Part II—Six years of blood, sweat, and tears.
Creating an ever-evolving visual identity for the Rail Park.
It’s been a long time since I wrote the original Rail Park case study. Almost six years to be exact, and a lot has happened since then. A game show host became our president, a pandemic ruined almost every aspect of life as we know it, a bunch of idiots tried to ruin democracy, everyone got mad at the Game of Thrones ending. Truly a wild ride to say the least.
ANYWAY, when we shared our initial branding for this project, the park itself didn’t exist. It was just a lofty dream that maybe—just maybe—Philadelphia could make a cool thing…for once. (Gritty and the Phanatic are the exceptions, they are dope as hell and will kick your ass.) Fast forward a bunch of years, and a lot of drama, including a fun little cease & desist letter from a “partner” organization (that’s a story for another time), and now the Rail Park is a real live place, with giant swings, beautiful art, towering trees, and lots of dogs peeing on stuff. Classic dog move.
We recently launched a new website for the Rail Park, so we thought it was the perfect time to write a̶ ̶l̶i̶t̶t̶l̶e̶ an extremely longwinded case study update on how the brand has evolved and grown over the past few years.
This is the second part in our two part series, so if you want to get the story on the new website, head on over to Part I. I tried my best to keep it all in one post but I don’t know how to edit myself. Smith & Diction at its finest baby.
Stop treating charity like a dirty word.
Before starting Smith & Diction, I worked at charity: water for a few years, and their vision was to “Reinvent Charity.” That vision was the whole reason I was drawn to work there and it stuck with me so deeply in my soul, even after I left. Because of that, I set out to make sure that the Rail Park felt nothing like a typical nonprofit in any way, shape, or form. I really loved this place and I wanted to do my best to convince other people to love it too.
I poured my entire heart into every single thing that we made together. Every pin. Every post. Every postcard. Most nights I went to sleep thinking of all the cool stuff we could do and how could we make this tiny place become something that people really cared about. After all it’s just a bunch of rocks, some swings, and a few trees, why should they care? We would make them care through design and messaging and community programming!
This is dumb to say, but sometimes you just have to make stuff that looks cool. That’s how you get people to pause scrolling through the endless trash that is Instagram. So my whole thought process with the brand was to hold nothing sacred. Everything is disposable. Turn it upside down. Put an insane blending mode on the photos and type. Do whatever you want!
No one is going to remember an Instagram post one year from now, hell no one will remember it five minutes from now. So we just wanted to make things that would catch your eye. Who cares if it is legible? That’s what the caption is for.
One design concept I really got into with the brand was this idea of repetition, mimicking how the park sort of spontaneously combusted into existence over a long period of time, if that makes any sense. Once upon a time, a bunch of tree seeds fell off a freight train, eventually the trains stopped running, the trees grew through the seasons, dropping leaves, getting new ones, layer would fall on top of layer, creating soil, repeating for years and years, new seeds would find their way into the soil, they would take root and start the same process over and over again, and soon enough there was a beautiful oasis floating above and below the city.
This is sort of a subconscious thing that we began to build into the brand. Layer on layer, repeating the text over and over, just like the trees going through the seasons. It’s very insider-y designer-y blah blah but I enjoy having a little method to my chaos so I can say blasé things like no one will remember an Instagram post, but I actually have a little thought process behind it.
Printing treasure maps in fluorescent ink.
I’ve always wanted to use fluorescent ink, but it never quite felt right for any specific project. It’s loud and it hurts your eyes a little. BUT for the Rail Park, a brand built to be mildly insane, it was perfect.
When Phase One opened, we were asked to make some maps that could be dropped off in store fronts around the neighborhood or handed out at events just to get people familiar with the new park and give a little bit more information about the art and the organization’s full three-mile vision.
We wanted this piece to feel different to represent a park that was different.
One of the most unique parts of the park is the gigantic industrial swings at the end. What’s Rittenhouse got? A statue of a goat? Go on and get outta here with the goat and the weird Michael Jackson impersonator trying to make awkward eye contact. They are smooth though I’ll give them that.
We wanted to idolize those swings a bit, so we put them in beautiful, bright fluorescent ink on the cover of the maps so they would be impossible to miss amid the stacks of show flyers, takeout menus, business cards, and whatnot.
The Rail Park is situated right next to Chinatown, and it became a very important part of the brand to be able to speak to those folks in their own language. We decided early on to make sure that all important signage and collateral included the Mandarin translation. (We even built the new website to be entirely translated into both Mandarin and Spanish.)
This was a park built for everyone, so we wanted to speak to everyone. That’s another benefit of the graphic swing on the cover, it’s easily distinguishable no matter what language you speak. That’s also why we paired photography with the “things to see” section of the map, so that we could break down that language barrier a bit, turning it into more of a treasure hunt than just an average map.
One interesting challenge while making the map was making the actual map. Do we orient it toward North? Does that even make sense these days now that people use maps on their phones?
We did a bit of research, and found that Pentagram chose to do the WalkNYC maps in a heads up sort of way, so the map is oriented to exactly where you’re standing. And well…if Pentagram’s doing it. This was very interesting to us, so we actually designed the Rail Park map so that it can be read vertically AND horizontally. That ended up being the ticket to making this piece super rad, because the Mandarin characters can be read vertically as well. So you can hold it any way you want and it still sort of makes sense. I really love making printed pieces that can be somewhat “interactive” in this new ~DiGiTaL~ world.
Take the time to read between the lines.
In all honestly, the printer charged us for the full tube of fluorescent ink when we printed the maps. So to get our money’s worth, we used it in a few other places as well.
For the 2021 Valentine’s Day campaign we were asked to make a postcard that could have a nice little message on it, that the Rail Park team could send to donors and members and whatnot, just to provide a nice little moment in a kinda sorta bleak time. “Hey it’s us, your friendly outdoor location, just lookin to say hi, we miss u.”
We obviously thought way too hard and spent way too much time on it, but ended up coming up with this idea of hiding the word “GROW” in the negative space between a bunch of plants. I asked Emma, my apprentice at the time, “Hey, do you like to draw plants? Yeah? No, like REALLY like it?” And the next day she showed me this. I was absolutely floored. It worked perfectly and it was super rad to look at. Lil eye melty, but it’s a vibe.
The Rail Park team also loved it, so I joked, “Hey, since it’s so dope, how about we put it on a billboard??” A few weeks later Smith & Diction had designed its very first billboard. It was definitely something you had to do a double take on as you drove by it and THAT WAS VERY COOL!
Give that logo some party clothes.
At its heart, the Friends of the Rail Park is a community organization. They don’t want to be seen as developers that just bulldoze a city block, throw a sculpture in it, and call it a park. They have heart and they care deeply about not only the park, but the neighborhood and the people that surround it.
Shortly after the park opened, they got right to it—hosting all kinds of events and get togethers to show off how cool and versatile this new community space can be. They asked us to make posters for some of their events and we decided to sort of co-brand each one so they each felt special and unique. This opened up all kinds of fun explorations with logo variations that I never could have dreamed of while doing a regular branding project. It was so unique for each event and it really proved how far their logo could be pushed. Great job logo.
☄ ☽ ☆ Star Party ☆ ☾ ☄
One of my personal favorites was the poster we made for the Star Party that the Rail Park hosted with the Franklin Institute. We created a version of the logo that resembles a constellation and it’s by far one of my favorite logo iterations. It’s just so simple and so fun + space, who doesn’t love space stuff?
✳ ✺ ❊ Lunar New Year ❊ ✺ ✳
One of the most exciting events we worked on was the Rail Park’s Lunar New Year celebration. Like I mentioned earlier, this park is right next to Chinatown and the Rail Park team wanted to host an event that POPPED OFF for the folks in the surrounding neighborhoods.
They got all kinds of amazing vendors slinging delicious noodles, selling coffee (they later became a client of ours, wassup Càphê Roasters), teaching calligraphy, and even had a lion (dragon) dance that ran through the whole park. It was very very dope!
Before we started working on the branding for this, I went for a stroll around Chinatown just to look at the signage and the storefronts there to see where this poster would be living. I was blown away at how awesome and expressive all the type was. There are literally no rules. There’s all kinds of wild pairings and colors, EVERYWHERE. I knew I had to do something bold and loud with the type for this event.
We wanted to make something that felt at home hanging in the neighborhood storefronts, but would also stand out amongst all of the other posters and whatnot. So we created a double sided poster that had some pretty wild stacked text on the front side and a more subdued and simple version on the back. Then we just let folks chose which side they wanted to show, depending on the surroundings in their store. It was also nice when shopkeepers put it on their front door, because then you could see the information from outside as well as inside.
Don’t know why this is the first time in my life I thought of making a double sided poster, but now I’ll be doing it forever.
For these posters, we made a fun starburst/explosion version of the logo and it sort of ignited a fire for me. It was created to visually tie to the act of setting off fireworks in front of stores for good luck, almost like the visual representation of a POP sound. But now I use this version of the logo even more than the original one. I love it so much, that we even got it animated as a gold coin for the donate CTA on the new website.
☼ ✴ ◌ Summer Sunset Series ◌ ✴ ☼
Another very fun event to work on was the Summer Sunset Series. In 2021, the world felt pretty bad and loud most of the time, so the Sunset Series at the park was created to remind us all to center ourselves and go for a walk every now and then. The Rail Park worked with Nalaverse to set aside a time each week to focus on mindfulness and meditation. They also had a bunch of hands-on workshops with dope screen prints by Justine Kelley and hosted a round table discussion around community-driven public parks and green spaces in marginalized communities. It was a really perfectly paced event, just right for how comfortable people were feeling in the lull of the pandemic.
When life gives you a pandemic, make a podcast.
SPEAKING OF THE PANDEMIC. What do you do when you’re a community organization and the world shuts down and you’re prohibited from hosting events with other human beings? You start a podcast! OBVIOUSLY!!
The Rail Park team asked us to make some podcast art for them and we knew we wanted to create a system that was flexible enough the be translated into different languages, while still having a bit of personality. That personality really came to life in the animated version that they used on social media to sort of visually represent the host speaking. No frills, just some colors and some typed out parentheses around a logo. Smarter not harder folks.
When building a brand, it isn’t all party posters and spinning gold coins. You also have to build the front half of the mullet, the regular day-to-day stuff, because the whole world actually runs on pitch decks and press releases.
The postcard series above was a really challenging piece to put together. The Rail Park has been around for a few years now, and visitors were starting to lose sight (or just not be aware of) the full three-mile vision. The Rail Park team needed a simple way to convey that Phase One is just a piece of the whole thing. Gotta be honest, it was a head scratcher trying to come up with something that solved this problem, but I’m super proud of this concept.
The idea is that each postcard can live on its own and feel like it’s a complete piece. But having the photos bleed off of the edge kinda suggests that there’s more. And when you see the sections all together, you can see that they all are interconnected and it all makes sense as a whole. A seemingly simple metaphor, but to me it was a really special solution to something that could have been incredibly complicated.
Over the years we’ve made all sorts of stuff for the Rail Park gang—postcards, business cards, letterhead, mailchimp templates, banners, annual reports, and just general stuff. So this is a section of that stuff. I don’t have much to say about it. It just exists and I like it, so now you can look at it. Who am I kidding, no one is reading this far anyway, so who cares.
And the sign said long haired freaky people.
The signage at the park was an interesting piece of the brand, because it couldn’t be extremely wild or have endless repeated text on it, duh. It needed to be clear and follow a bunch of predetermined rules established by Philadelphia Parks and Rec (designed by Exit), but we did get to add a few special icons that were specific to the Rail Park. For example, the Don’t pick wildlife icon is a paulownia leaf that is an invasive species, but also the whole reason the park is here today. (The whole layers thing I mentioned earlier is in reference to these trees. Train companies used to use their seed shells like packing peanuts back in the day, and they’d fall off the trains and grow into trees.) We also got to make the signs green, which believe it or not, took months—maybe even a full year—to approve. Politics are totally not my thing.
Most of all, I was just happy to have the logo I made attached to the physical park itself. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling that rushed through me when I saw that big green sign. Just the idea that some random kid, making a logo for a park in his living room can actually make something that impacts the city just a little bit. It can represent a safe space that people enjoy and take their wedding photos in.
:insert 90’s cliché coming of age story when the kid takes off their glasses and braces revealing that they were hot all along: (AKA: Updating typography)
Over the past few years, the brand has grown and changed, just like the park itself. When we first started out, our main brand typeface was Montserrat, a Google typeface, because, well, the Rail Park budget was tight and using a Google font was the best and most responsible thing we could do. But maybe because it’s so available, Montserrat is wildly overused these days. So it kind of has an “I just picked a random sans that was as close to Gotham as I could get” feeling to it. So once we had the ability, we wanted the Rail Park brand to evolve and be a little more thoughtful.
As the organization found its financial footing, we decided to introduce some more bold typography. That’s where you’ll see Mongoose & Armin come into play. Earlier we talked about layering becoming a big brand element, and when you’re repeating the same information over and over again you want it to be bold and loud and BIG. So we opted for something that was super condensed and had a ton of personality. Mongoose fit that bill perfectly. It’s got some weird ink traps and it’s got some strange dimensions. It’s the perfect wonky condensed typeface.
To balance that wonk, we paired it with Armin Grotesk. This is meant to kind of replace Montserrat over time, but that’s still a work in progress. Armin is great because it carries that super classic Swiss-type feeling to it, and it tames Mongoose a bit. That let us build a brand that can dial up and down on the wildness. You can use Armin on the cover of a fundraising deck, while using Mongoose to announce the next huge event you’re hosting, all while feeling like siblings within the same brand.
We’re also working on transitioning into using the starburst logo as the primary mark and phasing out the original left-aligned stack. We’ll see if the starburst logo sticks, but it’s something I really really love using. It’s versatile, it’s noticeable, and it just has a feeling of positivity radiating from it.
In the end there’s always more.
I hope you enjoyed Part II. The Rail Park brand is so special to me, I just feel like it’s very personal and very real. This brand is almost my subconscious, it’s just what naturally spills out of my head when I sit down at the computer. I believe that everything should feel fun to interact with and most rules should be thrown out the window when it comes to branding.
People want to look at cool stuff. It’s the whole reason museums exist. So next time you’re building something and you’re feeling like you’re getting a little too serious, just remember that Instagram sucks and your best, most intricate, and thoughtful design is going to live inside of a 1080x1350 px rectangle so nothing really matters. Have fun, make what you want, and if it stops being fun, walk away. Life is wayyyy too short.
If you haven’t read it already, head on over to Part I — Easy, breezy, beautiful websites. There you can read a little more about everything that went into launching the brand new Rail Park website.
Or if you’re tired of reading what I have to say, just go to therailpark.org to see it IRL (internet real life?).