Stakeholder interviews, A/B Testing, Voice and tone exercises, Logo development
Millions of Americans are underemployed, while employers are struggling to find talent with the skills they need. One of the greatest challenges facing our economy is whether we can close this skills gap at scale. Merit America envisions a world in which anyone can advance their life based on merit, not money. They provide a path from low-wage work to skilled careers, by preparing talented adults without college degrees for in-demand roles. Established in 2017 as a woman-owned organization, Merit America provides an alternative path to upward mobility and believes deeply in their learners’ potential to learn new skills and advance their career. They do this with a program that provides both flexibility and support as their learners gain the subject matter skills and professional skills employers are looking for.
As the design director and a founding team member, I collaborated with the CEO, a program director, and a director of strategy to define and evolve the organization's brand—an organization in its infancy (the name changed from “Level Up America” during my time there). I was also brought on to design the organization’s online portal to track learners’ progress throughout our program, which you can read about here.
Merit America was built on the notion of constantly experimenting and learning. We leaned into failure and heartily celebrated our successes. As we worked together to shape the program's vision, our model adhered to three notions:
Once I began understanding our goals and the education-to-employment landscape, I collaborated with the Director of Program to determine our target audiences:
The first official elements I developed for Merit America's brand included our brand voice, color palette, and typography. These would provide the foundation and legitimacy of our original flyers and website used to recruit learners for our inaugural Alpha Cohort: our first group of 15 learners selected through a rigorous recruitment process.
Voice: Through a brainstorming and word association activity, we narrowed down our brand voice to a blend of obvious and surprising terms. Our learners, on the whole, had experienced great professional and academic hardships, so it became paramount to cultivate an environment that would take them seriously, empathize with their story, and motivate them to always have hope for the future.
Color Palette: The dominant colors we chose were shades of blue. While emulating “trust” and “professionalism”, I chose brighter shades that evoked “optimism” and “innovation”, rather than traditional shades that might come off as too convservative or overly traditional.
The accent colors, used sparingly, provide a fun and ambitious tone when necessary.
Typography: I chose open-source typefaces Yeseva, Source Sans Pro, Proza Libre, and Kalama.
It was time for a logo. In keeping with our optimistic yet professional voice, I was inspired by a phrase that had come to me during a brainstorming session: our learners build their own career ladders; we simply hold it steady for them. I created the logomark by stylizing the “M”, with one of its ascenders emulating a ladder. The smaller shape beneath the ladder is a stylized “A” and the logomark in keeping with the aforementioned sentiment. The upward angles in the logo evoked a sense of optimism and motivation that were eventually applied elsewhere in our branded materials.
We originally had no existing custom photography and I wanted to avoid relying too heavily on stock photography so we wouldn't seem inauthentic. To counter this, I created some simple, custom illustrations inspired by the idea of pinstripes on a suit learners might wear to an interview.
Merit America's learners come from all walks of life, and the same could be said for our overall audience. Knowing this, I used it as an opportunity to introduce the idea of applying accessibility standards to the company's brand from day one. Below is a page from our brand guide outlining such standards.
At the finale of our Alpha Cohort, our team hosted a graduation ceremony to celebrate their successes. This was our first opportunity for professional photography with which we could continue to promote our brand. Once we began growing our inventory of custom photography (primarily learner and employee headshots, graduation ceremony photography, and kickoff banquet photography), I established the guidelines of using saturated, learner-focused photography whenever possible. I incorporated duotoned photography when stylistically necessary. At this point, we still did not have custom photography of learners in their new workplace (for obvious, confidentiality reasons). However, with our newfound library of learner photography, we felt more comfortable relying on stock photography to illustrate the work environments our potential learners would experience.