YBCA:You Campaign

YBCA:You Campaign

Case Study By
Volume, Inc.

July 17–September 18, 2012

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA)
Project Title

YBCA:You Campaign

  • Creative directors: Adam Brodsley and Eric Heiman
  • Designer: Ed O’Brien

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2013 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 14 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. 


The problem was to recast the brand image of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco through the launch of the YBCA:You program. YBCA:You offered an all-access pass to the center, providing participants with both intimate and social vehicles to engage with art—including personal docent tours, exclusive VIP events with artists and complimentary admission to various YBCA events.

The campaign’s tone had to strike a balance between accessible and sophisticated—“friendly hip, not hipster hip”—in the manner for which YBCA is known. The intent was to attract audiences who might not be familiar or comfortable with YBCA’s offerings while not alienating or “talking down” to YBCA’s core art-savvy audience.

Lastly, the campaign identity would need to be used over many months—possibly even years—so it required a richness and depth that could be sustained over a significant period of time.


YBCA:You campaign: flat art for Bay Area Rapid Transit (Volume, Inc.)


Flat art for the lightbox posters (Volume, Inc.)


One of the lightbox posters we created (Photo: Gabriel Branbury)


Yerba Buena Center for the Arts campus banner (Photo: Gabriel Branbury)


Third Street Wall installation near YBCA (Photo: Gabriel Branbury)


Detail of the Third Street Wall (Photo: Gabriel Branbury)


A detail of the Third Street Wall (Photo: Eric Heiman)


YBCA Campus Banner (Photo: Gabriel Branbury)


The arts landscape in the Bay Area is rich, but it’s also very conservative in terms of offerings, brand image and communication—particularly amongst the major art institutions in the area. Of these institutions, YBCA offers the most subversive and cutting-edge content. It’s a niche they own, but one for which attracting wider audiences is often difficult (not to mention that YBCA’s location is not easy to find).


We immediately impressed upon the client that the campaign should embody the essence of YBCA first and the YBCA:You program second. The best art often forgoes the hard sell to invite interpretation and participation; the campaign should be no different. Our guiding principle was “show, don’t tell.”

Secondly, since the program was about “You,” the campaign should follow suit. Aware that almost every other museum and arts organization privileges the art and artists, we instead chose to privilege the people that actually come to see the art: Celebrate the disparate reactions that art provokes in different individuals, and highlight the communal and social activity that art facilitates.


Many of the insights mentioned above came out of our initial collaborative meetings with YBCA leadership and staff, where informal discussions and brainstorming ultimately offered a roadmap for our design investigations. YBCA also provided us with preexisting ethnographic research about their members, visitors and untapped audiences. The campaign’s “friendly hip” attribute came out of data that revealed a sizable audience of young, entrepreneurial and tech-savvy types who were very interested in art, but insecure about their lack of knowledge and intimidated by institutions that seemed to speak only to those already fluent in the “high art” culture.


We presented three preliminary directions to YBCA, recommending the direction that was ultimately selected. YBCA’s leadership—most notably Executive Director Ken Foster and Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Kathy Budas—is brave and smart, and they have always pushed us to do great work. (See our YBCA campaign from 2009, also an AIGA competition winner.) Their leadership fully embodies the organization’s mission and ethos. A dream client, really.

When we presented the three preliminary directions, there was no doubt in their mind which one was best—and we agreed. Upon first viewing the campaign, Foster candidly remarked, “I’ve been waiting 20 years for a campaign like this. It’s f***ing brilliant.” This was probably the best client meeting we’ve ever had.

We created a series of “heads” that were featured on large-scale posters and banners installed in public places in and around YBCA, including a wall on Third Street adjacent to the institution, and advertisements on public transportation in the San Francisco area, including Muni and BART.

Other than the exhaustive process where we finalized the assortment of “heads” and the graphic elements that “fill” them, very little of the design solution changed following our initial presentation of the concept.


The only major challenge we faced was sourcing good “head” and “head-filler” imagery within our miniscule photography budget. We also faced a difficult timeline, with only eight weeks to complete the entire project (including two full weeks of production time). In the end, we were fortunate that everything went so smoothly.


Since the launch of this campaign, we’ve received feedback from designers and non-designers alike about how much they love the work. Each time we’ve visited the Third Street wall mural we’ve witnessed wide-eyed children pointing at the giant-sized heads or passersby stopping to take pictures of themselves in front of the mural. YBCA has been asked if posters of the heads are for sale.

Between the date the campaign launched and the submission of this case study, 250 people had signed up for YBCA:You and overall attendance was estimated to have increased by 10 to 15 percent. (Though we assume that the actual YBCA offerings may have contributed to these increases in participation and attendance, too.)

Pentagram partner Eddie Opara remarked recently that, “Design is not about solving problems. It’s about making people happy.” While we would never diminish design that helps alleviate world hunger or addresses other noble causes, there’s also value in design that simply enlivens one’s day, if only for a moment, and points someone to a potentially enriching new experience.

Juror Comments

"With the YCBA:You campaign, Volume has captured San Francisco to its core: rejuvenating, exciting and engaging. The campaign is visually rich, timely and broadly accessible, while also remaining incredibly personal. Weaving a delightful graphical narrative, this visual provocation has staying power. Kudos." Valerie Casey

"As a San Franciscan, I’ve been able to discover this piece firsthand, in bits and pieces, across the city. I think the posters are absolutely delightful. When you see a number of them in the same location, it really brings the idea home. "Jessica Hische

"There is something refreshingly conflicted about this campaign: the arresting imagery is at once attractive and repulsive, juxtaposing human likeness with art through a series of faceless portraits. The design jolts you, pulls you in, and makes you linger and wonder. It’s enchanting and enigmatic, and does a great job fueling curiosity about visiting the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts." Brad Johnson

"Inspirational. Strangely disturbing and provocative at the same time. I think it hits all the right notes for the audience they are trying to reach." Clement Mok

"This campaign is creative and well executed, though the most telltale sign of its success is the memorable imagery." Josh Rubin

"When judging design competitions it’s not often that one has the privilege of experiencing the work in its original context. As a San Francisco resident, I see these campaign elements daily, and daily they reaffirm my faith in the artistic temperament of my city. The YBCA:You campaign is admirably resourceful, yet clearly uncompromised. Rather than showcasing the institution’s art or artists, it brings YBCA’s provocative artistic vision out of the rarefied milieu of the gallery and takes it to the streets. It is design as ethos, not simply communication. Although the designers cite a 15 percent increase in museum membership as a measure of the campaign’s effectiveness, I would argue that the more meaningful impact is its contribution to the visual landscape of San Francisco." Christopher Simmons

"YBCA:You is a brash and brilliant in-your-face campaign that chooses to champion the people who come to see and experience the art. I was lucky to see some of this campaign while I was in San Francisco, and I was astonished how quickly the imagery rose above the clutter of the city and struck an emotional cord. Kudos to YBCA for providing ethnographic research to the design team and embracing the communal and social aspects of art." Alina Wheeler

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