The collaborative design behind the AMC’s new look: Interview with the Work Dept.

Collaborative design is integral to what we do at the Allied Media Conference – from the organizing process behind the conference’s “tracks”, “practice spaces”, and “network gatherings” to developing the AMC’s visual brand and identity.

As we approach the 18th annual Allied Media Conference – our tenth anniversary of hosting the AMC in Detroit – we wanted a refreshed design for the AMC that would uphold the core elements of our visual identity while injecting new energy into our work. We worked with our friends The Work Department, a social innovation design firm with an emphasis on participatory design, to develop a new look and feel for this year’s conference.

We interviewed the designers from The Work Dept. to learn more about the collaborative design process behind the new look.

amc design refresh
A new look for AMC2016

The AMC uplifts collaborative design in the structure of its organizing as well as in the content of the conference. Why was collaborative design important for designing the look of the conference?

Collaborative design is also at the root of what we do at The Work Department and a great opportunity to engage our audiences in a process that mirrored that of the AMC. Because we have been so close to the AMC design for so many years, it is essential for us to hear different voices giving feedback. We have a strong connection to the conference and we want to hear directly from the AMC community. We love the opportunity to blend what we hear from these unique participant voices with our own technical suggestions.

slide 3
AMC stakeholders make collages that represent their current and future visions for the conference.

What was your approach to the collaborative design process? Did this approach bring up new questions, paths of exploration, or surprises in developing the design?

We began our process by convening a group of AMC participant stakeholders and asking the questions:

  • What is working about the AMC’s visuals and messages?
  • What brings the most clarity?
  • How does it really feel to open up and use a the conference program book (or other communication tools) for the first time?
  • What kind of improvements do you want to see?

Stakeholders know what designs resonate with them and we wanted to engage with them directly through activities and conversations to understand their experiences.

No one knows the AMC better than AMP staff and stakeholders. We wanted to get these folks involved in the brand refresh process by having them participate in our “Design Labs”. We began by listening, asking questions like “What visuals best represent the future vision of the AMC?” and we asked folks to respond by making collages and drawings. This helped us understand the visions that stakeholders had for the conference. Using the collages as a starting point, we collaborated to establish “mood words” to describe the conference. This language would inform our design process. In this Design Lab we also invited AMP staff and stakeholders to critique the look and feel of previous AMCs. Critiquing the look and feel from previous years helped us decide which aesthetic aspects we should retire.

We then held a follow-up Design Lab with “design stakeholders” in which we reworked visuals from previous conferences and created visual narratives. The design stakeholders were a group of artists and designers who had some familiarity with the AMC as both participants and collaborators. By engaging this group in the participatory design process, we were able to keep the conversation and feedback open to explore new paths in the creation of a fresh look and feel.

future amc story
Design lab with AMC design stakeholders. In this workshop designers critiqued, and reworked the icons
used in the previous identities for the AMC.

What was the "future AMC" story and how did this story inform the final identity?

Throughout the Design Lab process, we spent time synthesizing the various kinds of information we collected and created a story using language pulled from our group discussions. We created a “future AMC” story as a framework for developing a visual language for the conference.

Future AMC Story

The AMC is a force where individual minds meet and connect. Ideas intersect and meld to form something continuous and organic. This new "thing" is more structured and stronger. At the conference, we form networks that have the power to change and grow. We build relationships that are flexible yet strong. From young to elder, the conference is accessible and accommodating for all. It is a multidimensional space where people combine visions and collaborate in many ways.

We understood that the conference is rooted in being inclusive and accessible to all people. We wanted the identity to be reflective of those things, and decided this year's look and feel would be minimal. Although this is rarely understood, design is a very physical thing - it helps us to navigate and define our space through things like wayfinding (signs that tell when and where to turn, or where to find things). So for us to write this “future AMC" story and understand how people use the “space” of the AMC, we can better develop a design that speaks honestly to the totality of what the conference is because it encompasses the people of the AMC, the campus space, the city of Detroit, and all the spaces to which the attendees return. This “future AMC” story kept us grounded during the design process - we could return to it to remind us of what core components and beliefs were most important. When new ideas would present themselves in the design process, we would hold them up against the story to see if they still fit. The story acts as a design barometer.

amc icons
Visual narrative from the design lab with AMC design stakeholders. During the workshop designers used
the reworked icons, and generated language to tell a story about the AMC.

Allied Media Projects’ mission is to create media strategies for a more just, creative and collaborative world. What is the role of collaborative design in creating that future?

Collaborative design plays an essential role in creating a more just and creative world. By designing with, not for, organizations with whom we work, we establish a more just, creative, and sustainable world. People have a say in how they are represented and what they want to hold up about their community. Our role is to provide the appropriate tools and resources to tell that story or to frame the work that they are doing. Collaborative design is a strategy for empowerment and sustainability. The designer learns about the stakeholders and what important stories need to be told, as the stakeholder learns more about the design process. During this process, the stakeholders then learn the tools for how to amplify their own story to the most appropriate audiences. Our favorite part is how the designer becomes an advocate for the stakeholders, learning more deeply about diverse communities and organizations, and the skills, tools, and gifts that they have to offer. It becomes more about exchange and partnership. Collaborative design is an equalizing force which leads to a more just, creative, and collaborative world.

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