CAT Lab Branding

CAT Lab is a Cornell University-affiliated research institute that works with behavioral scientists to test ideas for a fairer, safer internet. In late 2019, the institute decided to change its name, its university affiliation, and with it, its visual brand.

The Citizens and Technology Lab or CAT Lab (formerly CivilServant) is a research group dedicated to studying the effects of technology on society, and testing ideas for changing digital spaces to better serve the public interest.

Its main objective is to empower communities to discover ways to improve online life, via hand-in-hand work with communities and organizations around the globe, to identify issues of shared concern related to digital discourse, digital rights and consumer protection. The organization is able to do this by working directly with online communities to test ideas in moderation and evaluate the impact of the tech industry in our social lives.

In late 2019, as part of a larger re-organization, the research institute changed its previous name of CivilServant for CAT Lab, and its location from within the MIT Media Lab to Cornell University’s CALS. With this change came the unique opportunity of doing a thorough re-branding, in order to find a better way to communicate who they are to their global audience.


After a series of changes to the structure and location of the Lab, as well as its radical name change, it was decided that the new visual identity and accompanying website for the Lab needed to be “accessible, engaging, curious, uncomplicated, didactic” while at the same time being “approachable and hav[ing] a voice that people are confident in”.

Visual identity needed to have a contemporary, attractive look — the kind of look that would help convey the credibility of an institution backed by academic rigor, ready to tackle challenges with its new academic partner. But, a key challenge of the CAT Lab was that it could not be off-putting to the online-based communities it directly works with. Additionally, given the enormous diversity of online communities that CAT Lab has engaged or will engage with, it was decided early on the project that a flexible visual identity system, capable of having a “container” logomark was necessary, as it wold provide a key ingredient that the brand needs to have moving forward: adaptability.

Additionally, updated visual identity needed to help “[participants] feel comfortable entrusting data to us” and “for decision-makers at large tech firms, we want them to trust [CAT Lab] findings” Lastly, it was important to keep in mind through the project that most images sourced by CAT Lab would be low-resolution, low-quality images, mostly copyright-free stock images found online, as well as solutions like the Noun Project, something particularly important given the sensitive topics of some of the research done by CAT Lab.


The updated visual identity developed for the Citizens and Technology Lab encompasses a colorful, eye-catching visual vocabulary built using only four elements, which instantly communicate the identity, tone and voice of CAT Lab, even to audiences not familiar with it. These four elements are:

Heavy, bold shapes in contrast with light typefaces
The “CAT” logomark, also called the “Container Logo” incorporates the psychology behind square shapes to subliminally translate the meaning of the CAT Lab brand: steadiness, consistency, safety — we are a brand that you can trust. These bold shapes are paired with light-weight typefaces to create tension and dynamism between the logo contrasting elements.We developed three variations of the logo, in order to fully explore the possibilities of this contrast between bold and light elements, to be used at different scales / sizes for both digital and print.

Logomark as container for images
The “CAT” wordmark, also called the “Container Logo” has been developed as a modular solution, with enough flexibility to allow different layouts (horizontal, vertical, diagonal) and the usage of photography or vector files within it, thus expanding the branding opportunities, and the adaptability of the logo for CAT Lab almost endlessly.

RGB-first color palette
The color palette developed for the visual identity of the CAT Lab was built as a response to the colors used in the Cornell CALS identity, something that immediately allowed the new brand to seamlessly integrate with its new academic partner, while at the same time standing out as an independent entity with a strong visual presence.

“Duet” banners for photography usage online
Previously, research in the Civil Servant website has been published without much help from visual assets such as photos or illustrations, usually only extending to data visualization sets. We found that while this could feel as par for the course in some academic institutions, it was also a missed opportunity. Given this, we developed a simple system for main banners across the new CAT Lab website, based on the pairing of two images with a relationship to the topic of each page, sourced from copyright free sources. These “duets” provide a visual cue to help readers find and return to posts on the website — as well to provide some human, approachable visuals to each post.

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