Magical by Design

With novelty 826 storefronts like Tivoli’s Astounding Magic Supply Company, there’s a lot more than meets the eye.

For starters, they’re more than stores. In addition to selling gifts, merchandise, and student-written books, the spaces also serve as entryways into the 826 writing centers and opportunities for the community to get to know us and the free youth programming we offer.

Everything—from the themes and the branding to the spaces themselves and the items within—is carefully thought out to spark delight for students and visitors alike, to complement the writing centers they each support, to reflect the 826 National network’s values, and to mesh well with their broader neighborhoods.

That’s a lot, to say the least! 

 A Dream for Design Students

The richness of the brand experience, the commitment to serving young learners, and the breadth of possibility for exercising imagination makes this an ideal opportunity to explore branding. This drew the attention of Susan LaPorte, longtime faculty and Communication Design Department Chair of the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, who designed a project based on branding a fictional 826 store ten years ago—and the learning continues today!

This past fall, Visiting Instructor Lauren Williams assigned each of her junior-year Communication Design students a city where their very own fictional 826 chapter and storefront would be located. The students explored their locales through contextual and visual research, gleaning an understanding of what sets each city apart. They also studied 826 National, the mission, the work that 826DC and our fellow chapters do with student writers, and the programming and merchandise at 826 stores across the country. 

Their challenge: come up with a brand identity for a fictional 826 storefront which reflected what they learned about 826, the distinctive elements of their city, and their growing experience with typography, visual imagery, color theory, and more.

“Much of the most celebrated branding we encounter in the world seeks to elevate or convince us of the value of a product,” said Lauren. “Branding an organization like 826 offers several more complex and rewarding challenges: to stretch our own imaginations to encapsulate what 826 aims to inspire in learners; to essentialize a mission and a creative store concept in one visual identity; and to have critical conversations about that mission-driven work, its audiences, and the neighborhoods in which it transpires.”

It was also a ton of fun. Encouraging students to push the boundaries of their store concepts into silly, satirical, play-filled territory was a challenge but one that led to lots of creative growth.     

“It was a good sandbox to practice branding design because it wasn’t super ‘corporate,’” said student Jessica Rothwell. “While we still had to consider the ‘rules and regulations’ of branding, you could be weirder with it—you had to be weirder with it! We were encouraged to get super whimsical.” 

Three phone mockups, showing Jessica Rothwell's Barbells and Fingerlings website.

Jessica Rothwell’s Barbells and Fingerlings: A Supply Store for Catfish and Enthusiasts, in Jackson, MS highlights the state’s prominence as the country’s leading catfish producer. These website mockups depict what the browsing experience would be like on a mobile device.

Kristin Davis’s Marvelous Milk Emporium plays on the fact that milk is Mississippi’s state beverage and the notion that milk helps kids grow big and strong: through the writing programs at the Emporium, kids’ writing skills, too, will be strengthened. Each student made products that would be sold in their fictional storefronts: In this case, Kristin offers oddly flavored “milk” cartons that bring her concept to life.

Kristin Davis’s Marvelous Milk Emporium plays on the fact that milk is Mississippi’s state beverage and the notion that milk helps kids grow big and strong: through the writing programs at the Emporium, kids’ writing skills, too, will be strengthened. Each student made products that would be sold in their fictional storefronts: In this case, Kristin offers oddly flavored “milk” cartons that bring her concept to life.  

Various items from Ivy Serrano's Oakness Monster Research Institute concept.

Ivy Serrano’s Oakness Monster Research Institute gives kids in Oakland the tools to study the mystical Oakness Monster said to live in Lake Merritt, from “eel slime treats” said to attract the monster to a waterproof notebook to jot down all their notes, the shop caters to every young researcher’s needs. 

Some Familiar Faces

Sarah Richman, 826DC’s Development and Communications Manager, and Cedric Brown, 826DC’s Deputy Store Manager, were glad to join the class for a virtual critique of the students’ concepts. 

“We were thrilled to see how excited the College for Creative Studies students were about 826,” said Sarah. “It just goes to show how much our mission and our spaces really resonate with so many people.”

For Cedric, who is originally from Detroit, being able to support students in his hometown was also fantastic. “I’m always open to provide guidance to those who want to use their skills to achieve change,” he said, especially students in Detroit. “It felt like a full circle moment for me.”

All in the Details

As each student presented, Sarah and Cedric looked for aspects of each concept that might pose issues if they were made real. In Jessi’s words, “I loved having them come and talk to us because it rooted it in the real world how you’d do this, not just isolated in school.” 

For example, if any of the design elements would make the space unsafe for young people or  difficult for anyone in the community to comfortably access, that would be something a student would need to reconsider.

“This project drove home the fact that there are people on the other side when you’re designing a brand,” said student Morgan Lashbrook. “It’s not just about design choices—there are people involved in the things you make and they should be involved as a consideration in your process.”

Morgan’s store theme, Storm Seeker Supply Co. was inspired by Tulsa’s extreme weather. “Cedric and Sarah pointed out that these kinds of storms destroy people’s homes and reminded me to consider how to encourage safety at the same time that I promoted the excitement of a storm-seeking adventure.That’s really stuck with me and this project was really the first time I’ve had the opportunity to think through the real-world implications of my work.”  

Morgan’s “Storm Emergency Kit” and “Storm Calming Spray” respond to the severity of extreme weather events and equip kids to, both practically and imaginatively, weather difficult conditions. 

Sarah and Cedric also highlighted how important it was for each design to center young people and their dignity, power, and choice. Their critiques invited students to explore and reconfigure conclusions drawn from their research and reinscribed in their creative work in important ways. For example: What assumptions do we embed into our designs about children and the systems—educational, social, economic—that shape their opportunities to thrive? When one of the concepts featured language encouraging hypothetical students to dream bigger, for example, they pointed out how demeaning that could potentially be for a young writer. 

At Gabriella “Gabi” Cruciani’s Dust Bunny Pet Supply Company based in Tulsa, OK—inspired in part by the state’s dry, high-wind climate—visitors could adopt their own “dust bunny” and walk away with all the accoutrements one might need to care for their new pet. Cedric and Sarah’s nuanced feedback drew our attention to the ways in which this concept could be misinterpreted: Does the concept inadvertently suggest that the folks who shop there have a dust bunny problem in their homes?

Dust bunny storefront

Gabi’s storefront features friendly dust-bunnies peeking out from windows. 

Gabi maintained her concept but pivoted to create a visual system that amplified cute, cuddly—not dirty—dust bunnies. That level of attentiveness to the ways in which our design choices can be read depending on context is crucial. In Gabbi’s words,“if it doesn’t reflect the brand’s ethos fully, it won’t work.” 

Dust bunny sample and packaging

Each dust bunny adopted at Dust Bunny Pet Supply Co. comes with an official adoption certificate and carrying case—not featured here: miniature dust bunny provisions to make sure your new pet stays well-fed.

“Having Sarah and Cedric join us helped the whole class pay special attention to how each element in their designs could be interpreted and impact people,” said Lauren, “and reassess the assumptions that they might have made and missed as they built out their concepts.”

Much to Consider

It was these conversations that drove home the point that branding isn’t just about formal technique or one’s mastery of design methods. It’s also about how those designs impact people. Designers wield power by embedding our own worldviews or assumptions—for better or worse—into our work. Being thoughtful about the potential ramifications of our design choices is especially important when working on visual systems meant to attract, resonate with, and ultimately serve young people. 

“Beyond the challenge of designing an entire visual identity, this project became a vehicle for us to explore questions in each city around equity, the systemic disinvestment that affects childrens’ educational outcomes, and more through the act of making,” said Lauren.

“Collectively, we critically examined the function of branding; the assumptions students hold about the cities they researched and the children in them; and our responsibility as designers to question those assumptions and deliver dignity through our work.”  

All’s Well that Ends Well

Zoom screenshot

Pictured, left to right, starting in the top row: Michael (MJ) Jones, Sarah Richman, Lauren Williams, Jessica Rothwell, David Taylor, Cedric Brown, Kristin Davis, Morgan Lashbrook, Vanessa Bennett, Charles (Chuck) Schwarting, Hassan (Hass) Hamoud, Gabriella (Gabi) Cruciani, Leo Romero, Ivy Serrano, Hailey Swiatowy, and Jacob Aleman. 

The project and the semester may have ended, but there is still so much more learning and creating to do.

“You don’t have to live in Washington, DC to be part of the 826DC community,” said Sarah. “Celebrating young people and what they have to say, delighting in what writing can do, and curating joyful, meaningful spaces in which young people can express themselves takes all of us. If these kinds of challenges speak to you—whether you’re across the country or down the street—we want you involved.”

Thoroughly impressed and grateful, Sarah and Cedric invited Lauren and each of the students to stay connected with 826DC and 826 as a whole.

Want to Volunteer or Design for an 826 Storefront?

Cedric’s advice: “Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to try different ideas.”

Sarah’s advice: “Have fun with it and remember what the storefront is and isn’t meant to do.”

You can also learn more about volunteering with 826DC here.