Impact vs. Recognition: A Design Mystery in Chicago’s Hyde Park

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I posted the photo above on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on Twitter. Who is the designer, I asked, of this cool branding and signage program for a business improvement district?

I’d just attended a wedding at an event space on Chicago’s 53rd Street, where I was immediately taken by the streetscape with its colorful and fun bike racks, banners, window signs; the logo and its unique typography based on an abstracted street map. This was clearly an up-and-coming neighborhood that was investing in design to distinguish and promote itself. Who was the designer or design firm? The emails I sent to came back, undeliverable. I left phone messages with the organization I’d identified as the client, the South East Chicago Commission (SECC), and they weren’t returned. I contacted every Chicago designer I know. “Who is the mystery designer?” I asked. No one had the answer.


If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? That metaphysical question, pondered by Einstein and other physicists and philosophers, kept twirling around in my head. If a designer creates something and does not affix a credit, if a designer’s name does not pop up in a Google search, if no one knows who did the work, does the design actually exist?

After all, I’ve learned in more than 20 years of writing about design, this profession thrives on credit and recognition. Some projects are created for the sole purpose of making a name for their creators. More than a few big agencies got their start by doing pro bono work for local businesses and nonprofits in order to win gold medals in the New York Art Directors Club show (as just one example, see “The Episcopal Ad Project and Fallon” in The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients).

Here was a great project that seemingly no one was taking credit for. Colorful banners were hanging along 53rd Street from the lake to the University. Perhaps they were there via the efforts of an incredibly talented young firm just making its mark, or done pro bono by graduate students at, say, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


I really, really wanted to feature this project on Imprint and left one more voice message. Halleluya! The next day I got a call from Eric Reaves, SECC program manager and director of the 53rd Street Business Improvement District—Special Service Area of Hyde Park.

The design firm, he said, is Otherwise Incorporated, headed by Nancy Lerner. And the project had just won a 2016 STA 100 award from the Chicago Society of Typographic Arts—one of the world’s stellar design competitions.

Holy cow! I checked out their website, and it was immediately evident that Otherwise is no upstart. They’ve been doing stellar branding and design for real estate companies, arts and cultural organizations and various entrepreneurial companies—not only in Chicago, but nationally and internationally—for a long time. Why are they not on the radar, big time?

Last night I enjoyed an illuminating conversation with the incisive and savvy Nancy Lerner. “A lot of our work is under the radar,” she told me. “We are not about recognition but about having great impact.”

A native Midwesterner and Barnard graduate, Lerner characterizes herself as “the word person,” the lead brand strategist at this 11-person firm located in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, about five miles from the Loop. Her husband and partner of 26 years, David Frej, a graduate of the Cranbrook MFA Design program, is creative director. “We never had any interest in the limelight,” she continued. “We have a wonderful, successful practice serving cultural institutions and philanthropies and introducing a level of branding sophistication to real estate clients. We have a process we use to build consensus, a process that leads a group along a path of discovery.”

“We are not about recognition but about having great impact.”

Before she and Frej founded the firm, Lerner worked for a literary agency, then for one of the big accounting and consulting firms where she was selected to be on a brand identity project ream. That experience jumpstarted her career as a strategist involved in content, design and branding, someone who could “make forms of order out of chaos for clients.” The Downtown Hyde Park website is a good example of that.


“This project was an enormous breakthrough for the client because we got people talking to each other who’d made a fine art of not getting along—people from the University, business owners, real estate people,” Lerner explained. “We got them to think about the good of the neighborhood rather than only about their own interests. That’s the kind of results we value, as well as its impact on neighborhood pride, on helping build the business community and fostering the improvement of this economic empowerment zone.” And, she noted, it was not a pro bono job, though the client was given a discounted rate.


The project, which took a year, included a presentation of six different
design directions and ultimately delivered what Lerner characterizes as “a huge rich palette of visual brand assets.”

Are the shadows cast by the bike racks on the sidewalks one of these assets? “They are a happy consequence of creating a mark that lets light pass through,” says Lerner. “They are something we adore. We are always thinking about materials and light. And the openness of the logo is a metaphor for the neighborhood and what happens when people are living and working and playing together.”

“Awards,” she noted, “are not a magic wand that lead to more business.” But they do give recognition to the client and to the staff, in this case co-content strategist and writer Quinten Rosborough and designer Christine Abbott.

What are the results from the client’s point of view? “Greater vibrancy and increased foot traffic as the corridor is more inviting,” said Eric Reave. And if another civic organization wants to achieve similar results, what is the estimated cost, including fees for professional services and the construction and installation of the signage and banners, building the website and printing business cards and stationery? “Plan on spending $125K,” Reave suggests.

In Downtown Hyde Park’s case the budget was created through an Special Service Area (SSA), or a district created by state statute or city ordinance to levy a special real estate property tax to fund additional services. For other municipalities or situations, the funds could come from grants and/or contributions from a consortium of local business owners who appreciate how much increased foot traffic and more attractive public spaces can impact their bottom line.

And, I’m happy to report, news of the STA award was posted yesterday on the client’s Facebook page.

Read about more of the latest developments, and explore insights into the design world in PRINT Magazine. Check out our latest issue—featuring a cover by Shepard Fairey—or subscribe to get PRINT all year long.