Branding Media for the Future at Open Signal

If you’ve watched access cable TV in Portland, you are probably familiar with Open Signal. The media center provides studio space and equipment so that anyone in the community can create content for local access cable channels.

Formerly known as Portland Community Media, the organization went through a massive transformation in early 2017, emerging as Open Signal: Portland Community Media Center. In addition to a new name, they also got a clever new visual brand identity, handled by Rumors Studio.

Open Signal - Brand manual logos

I sat down with Rebecca Burrell, Open Signal’s Director of Strategy & Development, and Andy Pressman of Rumors Studio, to discuss the process of revitalizing the cultural institution.

Bess: Why did Portland Community Media feel the need to rebrand? What were you trying to accomplish?

Rebecca: Initially, it felt like a rebrand, then we realized it was much bigger than that. Two years ago, we hired a new Executive Director, Justen Harn, who had worked at the Hollywood Theatre, and brought lots of leadership staff with him. Justen was able to get grant funding from the Hollywood Theatre to migrate programs over to this organization.

At that point, we were doing all of these new things. We had a new interest in engaging art in a way that hadn’t been done in this space before. We had a greater commitment to equity. We felt like we were a new organization, so we felt we needed an external indication of that transformation. So, we’re not even talking about it as a rebrand; it’s more that we transformed from Portland Community Media to Open Signal.

Within the field of community media, we’re all having to ask ourselves: what is the relevance of cable access? And how can we modernize our organizations, while still honoring the public funding that we receive to create programs for public access cable channels? Of course we need to honor that, but how can we make that feel important in 2018?

Andy: One thing I love about what happens at Open Signal is that it delivers on the original promise of cable access: everybody can make TV! But there were so many hurdles to actually do that, because the technology and tools were not really accessible. It’s not something you can make and distribute from your home.

I love that Open Signal is delivering on that promise. There’s the broadcasting, which is what cable access was all about. And also there’s the training. So, you can make something here, and then take it out into the world. Open Signal gives you the tools and a platform. It’s one of the reasons I really like what’s happening here, because it’s not just about cable access; it’s a community signal booth.

Rebecca: Yeah, and if you want collaborators, there’s a community of people here who all have shared interests, and maybe different skills, so you can potentially work with somebody who is unlike anyone that you currently have in your life, because our demographics are so diverse.

Andy: To frame it around the brand, “community” was the word we used as a core concept, overall. I think it’s a word that gets used more often than it should, so it’s been devalued in some instances, but I really believe that that’s what Open Signal does and is about: building and empowering community. I’m so stoked about the work they are doing here. I think it’s a real building block for the community and the city.

Bess: Andy, were you familiar with Open Signal before the rebrand/transformation?

Andy: I didn’t really know anything about Portland Community Media as an organization, but I knew about a couple of things that they broadcast, particularly Experimental Half Hour, which was a show that was very art driven.

We did a good amount of research at the start of the project to get a feel for what people right here in this neighborhood and also broadly around the city knew about Portland Community Media, and what they thought about it. And it was just not a name that people held on to. It wasn’t a known entity. And I see that changing now, which is wild to me. I talk to people in the community about work sometimes, and they talk about the resources that are here. They know Open Signal exists, and that’s awesome!

Open Signal impact

Bess: How did you land on Open Signal as the new name?

Andy: When Justen first talked to us about this project, it did go pretty quickly, like Rebecca said, from a rebrand to a transformation. He mentioned that maybe a new name was needed, and I thought about it, but it didn’t feel like it was a core need at the time. But it very quickly became clear that it needed a new name, not just because of the transformation, but because of some of the connotations with Portland Community Media, which is a combination of three words that kind of makes you stumble around as you say it. Some people had great connotations with it, because the word “community” has strength, and they love knowing that this is a community center. But for most people, certainly people who hadn’t encountered it before, it felt outdated. Like, Portland Community Media; that’s not about the internet, not about a contemporary form of media production or output.

So, we wanted to rethink what kind of a name it had. It was a challenge, because we didn’t want it to feel like a startup or a tech company. We wanted it to be a positive banner that people can rally behind. We went through hundreds of names, as we do when we’re thinking of things like this. It takes a lot of time to think of words and connotations and put them together. We ended up on Open Signal because both of those words were core to the meaning of the organization. It’s “open” to all, and “signal” offers the idea of media broadcast.

We liked that it could be a description: the signal is open. But also, it’s an active term: open the signal up to all. It was a lot of fun because there were so many things we were working with in terms of the meaning of the organization, and its context within the community. And, it sounded good too!

Bess: Absolutely. It sounds very contemporary. Based on your past work, it seems like this project was a perfect fit for Rumors. Do you have any advice for designers who are trying to find clients that fit their voice?

Andy: The easy response is: only show the work you want to get. Only make public and share and talk about the kind of work you want to get, and that can be both the way that something looks formally, or it can be the kind of client. Rumors has been around for ten years now, and in that time, we’ve definitely cultivated a particular kind of client, and we continue to only show work that fits within our voice. We’ve taken on some projects that don’t do that, and we’ve never showed them. Not because they’re bad, or because we feel bad about doing those projects, just because it doesn’t build that clarity of voice, position, and intent.

I also teach, and often students will show me their portfolios, and they’ll have things that just don’t clarify what they’re trying to do. It’s about tightening that down, and only showing the work that you’re trying to do. That’s really the only thing, besides just being picky. And being picky is hard, because you need to make money and “make it” in the industry.

Bess: Was there any resistance to Open Signal’s new brand from staff or board members?

Rebecca: Well, I wouldn’t say there was resistance to the ethos or the style, or the brand language, but change in general is hard. Many of the producers have been around for 25+ years. There’s been a lot of new change, and their viewpoint is: look, you can come in and make changes as you want, but I’m the one that that’s been consistently here. And do you understand me when you’re making those changes?

And, I think that was exacerbated by the fact that the design process was really fast. Justen started on the rebrand almost immediately after he was hired, so I think we learned a lot about gaining trust, and then making changes. Although at the time, Justen really didn’t feel like we had that luxury.

So, we jumped into it, and as Andy indicated, taking out the word “community” was probably the biggest point of concern, which is why we added a secondary line to make the full name Open Signal: Portland Community Media Center. We wanted to indicate that we are still community centric.

We still have a lot of work to do to get our TV channels up to a place where the branding matches everything that we’ve done online and in print, but I think that we all feel like the community that happens on-site is always going to be more important than the passive experience of watching the content on the air in your living room. So, we prioritized, because community is always going to be the core of what we do.

Andy had to do so many presentations to producers, the city, the board… and he sold the shit out of it every time. Getting buy in was really a challenge.

Andy: And getting buy in is always a challenge when you’re doing any brand, especially when you have two things going on at once. There was a new Executive Director, and maybe there wasn’t already buy in trust with Justen, because he was new.

The brand itself is only as true or real as what you do with it. Like, you can give a thing whatever brand terms you want, but it’s sort of like smoke in mirrors. What does the organization do with it? And it’s the same with somebody new; they can say whatever they want about the organization, but where do they go in the next few years?

I think pushing through having these things happen at the same time was useful, because it wasn’t a declaration of a new intent. As Justen and Rebecca and everyone here increases buy in with the work they’re doing, people see that it’s working.

Rebecca: Some people voiced a concern about the change in our brand, but what they were really concerned about was the organization, and if its values were about to change. After many long conversations with these people, we got to a place where we realized they didn’t care what we called this place, they just wanted to make sure that they were always going to have access to these resources, and we weren’t going to take that away from them.

The best part of Andy’s brand presentation is about the values behind the brand and our voice. It’s the essence of who we are. And nobody, from producers to staff, had any concerns about that. That’s what made it work.

Bess: It seems very appropriate that you took on this new identity shortly after the 2016 election, at a time when it’s really important for people to have a voice.

Rebecca: I think that impacts how we talk about the organization, for sure. That’s why what we’re doing here is relevant. It’s the notion of teaching people how to use tools that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to, helping them develop their story, and giving them a platform to share their voice. And it doesn’t matter whether or not you have a cable subscription; all of the content people create for our cable channels are digital files, so they keep them and put them on Youtube. And eventually we’ll have video on demand on our website that will allow us to share it all digitally, so it doesn’t just live on cable. But yeah, absolutely, it has never been more relevant to have this kind of resource.

Andy: In terms of the project itself, yeah, it always had a political connotation.

Rebecca: This place has always been very activist driven.

Andy: Yes, and I think that was behind some people’s hesitation about getting rid of the word “community.” I think that spirit of social activism was tied up in the name for them.

Bess: Andy, I wanted to ask you about the typography. It’s really bold, and I love that. It pays homage to cable and television, in a very contemporary way. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed that system?

Andy: In general, at Rumors Studio, we prioritize type over graphic forms. We prioritize language and meaning over connotation and abstraction. So, when we work on identities, often, if not always, the first thing we think about when we start are the letterforms.

One of the things we wanted for Open Signal, was to get the entirety of this spirit of the brand in the words itself. That it wasn’t just a word with an icon that you put on mugs. We wanted the language to be unlike anything else. We worked a bit on this idea of media and messages and broadcasting. At first, we were working on dotted lines, referencing the idea of wires carrying this thing. Then it got more literal, thinking about Morse code, and dots and dashes, and the formal language that comes from that. And we tried to pull that back into the logo, and as we were working on it, we realized it also had this nice amalgamation of different components coming together into one.

Again, the brand is all about community and this public space, so it felt right that these things were harmonious with one another. Also, there’s an intuition that you have, as a designer. I personally like things that aren’t what I’ve seen before, but are correct. Just because we can process and read a thing generally, because it’s embedded in our culture, that’s not the only way to do it. I like the idea of building anew, and getting to the point where it feels right, and you get that when you have no obvious associations.

I love it. Some people were not immediately sold on it, but over time, we pulled them along.

Open Signal brand manual

Rebecca: I wasn’t immediately sold on it.

Andy: I think some people didn’t appreciate the idea of it. Why would you ever make a thing that’s harder to read? If the baseline is making it easier to read, why would you ever adjust it? I get that as a narrative, but I don’t necessarily think it’s accurate to the way that I think or read. Some people don’t immediately love it, but it’s so exciting when they do immediately love it.

Rebecca: Oftentimes, when you create a logo, there’s a lot of thinking behind it that is useful, but the public can’t always figure that out for themselves. But I did show our branding to a friend of mine, and he was like, “Oh! It’s like signals! Morse code!” Which is exactly what is!

Andy: That feels so good!

Bess: What are some ways people can get involved with Open Signal, particularly people who maybe have creative backgrounds but no experience in media?

Rebecca: The good news is that we exist to train people from the ground up, so you don’t have to have any experience to take a class here. Some Mac proficiency helps, but we also have a Mac basics class, so you really don’t need any prior knowledge at all. Also, we set our courses in tracks, so if there’s a particular thing that you want to learn about, such as animation or experimental media, you can take that track from start to finish, and hone your skills as you go.

We also have events for the people who like media, but maybe don’t feel the need to make their own. There are plenty of free and low-cost opportunities to come and see media installations, or a VR demo, or hear an artist talk. And we have block parties every summer.

This is a community space, so we invite people to come in any time, even if they just want to hang out. You can check out a laptop, and set up a space to work on it. In the future, we hope to get a coffee shop going, to make it more of a welcoming space. But definitely, we think of it as a community center, so any time we’re open, you can come in and chat with the staff, ask questions about what classes we’re offering, and find out what’s happening. So, lots of opportunities, and volunteer stuff too!

Andy: I want to give a shout out to their Instagram, which is great and shows the life of Open Signal. I really like it. It definitely sends a message that Open Signal is where fun things happen.

By Bess Meade
Published March 6, 2018
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