How Two Designers Helped the US Department of State Rally the World Behind Education

Designers Derrick Davis, Megan Soule, and the communications team at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs discuss their brand redesign for International Education Week.

How Two Designers Helped the US Department of State Rally the World Behind Education
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International Education Week (IEW) had one too many looks. For 15 years, schools and organizations worldwide created their own versions of the IEW logo and artwork to promote the week-long event for students.

The trouble was, the event already had a logo people simply weren’t using it.

Because many different visuals were published around the world to represent IEW, few people knew it was a unified effort from a collaboration between the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Education.

The IEW was an initiative in need of a strong, visual identity refresh. Designers Derrick Davis and Megan Soule were asked to step in to solve the challenge, just two months shy of International Education Week 2016.

The power of one simple, thoughtful design

This was the previous logo that lasted 15 years for International Education Week. It was originally designed for print.

International Education Week was created as an opportunity to celebrate the benefits of international education and exchange.

And 2016 was a special year: for the first time, the State Department began promoting to larger populations abroad not just higher-education contacts and students.

The big questions surrounding the rebranding effort were:

  • What should the new logo look like, and why?
  • How will it drive awareness around the world, rather than just being another pretty design?

Derrick and Megan wanted to do this right.

They wanted to ensure the new branding would be timeless, in order to serve the IEW mission for years to come. It also had to be flexible, and easy for schools and organizations around the world to use when helping promote the event every November.

“We saw this as our big opportunity to say, ‘This is the essence of the U.S. State Department,’” said Megan. “Our goal was to create a brand that’s both broad and specific — international but also local — and a design asset that’s achievable and attainable, no matter who is using them, what language they use, and what computer they’re using.”

“I thought to myself, ‘Good God. Where do we start?’” Megan said, laughing.

6 Steps to designing the new IEW logo 

1. Research and understand the real problem.

“One of the biggest mistakes I made in the past was I didn’t look at how people were using the brand previously and why there wasn’t brand consistency.” Megan said.

“I would assume that a ‘modern’ and clean design would work. But there are real problems that people encounter with certain designs, and when trying to repurpose them for different uses.”

This time, the designers looked back to see what partners were doing with the old logo and why they chose the symbols they did. Almost every time, schools and organizations incorporated their own logo and brand colors into their IEW marketing materials.

Through conversations with partner organizations, the team at the State Department determined that the real problem was in providing something to help the organizations promote IEW, rather than just another requirement or “branding guideline.”

2. Set the bigger vision: Colors, fonts, graphics.

When looking at how organizations modified the IEW logo over the years, the design team noticed two patterns:

  • Certain colors were used (in particular, people liked green).
  • Certain typefaces were preferred.

The team asked questions like, “Does this translate well into another language?” and “What do colors mean to different cultures?” They found that the most neutral color was green, and that blue was too common.

The globe theme was also overused and tired. With the word “International” already in the name, a globe was redundant.

3. Give every designer freedom to create.

Derrick and Megan started sketching concepts on their own. Then, they came together to share ideas and narrow them down.

4. Refine. Refine. Refine.

The team had 3-4 design rounds and at every round, they removed an element.

The goal was to go simpler and simpler (without removing important elements) until they had one design that was timeless and iconic.

The team settled on a bookmark graphic.

The team agreed they wanted to make it look like a page was bookmarked, calling to an image that universally symbolizes learning.

They also left white space for organizations to add their own logo.

This made it clear that organizations were welcome to continue adding their brand and colors, but while following a standard to maintain consistency in the IEW brand.

“Branding is hard as it is, but it’s even harder if the brand you’re going to be using is going to be used in designs you have no control over,” Soule said. “We needed to do something that wouldn’t be distorted but that people would like.”

The new logos next to each other made it easy to visually show an unspoken partnership.

5. Apply to channels where the target audience is.

Snapchat and the Facebook overlays were very popular.

And the logo materials were very easy for partner organizations to download and use, right from the homepage of the IEW website.

As a result, #IEW2016 became a trending search term on Facebook with 91,074 mentions.

And the IEW Facebook profile overlay received 6,300 visits (3,700 on day one).

Tips from Derrick and Megan:

  • People like graphics that are helpful immediately, and easy to use.
  • Consistent user research and engagement was the secret to successful revision cycles.

The benefits of a successful government logo refresh 

  • More than 46,000 people visited the IEW website.
  • Visitors spent an average of two minutes, 17 seconds on the site (an increase of 22.5 percent over the previous year).
  • Outside the United States, the most visitors came from Pakistan, India, Brazil, Turkey, and Ukraine.
  • Almost 3,000 people downloaded the IEW Design Guide and logo files.
  • The in-house team saved time and money for the next IEW.

It was “most definitely easier to launch IEW the following year” in terms of workload, Derrick said. All the assets were ready to go. They even had time to design and launch a new website with the new brand.

“Before it took about two months in advance to prep for an event. Now, we got it down to a month to prepare design assets,” Derrick said. “I was super satisfied with the end product. We used our design skills to solve real problems.”

Join the International Education Week efforts in 2018

International Education Week, presented by the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Department of Education, runs from November 12-16, 2018.

From learning about other cultures in our own classrooms to studying abroad in foreign countries, international education builds relationships, increases our understanding of one another, and helps us work together to solve global challenges.

Download digital, printable, and interactive materials at IEW.state.gov.

Ways to get involved

We look forward to seeing how you celebrate #IEW2018.


Read more in our Creating Impact series.

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