Design Meets Storytelling in The Alley
I’m most interested in design projects that use storytelling to bind the subject — in this case a restaurant — with the hearts and minds of people who bump up against it. When I think about audiences and fueling community, I think about how our work can encourage a new understanding of why we might be drawn to a particular place or thing, and what we have in common with other people who feel the same way. If all that does what it should, it rises up and simply feels right for everyone concerned.
We just launched the first phase of a project that could prove to be a really great example of this. What started as a branding assignment for a local restaurant, The Alley (a renamed Daily Dose), has turned into an ongoing exploration at the overlap of design, storytelling and community at a point in time when new development is reshaping the neighborhood.
*full disclosure: the food is amazing.
Background Our office is right in the middle of the booming downtown Los Angeles Arts District. The neighborhood is mostly drawn on the track lines of the Santa Fe railroad that used to roll in and out, weaving between warehouses, picking up and dropping off everything from produce to paper. A lot of that history has been (or soon will be) ripped out or paved over, but there’s still some of the original character if you look for it.
In fact, we’re in a renovated toy factory on a block that has been lovingly restored. Across the street is a curved alley, bending between buildings, made for trains to pass through. It’s one of the more iconic Santa Fe leftovers and has been a proud home to the Daily Dose Cafe, now The Alley, for almost eight years.
The changing neighborhood called for some new thinking around the cafe’s brand. On one hand, big-money restaurants are moving in and bringing great design with them, raising the bar. On the other hand, there is a lot more competition opening up. As the Daily Dose becomes The Alley, we were interested in how a clearer, authentic connection to the history of the neighborhood could lift them up as the wave of new development rolls through.
Brand & Storytelling Our first step on every project is a deep dive into what makes a place / thing / brand special. We look at the food, culture, culinary philosophy, but also the history of the place and the area, and start to find overlaps or points of friction that can inform our design decisions. We’re looking to create a brand narrative that can tell a story and weave together many smaller parts: a logo, a custom typeface from old train letters, a color, a design grid and menu that references archival street maps, and, notably for this project, photography.
One of the most inspiring discoveries was finding Robert Smaus and his photography of the area from the late 1970s, early 1980s. The one-of-a-kind images of the alley as a functioning train pathway anchors the restaurant’s brand identity, invoking a special sense of purpose and place. Important for us: it’s authentic and unique, but also provides an onramp for conversations about the past and future of the neighborhood and community.
Design & Community It’s interesting to consider how — and if, and to what degree — design and storytelling can play a role in shaping the arc of something as complicated as a neighborhood. It feels like an important moment in the Arts District where we have an opportunity to find meaning in its history while there’s still some of it in front of us. If the best version of real estate “development” is about fostering community rather than just “building buildings,” I see some parallels in our work, and hope we can make a mark.