In a new rebrand, ThoughtMatter asks if design can help bring gospel music to new generations

The studio helped Harlem’s legendary Mama Foundation For the Arts build an identity which allows it to find and use its voice to attract a wider audience.

10 September 2021

Gospel music was born of Black Christian communities in the 1600s southern United States. Its hefty cultural and historical significance can make it a rather difficult genre to modernise. But design studio ThoughtMatter have attempted to do just that.

ThoughtMatter have recently collaborated with the Mama Foundation For the Arts to create a new design system for the organisation, anchored by an exclamation point and arched windows that hope to become a visual manifestation of the organisation’s “promise to be seen and heard.” The agency says that because of the pandemic’s impact on the arts, organisations like Mama Foundation are redefining itself to attract new audiences. The design studio aims to help the Harlem-based organisation “find its voice” with a new identity: the historic brand also hopes to nurture new voices in African-American culture and arts.

ThoughtMatter is perhaps best known for its radical redesign of the US Constitution as well as its protest posters which have been used at the 2017 Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in American history, and The March For Our Lives: a student-led demonstration in support of gun control legislation in 2018.

Harlem has not only been the focal point of New York’s cultural production, it is also a central reference point for the entire American cultural phenomenon, leaving a strong legacy within the arts. This legacy, says the agency, is woven into “the fabric of the city, a history rich with legendary performers and performances across gospel, jazz, and R&B.” It was in this tradition, they continue, that Mama Foundation for the Arts was founded more than 20 years ago, acting as a cultural space where youth and adults have access to quality training and employment as performing artists at no cost. It was founded by Vy Higginsen​ and named after her co-created international musical Mama I Want to Sing.


Thought Matter: Mama Foundation Rebrand (Copyright © Mama Foundation for the Arts, 2021)

In order to begin the rebranding process, ThoughtMatter began by having intimate conversations with all stakeholders of the foundation. The design team listened to stories and experienced the power of the performances – albeit through Zoom, they mention – in order to paint a clearer picture of the future of the foundation.

Unsurprisingly, music played a key role in the creation process. Listening to music together and sharing musical experiences, the team were able to catalyse conversations around using the body as an instrument, understanding how powerful posture and breathing can be when projecting one’s voice. Through this process, ThoughtMatter’s design team were able to mirror a “visual representation of joy” by using an exclamation point. This symbol went on to become an “anchor” for the rebrand.

Elsewhere, the symbol of an arched window represents the church’s influence in the city’s borough. “Harlem is my neighbourhood,” says Ben Greengrass, creative director at ThoughtMatter, “so I know firsthand that when you walk around on a Sunday morning, all you’ll hear are sounds of celebration coming from behind those windows. These windows provide a view into the history, the advancement, and the joy in Mama’s house.” These elements, along with bold colours and the use of photography, became powerful graphic devices for the company to use across signage, the website, show posters and other branding materials.

Managing director Jessie McGuire at the brand design studio claims that “Through design, symbolism and language,” the design team at ThoughtMatter hopes it’s able to introduce audiences to aspects of Mama Foundation they may have not otherwise been familiar with – “their Harlem legacy, commitment to preserving and presenting Black musical art-forms, goal to catalyse collective healing and aim to create space for communal belonging. The end result is a brand that is an authentic representation of the Mama Foundation and its singular spirit.”

GalleryThoughtMatter: Mama Foundation Rebrand (Copyright © Mama Foundation for the Arts, 2021)

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ThoughtMatter: Mama Foundation Rebrand (Copyright © Mama Foundation for the Arts, 2021)

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.

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