique things about the university – its remote setting, its harsh climate—were seen as barriers for prospective students. Our initial thoughts were to find ways to take these and make them positive differentiators for the university.” C-90’s task was to visualize the program as one that “nurtures the kind of humans the future needs” while maintaining the university’s natural environment and the distinctive spirit of Yoopers – the people of the Upper Peninsula.
The development of the visual identity began with inspiration from four pillars: hygge, sisu, the Ojibwe, and the Upper Peninsula environment. Hygge and sisu are Scandinavian cultural concepts related to living in harsh, cold climates. Hygge is typically characterized by a sense of warm coziness combined with feelings of wellness/self-improvement. Sisu is the Finnish concept of stoic determination in the face of adversity. The Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) are the largest group of Indigenous Peoples in the Upper Peninsula.
C-90’s solution was to create a flexible design system that included a new wordmark, graphics system, custom typography, a unique color palette, layout system, and a brand architecture for connecting NMUGS&R with the NMU master brand. Visual assets were developed to communicate each of the four design pillars and a graphics system inspired by the symmetrical forms of Ojibwe birchbark biting were developed to support the brand idea. Visual assets were developed to communicate each of the four design pillars and a graphics system inspired by the symmetrical forms of Ojibwe birchbark biting were developed to support the brand idea. Land acknowledgment was also added into the visual identity to pay respect to the Ojibwe and call out the university’s unique location.
Lisa Eckert, Dean of NMUGS&R stated, “As the College of Graduate Studies continues to refine our portfolio of graduate programs to focus on niche programs that align with the mission and values of NMU, we need to elevate our visibility on campus, in the region, and beyond. Not only did C-90 meet our challenge, but they helped articulate a vision for NMUGS&R, creating versatile and gorgeous visual assets for our new brand.
GDUSA: Can you describe the design process?
Chris Ritter: The design process took about 5 months total from kickoff to completion. At C-90, we always begin with strategy. We interviewed stakeholders, current students, faculty, and read online reviews. We did our own cultural research to understand the full landscape in which students are choosing a graduate program. We conducted categorical research to see what the competitive landscape looks like, but it was mostly uninspiring. Once we determined our positioning, we began production of a robust design concept that could be used across all types of media. Our excitement and confidence in the design resulted in the presentation of this one concept. In the end, we delivered a flexible design system that not only gives NMUGS&R a unique aesthetic, but it works seamlessly alongside the NMU master brand.
Theo Erasmus: One of the key parts of the strategy was realizing how integral the land, and its history — both spiritual and physical, was to the project. It gave us a great starting point, which we integrated into all our thinking. We explored the Anishinaabe’s (the traditional stewards) culture and their relationship to the land — and how they expressed this. It was a rich and meaningful way to expand our thinking. This also led us to define the connection to the magnificent natural surroundings and the way the weather shaped the experience.”
We were inspired by the openness of the client, and their expansive vision for a different kind of future. They were true collaborators in this endeavor and that made all the difference. We were aligned all the way through, which allowed us to free our thinking.
GDUSA: How did your research and interviews play a role in the final result?
Chris Ritter: We interviewed stakeholders within the graduate program, current students, and faculty via video calls, and read online reviews. The interviews and reviews alike were instrumental in our understanding of the university and of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For a project of this magnitude, we would typically travel to the location in order to experience the university first-hand, but in this case, it just wasn’t possible.
We had the privilege of interviewing Amber Morseau, NMU’s Director of Native American Studies. We felt inspired by the Indigenous people of the region and stayed committed to representing their culture in the most respectful manner possible. The Ojibwe have an amazingly rich history in the Upper Peninsula, but this was a new subject matter for our design team. Amber helped our team throughout the process by giving insightful feedback and direction.
GDUSA: Land acknowledgment was added to the visual identity. Can you elaborate?
Chris Ritter: NMU has a strong tie to its geographical location and the region’s Indigenous People. We felt it appropriate to call out the university’s location within the branding, but it was also important to pay homage to the original inhabitants of the land. ᑭᒋ ᓇᒣᐱᓂᓰᐱᓐᒃ (Gichi-namebini Ziibing) in Ojibwe translates to “Suckerfish River,” which is the traditional name for the land Marquette was built upon. Throughout Marquette, you can find many examples of bilingual signage set in English and Anishinaabemowin symbolics.
GDUSA: What do the chosen color scheme and symbols mean?
Chris Ritter: The chosen color scheme is designed to modernize and complement the university’s traditional green and gold palette. It’s only used to promote graduate studies, so it gives distinction within the university’s brand architecture. The symbols are a series of abstract graphics inspired by four different ideas: hygge, sisu, the Ojibwe, and the Upper Peninsula’s natural setting. Hygge and sisu are Scandinavian cultural concepts related to living in harsh, cold climates. Hygge is typically characterized by a sense of warm coziness combined with feelings of wellness and self-improvement. Sisu is the Finnish concept of stoic determination in the face of adversity. The Ojibwe (also known as Chippewa) are the largest group of Indigenous Peoples in the Upper Peninsula.