Windham Speaks with UCDA about Rural Studio Style Guide Creative Process

Rural Studio Style Guide

UCDA Design Awards Q&A: Auburn University Rural Studio Style Guide Booklet

How did you come up with the concept for the booklet? Many brand/style guides are mostly technical, this one clearly had a lot of passion and thought behind it.
After developing the identity for the Rural Studio team, my colleague, Margaret Fletcher, Professor of Architecture, and I recognized that a guide was needed to help faculty and students use the identity and write about their work. However, Rural Studio has a special story to tell that also needed to be conveyed. With the guidance of Rusty Smith, Associate Director of Rural Studio, we developed a plan to combine the visual and writing style guides into one piece while also including an introduction that could touch on the history, philosophy, and attitude of the studio. These pieces were written and edited in collaboration with many members of the team—Andrew Freear, Director; Rusty Smith, Associate Director; Natalie Butts-Ball, Communications Manager; Margaret Fletcher, Information Designer; and myself. This was to ensure that the mission of the studio is conveyed accurately. 

I love the short cover that allows the photo to show through, as well as the unique size. How did that come to fruition?
This piece is meant to be used as a reference guide that sits on a studio desk where it can be easily accessed. Therefore, it needed to endure some wear and tear. With this in mind, we chose to use a sturdy cover stock paper (Neenah Environment Desert Storm 80# Cover) for durability. However, we also wanted to see the beautiful woodblock letter pattern printed on the newsprint paper inside the booklet. So the cover was strategically trimmed and treated as an opportunity to feature the logo, title, year, Auburn logo, and a statement on the inside flap.  

What were your biggest challenges in creating it? 
As in most projects, developing the content was certainly the biggest challenge and the most time-consuming. The visual style guide is meant to demonstrate the flexibility of the identity. So perhaps the most challenging part of this section was figuring out just the right amount of information to guide the reader in how to make situational decisions about the use of the wordmark, color, type, images, and grids. 

In terms of the writing style guide, this project would not have happened without the help of some key contributors like Associate Professors of English, Michelle Sidler, and Susan Youngblood, both technical communication writers. Directed by Natalie Butts-Ball, Communications Manager at Rural Studio, all of the writing came together with our visual communication piece in a relatively seamless way. Multiple iterations and edits were made before landing on the current writing style guide keeping in mind that this is a working document that changes over time. The visual and writing style guide will of course be updated periodically to be sure the most current versions are accurate. 

As far as production, the main booklet was printed on newsprint paper and staple-bound through a company called Newspaper Club. The cover was printed by a local printer and then assembled with the booklet. It took several tries to make sure it was trimmed and assembled to the already printed booklet correctly!

How long did it take to create, and what was your process?
This project, from start to finish, took a little over a year. It began almost as soon as the wordmark and circlemark were designed in July 2020 and went to print around August 2021. As mentioned, a lot of time went into the writing of this piece. Additionally, a lot of time went into making decisions about the use of the marks in various situations. In fact, we needed to test the identity in several places over time to see how they would work best. Thinking back, the process looks more like a series of loops—develop and test, develop and test—until solutions became apparent. This absolutely would not have been possible without working closely and collaboratively with various members of the team.

The Attitude section is fantastic, really gives the brand personality. How did you come up with that concept and the elements of the personality?
This section was directed by my colleague, Margaret Fletcher. She played an important role in defining how this particular writing worked in the introduction. It was important to determine a way to access the complexities of the history of the organization without bogging down the page with text. We decided to break apart and highlight the fundamental aspects that make Rural Studio a unique place and experience. We attempted to write this section as we might speak it casually, trying hard to move away from a formal presentation of the ideas. We wanted this information to be really accessible!  

The copy on the right pages is especially engaging and guides the reader. How did you approach creating it?
This approach was a collaboration between Rusty Smith, Margaret Fletcher, and myself. After researching various style guides, we noticed that most were either too technical, too lengthy, or over-designed. We knew this piece had to be functional yet formally appropriate for Rural Studio. Also, some of the most engaging examples included short, memorable statements. This led us toward dividing the sections into small, digestible amounts of information. It also led us to develop large main headings with the intention of creating rhythm in the design that could keep the reader engaged and informed.  

What do you hope readers will do with the bullet journal style pages? A really fun touch! 
So glad you noticed! It seems like an insignificant detail, but we landed on a dot pattern for the left pages and the end pages because we wanted to encourage sketching, note taking, and doodles. This felt like a simple yet inviting solution for designers such as ourselves.

What do you do to keep the creative juices flowing? 
Traveling to places I have never been is certainly my number one way to be inspired and stay creative. However, as we all know, the last two years have proved to be challenging for travel because of the pandemic. Even with those challenges in place, I have been able to visit other designers, artists, and makers in their studios. I ask them questions about their process and observe how they work in their spaces. This small step out of my comfort zone has been inspiring and eye-opening. In fact, Margaret and I are currently working on some research that documents this series of interviews. Stay tuned!

One other recent unique source of inspiration has come from playing with a text-to-image AI app called MidJourney. It is a bot that generates images based on your text input. The images generated are quite stunning and just baffling to be honest. So be careful—you too may become wrapped up in the obsessive crafting of the perfect text to create the most beautiful and weird results. I don’t use the results for anything specific yet other than to inspire new design ideas and be entertained by the fast generation of images.

What magazines or books do you look to for inspiration? 
I happened upon a beautiful magazine called Type01 ( about a year ago because the second issue was all about Kinetic Type. Kinetic Typography is one of my favorite subjects and an elective course I developed for the Auburn Graphic Design program where I teach. The content of the magazine is fresh, the design changes each issue, and it features really interesting design work from around the world. 

As far as books, this past summer I read Alice Rawsthorn’s Design as an Attitude which I discovered through her instagram account called Design Emergency (@design.emergency). Also, because I am researching design process, a colleague recommended I read Kyna Leski’s The Storm of Creativity. She is a design educator as well and her writing style has really inspired me.

Is there anything else about the process and direction you’d like to share with our readers? 
I would like to reiterate how important collaboration is in design process and especially in a project like the Rural Studio Style Guide booklet. It seems like such a simple concept but perhaps overlooked. The opportunity to collaborate on this interdisciplinary team has given me a broader perspective and elevated the design.

Courtney Windham/Graphic Designer
Margaret Fletcher/Information Designer
Natalie Butts-Ball/Communications Manager
Michelle Sidler/Technical Communications Director
Susan A. Youngblood/Technical Communications Coordinator
Ed Youngblood/Usability Testing

This Q&A originally appeared on UCDA’s website and can be found here.