The lack of diversity in tech is a particularly hot topic these days, as well it should be: While 30% of the country is made up of African-Americans and Latinos, these demographics are chronically underrepresented in tech. That demographic disparity is further reflected in the comparative lack of women and the transgendered in Silicon Valley.
Platform, a new organization dedicated to trying to increase participation of underrepresented groups in entrepreneurship and technology, is trying to change all of that. In collaboration with Pentagram Principal Eddie Opara, Platform–which just held its inaugural conference, the Platform Summit–has designed a visual identity that combines a post-racial futurism with an unabashed love for the aesthetic of tech.
“Hank Williams, CEO of Platform, came to me via Nicholas Negroponte of MIT Media Lab,” Opara tells Co.Design. “Their concern was that African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities are being shut out of entrepreneurial undertakings and the field of technology. There are great innovators and entrepreneurs in these demographics, but they’re not being seen or sought after, and this problem goes all the way down: kids are coming up today who simply don’t know who their mentors and role models should be.”
But it wasn’t enough to simply create a conference, it had to have the right look. That’s where Pentagram came in. “Platform wanted people to know that this wasn’t just another tech conference,” says Opara. “Through a clean integration of Platform’s message, they tasked us to come up with a design for the Platform Summit that would be seen as the personification of what a truly inclusive tech conference would actually be.”
The cornerstone of the Platform Summit’s visual identity was the ThreeSix 11 font. Designed by Muir McNeil, the font looks almost as if it belongs in a dropdown menu on an old OS. According to Opara, ThreeSix 11 was chosen primarily for this unabashed futuristic, technological look.
“From the start, it was incredibly important to everyone that Platform’s visual identity conveyed a sense of technology,” Opara says. “We chose ThreeSix 11 because it has this equilibrium, both slightly digital and analog. It’s raw and effective.” And because ThreeSix 11 is an optical font, Pentagram knew that the typeface could scale to great effect… an important consideration to keep in mind when branding anything as massive as a tech conference.
To give Platform’s mark a distinct identity, Pentagram added a long trailing line that could transform itself according to the context in which it was being used. For example, when a visitor to the Platform Summit got off the elevator at the MIT Media Lab, the Platform logo would point them in the direction of the conference area. It can also transform into stairs, mouse pointers, and other symbols, depending on the context. “With the line, we wanted to indicate that Platform was a platform, that it’s an appendage, that it can change into different things,” says Opara.
Another benefit of ThreeSix 11 was that it was particularly well suited to creating playful, tech-savvy iconography. Opara and his team at Platform used the structure of the typeface to create custom icons specifically for the conference: for example, icons for the men’s room, for a cup of coffee, or for the exit.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t use a bunch of icons that you could find anywhere, like a museum or a school,” says Opara. “We wanted to make it an extension of the Platform typeface itself to create a sense of device, a mnemonic access point that extends the visual identity and message of Platform very neatly.”
The result is that the inaugural Platform Summit looked in many respects as if you were walking around inside the monochrome operating system of some vintage Mac. The decision was risky, but it came off to wide acclaim.
“A lot of people move away from this kind of approach, thinking it looks just too technological, or that African-Americans and Latinos might not be ready for it,” says Opara. “But Platform was willing to go for it, and the result was that many people told us they thought it was one of the most well-affected use of graphics in a conference, ever.”
See Eddie Opara speak live at our upcoming Innovation By Design Conference on October 2 in New York. For a full roster of events and speakers, go here.