New Identity for SD Mines: A History Lesson
When you think of top-tier engineering schools, South Dakota Mines probably isn’t the first… or second… or tenth name that pops into your head. It probably should be, but when the university chooses a new brand that maintains familiar vernacular and puts its history of mining at the forefront of its name, building a strong STEM brand recognition is a steep hill to climb.
Founded in 1885 to provide instruction in the region’s primary industry, mining, today the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology has evolved into one of the leading science and engineering universities in the region. On the SDSMT website, it states that “STEM is Our Specialty”. It stakes claim to several nationally ranked engineering programs and is consistently in the upper tier in terms of ROI. While the majority of its student body comes from the upper plains and mountain states, it has professional relationships throughout the US..
The primary goal of the rebranding was one of increased brand awareness. With the opportunity to evaluate both the university nickname and their visual identity, the hope was to be able to better convey the school’s value to prospective students. The official objective was stated as:
“South Dakota School of Mines & Technology wants to increase its brand awareness by refreshing its current brand messaging and visual assets to accurately represent the university and its strategic goals. The purpose is to portray a clear picture of who we are and how we represent our university…This project will include identifying key differentiators and values that make us unique from our top competitors and other engineering and science universities across the country and creating a shortened university name that resonates with our identity”
I came across this rebranding, and it piqued my interest because I remember seeing the initial RFP. I actually began working on a response before determining we weren’t right for the project. SDM&T ultimately chose a higher-ed marketing agency to do the work – a wise choice considering all of the variables. However, I can’t help but feel the (not so) new nickname and the new visual identity have done very little to accomplish their stated goal (and I assume their biggest challenge) of increasing brand recognition.
SD Mines identity before and after
The nickname is one that has been used as a truncated name for decades. Its popularity varies from administration to administration, but it is familiar vernacular… to existing students and alumni. It feels like a name that intentionally honors (ahem, clings to) the history of a 19th century mining school. Not an ideal means to create greater understanding among prospective students who are seeking a top-notch engineering, science, or math program, and one that seems misaligned with the strategic vision of "developing world-class leaders in science and engineering to benefit society."
Furthermore, according to the press release, the reason for a name change was because “The full university name, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, is a mouthful”. But the new nickname eliminates two crucial descriptors; school and technology. By seeing only the nickname, do viewers understand that it is a university? Do viewers understand that the focus is engineering and science?Presenting a new logo that eliminates any reference to being an educational institution likely creates greater confusion. Yes, there is a descriptor line, “An engineering, science, and technology university”, but if you need to add that line for understanding, you’ll need a bigger mouth.
Logo w/o tagline
The mark itself is distinctive, yet simple – allowing easy application in just about any media. It is a great improvement on the previous varsity M logo, reminiscent of the University of Michigan. And while the mark is more unique and distinctive to South Dakota Mines, it doesn’t do much to facilitate the objectives of the strategic plan. Again, the creative rationale was in deference to historical elements. From the press release:
“Borrowing the historic, yet timeless, black lettering of the university’s official seal, the new mark conveys a sense of calculated movement with lines that transition from thick to thin and precise notched corners that evoke a sense of progressive curiosity.”
Ah, designer-speak. It’s difficult to extol the mundane, but this phrasing is very nice! But no, the “m” does not evoke a sense of progressive curiosity. And nobody will make a connection to the lettering on the seal because, first, that lettering is still quite different from the style of the primary mark, and second, the average person doesn't compare stuff like that. It’s a great explanation as to why it was done, but the connection is only made in the mind of the designer.
Actually, at first glance, I assumed the m-logo had a connection to campus - perhaps a stylized rendition of the Memorial Arch. The baseline of the letterform appears to use perspective as though the negative spaces are archways. That seems like a nod to SDSMT history and its present, but also a metaphor of leading to the future. Then I realized there are only 2 arches in the letter “m” as opposed to 3 in the campus arch. Foiled!
So, I am left searching for meaning in the new logo. If the only visual cues are from the past, and the nickname relies heavily on history, how does the "new" nickname and identity “push frontiers” and facilitate reaching a broader audience? How does it show innovation? How does it appeal to those other than alumni?
I Even with all of its shortcomings, I'm still torn. The new mark is a big step forward to reduce brand confusion. The "m" logo is distinctive. The entire mark is clean and simple, allowing a versatile identity that can easily grow. The challenge lies in being able to connect "Mines" with "Science & Engineering" in the minds of prospective students - especially those outside of traditional mining areas like Iowa and Minnesota. While the new logo is a definite upgrade, I'm far less convinced that the "new" name helps with the goal of brand recognition. Hopefully that renewed brand messaging can overcome that steep hill.
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