Chelsea Bay Dennis: Designing for Good
When Chelsea Bay Dennis (BFA ’04) was studying art and design at the University of Michigan in the early 2000s, she says there was no readymade client list of socially conscious companies to call on.
So when she discovered a small business making fair trade, organic jams in her native Northern Michigan that needed some branding help, she had a revelation: she could make her living by "making the people who were doing good look good."
"It was like, 'Oh my God! That's a way to be an activist, an environmentalist, and an artist!'" she recalls.
Today Dennis runs her own Traverse City, Michigan-based design and consulting firm, Chelsea Bay Design, dedicated solely to working with the kinds of entrepreneurs, startup companies, and brands she sees as making the world a better place.
Since graduating from Stamps in 2004, Dennis, a self-described "conscious entrepreneur" has spent her career working with socially and environmentally conscious companies to tell their story through graphic design, video, and overall messaging and brand strategy.
"For me, being conscious is all pieces of life," Dennis says. "I really admire people who only do coffee or only do baby products or only do organic farming. But the beauty of being an art person with these people is I get to be part of all those missions."
Out of college, Dennis scoured the "Green Pages" online database of eco-friendly product makers and service providers for potential clients and potential employers and moved to San Francisco in search of critical mass.
A couple of years later (2006), she teamed up with a like-minded marketing strategist and copywriter in North Carolina to launch The Change Creation. They took on pro-bono work to get started and eventually landed high profile clients, including Burt's Bees, actress Jada Pinkett's anti-slavery campaign, fair trade olive oil in Palestine, and fair trade businesses all over the world.
But as business got bigger, Dennis felt disconnected from her clients and missed working with smaller start-ups, so she started her own company in 2011. She kept one project with The Change, though — Larry's Coffee in Raleigh, North Carolina — which she had been working with since 2006. She still talks with owner Larry Larson weekly.
"The people I'm designing for want to work with someone who understands their mission , and who is, their potential client," she says. "I'm not just a marketer or a designer, I'm essentially their conscious customer. I get what their potential customer might be looking for — the language, the look, the authenticity."
Now back in Michigan, Dennis also started a local storytelling event called Fulfillament a few years ago featuring local entrepreneurs and community leaders who tell their personal story of why they do what they do, how they got there, and why it makes them come alive. There is a micro-grant awarded to one audience member with a worthy business idea. It's an idea she hopes will catch on in other communities, and she's putting together a starter package for interested organizers to use to get started.
"When you hear these stories, you realize [successful people] were kids too, and they screwed up, and they didn't know what they wanted, or they stumbled upon this," she says. "It's almost like a permission slip to challenge people to think about how they can make a change in their own life to love what they do and make a difference while doing it."