A simple black design on a white T-shirt: an open-ended triangle and a circle overlap. The wonky, minimalist geometry—all line and curve—looks like something you’d find at any casual-chic Portland boutique. This is dfrntpigeon (pronounced “different pigeon”), a clothing company started by a group of underprivileged kids at New Avenues for Youth with the help of the global branding agency AKQA’s local office. AKQA provides materials, expertise, and guidance, while the kids do the design heavy lifting, allowing them to create apparel and share in the proceeds. For many of the designers, working for dfrntpigeon is their first real job in graphic design.
“This is theirs. The apparel, the vision—it came from them,” says AKQA creative director Ginny Golden. “We just set up the loose framework and simulated what we do for creative clients.”
Still, from briefs to branding to assembling a design review board to pushing the final products to market, AKQA estimates it has donated $150,000 of pro bono work into helping dfrntpigeon designers—whose numbers fluctuate around four to six at a time—turn their ideas into a full-fledged clothing company. About 10 designers from AKQA participate in the program, rotating who attends weekly sessions at New Avenues. The kids learn both conceptual skills and technical skills like Adobe Illustrator. As of now, dfrntpigeon has sold nearly $12,000 of worth of T-shirts, with a new fall line unveiled this October.
“We reached out to different design firms for a [separate] pilot program, including AKQA, and they were interested,” says Jessica Elkan, director of development and communications at New Avenues for Youth, who initially organized the collaboration. “Very interested. They dove right in. Their participation put fire into our project.”
Brian Skahan, the managing director of AKQA, says he just wants people to recognize the designers’ raw artistic talent. “We want people to purchase these shirts because they’re amazing designs, not because of who made them.”
DANI, DESIGNER, 24
In her work with dfrntpigeon, Dani designed a T-shirt for Deschutes Brewery based on the phrase, “Good beer brings people together.” The brewery loved the logo—a yeti and a sasquatch clinking beer glasses—so much that it sold the shirt on its own website.
How long have you been drawing?
I’ve been drawing since I could put pen to paper. I’ve been with dfrntpigeon for a year.
What’s your favorite thing about it?
Being able to have a space where I can work on refining my skills and perfecting myself, as someone who wants to be a designer. I just want to design things that I think are cool and that other people would like to see.
What drew you to dfrntpigeon?
It was a window of opportunity to get into that career field. I always wanted to do that—to be a designer. It’s nice to have that helping hand versus just going at it blind. I can admit I still don’t know what I would be doing by myself.