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Tanya Quick and Jenn Cash of Language Dept demonstrate why design matters to grow cycling.
Jenn Cash felt like an ill-fitting cog in the massive machine of New York City. Every day, she cobbled together a grating commute from east to west in a town with a transportation system that runs north-south.
That time-consuming hopscotch of trains and buses and packed sidewalks was slowly wearing away the crisp edges of inspiration, dulling the graphic designer’s sense of wonder at the creative metropolis she calls home.
That wasn’t the case for Tanya Quick, the co-owner of their design firm, Language Dept. By contrast, Quick swept into the office each morning, energized rather than deflated by her journey to their office in Manhattan.
“I watched Tanya come to and from the office everyday on a bike and there was this subliminal message that there’s another option here,” Cash recalled. An option that transformed Cash’s mechanical commute into a rekindled romance.
“When I started biking, I learned to love and see New York again,” Cash said. “It helped me feel like I own the city – that it’s somehow more mine and I’m less of a cog in a wheel.”
For Quick and Cash the power of the bicycle doesn’t stop at the office door. During the day, their bikes hang from the wall of their trendy warehouse space, an ever-present reminder that this beautiful machine has not only infused their work and expanded their professional horizons – but also awakened their unique personal leadership and pointed to new directions for the bicycle movement.
Quick and Cash – a pair of last names destined for business partnership – first met eight years ago when Cash was a freelance designer fresh out of the Rhode Island School for Design, and Quick was running the office for Liska + Associates. Quick hired Cash and, after five years, they set out on their own. Their new company, Language Dept, goes beyond mocking up logos and laying out publications, aiming instead to create “visual and verbal languages” that evoke emotion and compel people to act.
Four years ago, they had their first opportunity to tell a story about bicycling. Their client Kate Spade, maker of luxury bags, had declared 2010 a year of living colorfully, and gave 12 designers a month and color to inspire a short video. As fate would have it, Language Dept received May – National Bike Month – and the color orange, a vibrant combination that translated to a whimsical video in the style of paper dolls, with fanciful music propelling a woman with long flowing hair pedaling through the city.
While only one minute, Quick and Cash did their homework, dipping their toes in the rising tide of bicycling voices on Twitter, including following Sarai Snyder, the founder of the blog and news site, Girl Bike Love. In 2011, Snyder shared a Tweet that would add a new bullet to Language Dept’s impressive resume: architect of an international phenomenon.
Snyder’s vision was CycloFemme – a single day of rides that would unite female bicyclists worldwide to celebrate the power of women in cycling – and she needed a creative partner to bring the concept to life. Intrigued by the Twitter ask, Quick and Cash responded, figuring a logo for the event and a mark for the ride would be a short but significant pro-bono project. “Little did we know, it would end up much deeper,” Quick said with a laugh.
Little did they know they would create a mark so beautiful, so powerful that the image alone romances men and women alike.
For CycloFemme, they started investigating the history of bicycle head badges, an iconic emblem for a rider, as well as classic bicycling posters from the past century. “The mark really came from two ideas – combining the head badge of a woman with her fist raised and the wings and the wind and the freedom of the bicycle we kept seeing in the posters,” Cash recalls.
It was a breakthrough image that expertly walked the difficult tight rope of marketing to women without pandering, stereotyping, or “shrinking and pinking.”
“The rider has curves; she has strong legs; she’s not delicate or wispy,” Quick explained. “The type has curves, but more tattoo art curves as opposed to script, and the blackness gives it a certain weight and strength. It was really about finding that balance of feminine but strong, so it would feel empowering when you put it on, but it’s also sexy and owning your femininity.”
In 2011, Laguage Dept was still a small firm with limited staff and financial resources – but they couldn’t walk away. Strategists and storytellers, Quick and Cash became true partners in the endeavor, not only designing the temporary tattoos worn by thousands, but creating the social media and digital platforms that would show that collective strength to the world.
“Typically, we do the work for someone else and then we walk away; someone else is taking and executing it,” Quick said. “With this, we’re content authors as well. It’s been a different experience, one that’s led to growth for us – not necessarily fiscal growth, but creative and leadership growth.”
That creative partnership and the success of CycloFemme has underlined a larger trend that the bike movement would be wise to embrace: Design matters. To grow cycling we need women like Quick and Cash at the table. “Target showed the world, you just need better marketing and they will come,” Cash said. “The design and look of something has become more the driver than the business model.”
And other industries are already capitalizing on the star power of the bicycle to drive their business. From Hermes to health insurance companies, from the windows of department stores to massive billboard campaigns, the bike has become a symbol of style, liberty, and a lightness of being. “It’s really been people outside of the cycling industry that have made the bicycle the star of the year,” Cash said. “What we have to hope for is that the industry sees the way bikes are creeping into fashion and see that it’s also a covetable object connected to joy and freedom – and not just aggro sports culture.”
For Language Dept, their work in bike advocacy – not just CycloFemme, but with the League of American Bicyclists and the National Bike Challenge – has been a bridge to something bigger, an avenue to greater impact. “It connects to health and wellness and sustainability – things that have an impact in the broadest way in terms of really giving back and designing for bigger change,” Quick said. “Or, with CycloFemme, women’s leadership and empowerment are, at the end of the day, what really drives us and the bike just happens to be a tool for that.”
And a powerful tool at that. In some ways, Cash says, the bicycle is itself the embodiment of perfect design. “I think of my bike as an efficient and beautiful thing that I rely on for transporting and helping me do things,” she said. “And, as a designer you constantly think about that fusion of form and function. We’re always trying to make the most beautiful and useful thing at same time.”
The bicycle has filled another function, too: providing daily inspiration that infuses all of Language Dept’s work. “It’s a way of seeing for me,” Quick said. “I see communities, I see neighborhoods, I see light and shadow and sight lines, and whether I’m in the city or riding longer distances, it’s about a way of seeing and a way of exploring that always comes back and feeds the work. So many projects I look at and realize the art direction was inspired by seeing windows and light and passing by things on my bike.”
It goes even deeper than that. For Cash, bicycling not only liberated her daily commute but tapped into her deepest desire as a designer. “In some way, I think there’s a secret advocate in all of us; the idea that design can change the world or improve the world,” she said. “So one of the biggest wins with this work is to be able to see the rebirth of the design advocate in each of us.”