A fair exchange

The very idea of social innovation undermines conventional marketing practice, forcing designers to face up to the challenges of user-generated content and ill-defined briefs. Gina Lovett explores the approaches of three programmes hoping to exploit the power of branding without selling out

Graphic designers will always argue that the hallmarks of strong branding and visual communication lie in a clear brief and clarity of proposition. But in the field of social innovation – where interdisciplinary activity creates new solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges through behaviour change, activism and services – a completely new set of values around branding and visual communication is emerging.

Design done on a voluntary basis, undefined briefs, lack of brand authority, user-generated content, and the need to speak to many diverse audiences at once are just some of the challenges faced by organisations working in the field.

The intangibility of social innovation is one of the biggest hurdles, according to Louise Pulford, co-ordinator of The Young Foundation’s social innovation network Social Innovation Exchange, or Six. ’It’s a new concept, there’s no agreed definition of what it is, and people struggle with this. The field would definitely benefit from better branding and visual communication,’ she says. So, how are those working in the field meeting this challenge and appealing to audiences used to the high level of visual sophistication in the commercial consumer world?


Mindapples is a participatory campaign, aimed at promoting the importance of mental health, drawing a parallel with the five fruit’n’veg-a-day approach to maintaining physical health. According to founder Andy Gibson (pictured), the campaign is at a crucial point in its design, as it is about to step up its profile and undergo an overhaul. The brand, website and other touchpoints that communicate how the campaign is built as more users get involved are all vital.

’We’re asking people what they need to maintain positive mental health, and use digital tools to share this. What we’re trying to build is a community brand. We associate conventional branding with marking cattle – it asserts ownership – but Mindapples is not a mark of ownership. It’s an assertion that our community values it,’ Gibson explains.

Finding a name that is sufficiently illustrative speaks volumes, according to Gibson. ’What we’ve now realised is that with a name like Mindapples you don’t need to draw an apple beside the name. You can then add a different visual to create another layer to the meaning,’ he says.

’There always seems to be a point where social enterprises get a load of money and then become boring and sensible, just like everything else. There’s a real temptation to make something well-designed, with a tight colour palette, keynote font and visual icons, but one of the things with strong community brands and sites is that they look ugly and chaotic. You can put people off by being too slick. We want the brand to be beautiful in a way that people want to come in and colour it,’ he adds.

Transition Town

The Transition Town movement began as a manifesto answering the challenges of peak oil, climate change and our dependency on fossil fuels. Originator Rob Hopkins set out an action plan in 2005 for the town of Totnes in Devon that could be taken up by any community, with the aim of reducing energy dependence through practical steps.

Transition Brixton, launched in 2007, is one of the urban implementations of the concept, out of which developed Brixton Remade, a programme to reduce waste, and the Brixton Pound, aimed at boosting local economy. Transition Network organisers suggest that ’high visibility’ physical manifestations are needed from the outset to enhance people’s perceptions and willingness to participate, such as an identity specific to each area.

As a result, identities for Transition locations have been as varied as the places themselves, explains Transition Brixton co-ordinator Duncan Law (pictured above). Meandering rivers and sunsets form the basis of visual imagery for villages like Lewes, but Brixton has taken its town hall as an emblem of universal appeal and the area’s hip-hop culture has inspired some of its marketing materials. While this diversity is a celebration, it also means varying standards and no obvious visual continuity across the network.

Law admits, ’Pretty much the only continuity throughout the network is the dissemination of the idea, and the Transition name.’ But while the lack of sheen and a possible loss of credibility can put off the ’unconverted’, Law claims that the ’visual approachability’ allows people to feel they can get involved and help.

’To have hundreds of people contributing towards something means much more than a pleasing and impressive visual identity,’ he says. The idea of ’energy and anarchy’, he says, especially when applied to creativity, is a suitable antidote to the visual homogeneity of globalisation.

Social Innovation Exchange

Social Innovation Exchange, part of The Young Foundation, works on two levels – first, as a network and meeting place, where social innovators and entrepreneurs can meet investors, service providers and like-minded thinkers, and, second, as a demonstration of successful tools and processes through case studies.

Six co-ordinator Louise Pulford (pictured above) explains that the most tangible way of describing what the organisation does is through analogy. ’We like to think of Six in terms of bees and trees. The trees represent the big institutions that support innovation like the Government or big companies, while the bees are the smaller organisations and individual actors on the ground. The symbiosis of bees and trees represents the cross-pollination,’ she says. This was the starting point for the organisation’s existing identity, designed in-house, which uses yellow and black branches organised around a central hexagonal hub – the hive of activity. The abstract and generic quality is important in not alienating anyone, Pulford points out. Unlike Transition Towns, there is a more traditional sense of brand ownership – the brand is used throughout the network by members as a badge of endorsement on marketing and communications touchpoints. ’That said, we’re not precious about the brand. It’s the property of anyone involved in Six, anywhere. It’s also important to have a brand that everyone identifies with to speed up the learning process, and, here, the brand comes as a legitimisation of the tools and processes that can do this.’



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