Designing an Approachable Hackathon

When you’ve been surrounded by a team of people working towards an building an inclusive, enriching hackathon for three years, it’s sometimes easy to forget that for many people, the phrase approachable hackathon is a bit of an oxymoron. Over our three years, we’ve tried to build an event that’s at odds with the unfriendly connotations of hackathon—an event that’s approachable, rather than intimidating; where you don’t need to be an expert “hacker”, but you’ll still make really impressive things; where hopefully the systemic inequalities of tech culture are a little less bad.

Communicating those values in our brand, our marketing materials, our website and our experience took lots of work from an incredible team of designers; in this post, I’ll talk a bit about the work we’ve done to achieve that.

The Hack@Brown Values

Back in October, we met in a room at RISD and sketched out the core values our brand needed to communicate. I don’t have the exact notes, but they crystallized down in my mind to these 4:

  1. Inclusive and approachable—we strove to put on an inclusive event, including participants from under-represented identities in tech and participants with different levels of experience.
  2. Sophisticated, but not intimidating—Our brand had to be cool enough that you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to tell your friends you’re spending the weekend working on your laptop in a big crowded room. We also had to communicate that just because Hack@Brown is open to people from different backgrounds doesn’t mean it isn’t as technically saavy or impressive as other hackathons.
  3. More than technical — I think Chén, our design director last year, put this well in his writeup of last year’s design: “We’re grounded in technology, but don’t idolize its existence.” Our materials needed to make it clear that Hack@Brown is about technology, but not just code— design, creativity, and the humanities are just as important.
  4. Fun—Hack@Brown isn’t about competition; it’s about learning, building, enjoying yourself and meeting new people. We don’t think you need fancy prizes to get a bunch of college kids to spend their entire weekend learning building things.

Building a Design Vocabulary

We then came up with a visual and communications vocabulary to get those principles across.

We chose a typeface and color palette that was moderately soft and bright, while still visually sophisticated, with an all-lowercase logotype to match:

We became interested in using origami as a visual motif—as an accessible and elegant building material, it resonates with our vision for Hack@Brown. Origami, and paper in general, informed many of our visual treatments, including our fully-shaded logo and our illustrations. Exploring paper led us to another useful motif—confetti—which became a prominent part of our visual style.

Photography and video also became important parts of the vocabulary — for someone who’s never been to a hackathon before, seeing what it looks like makes the idea of signing up less scary.


Hack@Brown 2014 and 2015 T-shirts are everywhere on Brown’s campus, making shirt design a huge part of the way the school sees us. For 2016, we recognized the fact that many CS students have far too many free tech T-shirts—instead, we decided to give all attendees crew necks sweaters. Printed on the front was a variation on our logo that we hoped would be cool enough for people to wear in public. The logo treatment was slightly incongruous with our 2016 brand, but since our design language tends to change year-by-year while the shirts last a couple years, we decided it was acceptable. People seem to like wearing them.

From left: the attendee sweater, the mentor sweater, the volunteer/organizer sweater, and another mentor.

Hack@Brown on the Web

In past years, we’ve suffered from a chronic lack of photography and videos of the hackathon, restricting the visuals on our website to text and abstract imagery. This year, we took advantage of video footage from 2015, making video the centerpiece of our website. We aimed to make potential attendees comfortable with the idea of a hackathon by showing them smiling faces of real people in the context of the event—an effort we furthered by adding a “stories from Hack@Brown 2015” section to the website.

We had a significant amount of content on our landing page—videos, stories, FAQs, sponsor logos and schedules. Rather than splitting it into multiple pages, we used a fixed-position navigation bar, as well as horizontally-scrolling sections of content, to ease navigation.

Our signup form was designed to be readable, quick to fill out and inclusive of all identities. We left fields like race and gender as free-form text fields with autocompletion. (Our gender autocompletes come from Facebook’s list of gender identities; our race/ethnicity autocompletes are from here).

Posters and cover photos

Hack@Brown is more than a hackathon—we also run workshops year-round on topics like introductory Python and designing websites with HTML/CSS. These workshops had Facebook events, and Facebook events need cover photos. The event cover photo is the poster of the 21st century—we spent more time creating covers than designing posters.

That being said, we did make quite a few posters:

The Hack Week Mini-Brand

The week before the hackathon, we held a week of workshops called Hack Week. To tie together the marketing of all the Hack Week events, and to differentiate them from Hack@Brown in general (since Hack Week was open to everyone at Brown), we came up with a distinct visual style for Hack Week workshops, consisting of 3D-extruded text and a “confetti” of extruded symbols related to the workshop’s theme. These were ray-traced using over the winter break.

The Big Day: Designing the Space

The design team played a big role in making our cavernous, wood-pannelled turn-of-the-century venue feel like Hack@Brown.

Since we had over 100 attendees arriving from different schools, we ordered over 100 tiny flags in Hack@Brown colors and made paths from nearby streets leading towards check-in.

We focused on clarity and simplicity for indoor signage:

We took more artistic liberties in designing poster advertising workshops and events internal to the hackathon itself—since our audience was already aware they were at Hack@Brown, we felt it was acceptable to deviate further from our established visual style:

We produced three different stickers, from an initial set of dozens:

Inspired by Facebook’s table at the Grace Hopper conference, we decided to allocate some of the money we would have spent on giveaways and instead donate it to charities of the attendees’ choosing. We decided to give each attendee a single token and have them place it in a jar corresponding to one of five charities. Rather than order tokens online, we laser-cut and sanded them ourselves:

Our final iteration is the third from right.

Thank-you Notes

For the notes we sent out thanking sponsors and mentors for coming, we wanted something more personal than printed-out cards, but more “Hack@Brown” than handwritten notes. So one evening a couple weeks before the event, we went to RISD’s type workshop, manually set our type and letterpressed dozens of “thank you” cards:

The Design Team

Our incredible design team was Kevin Ma, Zach Deocadiz, Koko Nakajima and Nate Parrott.

Interested in joining next year? If you go to school at Brown, RISD or another nearby school, drop us a line at and we’ll let you know when we’re building our 2017 team.

Hack@Brown is an annual event at Brown University where hundreds of students from across the country come together to learn how to build things using technology and design. If you’re interested, you should follow us on Facebook or Twitter to see what we’re doing next year!

Bonus: What we Never Shipped

Unfortunately, the team produced tons of incredible content that, for whatever reason, never saw the light of day. Here are some never-before-seen goodies:

Drawstring bags we couldn’t fit into budget. 😢
Our Snapchat filter, which never got approved. 😞
Various color schemes that never were.
Isometric claw logos.
Custom wordmarks.
Scarves we decided not to order 😿.