Case Study by Creative Director Vanessa Eckstein RGD and Partner Marta Cutler, Blok Design, Toronto
Coalition for Engaged Education (CEE) is a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles. Originally called New Visions Foundation, it was founded over 20 years ago by celebrated educator Dr. Paul Cummins who has dedicated his career to transforming education in California, working to turn the tide of standardized, dispirited learning into an experience that engages youth and that becomes a gateway to excitement, inspiration and joy.
Having founded some of the most innovative charter schools in LA such as Crossroads, which boasts Gwyneth Paltrow, Jonah Hill and Maya Rudolph as its alumni, Dr. Cummins and his team turned their focus to helping at-risk youth, particularly those in the juvenile justice system or in foster homes.
With the support of the Herb Alpert Foundation as well as Hollywood celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, the organization was ready to expand its programs and take its mission to a national and global level.
New Visions board member Diane McArter, head of Furlined Film Productions and our client, recognized the organization's need to clearly and cohesively articulate and define its new vision, and that a new identity would also be needed to express it. To accomplish this, she reached out to strategic consultancy group The Beams, who have advised clients such as Levis, Apple and Nike. Having worked with The Beams before, we were familiar with their approach. They worked with Dr. Cummins and his group to craft a strategic plan and generate a name that would better express their work. Once 'CEE' was created, we flew to LA to meet the team and be briefed on the project.
Within minutes of entering their offices, we were swept away by the qualities that would end up forming the voice of the identity: passion and joy. Kelly Kagan-Law, CEE’s Vice President and Dr. Cummins’ right-hand person, embraced us with enthusiasm, warmth, humour and insight. She introduced us to some of the students who had come through their programs, shared their stories, took us on a tour of the facilities and gave us a deeper understanding of the organization’s ambitious new vision.
We also met Dr. Cummins himself. In his late 70’s, soft-spoken, with the disheveled look of a favourite professor, he spoke simply and eloquently about CEE’s work and what he and his team hoped to achieve.
CEE had established a bold strategic plan prior to our arrival. Our role was to take all of its brilliant ideas and language, hone it down, and find the brand's voice and values within it. We began, as we do with each project, by sending Kelly and her team our strategic questionnaire.
The questionnaire is designed to align the thoughts and ideas of a company’s key stakeholders and provide a thorough understanding of the brand, from its values and mission to its business objectives, competitive landscape, challenges and opportunities. Each questionnaire is customized to the particular context surrounding the project. Its true purpose is to invite and inspire conversation about the brand. It paves the way for the follow-up meeting, which is where the true insight and understanding arises.
Because CEE’s strategic plan already held the answers to many of our questions, we focused the questionnaire for this project on the competitive educational arena in California, across the US and around the world to ensure that the identity would stand strong at a global level.
As part of our questionnaire, we ask clients to describe their brand using 5 adjectives and to choose words that are as distinctive as possible so that no other brand can speak with its voice or stand in its shoes. Working with the CEE team, we developed the following list:
Champion. We stand for the right of society’s most vulnerable youth to realize their potential through education that ignites and inspires them.
Holistic. We don’t just see a student; we see an individual who is brimming with curiosity, dreams and passions waiting to be unlocked.
Joyful. We absolutely love what we do – the kids we work with, our collaborators, the teachers – and believe that there is no greater gift than bringing that joy to education and learning.
Innovative. We consistently push the edges of the status quo, reinventing the rules and creating new models that will give youth the best chance to create a positive, fulfilled life journey.
Passionate. We put every inch of our hearts and souls into making sure that no child is left behind, that each student has the opportunity to connect to their passions and their potential, no matter where they come from.
With these in place, we had the foundation for the development of the brand identity and its language.
Coalition for Engaged Education is a long name. We embraced its acronym, CEE, and recommended that this be the primary identifier. However, we had to respect the brand’s timeline; although the organization had been around for over 20 years, its name was new. Therefore it was critical that the full name appear frequently throughout the identity in order to create recognition and awareness.
After meeting the team in LA, we realized that the identity needed to have space for another equally important voice: the students. They needed to own the identity and feel proud of it as a representation of the organization and their commitment to sticking with CEE throughout their often challenging journeys.
Finally, the inevitable growth of CEE’s scope needed to be considered as part of the project's objectives. To accommodate this, the identity needed to be flexible in order to incorporate future initiatives and a growing number of communication channels.
Working with our set of adjectives and CEE’s strategic plan, we set out to capture the passion and joy we experienced in LA. At the identity's core is a logo that was created to be both wordmark and icon. The upward movement of typography reflects CEE’s process of transforming and uplifting its students while also emphasizing the deep level of support they receive from CEE throughout their journey.
We turned CEE into a verb, giving voice to the organization’s philosophy and values and to the student’s own hopes and dreams, thus making them participants in the brand’s story.
A palette of bold, bright colours juxtaposed with subtle blues and browns captures the joy found in the organization’s work while expressing its dynamic creative energy.
The brochure, which was developed to help CEE open doors and raise funds, was printed on cast-off paper that had been discarded at the printer, turning it into a symbol of the students' plight and adding emotional weight to the story.
The identity was launched at CEE’s first fundraising event, Poetic Justice, which was attended by New Visions alumni such as Andy Samberg, as well as celebrities such as Sally Field and Henry Winkler. The evening was a resounding success and the identity has been cited for its distinctive voice and joyful vision.
The initial launch included a business stationery package, a donation card, the brochure, a newsletter template and the Poetic Justice invitation and we are currently working on a new website for the organization which we hope to launch in early December.
As CEE staff and students embrace and employ the organization's new vocabulary, its expressions and dimensions continue to evolve and grow.
- Listen for the different voices that need to be reflected, and respected, in the identity; often times there is more than one.
- Seek out the emotional heart of the brand – it will inevitably lead you to a more powerful, and therefore more engaging identity. For CEE, it was the organization’s unbridled joy that truly inspired our approach.
- Don’t let the economic restraints of the non-profit world limit your thinking – it doesn’t have to be a 2-colour job. There are many ways to think sustainably and great solutions can often be found within the brand story itself. For example, the poster we designed for CEE, which was designed for investors, was printed on cast-off paper from the printer. We chose it specifically because it mirrored the plight of the students and would thus add more emotional weight to the piece’s storytelling.
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