I recently had the privilege of visiting Firebelly Design through the Lightbank Design program. Firebelly is known inside and outside of Chicago for their unique design philosophy; Good Design for Good Reason. They seek out projects that are positive for the local Chicago community, and use a significant portion of the proceeds from the for-profit design agency to fund true non profit endeavors. While they are dedicated to serving the city of Chicago as a whole, they are particularly focused on directly improving the community of Humbolt Park (their own stomping grounds) by providing grants to local non-profits, running programs to provide access to training for basic life skills to those who otherwise would not have had access, directly providing goods and services to members of the community and their businesses, and being an advocate and resource for the people of Humbolt Park. They also run an annual design fellowship, known as Camp Firebelly, to educate and inspire young design students, and an incubator/accelerator program for aspiring start-ups called Firebelly University-which has spawned several successful small businesses. Firebelly accomplishes all of this while still cranking out incredible, well-researched, process-oriented design work and presenting some of the most unique design shows around. Any designer ever claims that you cannot be an amazing designer while still having time to teach yourself code, start a business, give back to your community, teach and mentor other designers, and be generally bad-ass just needs to look to Firebelly for inspiration. The designers at Firebelly are living proof that design, development, business, and generosity are not mutually exclusive.
Divvy, Firebelly’s most recent project, is really getting around the Chicago… literally.
The Divvy brand is on dozens of street corners, plastered on the side of vans, and riding around Chicago. Divvy, a new Chicago bike share program was thought up by the Chicago Dep. of Transportation, but feels more like it could be a fresh new start-up rather than a utilitarian public transport program. There is so much talk in the start-up world these days about design making the difference between becoming the next big thing or the next big failure, and I think the branding and design Firebelly did for Divvy is one of the best examples I have seen of design making the difference in a venture’s success. The program would have no doubt been used even if it was branded to look like a traditional public transport program (read: rainbow color coded dots and black Helvetica), but it would have just been another joyless, utilitarian way to get from point A to point B (i.e. No one thinks that a nice way spend a summer day is riding around on the El). But when Firebelly designed and positioned the Divvy brand, they wanted it to elevate it above just a way to commute and instead make it an experience…a way to see the city, spend a day, free yourself from cars and trains, make traveling easy and convenient, enjoy the outdoors, and make getting where you need to go more enjoyable and freeing. Clearly, it is already being quite effective as every Divvy station I pass always has bikes checked out…and nearly everywhere I go I see people happily whizzing around on the sleek, modern candy-colored Divvy’s.
Visually, the brand and logomark are a triumph- simple in the best possible sense. Designers strive for simplicity, but also strive for deep meaning and too often only accomplish one or the other. In the case of the Divvy logo, they absolutely achieved both. The Divvy logo is defined by two ‘V’s of the word being stacked and highlighted in white…and the simple change in arrangement and color makes the V’s reference both bike treads and arrows suggesting movement. The double V’s are used across the brand- decorating the bikes (pointing forward when riding, of course), pointing to the station names, on the website and promo materials, and more. The name and visual identity all work together to make the bikes feel accessible to anyone- from avid bikers to the most diligent couch potatoes. In its friendliness and simplicity, the Divvy brand is helping to make riding a bike seem less like something “they" do, and more like something “we all do". Chicago has received quite a bit of criticism for not being a “bike friendly" city, and Divvy (with Firebelly’s help) is starting to change that stigma.
A pretty good defense for saying that design really can help shape people’s impressions, feelings, and behaviors. Luckily, with Firebelly standing behind any project, you know that design is always going to be used to help shape our city for the better.
If you like their work, or just love Chicago and want to help pitch in, check out Firebelly’s website to see what they are up to.