In fall 2017, when the new USAID Learning Lab podcast series was just a glimmer in my eye, I found myself frantically building the branding suite. This isn’t the typical order of things, but I might have been waiting for the podcast concept to be approved, or procrastinating from other work. Either way, it turned out that developing the visual identity for the series helped me solidify what I wanted it to be. And, I found inspiration for that visual identity in the deepest recesses of my mind: an image from childhood that hadn’t surfaced in decades.
Launching the second podcast series was a source of anxiety for me. I’ve heard musicians express how much pressure they’ve felt before releasing a second album. With the first, they often have no idea how it will land and just hope it resonates with someone. But when it does… how do they follow that? Will they meet their fans’ expressed and unexpressed expectations? Were people just being nice about the first album? I’d learned some things through the process of producing the pilot podcast series, and I had heaped enormous pressure on myself to make the second one a big success, even better than the first. Would the second series meet listeners’ needs? If not, was the whole effort a big waste of time?
I wanted the icons to include a person. I got feedback that our pilot podcast series was too abstract. It was a series of case studies and didn’t offer much in the way of application. Too many concepts, too much USAID jargon. Around the time that we began developing our second series, the new USAID Administrator, Mark Green, was installed and news trickled down that he valued “plain language.” This fed into our plan to focus the series on practical actions that USAID staff and partners can take to use a collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) approach in their day-to-day work.
Afer all, our project’s results framework focuses on building and equipping CLA champions. My colleague Sarah famously (and hilariously) once said “if we’re not touching people, then what are we touching?” It’s true. People are agents of change. If people don’t take actions to change the environment in which they’re working, their relationships, etc., nothing changes. Sarah’s words echoed in my mind as I scoped and sketched.
I wanted the series to empower USAID staff and partners to change the way they work. I wanted them to come away feeling empowered with practices they could apply at the individual and team level. So I made the person in the icons a genderless superhero with a lightbulb on its chest. There’s a lightbulb in the USAID Learning Lab logo, and throughout the site. Look at that power pose!
But where should the person BE? Again, I wanted listeners to come away believing that they could transform the way development works from the inside out. So to evoke this feeling, I wanted the icon to feel three dimensional, like it was invading your space. That’s when the idea of a vanishing line came to me. I don’t even know if I’m using the term correctly–and I’m not going to Google it because I don’t care, it totally makes sense to me–but I wanted the three-dimensionality to come from the text being distorted on one side of the vanishing line. I wanted the icons for each episode to look like part of a whole, but also distinctive, so I chose a different color from the USAID branding guide for each one. I liked the stark light/dark contrast of the colors against the white background.
So, any guesses on where I now attribute my inspiration for this design? Hint: it comes from a Nickelodeon cartoon.
Does anyone remember the introduction to the 1990s cartoon Doug? It starts with a drawn line that becomes a vanishing line (my lexicon). It’s a floor, it’s a wall, it’s a balloon string.
And in this very early promotion, you see a dark silhouette of Doug backlit in a doorway before he turns on the lights in a room.
I didn’t realize this until I saw the final product. I was playing with the high contrast pool of color versus white space, and what could trick the mind into seeing three dimensions in a flat image.
So there it is. Inspiration from a cartoon I hadn’t thought about in decades. Thanks, Doug!
You can listen to Inside Out here or wherever you listen to podcasts. New episodes will be released each Tuesday in May.