True Blue

The university's official color, how it was chosen, and why it never seems to look the same.

On Feburary 7, 2009, the Duke men's basketball team pulled off an astounding comeback against the University of Miami Hurricanes, rallying from sixteen points down in the second half. The Blue Devils went on to win by three in an overtime nail biter. 

Four days later, the game was still on the minds of many fans. They were on the Duke Basketball Report website offering their reflections and getting ready for that night's showdown with the Tar Heels. But one of the DBR's message boards was alive with debate over a topic that had nothing to do with the game—one that, over the years, has aroused curiosity and, at times, triggered heated debate among Duke students, alumni, visitors, and fans: What color, exactly, is Duke blue?

Blue noted: Snapshots from campus show cacophony of color.

An alumnus from the Class of '88 wondered: "Was the school's color always royal blue?" He recalled that the uniforms were darker in the past. "Was this a gradual shift? Was there a particular year when the color became lighter or was that a gradual migration?"

The daughter of two Duke alumni chimed in: "My mother attended Duke in the 60s. Everything she has is navy and white. Seems to me navy is the official Duke blue."

Name that hue: University apparel comes in subtle array.


"I graduated in '65," wrote another poster. "I just look at my letter sweater. royal blue, it ain't." Another named KBCrazie issued a call to action: "I feel that all this color diversity defeats the notion that there's a 'Duke Blue.' "

In fact, there is an official Duke blue: It is designated No. 287 in the Pantone Matching System (PMS), a set of standards for graphic designers and printers to ensure consistent color reproduction. Still, the confusion is understandable. Achieving that color (darker than royal, lighter than navy) depends on a variety of factors often difficult to control, including the vagaries of material (fabric, paper, plastic, LCD), cost, and manufacturer. University officials, from the athletics department to the president's office, go through a complicated and inherently imperfect process whenever they choose the color of a T-shirt, bumper sticker, mug, athletic uniform, campus sign, logo for the annual report, or one of the thousands of items sewn, printed, painted, and published every year.

Coaches work within the contractual agreements made with sponsoring apparel firms. Different fabrics require different dyes, and manufacturers try to keep their costs low by offering buyers only a set palette of color choices. Painters must pick and choose from a set of color-matching systems and adjust their work accordingly. Printers and graphic designers must make decisions about readability and the time it takes for a particular color to dry.

As a result, although the administration makes an effort to oversee the color that Duke uses to represent itself—by publishing style guides, for example, and helping departments negotiate with contractors to ensure they get the colors they want—realistically, officials cannot authorize every one of the thousands of choices made every day by merchants, graphic designers, webmasters, and facilities managers.

Tallman Trask III, the university's executive vice president, looks at the Duke memorabilia—plush toys, basketball jerseys, and plaques—lining the shelves and bookcases of his Allen Building office. He notes the range of different shades represented in an accepting manner. "I'm looking right there, and I see eight colors of Duke blue," he says.

"I like to remind people that we do have an official color," Trask says. "Duke blue is Duke blue. That's not a choice." But, he adds, "on a list of things you worry about, it's just not up there."

Pragmatic considerations are one factor. History is another. Over the decades, the shade of blue designated as Duke's has changed because of priorities, tastes, trends, and technology. Indeed, how the university arrived at the standard color, PMS 287, is a story rooted in Randolph County, circa 1888, with Trinity College and its new president, John Franklin Crowell, a young minister who was a Yale University graduate.

Trinity's board of trustees decided to hire the twenty-nine-year-old Crowell in 1887. Within a year, the new president had introduced the relatively young sport of football—Harvard and Yale universities had played the first intercollegiate game
in 1875—and was serving as the coach. In November 1888, Trinity took the field in Raleigh against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the first athletic contest between the two institutions.

The Carolina side wore light-blue uniforms for the first time in history, and Trinity players wore an approximation of Yale blue—a grayish dark blue—chosen by the student body to honor their coach and president. According to The Trinity Archive, a cheer arose among the Trinity faithful at the game's close (Trinity won, 16-0), in answer to the Carolina cheer, which "literally woke Raleigh up" in the morning before the game. Carolina fans chanted:

Rah! Rah! Rah!
For the white and blue!
Hoop la! Hoop la!

The Trinity fans, in a move that presaged the cheeky chants of Cameron, answered:

Rah! Rah! Rah!
For the deep dark blue!
Hoop la! Hoop la!
We beat [you].

In all likelihood, football, or at least the need for distinctiveness in competitions, prompted Trinity's decision to adopt a color of its own, according to William King '61, A.M. '63, Ph.D. '70, university archivist emeritus. "The Trinity people were always called 'The Methodists.'" They didn't like that designation, he says, and so "they were always looking for a way to distinguish themselves."

Blue noted: Snapshots from campus show cacophony of color.

"I think it would be logical that if any other school had a color they would want one, too."

At the turn of the century, as intercollegiate competition grew in scope and frequency, Duke adopted a mascot with blue in its name, and more fight songs were created, including the still-popular "Blue and White." The song's ascendancy prompted a letter questioning whether white was an official university color. Robert Lee Durham, Class of 1891, and a member of that first football team, wrote to The Alumni Register, precursor to Duke Magazine, saying he had "never heard of any other color being officially adopted to accompany the blue" that had been selected by the student body in 1888. It is not clear whether white has an official designation, but historically it has been the color most often used as an accent to Duke blue.

According to several World War II-era alumni, Duke blue likely became a lighter shade, close to royal, in the 1940s because of the university's fierce football rivalry with the U.S. Naval Academy at that time. Tim Pyatt '81, university archivist, says anyone who calls Duke blue "navy" still draws flak from this group.

In 1961, President J. Deryl Hart Hon. '64 appointed a committee to choose a doctoral robe for the university. Three years later, Hart's successor, Douglas Knight (who coincidentally held three degrees from Yale), convened other committees to study and develop a shield and mace. Officials were seeking to breathe new life into the university's image, says King, and academic heraldry and dress were a part of that effort.

The doctoral-robe committee began soliciting proposals from academic-apparel companies about changing the color of the robes and hoods worn at commencement to a distinctive "Duke blue." There was just one problem: No one knew what it was.

Significant swatches: A color for academic gowns emerges—correspondence with manufacturers.


In a letter to Lester Simon, a gown manufacturer, dated June 4, 1964, Benjamin E. Powell '26, university librarian and chair of the gown committee, wrote that the "basic color of the gown—royal blue— bothers some of our colleagues. I know it is supposed to be one of the University colors, but I find no unanimity of opinion among the old timers here on the campus or among those who have put their thoughts on paper. Some say the blue is royal, others say Yale."

Later in the same letter, Powell writes: "Have you something between Yale and royal blue, something that loses a bit of the purplish tinge of royal without becoming too somber? I realize the problems we get into when we leave standard colors, but royal blue is not what we want; and though some say the Duke blue is Yale blue, out of deference to Yale we would rather not use it." (It's speculated that Yale may have borrowed its blue color from the University of Oxford.)

After months of unproductive negotiations with various apparel suppliers, Powell and his committee met with Elon Clark, a medical illustrator at Duke who was serving on the mace committee. Clark recommended using a shade of Prussian blue, which is less gray than Yale blue, lighter than navy, but darker than royal, to break the deadlock. The gown committee assented with enthusiasm and, in September 1965, recommended that Prussian blue be designated Duke blue and used for all academic gowns.

Prussian blue was one of the first artificial pigments to be manufactured and was developed by accident in the eighteenth century in what is now part of Germany. The color appears in many different shades depending on the concentration used and is difficult to produce as a dye. Today, the swatches of fabric that Clark brought into the committee meeting reside in University Archives.

After four more years of back-and-forth with gown manufacturers, university officials finally found a color they were satisfied with and registered it with Pantone. The first official Duke blue doctoral robes made their debut at the 1969 commencement exercises, and their color has remained the same ever since.

These days, you're most likely to see Duke blue in four broad areas: athletic uniforms, licensed products and apparel, campus signage, and publications and promotional materials. In 2009, Duke's athletics department signed a contract with Nike Inc., giving the apparel giant exclusive rights to supply all twenty-six varsity teams with uniforms, shoes, and other equipment. Before each season, a Nike representative contacts a team's coach to present various options for the look of that season's gear. Nike's designers determine the colors of the uniforms, although coaches sign off on them.

Before the Nike contract was signed, each coach ordered from his or her own manufacturer, and some of those agreements will remain in place for the next two years. As a result, the blue of the uniforms worn by this year's field hockey team, for example, supplied by Under Armour Inc., is quite different from the blue of this year's basketball jersey, supplied by Nike. One benefit of the new contract is that all athletic uniforms will be a standard Duke blue—albeit one closer to royal than PMS 287.

For fans looking to support Duke's teams, the first stop is often the campus bookstore or the mail-order catalogues, and the appearance of so many different colors of blue on the shelves and across pages is owing to Duke Stores' reliance on outside suppliers. Because different companies work with their own mills, and those mills use a variety of fabrics and dyes, coming up with an exact match for Duke blue is impractical.

Not Navy: Devilish blue figures appear lighter and brighter than the uniform of the midshipman on the cover of a 1943 football program. University Archives


Duke and the Universities of Florida, Kentucky, and Kansas all use similar blues, and so suppliers will usually use the same color for each. Tom Craig, merchandise manager at Duke Stores, says that when it comes down to it, suppliers are interested in being economical. But, he adds, if the blue isn't close enough to Duke's color, the stores will not buy the products. "We stay away from anything that would be remotely close to a lighter shade of blue," he says, alluding to the color representative of the university eight miles down the road.

Craig notes a marked shift in popularity between the darker Duke blue, which is closer to navy, and the lighter Duke blue, which is closer to royal. Through the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, Duke Stores was selling much more of the dark blue than the light. Then the men's basketball team signed with Nike for the 1994 season. Nike introduced the royal-blue shade to the uniforms, and Duke consumers soon made the switch. Royal has been the stores' best-selling blue ever since.

The story of the color used for campus signage is less complicated and has a recent history of its own. The large signs that identify buildings along Campus Drive, at the medical center, and in university-affiliated locations around the Triangle are all the same color: PMS 2767C, which was designated as "Duke University Dark Blue" by the design firm that was contracted to work on the signs in the mid- 1990s. The signs were first developed for the medical center when the Duke University Health System was being organized. After the signs had been erected, administrators extended the design to the rest of campus for consistency's sake.

The blue in printed materials, like the magazine you're reading or the letterhead on that Annual Fund solicitation, is technically the easiest to standardize. The Pantone Matching System was specifically developed for use with ink and paper, and printed materials have the greatest likelihood of looking the way they were designed to.

There are two ways that a color can be applied in the printing process: by using what's called a spot color ink, or by using a color built from four different colors of ink. A spot color is a mixture of chemicals that produces a single color ink. PMS 287 is made up of three chemicals: twelve points of Pantone Reflex Blue, four points of Pantone Process Blue, and a half point of Pantone Black.

Significant swatches: A color for academic gowns emerges—correspondence with manufacturers, Elon Clark's choice of Prussian blue. Les Todd


In a four-color printing process, varying percentages of what printers call CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) are used to build a final color. Small dots of each component color, in various concentrations, make up the whole. To build Duke blue for use on coated paper, the concentration of cyan present is 100 percent; magenta, 72 percent; yellow, 2 percent; and black, 12 percent. That said, the color will look different depending on factors such as the light (color looks different under fluorescent light than it does under sunlight, for example) and whether the paper is coated or uncoated (the pages of our print edition are coated); the variations in appearance can be quite drastic. The Duke blue that is used throughout Duke Magazine, for instance, is 100 percent cyan, 70 percent magenta, 0 percent yellow, and 20 percent black, because that color, from a design standpoint, actually appears closer to the original 287 spot color.

The challenge for Roger Lewis, a sourcing manager for printed materials who helps university departments find reliable printers and graphic designers, is to make certain that Duke blue comes out right in the final product. One aspect of color-matching that Lewis often finds himself explaining to his clients is the difference in relative cost between a spot color and a built color. A four-color build is an inexact match, but it is easier to produce and more cost effective. A spot color is exact and therefore more expensive, making it rare in university publications.

When Trinity College first adopted a color, it was seeking to set itself apart from its larger, in-state rivals in athletic competitions. (And that was three years before basketball was invented.) Now Duke competes not only nationally as a basketball and academic powerhouse, but also globally for applicants, faculty members, grants, and prestige. In a crowded marketplace, Duke needs to stand out.

Denise Haviland is the university's director of communications and brand strategy, a new position created to make Duke's identity more coherent, recognizable, and visible—and, not incidentally, deal with things like inconsistency in the use of Duke blue. The color the university uses is important for many reasons, Haviland says. "It's not just distinguishing yourself from others," she says. The color "carries with it the reputation of the university." Above all, she adds, it strikes a subconscious, emotional chord.

As Duke expands around the world, beginning partnerships in places like Singapore and China and attracting students from all over the globe, it becomes increasingly important to have a distinctive—and replicable—color. For instance, Yale blue may be compared with Duke blue when high-school seniors anywhere in the world are deciding where they want to go to college, something that would have been virtually impossible only three decades ago.

One place this is acutely relevant is on the Internet, where the university is working to expand and unify its presence. The Duke homepage was recently redesigned, and in the process, Haviland and her colleagues created a university Web style guide. When Duke employees design websites or mass e-mail messages, they are now aware of the proper Duke blue "hexcode" (so called for its six-character length): No. 001A57.

Coding and pixels have joined thread and dye, ink and paper, pigment and plastic in the mix of materials that must be considered whenever someone at Duke decides which blue to use. Undoubtedly, new materials and different circumstances will call for new choices. But even as Duke blue has evolved from the grayish dark blue on a Trinity College blanket to the bright royal used on a classic World War II-era football program to the Prussian blue standardized as PMS 287, one thing has remained constant: Duke blue is Duke blue. It is that way to separate this university from all others.

And there is one thing it never has been, and never will be: Pantone 278, more commonly known as Carolina blue.

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