Mama Foundation for the Arts is on a mission to make a joyful noise and to uplift the Black musical treasures of various genres. Recently, the foundation went through a massive redesign with the help of ThoughtMatter. Not only does this redesign reflect the visual depiction of the joy of music, but with the support of the exclamation point used throughout the branding system, it demands the attention it so deserves. ThoughtMatter not only brought the Mama Foundation to many new demographics, but it has strengthened design’s purpose through the process of more compelling storytelling.
In New York, Harlem’s legacy in the arts is woven into the fabric of the city, a history rich with legendary performers and performances across gospel, jazz, and R&B. It was in this tradition that Mama Foundation for the Arts was founded more than 20 years ago, acting as a cultural space where youth and adults have access to quality training and employment as performing artists at no cost. With the goal of protecting and strengthening this legacy, they partnered with New York-based brand design studio ThoughtMatter to rethink their identity, turning it into a tool to uplift and inspire future generations of artists.
Founded by Vy Higginsen and named after her co-created international hit musical Mama I Want to Sing, Mama Foundation needed an identity that was as unique and heartfelt as their mission. Also, having grown and evolved with their new offerings and programming, the foundation needed a better way to organize and communicate all that they do in the most straightforward way possible. In ThoughtMatter, they found a similarly passionate advocate for the arts and an enthusiasm for applying design toward helping build stronger organizations.
“As NYC locals, we wholeheartedly believe in championing our neighborhoods and are very focused on supporting the youth and arts in NYC,” explains ThoughtMatter Creative Director Ben Greengrass. “Over the years, we’ve done our best to uplift many vital cultural cornerstones, helping them refine or define their voices. It’s only fitting that we do the same for Mama Foundation, a group that has similarly dedicated themselves to giving performers a platform to grow and find success.”
To find that voice, ThoughtMatter began by having intimate conversations with all stakeholders of the foundation, talking with everyone from talented vocalists who have been a part of the organization for years, to instructors and even Vy Higginsen and her daughter, Knoelle. Their team listened to stories and experienced the power of their performances (albeit through Zoom) in order to paint a clearer picture of the future of the foundation.
“Even during the pandemic, we were able to connect virtually with Mama Foundation’s team to really feel the love they have for their organization and unearth the necessary ingredients we needed to begin our creative exploration,” continues Greengrass. Music, in particular, became a central ingredient in the discovery and co-creation process. Listening to music together and sharing musical experiences with each other sparked conversations around using the body as an instrument, understanding how powerful posture and breathing can be when projecting one’s voice.
These workshops also revealed the importance of open, uplifted arms in gospel music. Bringing these insights to their designs, ThoughtMatter set out to mirror this visual representation of joy – the act of projecting one’s whole self and one’s voice – by using an exclamation point. This symbol became an anchor for the new brand – a bold expression that commands attention and is the visual manifestation of Mama Foundation’s promise to be seen and heard.
The symbol of an arched window served a similar purpose in the new identity. “Harlem is my neighborhood so I know firsthand that when you walk around on a Sunday morning, all you’ll hear are sounds of celebration coming from behind those windows,” says Greengrass. “These windows provide a view into the history, the advancement, and the joy in Mama’s house.” Paired with vibrant colors and photography, both the exclamation point and arch became powerful graphic devices for use across signage, the website, show posters and more.
With their work, ThoughtMatter has not only helped bring Mama Foundation to new audiences but reinforced design’s role in more effective storytelling. “Sharing stories can provide access, education, and preservation and the act of sharing a story builds relationships and creates conversations,” says Managing Director Jessie McGuire. “Design is the tool used to share that story. Through design, symbolism and language, we’re able to introduce their audiences to aspects of the brand they may have not otherwise been familiar with – their Harlem legacy, commitment to preserving and presenting Black musical art-forms, goal to catalyze collective healing and their aim to create space for communal belonging. The end result is a brand that is an authentic representation of the Mama Foundation and its singular spirit.”