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Responses by Barney Stepney, designer, COLLINS.

Background: The purpose of our transformation work with San Francisco–based public radio station KALW was to give its staff and volunteers the system and tools to showcase the station’s values, spirit and strengths in new and different ways. The identity system also works to promote unified messaging across all of its programming and podcasts.

In short, KALW was looking to achieve much greater recognition across its Bay Area audiences, communicate its unique offerings and expand its membership base. The radio station came to COLLINS to accomplish all of this in time for its 80th anniversary—it was a great puzzle to solve.

Design thinking: The great thing about distinctive logos, when executed sharply, is their ability to shoulder the load in a brand identity. The challenging thing for nonprofits is limited marketing dollars. We looked at those truths and understood we could lean on the impact and memorability of the logo to support the majority of KALW’s communications.

At COLLINS, we believe a bold voice travels far, so our plan was to create an identity around a powerful logo that could match the strength of KALW’s voice itself, expressing the vibrant future it wants to build across its many different audiences. We also knew that, in a world where everyone can listen to anyone and anything from anywhere at any time, the logo and visual language alone would have to equip the station with a way to stand out and remind its progressive Bay Area community of its relevance. Our thinking behind the solution was to create something that had as much impact and, say, as much oddness as possible. We like working with our clients to make them unable to be ignored.

Challenges: Typically when we collaborate with a client on a transformation project like this, we would provide exhaustive graphic, photographic, illustration, and motion and interaction design strategies in addition to other brand and language systems for it to leverage. KALW had a limited budget for that, so as a workaround, we decided to use the forms of the logo itself to create a separate stencil alphabet that the radio station could use to spell out the names of shows and headlines.

While this alphabet we created is clearly consistent with the logo, when it’s used to spell out other words, the ease of legibility decreases. But we liked the idea of making something that was a little challenging to read, something that required at least a second look to interpret what was being said. In a world where much of brand design has become oversimplified, dumbed down and almost interchangeable, we wanted to make something that forces you to pause for a moment to really understand what you are looking at. Yes, I know some people are terribly annoyed by this. But the way I see it, that was the idea. People are looking and paying attention.

Besides, by always pairing the blunt stencil lettering with highly legible sans serif copy set in Dinamo’s ABC Favorit, the sans serif copy removes any difficulty of understanding.

Favorite details: I’ve never created a logo as unconventional as this one. As I said, I personally don’t mind that some people may find it challenging to read at first. But once you see the letterforms and understand how it reads, it’s not easy to forget. There’s been nothing like this for a brand like this or on the streets of San Francisco, which only makes it even more recognizable and, hopefully, unforgettable.

In the logo, you see the letters K, A, L and W, and then you see the star between the K and the A to remind you of the bright spark of creativity that the Bay Area represents. It’s not overt, but it’s there. When you make a logo, you want to create something that is both memorable and has the seeds of a larger story.

At COLLINS, we say that design is not what we make: design is what we make possible. That places the emphasis of our work on the outcome as much as it does the output. We care about the craft, making evocative, beautiful things that are inviting to look at. But we also want to make sure that they bring meaning to and accelerate what the brand is doing.

I love seeing the logo in all the different applications KALW has executed since the new launch. It’s always special for me to see our team’s work in real life, so seeing how the radio station is using the identity system across the Bay Area in unexpected ways—ones we hadn’t envisioned prior to handing over the work—is fascinating. For that reason, I think the logo itself is what I’m most proud of.

Visual influences: Working with a station that has such a rich, long history, we were able to delve deep into the archives of KALW’s branding all the way back to the 1940s. While most of its past identities were clearly created during a particular era, there was one logo that KALW had used in the late 1970s that stood out because of its freshness. It was strange, made from stencil lettering, with weird shapes and dimensions that were entirely inconsistent with one another. In its rigidity of form, we instantly recognized the logo was also incongruous with the fluid, flamboyant, hippie style of art and design in San Francisco in the early ’70s. In that weirdness, though, we found surprising character, memorability and tons of energy. We were keen to take this idea from the station’s past to inspire its future.

We loved the idea of using a stencil for the new identity. THere’s a blunt, utilitarian aspect to a stencil that anyone can understand. It also represents building blocks coming together to form a whole—and a community—which KALW has successfully done since 1941.

In terms of color usage, the brand had to be as impactful as possible. The colors themselves were inspired by the energy of jazz and classical concert posters from the 1950s. We also looked at Disney’s film Fantasia 2000 and the sequence with George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Those intense, animated color combinations delivered vibrancy in short, bright bursts. We wanted to do something similar for the KALW brand, so we employed intense color pairings that vibrate and feel unfamiliar.

Specific project demands: The work had to be impactful and memorable as possible, due to the client’s limited budget. We had to make a brand that was easy to work with but also that would leave a lasting impression on KALW’s audiences.

After we’d presented our first round of work, our wonderful clients at KALW—managing editor David Boyer, director of strategy Liz MacDonald and general manager Tina Pamintuan—were very eager to get their hands on our early elements and keen to start working with them themselves, and well before they had been refined or finalized. We had to say, “Wait a minute.” Still, it was their immediate openness to new ideas and love of what we had created that made this project wonderful. Since handing over the new, complete system, they have created some inspiring, unexpected ways of using it.

They’re making it great. And that’s the best design outcome I could ever hope for.


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