You can blame Bruce Wayne. Or Dracula. Or even the Weekly World News’s favorite mascot, Bat Boy.
Whoever’s responsible, one thing is for sure: when asked to name a “brand” in sore need of a refresh, very few would choose myotis septentrionalis, the North American long-eared bat. Yet Kelly Munson of Minneapolis creative agency mono spent much of the past nine months helping to reacquaint the public with Earth’s only flying mammal.
Last year, the longtime designer heard from a friend that the University of Minnesota College of Design was looking for a designer in residence for the 2016-2017 school year. She didn’t expect her employer to accept an arrangement that would cut her hours in half, but the agency was glad to go along.
“I didn’t know what to do when I got there,” Munson said. “For someone used to having a creative brief and project leaders, it was kind of unnerving.”
She spent much of the first month brainstorming about design as a problem-solving mechanism and asking students to share big, real-world challenges. One theme was extinction—and the school’s resident “bat scientist” told her that, since 2007, more than five million North American bats (or 80 percent of Minnesota’s population) have died of a fungus-based disease called white-nose syndrome.
While many see bats as blood-sucking predators, they are, in fact, crucial pollinators and voracious consumers of common pests.
“It started to seem like a branding problem,” Munson said. “To get the public to care, you have to make them acceptable. So I made a creative brief for students: change public perception of bats using design.”
200 aspiring designers eventually took part, conducting research to debunk bat myths (they never actually get stuck in your hair), analyze slogans like “batshit crazy” and absorb iconography like the Bacardi logo and, of course, the Caped Crusader.
Once they got into the production phase, these students brought to life ideas ranging from “bat houses” that cast the mammals as bird-like neighbors to a friendlier Batman logo and even a dinner consisting entirely of foods pollinated by bats. After Munson started the project, U of M faculty like doctoral candidate and graduate instructor Sarah Alfalah (who helped students develop their bat houses) led the individual groups.
“The best thing about being back in academics is getting credit for your thoughts,” said Munson, who has taught classes at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “It’s about how you went around the barn instead of just where you ended up on the other side.” By comparison, she summed up the average marketing brief as such: “I don’t care how you get there. Just show me some impressions.”
The bat work became the biggest project Munson handled during her nearly yearlong sabbatical, and its end product was an exhibit featuring the chiroptera-themed work of students across six different classes.
Now, Munson looks forward to returning to her bat-free day job—and she thinks the experience will ultimately make her a better designer. “Sometimes you need to think about something else for a bit or have an itch scratched [rather than] solving the client’s problems,” she said. “It’s nice to be paid to think about things I’m passionate about.”
Images via the University of Minnesota College of Design, from top to bottom: a bat house in the style of designer Paul Rand; a Saul Bass-inspired bat logo; the making of the bat house; a series of bat-related images inspired by Stefan Sagmeister; translations of the word “bat” in homage to mapmaker Paula Scher; a bat house prototype.