The project was conducted in the Achievement First Endeavor Middle School, a charter school in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Paula Scher and the rest of the Pentagram team (one of our 10 Most Innovative Design Firms), already experienced with public places thanks to projects like these library murals, tackled the typically beige world of lockers, tile, and brick, and turned it into something bright and bold. The transformation is actually relatively simple—no major construction was undertaken, and the project mostly consisted of big, vivid graphics all over the school, from the walls to the cafeteria, the gym to the stairwells.
The graphics are mostly in bright, simple colors, with slogans like "Sweat the small stuff," "Excellence is a habit," and "Many minds, one mission." I was curious about where the slogans came from, and how the Pentagram team decided which to use and where, so I asked Paula, the lead designer. This is what she had to say:
The slogans came from the school. Achievement First uses a series of slogans about education to motivate students to success. They were designed as small stickers in a multitude of colors. We simplified the graphics, refined the color and made them enormous so they conformed to the architecture.
The positioning of the graphics was achieved through a trial and error process with our clients at the school. My team assembled the graphics on a styrofoam model of the interior of the school. We made presentations of design schemes and amended them until everyone was happy. I think our clients were initially afraid of the strength of the graphics (everyone is accustomed to beige) but ultimately, they came to love it.
And that fear of beige was a motivating factor from the start. Paula calls the Achievement First project "an opportunity to correct the beige mistake of my childhood," as she "always thought that schools, libraries, medical clinics, and other public institutions I inhabited were mean." Why did this dull and oppressive color scheme come to be the norm? "There is nothing more safe and boring than beige," she says, but that's precisely why she decided to go in the opposite direction for the project.
It's a really beautiful project, and completely changes the way a building that is often the site of an adolescent's toughest years feels. This school feels open, cheerful, rife with possibilities—it just shows what good design can accomplish.