Mascot Identity Crisis, Part 2
Indian River State College
Part 2: Pure Pioneering Spirit!
The Mascot Argument
Over the years, the mascot identity issue was discussed multiple times for various reasons. Each time employees across the institution were brought together to discuss it. It was agreed to keep the Pioneers moniker, but develop a mascot that was a non-gender-specific, all-encompassing symbol. The criteria for its conceptual development kept becoming more complicated with each discussion, mirroring the political/media influences of the time.
For a while, mascots and symbols across the nation were under attack, being labeled as offensive and inappropriate; Denver University’s Pioneer was one such example. As if visualizing a pioneer mascot wasn’t difficult enough, now the very concept of one was being scrutinized. The standards to be accepted made any single human silhouette exclusive to some, and in namesake – offensive to others.
I researched mascots for years, reading articles about their development and importance for a school, viewing designs, and learning about some of the interesting combinations still around; like the North Carolina Tar Heels. It seemed to me that moving to an anthropomorphic animal-based character would work better than trying to engineer the most inoffensive generic symbol possible. I wasn’t alone in this thought either. Other schools with similar mascot identity issues decided the same thing. Patriots, Pioneers, Trailblazers… many mascots existed that are symbolized with non-human characters.
We just needed to find the right animal to represent our pioneers…
Pick Your Team
In the history of Lincoln Junior College and Indian River Junior College, I found inspiration – the two were merged to form Indian River Community College after desegregation in the south. Immediately, Lincoln Junior’s Red Falcons jumped out at me. However, many other college mascots in the FCS were birds. Why join the flock, when we can set new trends?
The Platypus, the Manatee, the Squirrels, and the Ducks were animals that various employee groups on campus rallied support for when the time came for another mascot discussion. I was vehemently against a platypus, but I could side with the others.
The platypus made no sense for a Florida school. It started as a joke between students, but it quickly gained popularity. How? The students talked about it. They voiced their ideas while many of us stayed quiet out of fear of reprimand or embarrassment. There is a lesson in this for at least myself; STOP BEING TIMID.
Squirrels and ducks lived on campus, so at least they were a part of the student experience. Squirrels are fun to watch, they’re very energetic and exploratory. Certainly, a good choice, though not as many supporters for them since they’re also considered rodents. The ducks on campus were Muscovy, considered by some to be the ugliest ducks, period. Their appearance for many was reason enough to not select them, but they do have interesting behaviors.
The Fighting Manatee That Never Was (RIP Melissa)
We attempted a manatee design once for an exclusive t-shirt, but it was shut down for political reasons.
(Character design by Ed Roskowski).
The timing of our fighting manatee design coincided with protests over the draining of Lake Okeechobee into the Indian River Lagoon. Administrators believed that the design my team concocted (we called her Melissa) placed IRSC in support of the protestors. It dumbfounded me, and it opened my eyes to just how political everything could get, however, we just wanted to riff off of our location’s wildlife to create a cool t-shirt.
I believed in adopting local wildlife as a mascot, but I didn’t really see a manatee as a desirable representation either. In fact, I didn’t really agree with any of the choices that were gaining popularity.
A Mascot is a Spirt Animal
The mascot, to me, is a symbol that embodies the values and spirit of an institution and those it serves. While we may differ in cultures or upbringing, there are essential values that we all share. The Pioneering Spirit, for example, exemplifies the values of adaptability, freedom, and self-sufficiency. Based on my experiences, I deemed these as essential values:
- Anchored Home isn’t Bad
- Pleasure in Success and Happiness
- Purpose in Supporting and Enhancing the Lives of Others
These values become tied to the mascot. All the more, students exploring the Indian River or Lake Okeechobee may encounter a real-life animal symbolized by the mascot. These values and emotions connected to them could be evoked by the encounter. The more common the animal, the less intense the likelihood of the emotional response, so it had to be an animal that was uncommon, but not too rare. If the animal didn’t exist in the state, then it would have absolutely no effect in this way.
We needed an animal that wasn’t commonplace, could be found on the Treasure Coast and in Okeechobee and was acceptably cute, but determined or assertive enough to be intimidating.
Sadly, the Gators were already well established…
The Unexpected Visitors
After reading up on a number of water-based animal spirits ranging from the shrimp to the porpoise, I wasn’t sold on anything yet. Most of the animals resided in salt or brackish water.
It wasn’t until I saw a small family of otters in my own backyard pond that I began to consider them. First of all, our pond is inaccessible to anyone or anything; it’s fenced off and secluded. Secondly, I have never seen otters in our pond, not before and ironically not since. The universe declared its selection to me.
So I looked into River Otters and found that they were associated with all the values and traits I was seeking, plus they were found in fresh and brackish waters.
I was sold – The River Otters made sense for a meaningful selection. Thanks, Universe!
Otter Mascot Design – Am I Right?
Research into otter mascots made it apparent that these characters were difficult to design for many artists. I mean this in no way to be offensively critical to any other artists, but the mascots I found were uninspiring. Many of the mascot designs tried to keep all aspects of the otter’s physiological attributes intact, which made it appear less than desirable depending on the particular breed of an otter.
The Cartoonists Have It
I found inspiration in more cartoon-styled otter drawings, which ranged from totally exaggerated shapes to classic Hanna Barbera styles. Some examples were almost generic mammals, with a few otter design motifs: two visible canine teeth, small, rounded ears, and a large, wide muzzle.
(Inspiring artwork pictured below from across the internet.)
Trial and Error
These motifs guided my design. I attempted several times to capture the otter spirit in a character, but more times than not, I failed to achieve it. I came to realize just how difficult it was for the artists that managed to manifest what they did. As a mascot, designed to fit the modern standards of being cool, it was a challenging character.
So, I dropped it to pursue other projects. In 2018 I was promoted to The River Shop Operations Manager; a job that held me from creating art and barely designed anything at all. I attempted a few ideas a number of times, but each concept fell flat and I didn’t bother investing any more effort into their development.
Despite that, it’s important to experiment. No ideas should be left off the table because each helps shape the best possible outcome. This is a principle of the process that I’d like to impart to my future students.
My best concept was in 2016. It was too similar to Shade. Sometimes one design creeps into another.
Forever A Work In Progress
In late 2019, workgroups were established for various projects and the mascot discussion inevitably came up again. Thanks to some other constituents, Team Otter had support and I had more courage to share my thoughts. Before we could make a move – the Pandemic started.
May 13, 2021 – I resigned to pursue work as a graphic designer and prepare for a career in teaching art.
A Passion Project Comes to an End
I may no longer work at IRSC, but that doesn’t stop my involvement. Now that I am self-employed as a freelance designer, I have formally conceptualized and developed a mascot that I deem worthy. In the 3-months since my departure, it took me 3-weeks to complete a project that started 17-years-ago for me.
I’ve never been more satisfied to see a project come to an end, and never more proud to see how far my skills have come.