Branding Controversies and Changes at Northern

NMU’s recent efforts to rebrand the University have sparked heated discussion all over campus. We would like to contribute to this discussion by presenting a new side of the story: historic logos and branding efforts at Northern.

The “Fearless Minds” campaign is not the first branding discussion on campus to stir heated discussion. In 1985, controversy surrounded a logo, featuring several students of difference ethnicities, made to promote racial unity among the student population which was to be published on the cover of a pamphlet. The well intentioned idea sparked significant backlash when students protested the appearance of the Native American on the logo as stereotypical and offensive. Eventually, the logo was slightly changed but still used, leaving people on each side of the debate unsatisfied. The feud produced by the logo attracted so much attention that it was written about in the Detroit Free Press.

The seal of the university has had many incarnations. Between 1899 and 1963, the University changed its name four times, prompting a new seal to be created. The first four seals featured the crest of the State of Michigan in the center and the name of the school around it. In 1963, the current seal was created with a picture of the Upper Peninsula in the center behind a torch with an ‘N’, four stars, and the words ‘Northern Michigan University’ around the edge. The seal was designed by Clair Hekhuis and made by Gene Sinervo. Each element of the seal was intended to represent something about the university: the torch represents learning, the outline of the Upper Peninsula represents the location of the school, the four stars represent undergraduate studies, graduate studies, public service, and research, and the two circles surrounding the seal represent continuity from the old Northern. The large N in the center was almost rejected due to concerns that such lettering is never part of seals. The University kept the ‘N’, deciding that it made the seal more recognizable and attracted more people.

The logo of the university has also changed over the years. The current green and yellow background with wavy lines meant to represent both a tree and the waves of Lake Superior was instituted in the early 1990s. It replaced a logo used in the 1980s of a box with a slightly leaning tree inside of it and “NMU” written underneath it. Before the early 1980s, it seems that the seal of the school was the only logo used in advertisements about it.

Northern has often advertised with the natural beauty of its surroundings. In its early years, Northern often sought to attract students for the summer. Many were already teachers who would take classes in the summertime to satisfy continuing education requirements. In a bulletin from 1900, Northern advertised as its primary advantage that “the climate is wonderfully bracing and exhilarating, and permits thorough work without the resultant exhaustion that attends summer study in warm inland towns”. It emphasizes the “great natural beauty” of Northern which allows for field work in many of the sciences, and discusses the proximity of Lake Superior and Presque Isle.

NMU seals

Prepared by Jaime Ganzel and Annika Peterson


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