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What Renaming A Failed Brand Taught This Design Organization

Putting the Architecture for Humanity name to rest.

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Some of the most well-known brands in the world once had wildly different names: Google, for example, was once called BackRub. Nike was once known as Blue Ribbon Sports. But more often than not, a name change is the last-ditch Hail Mary to revive a struggling—or altogether broken—organization.

That was definitely the case with Architecture for Humanity, the sprawling nonprofit that shocked its hundreds of employees and thousands of fans when it abruptly went bankrupt last year. The news seemed to come out of nowhere for an organization that had raised millions and had dozens of projects underway all over the world. What happened to Architecture for Humanity? wondered Inhabitat. "Good intentions, bad management," concluded The Architect's Newspaper—a toxic combo of overambitious growth, out-of-control costs, and bad communication.

What remained were the volunteers. People who weren’t necessarily even being paid to run projects in their own cities under the Architecture for Humanity name but were still showing up, serving their communities, and building. For the past year, these local leaders worked to resurrect the organization, as we recently wrote, reimagining themselves as a radically transparent band of nimble, on-the-ground community architects. No overhead, no bureaucracy, only real people doing real projects in their communities.

But after its public rebirth, it still needed a new name. "While there’s still a lot of good energy and a strong following for [Architecture for Humanity], it’s one that ultimately failed in its business plan and execution," says Garrett Jacobs, the new nonprofit’s executive director. In coming up with a new name, the route they took seemed sensible. They worked with several nonprofit branding specialists; they collected surveys, videos, and market research; and they came up with two good names. Then—what with their radically transparent ethos—they put them to a vote. "As soon as we put those names out, it became very clear than neither was going to work," Jacobs says, laughing. "There was an email chain that was about 100 emails long, from all the chapters around the world, and the dialogue got really heated."

So instead, they asked each city to suggest a name and vote on the results—and somehow, across dozens of chapters and countries, the 150 or so leaders came to a consensus. More than half chose Open Architecture Collaborative, a name that both spoke to the mission and iterates nicely across cities, such as Open Architecture Chicago and Open Architecture Tokyo. Together, they are the "collaborative." They also ranked visual identities, designed by Homestead Design and Branding’s Eric Pieper, a former art director at Toms who has worked with Parks Project, Teva, and more. What they ended up with was simple, visually strong, and customizable across cities and projects.

Some would say that way lies madness—major organizational changes may descend into chaos when decided democratically. But Jacobs says it had a galvanizing effect on the new nonprofit. Local chapters that hadn’t even been active wanted to vote, and now, seven or eight of them are sputtering back to life in the wake of the relaunch. "You have to create ownership. And participation leads to ownership," he says. "There are hundreds of people who are already printing banners and T-shirts and are stoked about this whole organization because they participated in it."

For him, the process revealed a deeper truth about community organizing, especially when it comes to architecture and urban design. "I did a lot of listening, because that’s something the old organization didn’t really do for the chapters," he says. Just listening is also a huge part of the new organization’s mission in underserved communities, where people aren’t being heard at all.

"As designers, we have the ability to listen and empathize. And sometimes we really just need to show up and shut up. That’s one of the strongest messages that we can send with the way the world is evolving right now."

All Images: courtesy Open Architecture Collaborative

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