Branding the Man They Called Jesus

Mark Busse (November 2009)

yaaway_logo_application.jpg

Separating Church and State (of Mind)

At some point in our lives, each of us learns the lesson that discussing religion or politics in mixed company can backfire. You can really set some people off and ruin a nice dinner party by sharing some personal convictions. This issue was a concern when we were first approached by the semi-religious organization, Yaaway Media, to design a brand identity for a community media website aimed at inspiring a more caring and wise world by sharing the messages and lessons of the man called Jesus—not so much the central figure in the Christian religion, but the historical figure whose sage wisdom is as relevant today as it has been for centuries. 'Sound like an interesting challenge? We thought so too.

Keenly aware that our company is largely defined by its clients and projects, we always evaluate opportunities against a set of criteria that include profit, portfolio, ethics, and fit—but what about optics? At first, this situation felt a little like that which arose when gambling or pornography companies had approached us in the past, leading us to politely decline the work. No matter how you slice it, religion is a touchy topic. Our association with the project could have an impact our own brand, so we had to tread carefully.

Once the project was finished, and though proud of the results, members of the Industrial Brand team would hesitate before discussing the Yaaway project, making sure to explain the situation clearly to avoid it being summarily categorized as bible-thumper fodder. Our team members' histories run the gamut of those raised in religious homes of various faiths, to those who are completely secular. We didn't all share our client's beliefs, but didn't oppose them either, and following the completion of our initial assessment process, we were surprised at how quickly we became comfortable with the subject matter. The message was positive, and nobody was being duped.

Starting Out: Sunday School

To set the stage, the Yaaway team—a group of experienced media professionals—had already spent over a year (and considerable funds) building the framework and technology platform for a large online community, based on media sharing and social networking. The site was much like a mash-up between Facebook and YouTube, but with a difference: each video and post would ideally be centred on personal stories about Jesus. Not necessarily about Christianity, but Jesus himself. The site would be free to join and use, there were no plans for any advertising or revenue streams, and any user would be welcome to participate, regardless of perspective or religious affiliation.

You're thinking: “So what’s the catch?” Well, we wondered the same thing, and were suspicious about a business model that didn’t include any plans for revenue. We did our homework and discovered that there really wasn’t a catch. Yaaway was a group that had the foresight to say, “Okay, there are a lot of issues and stereotypes surrounding religion these days. So how do we still get out the message of ‘doing good for your fellow man’, while side-stepping the existing public perception of Christianity?” The answer they came up with was to distill the core messages from the historical teachings of Jesus and avoid getting bogged down by the dogma of organized Christianity.

As the project got under way, we realized how unique the creative brief really was. How would we be able to create an identity suitable for a web-savvy community centreed on Jesus’ story and wisdom, while avoiding traditional religious icons? As a group of brand designers with varying perspectives on faith and religion, we were rather intimidated by this unusual situation. At the same time, we were excited by the design challenge to create an identity that expressed Jesus-centric sharing without looking 'churchy'. Like many previous challenging projects, sticking to our proven design methodology lit the way.

Meet Jesus: Just a Guy With a Beard

As we began digging into the project, we learned that the core of this online community was a unique world view. They called it a 'Spiritual Point of View', focused on the "non-religious life of Jesus, the humble person who transforms people of every social class and culture with a spirit of truth and love." We weren't convinced that you could really separate Jesus from religion.

As designers in the branding business, we often toot our horns about building on the existing equity of a brand. This client had the exact opposite problem. It needed to distance itself from the existing brand perception of the Jesus camp—often viewed as right-wing fundamentalists. Beyond the unique portfolio addition this project represented, it was a rare opportunity and challenge.

What the Heck is a Yaaway?

The name Yaaway is a playful re-interpretation of Yahweh, originally an ancient Hebrew word for God, or "the one". By misspelling the word, our client sought to not only distance itself from a traditional religious word, but create a fun, youthful-sounding, nonsense word like Google or Yahoo. The word also wouldn’t have obvious religious connotations. Another benefit was that the word Yaaway could be purchased as a domain name, which was critical.

Early on we uncovered the fact that our client had already invested significantly in the development of the technology behind the online platform, which was being beta-tested online. Yet after more than a year of work on the project, the company had not engaged in any brand strategy or identity design, and had been using a placeholder logomark which was essentially a knock-off of the YouTube logo—a thoughtless contribution by one of its technology developers. This approach was clearly unsuitable as its identity needed to stand apart not only from other religious-based sites, but from the social media/video sharing world. Said the company’s owner, "I feel like we've built a world-class race car without considering the body style or paint job.”

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The original Yaaway logo.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

The goal for the Yaaway website was to create a safe, friendly and welcoming experience about the real Jesus, and not about Christianity. The brand and user experience would have to appeal to a global community of spiritually-motivated and non-denominational visitors pursuing truth and knowledge, and all faiths would be welcome. The core of the site content would be stories and video and, although debate would be encouraged, any antagonistic, irrelevant or inappropriate content—such as the promotion of exclusive religious doctrine—would not be welcome.

That said, unlike so many religious websites (and there are many), this site would have virtually no editorial control. The content would be self-organized by the community itself in the spirit of a Wiki, with the founders 'letting it go', for the most part. Content that members enjoyed and valued would be promoted by users through a voting system, while content not viewed as harmonious with the spirit of the site would settle to the bottom, down-voted and nixed by the user community.

What Would Jesus Design?

An early research step in our process was what we refer to as a Brand Discovery session, essentially a workshop including a series of exercises and games designed to challenge key stakeholders' preconceived notions and assumptions. As with many clients over the years, our Yaaway clients arrived in our studio with ideas of what they wanted to accomplish, who their audience was, and what was needed to achieve their goals. Our first job was to challenge that paradigm, and dig deeper into the situation to reveal more than could be expressed in an initial creative briefing. The workshop culminated in identifying Yaaway’s brand essence and aspirations, and the creation of a visioning statement to provide the core direction for the brand design project.

Due to our client's own moderate views on Jesus, we explored the extreme right-wing, church-driven fundamentalist websites, and determined how Yaaway was not that. In fact, one of the more interesting things that emerged during this research phase was that it was far easier to determine what Yaaway was not, which was one of the best ways of determining what it was. This was especially relevant to the project as the identity of the Yaaway community would be largely determined by the users themselves. Plus, this process of discovery made a huge difference to our own acceptance of the client and the project.

Personal biases began creeping into our team’s psyche, and as communication designers, it’s critical that we’re able to set aside our own preconceived notions and focus on the goals, needs and audience at the core of the problem before us. However, the topic of Jesus Christ was a difficult one to remain unbiased about, regardless of faith or perspective. The tactic we settled upon was relative to a round-table discussion; one where any issue or query could be aired without judgment, and then settled before approaching the next. After confronting and discussing our biases, we let our process reveal what our assumptions clouded and the identity began to take shape.

What Does Your Soul Look Like?

As far as branding and identity challenges go, this project had many. In creating the identity, we had to dive deep down into what the site could become well into the future. This invariably led to some interesting and important developments when designing the website itself.

Beside the fact that the intended audience was a vast multicultural group made up of various ages, educations and faiths, the client insisted that we avoid direct references to the image of Christ, as well as classic icons of Christianity such as a crucifix, lamb, fish, crown of thorns, etc. The logo and website interface had to look 'Web 2.0' while standing out against sites like YouTube, Facebook, DailyMotion, etc., and it most certainly had to up-stage related competitors such as GodTube, JesusClips, and GospelTube. Further, the site had already gone live as a beta with placeholder graphics and an interface that hadn't fully considered the user experience. We had our work cut out for us.

We began by highlighting key words, targeting various graphic elements and iconography, in order to grasp particular themes and ideas. We then cross-referenced the visual language of spirituality (both subtle and blatant), with the vast online social networking meme, seeking inspiration for ways to communicate the concept of non-denominational spiritual dialogue, while avoiding cliché graphics.

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A sample of some of our concept sketches during the design process.

As community, sharing, connections, and exchange of ideas became central themes, we sketched and explored visual language that included speech balloons and quotation marks as connectors, links, overlapping elements, clusters and video screens. An epiphany came when the speech balloons were arranged to reveal a cross in the negative space—a fortunate point of view as the client didn’t want Yaaway to have any obvious religious or denominational overtones.

Another moment of insight came upon reviewing many different styles of quote marks. Arranged in an organic cluster at varied sizes, they suggest abstracted talking heads coming together in their shared dialogue. With some adjustments, that central point of focus became the 'invisible' cross discovered earlier.

Custom typography to complement the rounded forms of icon was developed along with a colour system flexible for both print and web environments. This vibrant palette suggests a journey from cold to hot, as from discovery to acceptance, as the ascending quotes reach upwards to a more spiritual focus. Four graphic elements not only provided the minimum for a sense of community, but four elements also serve to represent the four books of the New Testament and the four disciples who wrote their chronicles of Jesus’ life.

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The final logomark, fully realized and addressing the brief, client requirements and target audience.

As wtih all identity design projects, we ran the final top three logos through a theoretical strainer. Is it readable? Is it relevant? Does the typography resonate with the brand? Elements right down to subtle moods changes affected by colour were scrutinized. The editing process is always one of love and hate; but it’s what takes a logo from good to outstanding.

Of couse, final delivery of the brand design included many elements beyond the logo. These included a comprehensive online brand usage guide, complete stationery package, collateral and promotional materials, signage, and the critical interface design for the website.

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Some of the applications of the new Yaaway identity and web interface.

On the 70th day, We Rested

Yaaway was a challenging project; one that our team will not soon forget. We are proud that our belief in creative strategy helped us overcome what at first seemed a worrisome project with a challenging brief. This case study will serve as a litmus test and benchmark for future brand identity projects, proving that even when faced with extreme difficulty, our individual talents, combined with our collective faith in the design process, will guide us to effective solutions. We no longer pause before showing off the project, often catching new clients off guard by saying “Can we tell you about Jesus?”

But Was the Project a Success?

The client was ecstatic with the brand platform and, after several months, re-launched its website, promoting it publicly. The site began to expand daily, with a growing collective of spiritually curious users signing up, engaging in dialogue and up-loading videos. The identity even won industry recognition such as a prestigious Communication Arts Award in the 2009 Design Annual.

Then, trouble. It was found that the primary users on the site were Christian—no surprise for us, but a disappointment for the client. Although we were told the site was making good progress, the client suddenly announced that further development of the project was being halted and the core team disbanded. The owner felt compelled to change direction and discontinued his funding. With his original unusual business model lacking a revenue stream, it was no surprise that he ultimately decided to commercially market the technology platform to groups and associations looking to build their own media-based online social networks.

Recently the Yaaway.com website itself went offline, surely a disappointment for those who worked so hard on it for two years. But, maybe one day, it will rise from the dead.

To view a brief case study in our portfolio, go to: http://industrialbrand.com/work/case-studies/yaaway-media-inc?page=1

To view the longer case study overview,  go to: http://www.industrialbrand.com/files/Yaaway_Case_Study.pdf

To see the last version of the site in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, go to http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://www.yaaway.com

Mark Busse is Design Director at Vancouver's Industrial Brand, recent Past President of the BC Chapter of the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada (GDC), and Co-Chair of Icograda's Design Week Vancouver 2010. He would like to thank his colleague Nancy Wu for her input and assistance on this article.