Avenue: Learnings from branding a workplace for all

Notes from branding a business challenging perceptions about the disability sector.

This one’s been sitting in my drafts for a while, but it’s been awesome to see For The People and Avenue put this work out into the wild and get recognised by AGDA for it.

The brief

When Laura O’Reilly came in to For The People and briefed us on a new direction for Avenue, I was stoked. I’ve always been really excited to do work that challenges society’s perceptions and makes positive change attractive — whether that’s rethinking the pale-male-and-stale perception of unions, reframing Western Tasmania’s remoteness as it’s strength, or reframing ethical investing as the ultimate power move. Laura founded Avenue based on the belief that everyone — regardless of physical or intellectual ability, has the right to contribute to society.

Up until this point, Avenue has been a retail business for people with profound disability, where people with disability work with support workers in order to produce goods that others can buy.

Avenue’s old model: Avenue Fair Trade, where people with significant disability create products that others can purchase.

Laura wanted to completely flip the business model and pivot Avenue from being a retail business to a co-working space for people with and without disability. Instead of simply creating goods to sell, she wanted to harness the gig economy (MadPaws, Airtasker, etc) and truly integrate Avenue with jobs that already existed. Avenue would be the WeWork for people with disabilities: a space that enabled all people to participate in work — and prove to society that its view of work was outdated.

Let’s talk about the problem with accessibility.

The problem: designing for ‘accessibility’ defaults to ‘exclusive’

The most prevalent model in designing for accessibility is based on the idea of adapting the world around us to give access to people with disability. This signals to people with disability and the rest of the world that the onus is on people with disability to adapt to the world — instead of starting by designing an environment and a workplace for all, from day one.

There are a lot of great organisations serving people with disability, but too often they adhere to category conventions of ‘disability sector services.’ They’re often located in the suburbs, feature purple as a main colour (perhaps to align with the NDIS — National Disability Insurance Scheme, for my non-Aussies), use some variation of turning disability into a ‘pro ability’ phrase, and they all seem to come from the land that design forgot.

The NDIS has shifted the market to be a consumer market: the disability service that works in today’s environment won’t look or behave like any service that’s come before. Work has changed. It was time to signal this to the world.

We wanted to evolve from behaving like a community center.

“In the disability sector, everything is so CRAP. It’s soulless, there’s’ not a dollar put into those spaces. People get dumped into these horrible spaces and that reflects how people are perceived. We want people to take pride in their work and themselves.” — Laura O’Reilly

The strategy

Avenue models the art of inclusion, in everything they do and say.

Our research question: What is a workplace for all?

We started by researching the requirements of the physical space for all (where the brand would live), a story and a business model that signalled what Avenue stood for: ‘for all’, and a visual identity that supported the brand positioning. We looked at best-in-class examples of three kinds of spaces: 1) where world-class experiences met accessibility, 2) the modern workplace, where function isn’t sacrificed for beauty, and the lines blur between work and home, and 3) how to use design to elevate a category that is overlooked.

1. A physical space for all

First, Laura tipped us off to an amazing venue on the Northern Beaches called Sargood On Collaroy, a world-class resort designed for people with spinal cord injuries, which we were able to visit and tour. We also took inspiration from Nubo Play, a beautifully designed children’s play space, which elevated play spaces from a few toys thrown around a community center to a truly beautiful and mindful play experience. And last but not least, we looked at WeWork and Ace hotel.

Opportunity: prove that a world-class workplace and accessible design aren’t mutually exclusive.

Sargood On Collaroy, a world-first and world-class resort designed for people with spinal cord injuries
Nubo Play, using considered design to help parents engage with their children in meaningful play.
WeWork (left) and Ace hotel (right) are functional and inviting multi-use spaces.

2. A microcosm of a society for all

As part of our research, we studied the social model of disability, coined by academic Mike Oliver in 1983. The social model of disability is a reaction to the medical model of disability, which is an analysis of the body as a machine which needs to be fixed in order to conform with normative values. In short, the social model of disability identifies barriers (attitudinal, physical, systemic) that mean society is the main contributory factor in disabling people. Essentially, this model says that individual limitation only leads to disability if society fails to take account of and include people regardless of their individual differences. Liz Jackson’s 99U talk, the principles of universal design, and academic Mike Oliver’s work (he coined the phrase ‘social model of disability’) were particularly helpful.

Opportunity: answer the social model of disability with universal design.

3. A visually attractive (accessible) visual identity — for all

Ah, the elephant in the room. When you tell designers that they need to design to triple A accessibility guidelines, you’re more likely to get groans of disappointment than glimmers of excitement. We needed to think carefully about the constraints of meeting accessibility guidelines, like:

  • Colour. There are a lot of tools for grading accessibility online, which Jo and the design team used as they were testing combinations.
  • Typography. Tip — try ‘Illinois’ — often the I and the ‘l’ look very similar, or B and 8. Sans serif is often better than serifed font — the ascenders can make it really difficult to read.
  • User experience. For example, we learned that replacing icons becomes problematic because screen readers often don’t recognise icons. This blew my mind…because I don’t use a screen reader. (aside: this is why it’s important to have MANY perspectives, not just your own experience to draw on)
Accessibility doesn’t mean boring design.

Laura stipulated that Avenue’s visual identity was as important as the business model — it is a universal truth that an attractive and dynamic workplace and identity is a mark of pride for people of all abilities. Where you work is a point of pride. A visual audit of disability sector showed that the bar was low. Avenue needed to upend the existing reality — that disability sector means second class design.

It shouldn’t look like a community center. It’s a place of work. It should be accessible and attractive — a place that’s for all — people with disability and without.

Opportunity: Make accessibility attractive.

The story

The next question we asked ourselves was how Avenue would tell a story that would signal to the world what it stands for? We looked at the cultural conversation around work — that the future of work is a hot topic, but that a future that doesn’t include everyone is no future at all.

How we started to frame the Avenue story — for clients, investors, and the disability community.

The system

All of our desk research paid off — by the time we sat down to talk about creative territories, we had a very, very clear idea about what the brand needed to do. The following elements shaped the identity system:

  • Black and white, the most accessible combination of colours available
  • A friendly voice
  • A typeface that is visually easy to read but also a web font so that Avenue’s website, the first point of contact with the business for many people, was accessible from the word go
  • A language framework that reiterated the vision — that Avenue is a workplace for all. Mat worked wonders on this. That’s probably a whole post in and of itself.

This is the beginning of the evolution of a very exciting business. There’s still a lot to do and a long way to go before inclusion is the norm for business as usual. But the experience and the learning’s we’ve had from this project go a long way towards dispelling myths about accessibility guidelines and disability, and tell a new story about inclusion: we’re excited about what a future for all holds.

sydney via seattle. believer. growth @futuresuper. ex strategy @forthepeopleau. experimenting with writing.

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