Coloring outside the lines to support refugees and asylum-seekers

A lot of people feel despondent and hopeless right now. The atrocities being committed by the current presidential administration, especially against immigrants and marginalized populations, are deeply unsettling for anyone who believes in even the smallest degree of human rights. Like many others, I’ve been feeling frustrated and wondering what I can do to make an impact.

So when I got the opportunity to work with Tables Without Borders (TWB), a non-profit dinner series benefitting refugee chefs in Washington, D.C, I jumped on it. I designed the logo, brand identity, built the website and created various digital and print promotional materials in support of the cause.

Flyers used at the tables on the night of the event to inform diners about the menu and guest chef for the evening.


The event took place over six nights across some of D.C.’s most popular restaurants, where refugee chefs collaborated with head chefs to craft a menu representative of their home cuisine. A portion of the proceeds from each night, as well as the total donations raised, went to refugee resettlement organization HIAS and the participating refugee chefs.

The goal was to empower refugees with culinary experience, aid in the difficult resettlement process, and foster community through food. Notably, the brand had to appeal to these four different audiences chronologically:

  • non-profits involved in resettlement
  • participating refugee chefs
  • restaurants who want to give back to the community
  • restaurant-goers who want to support refugees

Each one of these groups had to be accommodated in unique ways during different stages of the project.

Event summary one pagers that were used with restaurants and prospective donors.

1. Initially, a degree of philanthropic legitimacy was required to forge partnerships with HIAS and local resettlement organizations connected with refugee chefs.

2. A cohesive brand presence also needed to be able to build trust and confidence in these chefs.

3. In addition, TWB needed to be vibrant and robust enough to solicit donations on its own, as well as sufficiently subtle and complementary to sit alongside the brand presence of partnering restaurants. As the first iteration of this event, it was necessary to rely on the brand equity of the more established restaurants to some extent, and highlight their participation in an exciting way.

4. However, we still needed to leverage every opportunity to differentiate the brand to the ethical diner, highlight the positive social impact, and distinguish the nights of this event from the regular DC dining scene.

Social media posts had to tell the interconnected story of the event.


As is the case with many bootstrapped fundraisers, I was the sole designer on the project. However, I had the luxury of connecting with the event organizers early in the planning process and in the nascent stages of defining the brand. I worked with them to choose three main values they wanted to convey:

· Compassionate

· Professional

· Adventurous

Brand values translated to visual conventions.

From there, I translated these ideas to visual concepts based on widely established design conventions: slab serifs are trustworthy, swooping lines and humanist serifs are soft and approachable.

Research plotted across relevant visual conventions.

Next, I did research on logo marks in adjacent spaces that invoked these values, and plotted them across the brand values on a 3-point axis. I wanted whatever mark I made to be able to sit seamlessly alongside these logos.

I also made a particular effort to incorporate local businesses as reference points whenever possible, given that this was a local event with an express focus on the surrounding community.

After exploring several different approaches, I presented the five options below.

Five logo options presented.

The stakeholders and I narrowed it down to the two shown here.

The finalists.

Both logos also had a strong visual pun that built off the name nicely. In the end I advocated for this direction, because I felt that it more accurately represented the brand’s values.

Final logo choice on a flyer at Maydan. Photo by Maya Oren.

While the hand drawn style is compelling for the non-profit world, and becoming more and more prevalent in professional contexts, it requires careful consideration of illustration styles to retain respectability and consistency. The final logo satisfied enough of the adventurous and compassionate characteristics through an eccentric typeface and visual representation of lacking borders, but it’s also bolder, geometric and more conducive to a grid system.

In addition, I liked being able to alternate using the logo as a compound shape depending on the background, and the way that relevant event information could accompany the logo in different contexts.

The next step was to bring the logo to life with a flexible identity system capable of accommodating the wide variety of intended audiences. I was immediately drawn to the following ideas:

· Using warm, earthy palettes to convey diversity and approachability

· Using some kind of pattern that extended off the edges as a brand element, to reinforce the idea of transcending borders

My first approach was quite literal, using table patterns similar to those you might see on catering and event plans.

Pattern concepts that got tabled. Heh.

While I’m relatively confident I could have built this concept out to be visually appealing, I quickly realized that this wasn’t conveying the message we needed. And putting the tables at the center of the brand –which represents where all these different groups meet — isn’t the real goal of the event. The focus was supposed to be on the refugees and asylum-seekers, and their culture.

Chef Mary of South Sudan in the kitchen at A Rake’s Progress. Photo by Deb Lindsey.

So I went back to the drawing board. Recognizing that TWB was striving to work with chefs of all nationalities, I needed a pattern that was going to be culturally ambiguous but still representative of everyone involved. One thing that all refugees and asylum-seekers have in common is movement; they’ve all immigrated in search of a safer or better situation, and they are looking for community.

The simplest visual way to represent movement is a triangle, and it’s a nice geometric shape that paired well with the logo. So I started there, building out triangle patterns, before choosing one that pointed triangles towards each other, representing the unity and coming together facilitated by the event.

Picking patterns.

I experimented with warm, earthy color palettes before finding one that felt diverse, but still cohesive with the logo. The purple background was the final touch before moving to typography and building out a brand identity system.

At every point of the process, I tried to keep the core brand values central. In the name of balancing professionalism, compassion and adventure, I opted for a crisp, super legible and modern sans-serif for headers, the workhorse Montserrat with reduced weight for the body copy, and a striking, eccentric display type for CTA’s.

Brand identity and style guidelines.

Once the brand system was finalized, it was time to apply it across a website and various print and digital promotional materials. When the site first launched, none of the event details and logistics had been finalized, and the main goal of the site was to drive donors to the HIAS-supported donor page.

Giving information about the event in an appealing way was necessary to provide context for that call to action, but I wanted to keep the site as conversion focused as possible. So I opted for a one-page site with a menu that smooth-scrolls on click. The first iteration of the site dedicated the most real estate to the chefs, in keeping with the focus of the event.


In total, the first iteration of Tables Without Borders raised over $20,000 in donations (more than half of which was donated through the website) which went to HIAS and the participating refugee chefs. The event was covered by The Washington Post, NPR, ABC News and NowThis, among others.

I’ve continued to grow the brand identity and maintain the site as the program moved from an initial event to a partnership with Hilton.

Chef Qamar of Syria talking to diners on the rooftop of the Apollo. Photo by Timothy Eugene.
Dishes and diners at A Rake’s Progress, where Chef Mary of South Sudan prepared a prix fixe menu. Photos by Deb Lindsey.
Chef Maria of El Salvador prepared six dishes at Espita Mezcaleria. Photos by Reema Desai.
Chef Nejat of Afghanistan collaborated with Maydan to offer a unique menu for the evening. Photos by Maya Oren.

Design can be used in many different ways. I believe design is at it’s best when it’s in service of people and the greater good. I was happy to be able to employ design in service of positivity on this project.


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