Digital Design students spend four terms building up the Interactive, Motion, and Communication Design skills they'll need to execute the centrepiece of their growing portfolio: the final project. This is what they'll show to prospective clients or employers after they finish their intense year at VFS.
Recent graduate Ileana Hierro decided to create a branding guide as her final project. The task pushed her to her creative limits; for many weeks, she racked her brain with hundreds of decisions that would shape the brand's image, from the logo to visual applications, and even a challenging video shoot.
But the success of Ileana's project is clear: "Sandbox" has been turning heads here at VFS, and will undoubtedly continue to do so in the greater design community.
Helping with Design
Ileana worked at summer camps from age 13 to 21. She understands kids and knows they need safe places to play – something she noticed her hometown of Mexico City severely lacked. When brainstorming for her final project, she decided that she had to do something more than just a design exercise:
"I wanted to show that, as designers, we can do commercial and non-commercial work," Ileana says. "Then I wanted to show that, with design, you can help solve problems... It's not just about selling design; it's about helping with design."
After a conversation with her husband about the lack of playgrounds in Mexico, she decided to dedicate a large part of her final two terms at VFS to finding a solution to this problem... from a designer's point of view.
Here's an in-depth look into the creative and developmental processes behind Ileana's project, starting right from the top.
Building a Brand
Before Ileana could fully pursue this idea as her final project, she had to know whether anyone had already beaten her to the punch.
"I found that there were six other organizations in the world doing it," Ileana says, referring to two organizations in the United States, one in Palestine, one in India, another in London, and one in Canada that focuses solely on sending aid to developing countries.
"I had to study those patterns and study their names, so I could tell that [my company] would be something really unique."
After finding her niche, Ileana began mapping out her plan for tackling a brand guide.
"Every organization needs a brand to identify itself from the rest," she explains. "It's the way the audience gets connected with the organization."
But this task wouldn't be as simple as designing a brand for a well-known company like McDonald's or Nike, or even working with a small business client. Ileana would have to build everything from the ground up, doubling the work since "Sandbox" didn't exist yet. Frequently, she had to remind herself that she was a designer and not an entrepreneur.
"I had to understand that I was creating the brand and not the organization... But I had to think as an owner to define the personality and the values. So I had to think as the client and the designer."
Perry Chua , Ileana's project advisor, helped get her through much of the early creative process with a simple exercise that allowed Ileana to define her brand by associating it with other types of products. It went like this:
"If my company was a car, which type of car would it be?" Ileana asked herself. She filled in the blanks for each question intuitively, creating a long list of adjectives that could describe her brand's personality.
Eventually, she whittled the list down to five values (inspiring, responsible, playful, influential, discover), along with another five words or phrases to describe the brand's "voice" (sympathetic, vital, nimble, pure, no limits).
Defining these core elements would dictate many of her decisions throughout the whole project, from deciding upon a name to designing a business card. Without this part of the process, Ileana might have lost track of what she originally wanted to accomplish.
"The brand name has to clearly say what you are and be short and easy to remember," Ileana explains. "I took like a week just for the name. I was going crazy... I started looking through playground parts and stuff like that, and materials and colours that represent a playground."
With the advice from then-Head of Digital Design Sebastien de Castell, Ileana went against her initial impulse to give the company a Spanish name. She now supports this choice, saying it allowed her to open up the global possibilities of her brand, reaching beyond Mexico while remaining rooted there.
After reframing everything around the word "play," Ileana boiled all of the possible names down to four finalists.
"We chose Sandbox because it represents the whole concept of what I wanted to say, which is building, playing, and creating a community."
Designing the logo was one of the most important phases in Ileana's brand development, as it would affect the tone of all the other visual elements. The process was daunting, but rewarding.
"It takes a while," she admits. "You have to start drawing and feeling it. And soon you'll start seeing some styles and patterns, but not necessarily the most effective ones. You start seeing that some are stronger, some are less."
To help her make a final choice, Ileana consulted again with Perry Chua and Digital Design's Branding Instructor Maria Kennedy. There were just too many directions to consider on her own.
"From each concept, I did like 30 versions in different colours, different positions, with different tones." Eventually she decided on one. (featured at the beginning of this case study )
"The other concepts take you longer to understand it. You needed an explanation of why this chair was going through the clouds... But this one was intuitive. You kind of say, 'hm, it's cute...' The blue part is related to the sky and it's natural. [It's also] related to health and safety."
Sebastien also advised her to include the Spanish word "fundación" to signify that, while it is a globally-minded organization, this foundation functions on a community-participation level and has roots in Mexico. This was also an attempt to differentiate "Sandbox" from for-profit companies and hopefully, some day in the future, encourage potential donors to support the foundation's mission.
Defining the tagline would test Ileana's grasp of her brand's message. She could nail down a catchy name and an eye-grabbing logo, but now she needed to express one phrase that summed up what her brand is all about.
"The tagline has to be short. It has to say exactly what you do, but give a special quality that makes people say 'Hm. I should help.'"
After running through many options, she came to a decision with the help of her advisors: "Creating playgrounds, fulfilling dreams."
By this point, she says she had only reached the 50% mark toward completing the project. There were still many elements to consider for her brand guide.
Now that Ileana had devised a name, a logo, and a tagline centered on her brand's core values and personality, she had to extend that emotional tone further to fill out the brand guide.
"I had to define my elements... I had to choose a type [typographic style] that worked with the brand and the whole concept... playful but still serious in some ways."
These style choices would be ever-present in the core brand elements and its extensive applications. Ileana just had to make sure they represented the brand properly.
"I wanted the images to show emotion," she says. "Not only kids – you have to show the emotions of the community that's helping, [along with] the emotions of the kids by having this place, and stuff like that. So it was always focused on showing the emotion, not just the activity."
"And then you start playing," Ileana says, referencing the designed specifications for stationery and brand applications, like buttons, balloons, t-shirts, caps, water bottles – even a hoarding for construction sites.
"If you're a kid, you can look through [the hoarding] and see: 'What are they doing? Oh! A playground!' And if you are an adult, you can look through the bigger cloud... It's still playful and it gives you the dream part," thereby representing those core values and personality Ileana decided upon near the beginning of the process.
Even while designing these different kinds of applications, she admits it's not hard to stay on track with your core concept for your brand.
"When your logo is defined, it's funny, but it just flows in your mind. You know how you're going to play with those elements," Ileana says. "If you are writing a love story... you just write the words that come to your head. It's kind of like that. I knew the most important thing was to be playful, but it also has to be responsible." What's most important in this part of the process, she says, is considering every possible application your client could want in the future, and making sure the brand will be properly represented when it's reproduced by a printer or another designer unfamiliar with the brand concept.
Ileana's first stage in promoting her brand was to design a website. She initially considered only doing a mockup, but her advisors urged her to treat this as an opportunity to really show a client the full extent of her talents. A mockup wouldn't be enough to do that. So she made the leap from communication design into interactive design.
"The website is another process," she says. "The branding always has to be there. If you understand your brand, you can make whatever you want – if it's a website or an infographic, a video campaign – whatever you want to do." As with most successful websites, Ileana had to decide who her target audience was. What kinds of people would be interested in learning more about this organization, and who would choose a website for their source of information about "Sandbox"?
Ileana decided on two personas: one, a professional who works for a large organization, someone who wants information quickly and efficiently; and two, a community-minded parent who is involved in local activities. Once she knew who she was trying to reach, she knew what information should be included on the website. She thought a section on government initiatives, for example, would be of interest to both personas: knowing that Sandbox is connected to the government would hopefully make it more trustworthy.
"And then comes the campaign."
By this point, Ileana had defined who Sandbox is and what they do, as well as all facets of the foundation's look. Now it was time to focus on how to get that message out to the public. "My first idea was to create a video – a little PSA [public service announcement] just showing kids going to empty places around the city that are possible places to build a playground... But," she soon realized, "filming children is really hard."
After almost completely losing a day's shoot to wrangling kids who would have much preferred doing anything but star in a PSA, Ileana gave up on the idea of doing a video and began brainstorming a print campaign. She luckily had enough visual material from her one stressful shoot.
"I got two good shots in a whole day," she says. "It was frustrating, but I still had time to do something good."
This included bus stop posters, print publication ads, and an immersive elevator ad that aimed to literally carry potential donors, parents, and children inside the "Sandbox" dream.
It's too early to tell whether Ileana's final project will actually draw some attention from entrepreneurs or community-minded organizations. She's recently returned to Mexico to resume working in design, armed with a rock solid branding guide that proves designers have the power to solve problems and help people.
Want to see all of Ileana's final project?
Click here to download the "Sandbox" branding guide (7MB PDF)
Find out more about what you will learn in the one-year Digital Design program.