Image Makeover: New Portrait for the 21st Century

September 2, 2012
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In creating a new visual identity for the university, George Washington’s portrait needed a face lift. Digitally, it was difficult to reproduce. When enlarged, it became pixilated. On mobile platforms, it was distorted. And, when used as a component of GW’s logo, Washington’s eyes were averted away—instead of toward—the university’s word mark.

The challenge was to create a new digital image of the famous visage, one that reflected the university’s history but with a nod to modernity and the forward-thinking nature of an institution of higher learning. A competition was launched and the design by alumnus John McGlasson, BA ’00, MFA ’03, got the winning nod. 

McGlasson’s computer-generated portrait shows a confident, strong-jawed Washington. It was created from the most historically accurate likeness of the nation’s first president, which is a statue based on a cast of his face. A replica of that statue is in University Yard. The original was sculpted by French artist Jean-Antoine Houdon, who completed it in 1788, one year before Washington was elected president.

“Houdon was commissioned by George Washington to make the bust. It was one of only two that Washington posed for in person,” said McGlasson, who studied visual communication at GW.  “The photo I worked from had strong shadows that I liked. And his chin was up and confident.”

McGlasson’s image replaces the university’s signature portrait of George Washington from an 1850 painting by Charles Willson Peale. The new image is now a key graphic element of GW’s rebranded visual identity, which was unveiled in August. It will be used in brochures, ads, apparel, university websites, and other design systems.

“The format is done all digitally,” said McGlasson about the modern portrait he created. “And it’s done using lines and shapes, rather than pixels, so it reproduces better and does not become distorted when resizing.”

Did McGlasson’s job and years spent on campus as a student give him extra insight when working on the design?

“Well,” he said with a laugh, “I have spent a lot of time looking at George Washington.”