A design team helped create a new advertising campaign, which ran on bus shelters across Baltimore City, as part of the 2020 DesignFest. The annual event returned Saturday. Image courtesy of MICA.

PIVOT, a Baltimore nonprofit that works with women re-entering their communities after incarceration, wanted to refresh their logo but didn’t know where to begin.

The organization created their original logo themselves with a free basic design program in 2018. But the logo looked “very stark and kind of bold,” said co-founder Emily Thompson, and it didn’t channel the healing that the nonprofit strives to foster.

PIVOT eventually learned about the Grassroots DesignFest, which matches art, design and business students and professionals with Baltimore-area nonprofits in need of new logos, branding or other projects. The annual event, which is hosted by Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and investment firm T. Rowe Price, provides that design work at no cost to the nonprofits.

The organization applied to DesignFest, was accepted, and worked with a team of designers to rework their logo last year. The nonprofit returned this year for further assistance with their website.

The fifth annual DesignFest was held virtually on Saturday. It matched more than 30 local nonprofits with professional designers and undergraduate and graduate students from MICA, Bowie State University, California College of the Arts, Johns Hopkins University, Loyola University, Morgan State University, Stevenson University, Towson University, UMBC, University of Baltimore, and University of South Carolina.

Sheri Parks, MICA’s vice president for strategic initiatives, said many nonprofits are focused on providing services to their communities but do not consider how to effectively communicate their identity and mission to people outside of that already established community.

“Sometimes, if you’re responding to a problem, you don’t have time to think about that. You go straight to the trenches,” Parks said. “You need something like DesignFest to pull up and say ‘How do we explain what we do to people who are not in the trenches with us already?’”

John Brothers, president of the T. Rowe Price Foundation, said some nonprofits have a “storytelling problem” because they lack the design infrastructure to tell their story.

But Baltimore is home to large institutions, like MICA, T. Rowe Price and others, that can share their infrastructure and “help Baltimore in a better way,” Brothers said.

“I think what we’re hoping for is there’s other ways in which the steam of Baltimore companies, Baltimore anchor institutions, Baltimore being a university town – how can we use these institutions’ steam to lift up and build this really great reservoir of social change agents in the city?” he said.

DesignFest has facilitated about $1 million worth of pro bono work, Brothers said, allowing nonprofits to concentrate better on the communities they serve.

While DesignFest focuses on storytelling, Brothers hopes that Baltimore institutions can also help nonprofits in other areas, such as finance, service delivery, and customer service.

Baltimore nonprofit PIVOT wanted to update its old logo, which simply featured the organization’s name in purple and white. Image courtesy of PIVOT.
Baltimore nonprofit PIVOT wanted to update its old logo, which simply featured the organization’s name in purple and white. Image courtesy of PIVOT.
Baltimore nonprofit PIVOT’s new logo features a pair of light purple hands forming a heart, next to the nonprofit’s name in solid, dark purple lettering. Image courtesy of PIVOT.
Baltimore nonprofit PIVOT’s new logo features a pair of light purple hands forming a heart, next to the nonprofit’s name in solid, dark purple lettering. Image courtesy of PIVOT.

In the case of PIVOT, DesignFest gave the nonprofit an opportunity for a new image.

The nonprofit’s original logo featured the name “PIVOT” in white lettering against a purple background, or sometimes vice versa. For the update, they “wanted something that represented the caliber of organization that PIVOT is and that was just a little bit more professional,” Thompson said, who added that they wanted to keep their signature purple color to maintain some continuity.

She added that the font of the old logo was reminiscent of the bars that the formerly incarcerated women were locked behind. PIVOT wanted to revamp their logo to instead highlight the women’s paths forward.

“That’s the past and what we want to be focusing on is the future for our participants,” Thompson said.

Alykhan Alani served as a coach on the team that designed PIVOT’s new logo in 2021, while he was completing graduate coursework at MICA.

Alani said the design team, which included a mix of design professionals and students from multiple schools, wanted to create a logo that would appeal to various types of stakeholders.

“We realized that the logo that they were looking for wasn’t just one that was important to broadcast externally to donors and funders, but it was also something that needed to resonate with the core beneficiaries of PIVOT’s work,” he said.

The team also wanted to ensure that the logo used an open-source font that the nonprofit would be free to use for other projects, and that it would still be recognizable when reproduced on a black-and-white copier.

During the design process, Alani said the team also realized that while “strong referral pipelines to social services” are important, PIVOT also aids communities’ efforts to rebuild themselves.

“It’s not just linking these limited vital services,” he said. “It’s building communities, which tries to mitigate this very difficult, challenging, isolating experience.”

Alani added that “community can help reshape identity and allow people who have been through these systems to reconcile those identities.”

The design team developed and presented multiple logo options to the nonprofit, who then had their staff and program participants provide feedback and vote on their favorite.

“It just was very empowering for everyone to know, not only to have everybody get to weigh in and have a voice, but also to know that the choice we were making had a reason for it,” Thompson said.

The logo that PIVOT ultimately selected features a pair of light purple hands forming a heart, next to the nonprofit’s name in solid, dark purple lettering.

After last year’s DesignFest, PIVOT began using their new logo on business cards, letterhead, presentations and other materials.

But the nonprofit soon ran into another issue. They had expected to be able to simply swap out the old logo for the new one wherever it appeared on the website, but it looked “very disjointed,” Thompson said.

This year, another design team helped PIVOT integrate the new logo more cohesively into the nonprofit’s website.

Creating a professional and recognizable brand was especially important as PIVOT plans to expand its reach by providing more housing support and pre-release services for women before they return to their communities. The nonprofit currently works with a cohort of 15 women per quarter, or 60 yearly, who have been recently released or are returning from incarceration.

Thompson said PIVOT was drawn back to DesignFest by the thoughtfulness and connection of their design team last year.

“We were so impressed by the caliber of designers that DesignFest brings together,” she said. “I think it’s not only the design services that we received that were so beneficial, that we never would have been able to afford otherwise. But also, each designer brought a lot of care and passion and felt connected to our cause.”

Alani also returned to DesignFest, this year working on a team that assisted Weekend Backpacks, a Baltimore nonprofit that provides weekend meals to children experiencing food insecurity.

Now contracting as a research and program manager with PRO at Google, Alani works with a team of user experience researchers to study how and why people engage with products and services. Their insights help product managers and engineers improve the experience of using those products and services.

Alani said his 2021 DesignFest coaching experience was critical to his journey as a design professional, giving him “opportunities for experiential learning where you get to really throw yourself into mission-driven work.”

During last year’s event, he was able to share his knowledge of design strategy, while another team member gave him an introduction to visual prototyping tools.

Parks, of MICA, said DesignFest gives design students and professionals hands-on experiences working with clients.

“This is real time,” she said. “This is a real nonprofit looking you in the face and saying, ‘I’ve got a problem. Help me fix it.’”

“Having someone come to you with a real life problem and asking you to be part of the solution because of your skills … there is an emotional, social, professional reaction that happens at DesignFest that is intangible and yet very, very real,” Parks added. “The students come away so happy and so proud in actually understanding the work of the skills that they’re learning. That is invaluable.”

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...