A considered rebranding for the oldest law school in the country

Heraldry is one of the earliest forms of branding. Before logos were the common visual shorthand for corporations, a coat of arms used symbols to represent a powerful family or organization.

A logo is quick reminder of everything (positive and negative) that we know and feel about that brand—and that perception can shift dramatically over time.

In 2016, Harvard Law School’s shield was retired from use following the discovery that the design was derived from the family crest of Isaac Royall Jr., an early donor whose wealth had been acquired through the labor of enslaved people.

In 2020, a working group was formed to create a new symbol that would accurately represent the school’s values and tremendous history.

The challenge was to design a shield that could represent the perspectives of a large and diverse community as it looks toward the future—without erasing its past.

Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, the chair of the working HLS Shield Working Group, was interviewed about the approach to reimagining the shield:

“It was quickly clear that the best possible way to proceed was to work with colleagues to get input from all parts of the HLS community — students, faculty, staff, and alumni. We also knew we needed to enlist some design expertise. There are people who do this kind of thing for a living — thinking about how to create the perfect symbol and envisioning every angle related to the symbol. We consulted with professionals who came and explained their philosophy and how they worked. In the end, we decided to go with PopKitchen and Studio Rainwater.”

We began the process by convening focus groups, both virtually and in-person to understand the school and its far-reaching community.

We also conducted research on heraldry and its use by educational institutions and studied the campus architecture for recognizable visual themes.

It was imperative that the final shield design feel grounded in the school’s identity and history if it were to be embraced by the broad community.

An additional challenge was that this new shield needed to look timeless enough to fit well within the university’s existing suite of graduate school shields.

After nearly two dozen discussions with students, faculty, staff, and alumni, there was no consensus on one single concept that should be depicted on the shield—and in fact the very notion that the school could be confined to just one idea is antithetical to its identity.

But through these conversations, we developed a set of themes that would drive the design directions and provide a through-line from the shield to the school’s mission and vision.

 

We illuminated six guiding themes that encapsulated the character of the school, which were later distilled into three when the final shield was unveiled.

Not Just One Thing

There is no single dominant way of thinking that is unique to Harvard Law School. Alumni, faculty, students, and staff may represent all sides of today’s most important issues. There is a certain tension between different, yet related ideas that is embraced at HLS—past and future, conflict and listening, freedom and restraint, etc. The environment supports engaging in challenging conversations that don’t have easy answers and asking questions is core to the Socratic method used in classrooms.

 

It’s Big

Harvard Law School is the biggest law school in the country. It’s been compared to a bustling city because of its huge footprint and how much is going on at any one time. While some stakeholders pointed out that this can be overwhelming, many students cited it as a reason they came to HLS. Within such a large community, they can find people with niche interests that match their own—it has everything.

The design should seem to expand beyond the borders of the shield to evoke a sense of largeness that cannot be contained. It should be composed of multiple elements and not just a single point of focus.

A Legacy of Excellence and Leadership

Harvard is one of the oldest law schools in the country and has taken a leadership role in legal education from the beginning. The case method developed by Harvard Dean, Christopher Columbus Langdell, in the late 1800s is the primary method for teaching law at almost all schools. HLS has also produced a significant number of leaders—in law, government, civil rights, and many other fields. Prominent alumni maintain strong relationships with the school and are a major draw for students, who themselves are being trained as the leaders of the future.

 

A Transformative Experience

Harvard Law School is demanding, and that is part of the appeal. Students draw strength and humility from working through the challenge—some likened the experience to having your entire way of thinking taken apart and put back together again. This idea of evolution and growth was expressed in many conversations—students may come to the school with certain world views or preconceptions and find themselves understanding things in very different, more nuanced ways, by the time they leave. Several students and faculty talked about being drawn to the law because they liked arguing, but then finding it more meaningful to listen and seek resolution.

Our sketches took inspiration from familiar elements of the architecture so the design would be grounded in the school’s history. Within this, we explored repeating patterns that expand and elements from nature to signify growth and transformation.

“There’s a variety of architecture [at HLS] that mirrors both the march of history as well as the variety of ideas and opportunities.”

 

— HLS STAFF MEMBER

The Power of Words and Law

A lawyer’s mediums are words and language—both written and spoken—as well as books and doctrine. With these tools, complex systems have been created that hold our society together. Some students expressed being drawn to the law to fully understand the world and the systems that govern it. Some also described their role as guides, helping others to navigate the complexity of the legal system. Law shapes the world, but it can change and evolve for greater collaboration and cooperation in our society.

 

The Foundational Nature of Law

Many of those we spoke to mentioned being attracted to how “foundational” or “elemental” the law is. They perceived the law to be part of the fabric of civilization, especially in a country like the United States which was conceived as a political body bound by laws. Law was also described as a source of immense power. This power could be abused, of course, or it could be deployed for the betterment of others.

The design should contain text — Lex et Iustitia is latin for Law and Justice — and the graphics within the shield should lead the viewer’s eye toward the words.

“An important theme is the aspiration of the law. That this is an unending process of pursing justice and the notion that the law itself is … imperfect and always in a process of evolution.”

— HLS FACULTY MEMBER

Following the development of the themes, we undertook a broad and rigorous exploration of design options. A team of designers from Studio Rainwater and PopKitchen sketched and refined ideas resulting in four options that were presented to the Working Group who then selected the final design.

Shield in color and grayscale

The final shield was unveiled thoughtfully, with consideration given to the inclusion of the community and its many stakeholders in the process.

 

In an email to the HLS community, John Manning, Dean of Harvard Law school, described the design:

“I believe that the simple, elegant, and beautiful design of this shield captures the complexity, the diversity, the limitlessness, the transformative power, the strength, and the energy that the HLS community, in Cambridge and throughout the world, sees in Harvard Law School. I am also moved by the idea that, by combining the words lex et iustitia, with our shared motto veritas, we make explicit that Harvard Law School stands for truth, law, and justice.”

Window decal
Stationery set
Pin and embossed stationery
PROJECT SCOPE

Brand Strategy, Community Engagement, Stakeholder Interviews, Brand Design

PROJECT FOCUS

Education, Social Justice