This Will Involve Penguins

Hackathon Insider, Part I: PennApps Winter 2015 Design Team

Hackathon Insider is two things:

  1. An exploration of the inner workings of PennApps, one of the nation’s largest hackathons. Follow the design, hardware, mentoring, and logistics committees of PennApps Winter 2015 from the planning stages to the weekend of January 16th and beyond. We take you behind the scenes of a collegiate, student-run hackathon, including the successes and lessons learned along the way.
  2. And a celebration of hackathon culture, the spirit of entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity that has found a home in college campuses around the world. Read interviews with hackathon organizers, tech professionals, students, and more. Discover the roots of the hackathon scene, its growing popularity and, looking forward, its potential to change the future of small business, social impact, and technology.

This is the first article of a two-month series, and we really hope you enjoy it!

It’s Sunday afternoon at a PennApps design meeting, and everyone is talking about penguins.

Like these.

Last week, the team had just put the finishing touches on their newest mascot: the PennApps penguin. The next item on the agenda? T-shirt designs, and lots of them. Most of the proposed ideas involved Arctic animals and bad puns (Penjamin Franklin, anyone?). There were also programming jokes that, for the most part, went over my head. After thirty minutes of brainstorming, the group broke off into separate areas, turned up the music, and got to work.

I was sitting in on their weekly design session. Like many other PennApps meetings, it was held in the nicely appointed Philadelphia offices of First Round Capital, a seed-stage venture capital firm and startup incubator. The team is directed by Pranav Vishnu, a Penn sophomore studying business and computer science.

As far as college hackathons go, PennApps has a pretty long history, but its design team — a solid crew of about six designers and artistically-inclined programmers — has really only existed for a year. Pranav created the group last fall for PennApps X and has lead the hackathon’s most ambitious branding initiatives so far.

The end results were pretty striking: drawing some comparisons to Mac OS X and extending the PennApps color palette with that shade of greenish teal. They focused on the bold and recognizable—retaining the classic PennApps logo while exploring other avenues of technology design.

Also many, many X’s.

There were also homages made to the iconic designs of other hackathons. The team created a few riffs on classic themes.

It’s a sign of, if anything, the mutual respect between hackathon organizers: a playful spirit of friendly competition, and the desire to host the best event they can. “BitCamp and HackDuke have really, really great design teams,” Pranav told me. “It gives you a sense of identity for a hackathon, and that’s exactly what we’re shooting for.”

Pranav and the new team were happy with the end result and identified a few things to work on for their next PennApps. “We built a website framework that we’re really proud of, but some things weren’t as consistent,” he told me.

PennApps made some changes in preparation for 2015. A full independent design team was, under Pranav’s direction, spun out of a larger marketing and outreach group. He recruited new artists and, along with the other organizers, found a new creative direction for the hackathon. Work for PennApps 2015 began in earnest.

From left to right: Derek the vest guy, Aasif, Nancy, and design czar Pranav.

Their guiding ethos is remains constant: good design is “exactly about expression,” Pranav told me. “We’re just trying to convey what we think PennApps means to everyone else.”

There’s also a new emphasis on season awareness. “Traditionally, we’ve called it PennApps Spring…but it’s always been snowing,” another designer told me. New motifs include the light blue, icicles, and, in case you needed any more assurance that winter in Philadelphia is pretty cold, an animated snowstorm on the website.


Other artists built new vector graphics for the hackathon. Nancy, a sophomore studying computer science and digital media design, drew a whale. The process, from notebook sketch to Illustrator file, is pretty impressive. “I’ve only been working with Illustrator for 25 days,” she told me. “I only know this because there are five days until my free trial expires.” Designers compile their works in a shared Google Drive, and then collaborate to build new variations.

Keep an eye out for Mr. Whale at PennApps.

Nancy’s been on the PennApps team for a year. Like a lot of people (this writer included), her introduction to hackathons involved eating. “The first time I went to PennApps was for the free food,” she told me. “I came for the first night and never returned.”

She’s since joined the PennApps marketing committee and, after last season’s restructuring, transferred to design. And one of the new artist’s first contributions was the PennApps penguin, a now prominent fixture of the hackathon’s winter design and marketing campaign. It was inspired by a few sources. “I really wanted something really cute,” Nancy told me. “Kind of like the HackDuke kitty.”


Claire, a senior in Wharton, is also doing hackathon design for the first time. She became inspired to reach out building the fantastically-titled Angry Flappy Bird at PennApps X.

She was sketching out some new t-shirt designs incorporating the PennApps penguin in various costumes. “Cute vector creatures are a pretty common theme in hackathons,” she told me. “And we wanted to do some of that for PennApps as well.” Some of her past contributions include the addition of snowy weather to the PennApps homepage.

Seasonally appropriate snowfall.

There are six weeks left in the PennApps 2015 journey. As the bulk of the design team’s work winds down, a couple other groups are picking up.

Our next article explores PennApps mentorship: a small, pretty awesome group of students committed to making hackathons beginner-friendly. Your first event can be overwhelming. But the team is convinced that, with the right initiatives and resources, everyone can feel right at home. Helping others is, after all, the spirit of hackathoning.

Article by Tony Mei. Hackathon Insider takes you behind the scenes of PennApps Winter 2015 and explores the innter workings of hackathon organization. Interested in more? Check out part two— design — here.