Design Corner

Your Cognitive Dissonance Is Showing

By Mark Schmitz

here are times in our lives when external things just don't make sense. The animal rights activist in the leather jacket eating a Gyro sandwich, the moose mascot walking around Sea World or Ronald McDonald at the Renascence Fair. These are disconnected experiences trying to somehow connect to us in a relevant way. The world is filled with "that was almost a great idea."

How do you avoid two totally different brand directions under the same roof of your facility? Start by imagining a singular emotional outcome to everything your company says or does. When you work to shorten your "we want to be everything to everybody" list, it becomes clear what to do. Successful owners see the future and can define their true connection to a unique guest experience. If your branded emotional outcome is to "inspire" your guests, then everything you do, say, design and bake in your ovens has to have a subliminal level of inspiration.

How to Create Harmony

Tips to consider when integrating your story into your space:

1. Visual Consistency: Avoid the "tradeshow effect." That's where everything looks like a different design firm was in charge. Big mistake. Make a plan that will last a long time and stick to the plan.

2. Color Palette: Color speaks on many levels. A specialist can develop your color palette to communicate your core emotional outcomes.

3. Keep It Simple: Don't confuse anyone. We're already confused before we walk in your door. Give us some clarity. Don't try so hard. It will show if you do.

4. Material Usage: Be consistent in how you use materials to show your story. A disconnect between signage materials is a disconnect to brand consistency. Be smart with this one.

5. Graphic Design: Graphic design prowess is very important in the age of visual sophistication. We all expect a visually dynamic environment wherever we go. Don't disappoint the audience. A branding design firm can lead you past the free "clip art" environment.

Environmental brand designers are responsible for the "storytelling" portions of the facility experience. They coordinate and infuse your unique culture into your facility.

"Culture design" is as important as HVAC and carpet. It is the art of "place making" to show your customers what is truly unique about your recreational facility. A good designer can help infuse your story into the DNA of the building. There's nothing worse than hanging your mission statement on the wall after you open. The wall should be the mission statement. That means everything in your building should be integrated to speak with one common visual voice.

Connecting History

Founded two years before Wisconsin became the 30th state in 1846, the Wisconsin Historical Society ranks as one of the most diversified state historical societies in the nation. Its collections, resources and antiquities are matched only by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The Society owns and operates 10 historically significant but diverse tourism attractions throughout the state. The problem was how to visually integrate these unique facilities under one credible brand, while cross-promoting them to tourists in Wisconsin. The goal was "If you experience one attraction, you have to experience all 10."

The design team developed integrated brand architecture, to bring clarity to a disjointed group of amazing and authentic places where visitors can actually touch history. Starting with the redevelopment of the Society's identity, the team carefully created a series of marks that supported the general missions of the Wisconsin Historical Society, but were uniquely rendered to articulate their unique place in time.

Visitors now "get it" that the 10 sites are a consistent trail of American history all brought to them by the reputable Wisconsin Historical Society.

The marks were then integrated into a new color palette and Web site design that truly gives the general public an experience before they arrive. In time, signage, retail fixturing and print collateral will come on line to support awareness and marketing efforts. Up until this branding was completed, visitors really didn't understand how the 10 sites and the Wisconsin Historical Society were connected.

Multiple Venue Imaging

When you have multiple venues that make up the delivery of your products or services, a consistent brand plan for signing, interiors and retailing is critical to your overall success. The University of Wisconsin Athletic Department recognized this and embarked on a multi-year plan to integrate their student athlete and fan experiences.

How to do this? The team defined a graphic vernacular that was true to the historical significance of the university and to the legend of Wisconsin athletics. The program has plans to continue to the tennis, swimming, track and woman's hockey facilities over the next few seasons.

In the age of digital disconnection, the handheld media circus has its grip on us. The only way you can differentiate yourself is by creating a space that is truthful to the human spirit. Give your visitors and customers a reason to connect and they will come back again and again.


Mark Schmitz is the president and creative director of ZEBRADOG, a passionately unique environmental brand design firm located in Madison, Wis. For more information, visit

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.