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Singing with the Sirens

In all of my graphic design classes, I require students to thoroughly document their problem-solving process from start to finish. Not only does this allow patterns and insights about one’s process to emerge, it ensures that young designers aren’t trying to skip steps. As one matures in the visual communication design profession, a deep and thorough process becomes second nature. With much experience, the process of solving a client’s problem may come much more quickly and efficiently. Yet most designers have learned through years of presentations to clients and partners, that documentation of explorations and decisions made can prove quite valuable to explaining and justifying a solution, both conceptually and formally.

Recently some students expressed curiosity about my process, I suspect wanting to confirm whether I went through the rigorous process that I expect from them. A recent freelance project is a prime case study to provide that confirmation…

Siren Nation is a a unique arts organization that showcases and creates performance and exhibition opportunities for women throughout the year. They are the only women’s collective that produces an annual festival showcasing the original work of women working in music, film, performance and visual art. A friend on the board of directors approached me about redesigning the Siren Nation identity. What follows is an outline of that process.

Orientation & Information Gathering

Of course, the first step is getting to know your client, their values and vision, and their goals for the materials being designed.

Siren Nation’s values are to:

  • Promote women making a living as working artists.
  • Provide showcasing opportunities for women artists to increase their visibility.
  • Expose audiences to a diversity of art by women working in film, music, visual and performing arts.
  • Honor and pay tribute to groundbreaking female artists of the past and present.
  • Provide opportunities for collaboration among artists.
  • Empower and inspire women and girls through educational opportunities.
  • Raise visibility and create dialogue about women in the arts.
  • Create community by bringing together diverse audiences.
  • Actively work towards parity in the arts.
  • Collaborate with and support like-minded non-profit and community organizations.

Much of the impetus for re-branding was a feeling that the image was outdated, or too specifically referenced Portland landmarks or graphic styles that didn’t speak to the broader scope of musicians and artists being celebrated through their events.


Sample of previous identity and promotional materials

Sample of previous identity and promotional materials

The first two meetings were critical for ascertaining what the Siren Nation board felt they needed to project, and for learning any aesthetic or stylistic affinities they had individually and might agree on. Listening and note-taking are essential skills for designers, and there are many tools for assessing client’s objectives that they can’t necessarily articulate. I chose to create a morphology using a few terms and sample festival logos to explore variables, to see where there was consensus about how they saw Siren Nation being projected.






Research of precedents is an invaluable step, as a designer needs to familiarize herself with the client’s industry and competition within. Music and arts festivals are as diverse as people are, so it provided a broad framework from which to start. What these initial discussions revealed were that they were somewhat interested in putting forth a Portland or Northwest flavor, wished to stay away from any particular music genre or style association and embrace eclecticism, and they were very concerned with being perceived as a strong, stable and high-caliber organization.





A series of typefaces gathered by one board member was circulated to determine what was striking the right chord with the others. This was extremely valuable for me in establishing some key descriptive words to return to while I worked on custom lettering and with digital fonts alike.



























Conceptual Development / Divergence

As ideas and images began to form in my mind, and in my sketchbook, continued research was focused on gathering inspirational images.

























I worked steadily on sketches for hours at a time, over several days. This is the time when a designer can explore, through any means available, associations and invented forms, with no judgement. While I recommend working fast and loose, with no preconceived notions limiting the process, many iterations here centered around a few concepts:

  • bold but organic type with slightly retro or nostalgic connotations
  • slanted, strong type shapes referencing Russian Constructivism, revolutionary messages, megaphones
  • slightly nautical themes in connection to the Siren and in support of the Pacific Northwest
  • abstract reference to the experience of music and rhythm expressed typographically
  • icons pointing to the diverse activities of the events, exhibits, performances
  • self-contained block form (like a Chinese ‘chop’ or stamp)























Design / Convergence

Typically, all that was explored in the ideation phase is analyzed and narrowed down to roughly 3 to 5 conceptual directions to share with the client. More than a handful of sketches can overwhelm and confuse some folks. I decided to go a slightly unorthodox route and share many more options with the Siren Nation board, knowing they are design savvy and would appreciate being more fully involved in the creative process. It was a calculated risk to bring so many visuals to the next meeting, but it paid off greatly in the chance to listen to individuals critique some concepts and justify others, ultimately reaching consensus on three concepts to refine.



color-palette_small meeting-notes



















Leaving visual studies in sketch form (although cleaned up in Photoshop) not only saves me time (which is, of course, money), but also allows the client to judge ideas on their conceptual potential without getting bogged down in issues of detail or polish. At that meeting we also discussed potential color palettes and desired revisions. At the next junction, developing the three chosen concepts, I moved to Illustrator to trace my most effective sketches, import colors swatches generated with Adobe’s Kuler tool, and explore typefaces and arrangements for the tagline.





The three finalists included these conceptual and formal ideas:

  1. slanted, strong type shapes referencing Russian Constructivism along with icons for music, film, art, fashion
  2. heavy, curvy type (both strong and feminine), somewhat retro in a mid-century modern, geometric way
  3. organic, forward motion script and frame element that may recall Marshall speakers & amp, the Gibson guitar logo, and old name-matches on workclothes

Logos almost never exist as a one-off but, in actuality, must be developed as family of several variations to fit diverse contexts and media. I also believe, to quote Milton Glaser, that “a logo is the point of entry to the brand,” and while it can’t communicate everything, it should have flexible and versatile components that can expand into a broader visual language. So after showing the Siren Nation logos in relative isolation (like above), I also showed demonstrations of how each might play out in unique ways, how I envisioned they fit within a larger context:

SirenNation3finals_Page_1 SirenNation3finals_Page_2 SirenNation3finals_Page_3 SirenNation3finals_Page_4 SirenNation3finals_Page_5 SirenNation3finals_Page_6































































































Our final meeting was to be one with many more board members and Siren Nation folks, so I was excited to share these final three and find out what would resonate with the most of them. I devised a simple and fun voting system of 3 small objects given to everyone and, once I presented each solution and took questions, I asked every person to cast two votes for their favorite design and one for their second favorite. The consensus was evident immediately and the new Siren Nation identity was born.



One variation I wanted to propose was a distressed, stamp-like aesthetic. To create this I used a favorite, low-tech method of printing the image reversed on a black and white laser printer or photocopier and then using a colorless marker on the back to transfer the toner to another substrate. It’s important to embrace and explore methods that don’t involve the computer.

























I’m happy with the selected design, especially because it was created without benefit of a digital font but rather with custom lettering, which is fun and rewarding to create.




























Of course, the work doesn’t stop there for the designer, especially when working with a small start-up or nonprofit organization that isn’t likely to have a brand manager, designer, or technology specialist on the team. The files need to be prepared in every imaginable way, for print and screen. This often entails preparing spot and process color versions for print, RGB or web-safe versions for screen, and making multiple copies in different files formats to anticipate the many diverse applications and software programs that might be used by others down the line.


































It has been a pleasure to be involved with this great organization, from participating in past art shows and craft sales, to attending inspiring musical performances, to now helping refresh their public image. I’m honored to have been chosen to show some personal artwork in a show on November 7. For more information about Siren Nation, and for details on upcoming music and art shows, visit or find them on FaceBook. Maybe I’ll see you there!

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