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Experience The Humanities

As the most diverse, most dynamic state in the union, California is home to more people from more places than virtually anywhere on earth. It’s also home to one of the most progressive independent humanities organizations in the country. One that we helped reimagine as a new way to connect Californians with a curiosity about their state, their heritage, and their world.

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“..the history of California is American history in extremis... unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic – only more so. ”

Wallace Stegner - Saturday Review, 1967

If the history of America is the history of an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, or overcome by new immigrations, then the history of California is American history in extremis.

Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic – only more so. Its version of the Good Life, its sports, pleasures, and comforts, are increasingly copied by the envious elsewhere. It creates an art and literature as nervous, permissive, and superficial as itself. It has its own intensified version of the Brain Drain, borrowing both ideas and the men who generate them.

It borrows from everywhere – in nothing is it so American….

The hippie aberration, which anyone with a sense of history has to see as a newer, younger variety of romantic bohemianism, is only one response – an overpublicized one – to California’s extreme permissiveness. It is common for immigrants to try to mold themselves to the new conditions, with a desperate yearning to be in, to belong. But when the new condition is as unstable as a dust devil or a strobe-light happening, then many immigrants are going to be thrown back on the conventional and the known. The more experimental and permissive the moral, artistic, political, and social Left, the more the Right backs up in its ruts, high-centering itself on attitudes hallowed by the example of Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Grundy….

It will be tragic if social order and stability are imposed by the Raffertys, the Reagans, and the lockjaw right of Orange County. It could be equally unfortunate if the Gary Snyders succeed in their aim of leaving not one value of the old order standing. In the experimental society everything is permitted, but not everything works. When that discovery is made, the society has tempered innovationism with tradition, even convention.

Meantime, California is a state in which it is at times almost intolerable to live. I know people who are moving out rather than rear their children here. Yet other places, by comparison, seem lesser, smaller, duller, less promising, less exciting. For this is indeed where the future will be made – is already being made, with all the noise, smog, greed, energy, frequent wrong-headedness, and occasional greatness of spirit that are so American and so quintessentially Californian.

Wallace Stegner - Saturday Review, 1967

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An indefinite definite

Defining the humanities is a snipe hunt. In other words, it’s really, really hard. No two people would express it in the same way. However, the fluid nature of such a definition is a strength. The humanities mean something different to everyone because that meaning is shaped by the experience itself. An experience that attempts to get at the very core of what it means to be human. So how do you say all that? We started at the top (of their brand hierarchy).

Brand Architecture

The apex of the humanities lies in the experience, so we reasoned that it should be at the top of the brand food chain. Cal Humanities agreed.

The observer effect

If the humanities are defined by the observer, then the Cal Humanities’ site needed to follow suit. We wanted to enable users to experience the humanities firsthand, not in an academic sense, but in a real, interpersonal sense. That’s why one of the most prominent elements of the site we built is the Experience Grid. It’s a user defined visual search tool encompassing all the varied experiences made possible by Cal Humanities. And because no one group (or device) can lay claim to the humanities, we employed responsive design to open up the experience to as many users as possible.

Naming Matters

When the California Council for the Humanities approached Owen Jones for help defining their brand, the first logical step seemed to be their name. But new names don’t magically jump out of the ether. Especially ones with a strong, 30-year history full of achievement and stakeholders. All of the above would need to be considered. We started by defining the council via its strongest attributes.

How do you take those four attributes and boil them down into one succinct rallying cry? Like this:

A State of Open Mind

What do you call a diverse, accessible, curious, courageous organization that promotes and pursues a state of open mind? That’s where our exhaustive naming exercise commenced.


Starting Conversations

A few dozen rounds later, we came away with a name, and more importantly an identity, that we all felt really great about. So, we wanted to find a good way to visually communicate that name, while playing on the diverse strengths that make California, California.

Cal Humanities

Colors & Shapes

As any Art Director will tell you, the words are only half the battle (and they’d probably say it wasn’t the important half). Owen’s design team explored the organization’s visual identity from many perspectives.

The wide, blue, open-minded yonder

We distilled our options to a concise visual language. One which was simple, modern, and clean, while still communicating the purpose of the organization.

In the end, the new Cal Humanities had a brand that better communicated their purpose, and a template for opening their experiences to more Californians than ever before.