Integrating design and development to shape Commotion’s brand identity

2012-05-01 / The Work Department

At The Work Department, we’ve had the privilege of creating Commotion’s brand identity from conception to completion. If you haven’t heard about it yet, Commotion is an open, yet secure, circumvention tool to create decentralized mesh networks. We are collaboratively developing the tool with The New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative. Our challenge was clear: to create an accessible and flexible visual identity for this evolving open source software project. Our early approach was very open – we began with a discovery phase in which we surveyed the Open Technology Initiative (OTI), The Guardian Project, The Serval Project and a few other members of the mesh development community to understand their views on the software. We quickly found a wide range of opinions about aesthetic preferences and public communication strategies for Commotion. We analyzed input from about 15 people and shared the material with OTI to get additional feedback. We made a few conclusions about our direction. First, we planned to embrace potentially different Commotion audiences. Second, we needed something that would be simultaneously utilitarian, accessible, and trustworthy. Third, we wanted to avoid alienating forms that are often presented alongside emerging technologies and represent that mesh technology works in a humanistic way. We began to define our audience as:

  • people who seek network connectivity
  • people who seek communication freedom
  • anyone cut off from the internet, whether by Mubarak, Comcast or Katrina

We were excited to take on this branding work because we deeply believe in the power of community wireless networking. We wanted to create an identity that we could be proud of – something that would communicate all of the project’s great values and represent our design philosophy. We began creating the identity while development work was also being done on the Commotion software. This rarely happens, so often design is considered the “icing” or top layer in a process while, in reality, we believe design should be integrated at all phases of a development project. We thought a lot about the agility of the design and how it could flex to accommodate the software’s range of current and future functions. Because the software is under development and will be touched by many developers around the world, we imagined a flexible brand system with a range of utilities. For example, the nodes in our design can be modular and be used in different ways. Creating the logo was a vast process. We started by gathering an audit of existing software to understand what else is out there and look at common visual languages. We noticed trends in technology and networking brands and also began to collect graphic elements that might communicate what “mesh” is. From there we started the sketch process on paper. We then narrowed down our ideas and moved into the digital world. You can take a look at our digital sketches in our Flickr pool. Our client and project partners were able to watch our ideas on Flickr and provide us with feedback throughout the entire process. This type of open and collaborative design fuels our philosophy at The Work Department. We are constantly seeking ways to solicit stakeholder and user input to ensure that our products are relevant and accessible. After spending several weeks auditing existing brands and developing our own design ideas, we presented three full brand options to OTI. They were each distinctively different but stemmed from the same overarching goals – meaning they embodied these themes:

  • easy to use
  • self determining
  • circumvention
  • utilitarian
  • multiuse
  • generalized
  • versatile
  • humanistic
  • easy to translate in the future (L to R, R to L)

You can view our Commotion Identity Proposals here. OTI staff chose the final direction for the identity and we created complete brand identity guidelines. We’re proud to be an integral part of the Commotion project and excited about OTI’s commitment to good design. While other mesh network projects have not created a professional identity, Commotion is being built on a strong foundation of flexible and collaborative design that can be used by all the developers who work on it. This will create lasting consistency and credibility among users, developers, and funders. As designers, this has been a unique opportunity to be involved early in a software development process (instead of at the tail end). We’ve worked with Commotion’s software developers throughout our process. Thanks to this, and our previous experience working on community wireless tools, we are able to significantly inform how the open source development process moves forward. It’s rare that a project takes such an integrated approach – bringing designers and developers together each step of the way. We love working this way, and think that this approach should be used more often. It allows us to ultimately create a better product together – a software tool that offers an outstanding user interface, is credible, is easy to use, and is flexible enough to evolve around the world but maintain a core set of functions and standards. We’re convinced that any software project that integrates designers, developers, and user interface thinkers is far more likely to succeed over the long-term. We’re excited to soon release graphic assets for the Commotion Brand Identity. These files will be publicly available in just a few weeks – check back here for updates!