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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Civil Liberties Has a New Look

Scott Stowell and Open started work on a new ACLU identity last fall, but the ACLU started the process of bringing their communications more in line with what the organization had become (more open to participation) about three years ago. The new visual identity is just the latest and most visible part of that process. The logo was first revealed to the public on the ACLU website on Sept. 26. But the project is not finished! The identity keeps evolving and expanding. Stowell says there has already been one upgrade to it, and there are more to come. 

Included on the project are Jason Jude Chan, Maxime Gau, Clay Grable, Cat Kirk, Nicholas Lim, Martha Kang McGill, Steven Merenda, Greta Skagerlind, and Stowell. Tobias Frere-Jones from Frere-Jones Type drew the logo.

I asked Stowell to talk about why this essential civil rights institution is making changes to its brand.

The ACLU has always dutifully stood on the side of the First Amendment, even to the ire of liberals (e.g., the Skokie march). What was your first thought when asked to do this redesign? I know we were incredibly lucky to get the chance to work on this project, and not just because I’ve been an ACLU supporter for a long time. I’ve always admired their determination to stick to their principles, no matter what. That’s more important than ever these days. And that made this a unique opportunity.

The letters A-C-L-U are as much a word as they are initials. I wonder how many people don’t even compute that they stand for “American Civil Liberties Union.” You’ve retained the initials—did you have any thoughts of rebranding based on the words themselves? We never considered it. In fact, just the opposite. There’s a version of the new logo for use on stationery and official documents that includes the full name AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION. Some people at the ACLU wanted to stop using those words at all, but we didn’t want an ESPN situation where the letters don’t stand for anything.

What do you want people to feel when they see this rebrand? The new visual identity (like the ACLU—and the United States) invites everybody to participate. So we want people to feel welcome. Every choice we made, from the ideas behind the work to the ACLU Design Handbook that explains how to make choices based on them, was focused on what we all have in common.

Your roll out comes on the heels of Charlottesville and in the wake of Trump’s attacks on the first Amendment. They ACLU has actually stated it will no longer defend Nazis and racists. How does this fit into your work? That’s a complicated question and there are lots of points of view on it, even inside the ACLU. The new visual identity was designed to be used for many different messages by many different people in many different ways. As the ACLU days, dissent is patriotic—and the tension that comes along with that inspired our work.

Most of those “many different people” are not professional designers. But as soon as we gave them the Handbook, they got started making stuff—and they sure are making a lot of it! It’s exciting and surprising to see everybody figure out how to use these new tools in their own ways.

Since the ACLU means different things on different sides of the political divide, were you trying to bridge the gap, or let it be? The thinking that Co: did talks about how “we the people dare to create a more perfect union,” despite the fact that we’ve been living in “the Divided States of America” for longer than we had thought. The thing is, we can all have our differences and still be in this together.

A while back we saw that somebody at ACLU had shared a news headline and said: “This is the most ACLU headline ever.” That headline said ACLU TELLS HIGH SCHOOL TO ALLOW STUDENTS TO PROTEST ACLU AT FOOTBALL GAME. That sounds about right to me.

What has been the response, so far? Over the last year, we got lots of feedback from inside the ACLU. The visual identity evolved as a result. After the identity launched, we got a few comments from outside the ACLU about accessibility, specifically related to color. So we clarified and expanded the accessibility guidelines, and the identity evolved again.

The visual identity reflects the values of the ACLU, and that includes making sure everybody is welcome, regardless of their background or identity or opinion. So the response has been enthusiastic. Some people love it and other people hate it! And that’s just the way we like it.

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