Amy Hartzler

Contributed by Amy Hartzler

January 20, 2012

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The Free Range Rebrand: Designing Our Story

These days everyone is talking about telling stories — which is great, because we’ve been refining our storytelling methodology for the last 13 years. But the sudden popularity has also challenged us to define what that really means, as our once-esoteric field has become more crowded. Nearly a year ago today, we recognized we needed to rebrand. 

We knew we couldn’t build a coherent brand without a deep understanding of how we do what we do, and why. We needed to unpack the magic and the science behind our work, and we needed a new story to define what it means to be makers of media that creates a more positive future. And each of our new brand expressions, from an updated logo to this website, needed to reinforce that story.

It wasn’t easy, and we’re proud of the results. After months of looking inward, we rediscovered our founding (and wordy) principles —

We believe that new tools and broader access allow the creation of fundamentally new stories that will help people build the future they desire rather than consume the vision of a monoculture. Free Range was created to change the way media is used to build culture.

— and realized we can express our core vision a lot more simply:

Great stories make great change possible.

From garbage activist turned New York Times Bestseller Annie Leonard to foundations dedicating vast resources to eliminating injustice and poverty, and all manner of entrepreneurs and grassroots organizations in between — the way for our clients to create a better future is simple. Tell stories that invite people to see their role in building that better future, and offer them clear ways to engage.

But the question remained: how would we turn all that we knew about great stories, and our own story, into a compelling visual brand? 

The story of what you see...

The website you’re looking at offers up its own story — of hope, passion and results, and how those results were achieved. It’s not a collection of words, images and colors chosen just because they sound or look good. It’s a deliberate narrative reflecting months of focus on who we are, what we do, and why we do it — and what makes us Free Range instead of any other communications shop.

We knew our first priority. Our audience, the heroes of our story: the visionary changemakers working to innovate new products and services, reform existing systems and behaviors, and activate everyday people.

We function as a mentor to these heroes, who are ready and willing to tell their story, but need help and tools to start. Our portfolio doesn’t just superficially dazzle, but highlights our clients’ unique insights, and the media and tools we created to transform those insights into positive results.

And how do we do it? The images that populate the site make our process transparent. From simple sketches to complex illustrations and photography, we literally share what our work looks like, and the act of making it — inviting would-be heroes to imagine their own journey with us, and the destination, for themselves. One of the lead designers on the rebrand, Kathi Bahr, put it this way: “As someone who’s been a photographer as long as I’ve been a designer, I’m all about communicating efficiently, visually. I channeled my inner Alchemist in helping create the site you see: a blank canvas for sweeping images that showcase the art of making art that makes change.

A deep, radiant orange functions as a beacon, balanced by neutrals, letting the artwork and message of our heroes take center stage throughout the website. A fuller identity palette offers a range of colors suggesting vibrance and possibility. 

Art Director Chris Brunell on a press check for identity collateral (thanks to Harris Lithographics)

Our new brand’s typefaces don’t distract, or put you to sleep. After combing through options, two relatives with their own broad families provide strength and neutrality in the sans, and a serif with some quirk, and a nod to the traditions that fuel our thinking. (Benton Sans and Benton Modern, respectively, for those interested.)

While our new website’s experience begins by offering a narrative “prologue” (click the orange arrow on the homepage) we balance its horizontal presentation with a vertical structure throughout the site, suggesting breadth and depth — all coded and built internally.

And we can’t forget our chicken. All cleaned up and always chasing a brighter future, the iconic mark is now expressed with handwriting — personal, original, accessible. 

Last but not least, in many ways the heart of our brand is the people who comprise it. We celebrate each one, the strategists, designers, technologists and behind-the-scenes wizards we combine to discover and tell each of our clients’ stories.

…and the story of what you don’t see (but feel)

During the summer and fall of 2011 we debated, identified and refined the core values that drive us. Our personality and its tone, look and feel. Two brand workshops — one in DC and another in CA — engaged everyone on staff, providing our lead creative team the inputs needed to distill our future into two possible directions. 

 

One option: a brand driven by a Pioneer archetype, fueled by optimism, courage and creativity. Reclaiming a cutting-edge use of technology and social media, in this direction we would redefine how media is made to make change happen. 

The other option: an Alchemist-inspired brand, grounded in optimism, progress and empowerment. Through unexpected combinations of the ingredients at hand, we would not only tell stories that changed our world for the better, but would share the formula of how we did it. Balancing method with madness, we would invite our clients to dive into the mystery with us, testing what worked and what didn’t, until we emerged with gold.

It wasn’t easy to choose. A lively dialogue resulted in key insights that informed the final story you see here.

Our story’s ingredients

Two key insights helped our future brand reveal itself.

Although we had functioned as a Pioneer once (with more than a touch of the Rebel and Jester) we realized it’s actually our clients who are the true Pioneers — constantly breaking boundaries and drawing the map to a shared, positive future. This realization reminded us of our responsibility to seek out the smartest, gutsiest world-changing clients. 

At the same time we recognized our role as a mentor to these pioneering heroes: the creative force that supports, and in some cases transforms. Smart, persistent and experimental, while grounded in the tradition of our craft and the scholarship of Jung, Campbell and Maslow — and translated through our own leader in his forthcoming book, which our entire staff read throughout the rebranding process.

Finally it became clear. We are Alchemists. Fueled by optimism, and what could be, instead of fighting what is. Reliant on courage, knowing that yesterday’s solutions won’t work for tomorrow, and brave enough to fail trying. And finally, working toward the end-goal of empowerment, unleashing the storytelling potential of our clients, and each of us individually. 

The moral of our story — great stories make great change possible — became our brand’s new ‘North Star,’ inspiring the tagline that functions as a direct invitation to our would-be heroes: The next great story is yours.

And we’re off!

It’s not enough to just tell stories. We’re here to tell great ones — in websites, movies, collateral and brand systems that inspire, educate and activate. Balancing magic and science, with a positive future just over the horizon. We hope you’ll partner with us to tell yours.