What Next, North Dakota?

sioux images

by James I. Bowie

American colleges and universities have now largely abandoned Native American nicknames and logos that many find offensive.  In 2012, following a battle that had lasted years, the University of North Dakota was forced to drop its “Fighting Sioux” nickname, which had been used by its athletic teams since 1930.  Since then, the North Dakota teams have played without a nickname, something virtually unheard of in American sports.  This year, having completed a two-year “cooling-off period,” the university will begin the process of selecting a new nickname.  The old name, however, does not look like it will be forgotten quickly.

On a frigid Friday night in Grand Forks, North Dakota last November, I joined the throngs of UND hockey fans as they filed into the palatial Ralph Engelstad Arena to watch their team, a perennial college hockey powerhouse ranked number two in the nation, take on the seventh-ranked Miami University RedHawks from Oxford, Ohio, where I grew up.

“Let’s go, Sioux!” shouted one fan disembarking from a shuttle bus.  “Who said that?” asked another, in mock indignation over the utterance of the banned name.  “Everyone,” deadpanned a third.

And indeed, minutes later, when the public address announcer marked the arrival of the home team to the ice with, “Here comes the University of North Dakota…,” seemingly all 11,537 in attendance filled in the blank by bellowing “SIOUX!”

“The Ralph,” as the arena is known, is itself a monument to the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo.  Engelstad, a former UND hockey player who made a fortune in the Las Vegas casino business, poured over $100 million into building the arena.  During its construction in the late 1990’s, the controversy over the nickname flared up, and Engelstad threatened to withdraw his financial support if the nickname was changed.

As a safeguard against that possibility, Engelstad, before his death in 2002, had the Sioux logo emblazoned everywhere he could in the arena, making its removal cost-prohibitive.  The “Quick Facts” section of the arena’s website goes so far as to point out that The Ralph contains “2,200 logos.”  (My father, who taught Russian at Miami, told me that this reminded him of the story of Russia’s “Mad Czar,” Paul I, son of Catherine the Great, who, in a fit of insecurity, plastered his monogram all over his new castle, only to be assassinated forty days after he moved in.)

2 - sioux logosThe logo, a depiction of a stoic Native American in profile, had itself been commissioned by Engelstad in 1999 to replace previous marks that UND had used, including a 1960’s Indian caricature, a 1976 abstract chief logo, and a version of the Chicago Blackhawks’ gently smiling Indian with multicolored feathers, borrowed with the permission of the National Hockey League team.

3 - engelstad sioux logos

Before the game, I strolled around the arena.  Sioux logos were, indeed, everywhere, from the granite floor to statues, from room number signs to the “center ice” of a bubble hockey game.  Engelstad’s plan had worked; there were just too many logos to get rid of them all, and a 2012 agreement between the National Collegiate Athletics Association, which had forced the nickname ban, and the North Dakota Attorney General reversed a previous edict and allowed the logos to stay.

The nickname, too, was readily found in the arena, even though it could not officially pass anyone’s lips.  Christmas shoppers crowded the “Sioux Shop,” a name that I suppose was an improvement over the “Sioux-venirs” moniker that the university had used in the past.  Their purchases were in evidence around the arena, as the great majority of fans were decked out in team merchandise, much of it of the “Fighting Sioux” variety.

The atmosphere in the packed arena was electric, and the game was exciting, with the visitors pulling out a 3-2 victory.  Miami, too, had been through a nickname change, as in 1997 the teams that I grew up rooting for as the Redskins became the RedHawks, complete with the characteristic nineties mid-word capitalization.  That change had met far less resistance than what was being expressed at UND.

The Sioux nickname appeared to be heavily ingrained in the local culture, and it seemed that the outside pressure that had led to its removal only made UND fans more eager to hold onto it.  In my hotel room that night, I noticed that the walls were not adorned with the generic artwork typical of such accommodations, but with historical photographs of UND hockey fans in Fighting Sioux gear.

The next day, I avoided the Grand Forks cold, walking from my hotel down a hallway to the adjacent Alerus Center, a convention facility that also serves as home to the UND football team.  There I watched the Lumberjacks of Northern Arizona University, where I teach, face North Dakota on the gridiron.  While the hockey game had matched two national powers, the football game was a meeting of teams from the relative small-time of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, and there was far less excitement in the air.

The Alerus Center, while pleasant enough, had a sterile, sparse feel.  It was a city-owned facility off the UND campus, and there were certainly no Sioux logos to be seen; only an interlocking “ND” monogram served to represent the team.  The UND supporters, as they had been at the hockey game, were eager to extend pleasantries to me as a fan of the visiting team, taking “Minnesota Nice” to the next level.  The announced crowd of 5,916, which felt and sounded smaller than that, was treated to a hard-fought contest which the North Dakotans won with a last-second field goal, dashing NAU’s hopes for a Big Sky Conference championship.

Ironically, NAU football coach Jerome Souers, the only Native American head coach in Division I college football, is of Sioux descent, although he rejects the name as a French label imposed on his people and prefers to identify himself as Lakota.  At an NAU forum about the Native American nickname controversy the week after the North Dakota game, he spoke eloquently about his opposition to the use of Native Americans as mascots.  Hearing him served as confirmation to me that the UND name change was necessary, and that holdouts such as the Florida State University Seminoles, Washington Redskins, and Cleveland Indians would need to change as well.

This conclusion seems in line with my analysis of data from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which shows that the use of depictions of Native Americans in U.S. logos in general has been declining for decades.

4 - native american logos graph

What, then, will be next for North Dakota?  The university has established a “Nickname and Logo Process Recommendation Task Force” which may in turn appoint yet another committee to help select a new name this year.

In my opinion, universities have not often done a good job of replacing Native American nicknames and logos.  Fearful of controversy and hamstrung by committee decision-making processes, they have often selected names and marks that are bland, generic, uninspiring, and lacking in distinctiveness.

Birds are a typical choice.  Of Division I schools that dropped Native American nicknames, 39 percent subsequently adopted a bird mascot.  By comparison, among other Division I schools, only 15 percent have bird mascots.

Colors are also popular in post-Native American nicknames.  Fully half feature some reference to color, compared with just seven percent of other schools’ nicknames.

Sometimes, birds and colors are combined, as in the case of the Miami RedHawks, Seattle Redhawks, Southeast Missouri State Redhawks, and Marquette Golden Eagles.  UND would do well to avoid these clichés by selecting a name that is distinctive and memorable.

Logos can be very important to universities, and not just for their symbolic value; just ask the University of Texas, which makes over $10 million a year by licensing its Longhorn mark.  In designing a new logo, North Dakota would be wise to avoid a visual trend that has been plaguing college sports in recent years: the “mean mascot” logo.  While mascots have long been depicted in aggressive postures that imply competitiveness, college mascot logos of late have adopted a succession of dour grimaces and pained expressions that seem to suggest that athletic competition could never involve an ounce of fun.

5 - mean mascot logos

And this parade of gruff forest creatures, pissed-off men in hats, and angry birds doesn’t just connote joylessness, but may also signify insignificance: while 54 percent of schools in the NCAA’s “Power 5” Conferences, the true “big-time” of college sports, have “mean mascot” logos, fully 73 percent of the other Division I universities, the more “small-time” schools, do.  And 19 percent of the Power 5 have smiling “happy mascot” logos, compared to just 5 percent of the smaller schools.  In some sense, a mean mascot may be a sign of being small-time; the more prominent college athletic programs are more likely to have the confidence to go with a less “intimidating,” more relatable, happy mascot.

smiling mascot logos

I submit that if UND wishes to be perceived as a powerful sports program, it should avoid a logo with a cranky mascot and instead opt for one that suggests confidence, positivity, and fun.

The most fertile ground for creative, fun sports nicknames and logos currently exists around minor league baseball teams.  These organizations, compared to universities, are relatively unencumbered by tradition and the need for solemnity.  They seem to pick names and logos that will draw fans and sell t-shirts through attractive design and good humor.

7 - minor league logos

The University of North Dakota faces a tough challenge in that so many of its fans seem unwilling to let go of the “Fighting Sioux” name.  In addition, picking an official nickname by means of a committee presents issues of its own, as creative endeavors are not easily accomplished through bureaucratic processes.  Even the term “official nickname” is an oxymoron; nicknames are inherently informal, and arose in the past in more organic ways.

I don’t think that there is an easy solution to UND’s quandary, but I would like to suggest one possibility: returning to the nickname that was replaced by “Fighting Sioux” in 1930, the Flickertails.  A flickertail is a squirrel native to North Dakota and was seen by many at the university at the time as not tough enough to serve as a mascot.  The same criticisms would probably be leveled today, but I would argue that insistence on a hyper-aggressive mascot is indicative of insecurity about being “small-time.”  It’s worth considering that the college football national championship was just contested by the “Ducks” and the “Buckeyes.”

Flickertails would not only be a unique, memorable nickname, and would lend itself to a creative and fun logo treatment featuring a happy mascot, but it also has a basis in university history and tradition that would grant it a certain legitimacy.  So, what do you say, North Dakota?

The Growth of the Mustachioed Logo

Mustache logos

As November dawns, the world’s attention turns to mustaches. In recent years, movements such as Movember and No-Shave November have turned this month into an opportunity for men to raise money for charities concerned with men’s health issues by growing facial hair. The popularity of these events can certainly be tied to the larger trend of men increasingly sporting beards and mustaches (or, to use the hipper British spelling, moustaches).

1976 study in the American Journal of Sociology found that, although both beards and mustaches had enjoyed periods of high levels of popularity among Englishmen over the previous century and a half, both had fallen out of fashion by the 1970’s, as illustrated in the graph below.

facial hair graph

By the late twentieth century, facial hair had taken on negative connotations, becoming associated with villainy, stodginess, and deviance. An early-seventies researcher for CBS Television went so far as to say that “there were four leprous castes that viewers would never accept as lead characters: divorced people, Jews, New Yorkers, and men with mustaches.” That line of thinking was soon to be obliterated by shows such as Magnum, P.I. Contemporary observation, as well as recent market research, shows that facial hair, whether worn earnestly or ironically, is making a comeback, particularly among younger men.

Culturally, facial hair, and the mustache in particular, has taken on a new symbolic presence, one that is reflected in the logos of United States businesses and products. Analysis of data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows that the percentage of new American logos featuring facial hair of some sort as a design element has shot up over the past decade.

facial hair logo graph

Looking back through older U.S. trademarks, it becomes apparent that the way facial hair is used in logos has changed as well. A famous early mark that incorporated facial hair was that of Smith Brothers Cough Drops, featuring portraits of the bearded “Trade” and “Mark” Smith, which was first used in the 1870’s. A 1931 article in the trade publication Printer’s Ink called it “one of the most utterly distinctive trade-marks in existence…This is partly due, no doubt, to the almost diabolical skill of the artist who made the original drawing of the bewhiskered visages of Trade and Mark Smith.”

While not very impressive by modern standards, the Smith Brothers mark’s appeal is probably similar to that of Duck Dynasty today: many people seem enamored by families with abundant beards.

The used of bearded and mustachioed trade characters in logos continues to this day. Because facial hair is an particularly distinctive personal characteristic, especially during times when relatively few men have it, it makes for an effective design element.

mustache charachters

As logos in general began to become less realistic and more abstract, the mustache took on the role as stand-in for a man’s face. When used in conjunction with a hat, a mustache could often represent a man in an abstract way that was consistent with contemporary trends.

mustache face logos

A related use for mustaches in American logos has been as a somewhat unfortunate and lazy way to communicate Italian or Mexican identity, particularly among marks for restaurants. In these more culturally sensitive times, this trope would seem to be on its way out.

Mexican Italian mustache logos

In recent years, the mustache has escaped the confines of the male face to emerge as a stand-alone design element in logos. The “olde-timey” stylized mustache shape, as exemplified by the pink, furry mustaches on the front of Lyft cars, the hipster finger mustache tattoo, and the Lexington Legends minor-league ballcap, has become almost ubiquitous, and, dare I say, iconic.

Iconic Mustaches

The beard, on the other hand, while becoming much more prevalent on male faces and in popular culture, has not yet had a big impact in the world of logo design. As a design element, the beard cannot match the mustache’s ability to stand on its own.

Beard logos

Without connection to a face, the beard seems adrift in space, floating disembodiedly. Perhaps some intrepid designer may be able to solve this problem; the next fortune to be made in graphic design might lie in the harnessing of the symbolic potential of the beard.


The SEC Succeeds with an Antimodern Logo


The Southeastern Conference, or SEC, has dominated America’s most popular college sport, football, in recent years, winning seven of the last eight national championships. It features fourteen members from across the football-mad South, including such traditional college football powerhouses as the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs. On Thursday of this week, the SEC will parlay its on-field success into a lucrative television venture as the SEC Network, a cable channel operated under the aegis of ESPN, debuts.

While the popularity of the SEC may be attributed primarily to its victories on the gridiron, the conference has also benefited from branding efforts that have resulted in a strong visual identity. Specifically, in 2007 the SEC began using, as part of a celebration of its 75th anniversary, a new logo featuring the conference initials confined within a circle. But in fact the logo was not exactly new; it was a variation of a mark used by the conference for years, a “pinwheel” with banners for each of the conference members emanating from the central circular monogram.

Old SEC pinwheel logo

The old SEC “pinwheel” logo

This pinwheel logo dated to a time when branding efforts by college athletic conferences were not afforded much concern. Indeed, the SEC circle mark was generic, derived from a common monogramming technique that produced many company logos (see above), and is still in use today for monogrammed personal items.

In 1988, the SEC attempted to adopt a contemporary image, implementing a new logo with its initials in a somewhat futuristic typeface over a diamond-shaped background of stripes.

Old SEC logo

The SEC’s “Diamond” logo, in use 1988-2007

This “diamond” logo was used until 2007. Its replacement represented a realization by the SEC that its image and appeal were based not in the present, but in the past. Although college sports, and football in particular, have become multimillion dollar businesses, what differentiates them from professional sports is a stronger sense of passion and loyalty among their fans, and a great concern with the long-held traditions surrounding the teams and the universities they represent.

Analysis of logo design data from the United States Patent and Trademark Office clearly shows that the SEC logo is most closely associated with the period before 1960. US logos featuring a circle containing letters have fallen out of fashion since that time; in the most recent decade, they made up less than .01 percent of new marks.

SEC graph

The genius of SEC branding is that it wholeheartedly embraces a logo with such an antiquated style. Doing so allows the conference to project an image steeped in tradition, heritage, and authenticity, one that resonates with its fans, particularly in the South, where nostalgia for an idealized past remains strong. As the song says, “old times there are not forgotten.”

The logo might best be characterized as “antimodern,” rejecting as it does contemporary design trends in favor of datedness. The SEC is not the first organization to adopt such an antimodern logo: the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s Wimbledon Championships and NASA both abandoned modern-looking logos in favor of more dated-looking marks after concluding (rather bizarrely, in NASA’s case) that their images were better linked to the past than to the modern day.

wimbledon old logo

Modern Wimbledon and NASA logos and their antimodern replacements.

The SEC logo has achieved distinctiveness in a roundabout fashion. At the time of its first use, the SEC pinwheel monogram would have appeared quite mundane, bearing a strong similarity to many other marks of its day. Today, however, the great majority of those similar monogram logos have died off, as shown in the graph below.

SEC graph 2

As a result, the resurrected SEC monogram is left with a quite distinct appearance, particularly in relation to its fellow collegiate athletic conferences, many of whose logos have in recent years taken on a similar hyper-italicized, pointy-serifed, futuristic look.

spiky conference logos

Contemporary college athletic conference logos

In fact, today the SEC logo bears less resemblance to the symbols of fellow American college sports conferences and more to the crests of many Brazilian soccer teams. These clubs likely adopted their emblems when the circular monogram style was in vogue and retained them ever since, avoiding the need for the type of antimodern about-face done by the SEC.

Brazilian Soccer Crests

Brazilian soccer team crests


Interested in reading more about college sports logos? Here is a history of the Texas Longhorn logo from Emblemetric’s James I. Bowie:

Longhorn Logo Turns 50


Trademarks’ Coming-Out Party

trademarks usa

Fifty years ago, on April 22, 1964, Trademarks/USA, the first national retrospective logo design exhibit, opened at the National Design Center in Chicago’s just-completed Marina City towers. The exhibition, hosted by the Society of Typographic Arts, featured 193 American trademarks from the period 1945-1963, chosen from over 1,600 entries by a seven-member jury that included Lester Beall and Egbert Jacobson. The fourteen marks shown above were chosen for particular distinction by the jury.

This event was perhaps the high point of a period in which logos were receiving unprecedented attention from both the business world and the public at large. “Today’s corporate logo or trademark is almost as important as the balance sheet,” gushed the Chicago Tribune in its coverage of the exhibition. That logos would be exhibited in the manner of fine art would have seemed ludicrous only a few years before, yet in the Mad Men mid-sixties, as the field of corporate identity emerged and the importance of a company’s image to its marketing became heightened, logos had acquired a hip, modernist cachet.

This was reflected in the marks selected for Trademarks/USA, as 69 percent of them were from 1960 or later. (Almost as interesting as the logos chosen for the exhibition are the familiar ones not picked, including Paul Rand’s ABC and UPS marks, Lippincott and Margulies’ Steelmark and Chrysler Pentastar, the Coca-Cola script, Raymond Loewy’s Nabisco triangle, and the venerable General Electric logo.)


Exhibition chairman Larry Klein characterized the logos on display as “simpler, blacker, more geometric and formal and sometimes more even in color and weight of line…marks–both good and bad–are growing very much stronger and bolder.” These trends are obvious in a casual perusal of the exhibition catalog, published in 1968.


In tallying up selected design characteristics of these 193 marks and comparing them to all US logos filed for registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office since 2000, further trends become apparent.


The Trademarks/USA logos were, in comparison to today’s logos, more abstract, far less representational, and much less likely to contain human design elements or those related to nature. Geometric shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles were in abundance, and unaccompanied symbols were the norm, as logotypes, either with symbols or alone, were much less common than they are today.

Spirals were a particularly trendy element among the exhibition’s logos, perhaps inspired by Paul Rand’s 1948 Helbros Watch mark. And while representational marks were rare, fully 12 percent of them featured birds, compared to less than five percent of modern representational logos. Perhaps the most striking trend among the Trademarks/USA selections was the tendency to portray, often through clever design, an initial letter or letters; nearly half (45.6%) featured such a graphic element.

One such logo was the Books Unlimited mark (below), which seemingly used a side view of three books to form the BU initials. Yet, like the old joke about no one noticing the modern abstract painting hanging upside-down in the gallery, this logo appears to have been inverted in the Trademarks/USA catalog.


This blunder might be seen as prescient, as, in the years following Trademarks/USA, the shine came off the clean, abstract, modernist logo to some extent. Critics of this style of logo became louder over the remainder of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s as the overuse of simple, stark, geometric forms in logo design led to a glut of indistinct, meaningless, and look-alike marks. Still, the Trademarks/USA exhibition was a clear sign of the growing importance of logos and graphic design in American business and culture.

Wally Olins Remembered


“Banal and trite” logos, from The Corporate Personality, p. 188

Corporate identity legend Wally Olins died Monday at 83 after a brief illness. Here at Emblemetric, we remember fondly his 1978 book The Corporate Personality, in which he unleashed a scathing criticism of the clichéd logo design trends of the day:

Why are graphic designers still busily scribbling away at stylised flasks symbolising the powerful modern chemical company busying itself with Man’s Future but human enough to remember its Humble Origins? Why are they still producing stylised sheaves of some unspecified grain for food companies, indicating that the organisation has an involvement of however remote a kind with agriculture and Dear Old Dame Nature Herself by whose Bounty we all live? Above all, why are they still churning out these symbols consisting of initial letters tormented into a bizarre shape and ending with an arrow, preferably pointing upwards and slightly to the right, indicative of Progress, Dynamism and a controlled but powerful thrust towards what is clearly a Better and Brighter Future?

Why is it that the design idea that ultimately emerges is so often banal and trite? Is this naïve rubbish the best that we can do?

— Wally Olins, The Corporate Personality: An Inquiry Into the Nature of Corporate Identity, page 188

In honor of Mr Olins, let’s take a look at how those logo design trends have shown up in US logo design over the years, by analyzing logo design data from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.


When Olins launched his broadside in 1978, the laboratory flask logo design trend was already on its way out, and such flasks are rarely seen in logos today. Arrows formed with letters were similarly on the decline in 1978, although they saw a resurgence in the last decade. Sheaves of grain were seemingly never as common as Olins seemed to think, and are also on the rise among today’s logos. Hopefully, they are being used in a way that is neither banal nor trite.

Older posts «