Case Study: Design System for the Community Garden
We were approached to create a 30th anniversary logo, a project we worked to turn into a system design project for the community of designers who work with this community-strong organization, which operates on a shoestring budget.
SCLT is the major community garden organization in Providence. It was not in direct competition with other groups, but was mostly in competition with itself. So many identities had emerged as needs arose that the image of the group was unclear. Individual designers were not wed to the image decisions they had made. Each artist and designer was working in a vacuum, making the best he or she could given the limited visual resources of the organization. We proposed to unite these designers in the shared pursuit of a common identity for the materials for SCLT.
The budget was $500. To make the most of the budget and the opportunity for teaching, Lindsay hired Miriam Zisook, a recent graduate, to do much of the production. After the 30th anniversary year had ended, we donated two hours in the final transition from 30th anniversary logo to ongoing organization logo.
Our research was qualitative. We surveyed the designers and staff members in the organization to better understand the history of the identity system, the current needs, and the opportunities for sharing future design assets developed in the course of working with Southside.
SCLT employs a distributed network of designer/artists to create the visuals that organization needs. We surveyed their internal and external networks and designed a system strong enough to unite the various creators and loose enough to promote creative expression of the organization’s mission and values.
We prompted SCLT to employ their best skill—community organizing—in pursuit of their new identity. Together, we convened meetings, sent group emails, and had phone calls to ask designers and poster artists about the work they do for SCLT, about visual materials they would like to contribute to the system, and about the kinds of files they would need to bring their work into the new identity system. This visual survey helped set in motion a series of conversations that continue to promote the emergent visual system for the SCLT identity. The organization is democratic, organic, and joyful. Its open-source, open-ended identity system is designed to promote those same values.
We chose to use free typefaces both for ease of use and to align the design strategy with the organization’s inclusive mission. As new designers and staff members come into collaboration with Southside, they will have easy access to the tools needed to continue developing the identity.
The need to coordinate the work of many design collaborators and the varied toolsets for use by staff were the primary challenges of the project.
Designers who work with the organization have individual relationships with staff members. Decisions about the organization’s identity were made many times over in separate conversations without coordination.
The organization also produces materials internally using the limited computer resources available. In most cases, staff members use Microsoft Word or an older version of Adobe Photoshop to make materials for their events. We needed to design a flexible system to accommodate these challenges.
For the cost of a one-year-use logo, we were able to create a system of colors, typefaces, and a logo. The logo was designed as a modular system and transitioned easily from the 30th Anniversary logo into a permanent logo for the organization. By skipping a complex use manual and the full design of all materials, we were able to deliver more value to their diverse and skilled community of creators.
The many designers who work with the organization were able to incorporate the new system into their projects. The resulting design projects show the variety and creativity of the many hands at work. Susan Sakash, on the process of working with us: “For me, one of the reasons why I was really excited to work with Little Giant was because you recognize the needs that nonprofits have in which there exists a level of design sense. We could take the kit, use it, and tweak for our own purposes. It was really appealing to me as we looked ahead at the materials we were producing for the year. We needed to create a more synthesized brand for the organization. What you gave us was a tool kit to address those concerns, which was great. There are enough elements in the materials, enough cohesion, to see the similarities. All of the materials drew on the design kit that Little Giant put together for us. The logo was created for a particular purpose, our 30th anniversary, but it is continuing on.”
We designed a system intended for increased online use. With the new toolkit, the organization has incorporated visual materials into its Facebook site, website, and HTML emails.
In designing this project, we were aiming to do good work at a reasonable price without creating dependency. We initiated an emergent visual system to unite the various creative energies in the organization’s network. The work was “pro bono” in that it was for good. It was intentionally not for free.
Miriam Zisook, a designer on the project, went on to employ a similar co-created visual system for another organization in Boston. It is our hope that new modes of pro bono work will continue to emerge so that organizations will budget for design and designers will not feel obligated to give work away for free, undermining our overall value.
We are part of the same community
This collaboration with our local land trust group, Southside Community Land Trust, was years in the making. We first encountered SCLT as CSA members, picking up our vegetables every week at City Farm in the heart of Providence. As the years passed, we learned about more ways to interact, to participate, to design for Southside.
A third way: Design doesn’t have to be either free or expensive
We found in conversations with design collaborators that they do design work for SCLT at a discounted price because they believe in its mission. We wanted to work the same way. Cultivating a long-term constantly-costly relationship between our studio and the organization was not an option. Undervaluing our work as designers by working for nothing was a non-starter too. We did not work for free and we did not charge a huge fee.
Open source is a powerful model
The expanded brief created an open-source visual system that coordinated the design decisions of collaborating designers and the staff members who are de facto designers every day. When designers or staff members face design decisions about typography, graphics, and color, they have a road map to unite their work with the rest of the network.
This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.