All the Small Things

In his novel, David Copperfield, English writer Charles Dickens wrote, “my meaning simply is, that whatever I have tried to do in life, I have tried with all my heart to do well; that whatever I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely; that in great aims and in small, I have always been thoroughly in earnest.” When it comes to the Dartmouth administration, however, it is clear that excellence – or even competence – is not a priority.

This past week, the College unveiled its new branding trademarks – or, in their words, a “new visual identity” – consisting of a new logo and font for the school, replacing the shield and serif “Dartmouth” wordmark. The College’s official web page for the change is full of the usual, meaningless buzzwords. See its introductory paragraph:

“The forward-looking system, designed for a digital age, embraces Dartmouth’s singular identity and rich legacy. The system is made up of design elements for print and digital communications, and includes colors and designs to be used across campus. The graphic design elements are largely inspired by Dartmouth’s profound sense of place.”

Besides the fact that half of the paragraph has no meaning whatsoever, the message it does convey is dubious at best. This theme is consistent throughout all of the College’s available materials regarding the new branding marks, particularly in the section on the “brand mark” – the insignia. While first describing how the “Dartmouth insignias have a history as rich and intricate as the College itself” – a claim with which this author would agree with – the new brand mark (I find the word “insignia” much too prestigious a word to describe the mark – “logo” would be more appropriate) is simple and minimalistic. A ‘D’ printed in an undistinguished font with the image of the Lone Pine superimposed on it cannot reasonably be described as rich and intricate. On the contrary, it is cheap and inadequate. Also worth mentioning is the logo’s extreme similarity to that of Stanford University, which has used its tree-on-letter logo for years. The results clearly seem to be lacking in originality, despite the efforts of outsourced professionals working to overhaul the visual identity system.

President Phil Hanlon’s rhetoric surrounding the new logo is equally empty and inconsistent. Dartmouth News quoted him as saying that “Dartmouth is recognized around the world as one of the great institutions of higher education, and we must have a clear, consistent brand identity… It is essential that we speak with one bold voice.” As if Dartmouth did not already have a consistent brand identity prior to the overhaul, his words serve only to continue touting the failing narrative that the new branding system is successful. Not only does an updated logo have nothing to do with speaking with a bold voice, but the bold voices surrounding the issue are not even favorable ones. Student reception to the logo has been overwhelmingly negative. At the end of the day, it simply looks worse – cheaper and less prestigious (although prestige seems to be an enemy of the Hanlon administration) – than our previous shield insignia and wordmark.

This contradiction is further evidenced by the ongoing controversy regarding the destruction of College Park to make way for new dormitories, coupled with the vast expansion of Dartmouth’s student body. The new communications booklet offered concurrently with the new branding program – entitled “Telling our Story” – includes a section about the College’s “Profound Sense of Place,” which dares to invoke the BEMA as an important natural setting at the College. College Park as a whole, however, is neglected; as the most accessible and immersive natural setting on campus. Perhaps more telling, however, is that the small, tight-knit nature of the College’s community is entirely ignored. It is mentioned once briefly, but in the section entitled “Base Camp to the World,” and used in the context of the College’s global programs. The fact is now all but confirmed: the Hanlon administration no longer values the small, intimate nature of its undergraduate college.

The words of Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park here ring true: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” The true method to the Hanlon madness is appearing to effect substantial, positive change, but in fact, what little change has occurred is quite clearly leading to the destruction of Dartmouth. It is indeed the small things that matter – things like a cheap new logo or a change in marketing strategy – are often telling of larger, more dangerous shifts. And alas, the night will go on; we can only hope for the rise of a sun.