Always Reforming

Rebranding Lutheran Publishing

Publishing has been at the heart of the Lutheran tradition from its very beginnings. Martin Luther’s ideas changed the course of Western history thanks in part to the cool new social media of his day: pamphlets printed on the movable type printing press.

Luther understood the power of the press. To help find the largest audience and have the greatest impact, he wrote in the language of the people and used imagery to make his ideas even more readily understandable, methods used even today to make content more “shareable” and even “viral”.

His longtime colleague, the artist Lucas Cranach, designed Luther’s 16th-century works with “a new and distinctive livery, immediately recognizable on a crowded bookstall…a form of the book that was itself a powerful representative of the movement­­ — bold, clear, and recognizably distinct from what had gone before,” according to historian Andrew Pettegree. [Brand Luther, New York: Penguin Press, 2015, pp. xiii-xiv]

For American Lutherans, vernacular worship, robust education, and publishing were cornerstones of the tradition and are still referred to as “gifts of the Reformation.” Lutherans have been publishing books and other resources in America for over 200 years.

Under a number of imprints — such as Wartburg Press, Muhlenberg Press, and the cleverly named Lutheran Book Concern — these writers and editors, typographers and printers published a remarkable number of titles, from catechisms and Bibles to hymnals, textbooks, and theological monographs. In the process, they also built significant printing and distribution operations nearly everywhere Lutherans settled, including Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Composing and typesetting at Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, in 1928

Today’s largest Lutheran publisher was named Augsburg Fortress after the merger of Augsburg Publishing House and Fortress Press in 1988. In recent years, it has published under both the Augsburg Fortress and Fortress Press imprints and launched a new imprint, Sparkhouse, in 2008. Sparkhouse pioneered the use of ethnography and human-centered design methods to develop modern curricula for the church. Based on experiential learning principles and featuring great storytelling, engaging animation, and age-appropriate humor, Sparkhouse resources are used by many Christian denominations, not just Lutherans.

As participation in institutional religious life and the market for traditional church resources continue to decline, this fresh approach to publishing and product development has garnered the Augsburg Fortress parent organization both sales growth and a renewed sense of purpose, consistent with the Lutheran notion that reformation must be an ongoing process: semper reformanda.

At the same time, its new capabilities, a new space, and emerging forms of collaboration has helped it attract new talent and form new kinds of creative partnerships. In just the last year they have produced a robust offering of over 2,000 new titles and products for the church, academy, and home.

Strategy

In an effort to help each of its publishing units speak to the people and markets they serve today with greater clarity and focus, Augsburg Fortress made the decision to rebrand its parent organization in 2015 with an eye towards launching it in time for the triennial assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [ELCA] in August 2016. The main goal of the effort was to separate Augsburg Fortress the parent organization from Augsburg Fortress the publishing imprint.

The parent entity could then engage new opportunities and collaborations as a modern media company, and Augsburg Fortress the imprint, freed from trying to function at multiple levels of the organization’s structure, could refocus its product development and marketing primarily on serving Lutheran congregations. Similarly, the other imprints, Fortress Press and Sparkhouse, could focus more on their particular markets.

Naming

The new name of the publisher’s parent organization had to accomplish two primary but potentially conflicting objectives:

  • Express its commitment to creating great modern resources for the church, the academy, and the home
  • Embrace the ever-evolving means of communication available to us today

Early on in this work, it became clear the many words relating to the Christian faith — like “Christian” and “faith” — are laden with meaning created by the contexts in which they are typically used. It turns out that those words are strongly associated with a more literal interpretation of the Bible, for example, than that practiced by mainline Protestant denominations.

As we considered how to formally approach a new name for the parent organization, we agreed on a number of principles. The new name must be both grounded in our heritage as well as forward-looking and reasonably future-proofed. So we avoided any reference to any previous names. We also agreed we would not create a new word or mash-up that lacked intrinsic meaning.

Faced with those restrictions, we moved toward alternative ways of describing the organization’s interests and scope. We settled on a name structure that would have two components: one evocative and one descriptive. We also sought to craft a new name that’s memorable, meaningful, durable, and protectable.

After much research, analysis, iteration, and testing, we chose the name 1517 Media. Using the date associated with the beginning of the Reformation as the evocative part of the name grounds us as inheritors of the Lutheran and Protestant tradition. Pairing that with the word “Media” expresses our belief in the tradition’s continuing relevance in the 21st century and beyond as well as our mission to proclaim that belief using modern communications technologies.

Visual Identity

At first, the name strongly suggested a specific typographic approach: set the date in a 16th- century typeface and the word “Media” in something quite modern. After evaluating a number of blackletter and fraktur options, including modern redrawings of historic designs, we grew fond several typefaces, especially Whisky, a design by Corradine Fonts that features varied thickness and angle endings that make it look almost modern.

But there was a big problem with this direction: A primary goal of making this change is to engage emerging new markets and welcome people from different traditions as well as people who don’t identify with a traditional church or denomination. Using historic forms strongly associated with the northern European heritage of Lutheranism and Protestantism could inadvertently send the wrong message or feel less than welcoming.

Similar to the challenge of finding words for the name that were not encumbered with the wrong kind of meaning, we found that symbols typically used in our space were too laden with specific, inappropriate meaning to be of much use.

It became clear that since the name has so much baked into it we could easily over-design the identity, making its inherent meaning less rather than more apparent. So we shifted our approach and focused on a more neutral typography and the clarity of the supporting design system, inspired by the international style and its application to business communications in the 1960s by Unimark International and later by many other corporate identity practitioners.

After evaluating many typefaces, we focused in on those often considered “transitional”, containing both calligraphic and geometric qualities, and settled on multiple weights from a single family: Avenir, designed by Adrian Frutiger in 1988 and considered by him to be his best design.

The mark is set in Avenir Black, with careful attention to kerning, word spacing, and character heights. A version was created that lists he three publishing units by name aligned with the word “Media”, emphasizing the date which begins to act like a mark and can stand in for the full name where appropriate.

A bright but restrained color palette was developed with an eye towards simplicity, again inspired by the international style, which helps the new brand comfortably co-exist with existing imprint brands and product brands — many of which are darker or richer in color — while conveying a new sense of vitality and optimism.

Photography for the new parent organization is shot in natural light whenever possible, with real people in real settings. When used structurally, photos are tinted with the main brand color, a bright red. Product photography is avoided in the context of the parent organization so product equities are always associated with the imprint that published it.

Applications

A full range of applications was then built, ranging from signage and stationery to motion graphics and a website announcing the changes. We were able to register the domain 1517.media for the new organization, and obtain @1517media on Twitter and other social media platforms.

A more abstract graphic language was also developed from the shapes and geometries of the letterforms that make up our logo. These shapes are applied as either elements bleeding off an edge or a rich pattern to everything from signage to motion graphics.

Other than occasionally seeing the new name on shipping boxes and invoices, not much else will change for our customers.

We’ll continue to partner with a wide range of leaders and communities, teachers and learners, parents and kids, creative contributors and technology experts to develop top-quality resources. For the people and ministries of the ELCA, Augsburg Fortress will continue to serve as the place for products developed and selected especially with Lutherans in mind through our website at augsburgfortress.org. For the academy and adult readers, we offer a selection of new and backlist titles at fortresspress.com. For education leaders, we offer a broad range of age-specific curricula resources at wearesparkhouse.org. And for parents, we offer uniquely entertaining books, Bibles, and videos at sparkhouse.org.

Together, under the new banner 1517 Media, we’ll continue to bring our great theological and technological tradition to life as we work to meet the needs of communities, educators, families, and individuals, now and for generations to come.

Learn more about 1517 Media at our website, and join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thanks to our many customers, stakeholders, and creative collaborators, whose passion, vision, and empathy have shaped not only our new name and identity but indeed our very purpose.