So Good Case Study: ALSO Collective tackles complex patterns with identity design for OCAD's Urban Ecologies Conference

Case Study by Antonio Lennert Prov RGD and Symon Oliver, Creative Directors at ALSO Collective

This project was selected as a winner in the For-Profit, Client-Initiated category of RGD's 2013 So(cial) Good Design Awards.


Urban Ecologies is a conference presented by OCAD University's Faculty of Design. Combining the study of urban environments with the scientific framework of ecology, the conference investigates the interrelation of five main themes: Regenerating Cities, Visualizing Information, Thinking Systems, Creating Community and Building Health. The Urban Ecologies 2013 logo attempts to capture this within a seemingly simple mark.



As graduates from the design program at OCAD University, our former instructors were familiar with our work and approached ALSO with the opportunity to create the design for the first year of the conference. 


Too often conferences addressing issues of the urban context rely heavily upon visuals found in architecture, or sustainability, which can dissuade researchers with relevant work from other fields from attending the conference. The Urban Ecologies 2013 conference branding was designed to specifically address these issues of oversimplification and exclusion, establishing a common ground for attendees of all disciplines. 



The timeline for the entire project was approximately 7 months. We began working on the visual identity in late October 2012, and had about a month to finalize the concept. With the identity in place, we had another month to deliver the first stage of the website (landing page), social media platforms and a template for their email newsletter. We had a couple of weeks to design and produce posters and the mail-out piece that was distributed in mid January 2013. In early February, we released all of the print and digital advertisements, the call for submissions as well as the customized online submission form.





In March, we launched the second phase of the website with the introduction of a video about the conference. In addition to a main video, we produced 10 short videos that were used to promote the conference through social media during the weeks leading up to the event and during the event itself. From April to June 2013, we developed the conference guide app, as well as motion graphics that were displayed on screens during the conference.



The identity brings together five different patterns that overlap with one another to form a more complex—yet unified—pattern at the heart of the mark. While the shapes overlap, the patterns of each shape can be seen emerging out of the larger form, while still remaining tightly interwoven within the other patterns. The colour palette of the mark was selected based on intuitive considerations of the themes as well as their ability to perform separately and collectively within the system. This mark offers a rich visual metaphor for the conference as a whole.




One of our main challenges was the fact that we broke many rules with the identity. The incorporation of overlapping patterns was the ideal metaphor for what we wanted to convey, but applying that concept to all deliverables made for a challenging and time consuming process. The identity is essentially built from five formal variations that needed to work together, separately or overlapped into new compositions. The sheer number of variables to consider was the toughest part; and then we had to add typography, which was another exhaustively iterative process. These challenges were resolved through dedication to our goal, attention to detail and making sure we allowed enough time for trial and error.



Our research of other conferences also revealed that these types of events predominantly use native apps for the programs (schedules, speakers, etc.). We decided a web app would be a more practical deliverable, eliminating the extra step of downloading the app and converting existing web content. Even though we were still quite green, taking on this challenge with the help of an incredibly design-minded developer, Andrei Vassiliev, meant we could bring this dynamic deliverable to life for our client and become more familiar with this area in the process. 


Another challenge was the fact that our clients were our former instructors—the colleagues and advisors who we spent our undergraduate careers learning from. We continued to learn a lot from them during this process, but from time to time it was difficult to separate the client-designer relationship from the educator-student hierarchy. Ultimately, this challenge was a fruitful exercise in negotiating that relationship. It made us rethink how we work with our clients and highlighted the value of taking a collaborative approach, which successfully dissolves any problematic notions of hierarchy. 


There was also the overall challenge of the conference design itself. A conference will often have a singular theme, which makes it relatively easy to define who the audience will be and what their areas of interest are. Urban Ecologies looks at five separate and diverse fields and tries to build bridges between them. We had no previous experiences to pull from, and designing for an entire conference is no small matter, especially when it is being built from the ground up.




The client gave us full creative freedom with the process; however, we worked closely with OCAD faculty members Bruce Hinds and Jesse Jackson throughout the project. We received a great deal of feedback from Graphic Design chair Keith Rushton, and then co-chair Roderick Grant. We also worked closely with Kelley Teahan, Director of Marketing and Communications, to mediate OCAD U’s brand standards with our creative direction; as well as with Greg Gay from the Inclusive Design Research Center (IDRC) to ensure all of our deliverables met the required accessibility standards for the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).




We began with a very thorough analysis and audit on conferences worldwide to understand the context of the design we would be creating. We felt it essential to familiarize ourselves with the research happening in the relevant domains by finding resources and looking up the leaders in each field. We worked very closely with conference organizers to establish a strong understanding of their intent and their future goals for the conference. From this research we established key themes, vocabulary and related fields of interest. 


Once our initial positioning and audit phase was complete, we had enough background information to move to visual research. We spent a lot of time pulling inspiration from online sources and architecture and natural sciences literature. After extensive mind-mapping, sketching and iterating, we found our main source of inspiration in the visualization studies of Jacques Bertin’s Semiology of Graphics: Diagrams, Networks, Maps, first published in 1967 under the title Sémiologie Graphique. Bertin was a French cartographer and theorist, renowned for his work on the subject of information visualization. His work gave us an extensive catalogue of patterns, symbols and textures to draw from.



The success of this project was measured through key qualitative and quantitative metrics: attendance for the conference, website traffic and geographic reach, exposure in social media and client feedback. Our analytics revealed high numbers from the November launch of the website to June, at which point traffic spiked as a result of the newly launched web application and social media campaign. Traffic was primarily sourced from Canada and the US. The conference received hundreds of paper, poster and presentation abstracts, and registration for the event sold out. To this day we still receive compliments on the conference materials. Overall, it was a success and we are happy to know that Urban Ecologies will continue, with the next conference launching in 2015.


Designer Takeaways
  1. Don’t use patterns… And if you do, be prepared to spend every waking moment happily haunted by them. In hindsight, despite the challenges associated with this approach, we would still go with patterns for this project - there was no other option.
  2. Take on new challenges, even if they are intimidating. If you have limited experience with an element that is important to the project, ask for help and give yourself time to test it out. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn.  
  3. Dive in and dive deep (i.e. read the research). Visual research and brand audits are great, but actually reading and understanding the research, immersing yourself in the field you need to design for, is the only way to deliver successful results for a big project like a conference. By taking the research seriously and taking the time to engage with the research topics, you'll be able to do a better job of accurately framing your perspective and making relevant suggestions. As designers, it's important to make informed choices rather than assumptions.

Client Takeaways

  1. A unique and successful visual strategy will help foster a great community. Look at what other conferences are doing, and then avoid doing anything remotely similar. Conferences are intended to challenge ideas and conventions, so why should the design be safe? Creative for any conference should be as challenging as the new ideas it represents. It’s a real opportunity to push design and test out new styles and strategies. Trust the designer and believe in the process.
  2. Work back schedules listing deliverables and deadlines are key for successful collaboration. Regardless of how small an item may seem, make sure it gets added to the list. This will help avoid scope creep, feature bloat, last minute rushes and oversights. This goes for content and deliverables on the client side as well - the designer should know what to expect and when to expect it.
  3. Create 'milestones' for the deployment of critical or large deliverables. Rather than release every element at once, create stages for the different components. This stretches out the process and gives more time to work out the details - it allows the conference to build momentum over time. If components and updates are delivered in stages, you offer more touch points for your audience to engage with and helps build anticipation for the event.


About the So(cial) Good Design Awards

Every year, RGD invites submissions of graphic design projects done under the theme of communication design for social good; work with the power to incite action and make meaningful change in the way we live our lives. When we approach social issues creatively, we can make a real difference in the world. The So(cial) Good Design Awards gives voice to the important work designers are doing and can do to change the way we think and act.

For more information on the So Good Design Awards, click here


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