Behind the Design: Tennessee Raises Awareness of Soldiers’ Education Benefits with New Look and Feel

As part of Adobe’s Designer Diaries series, we sat down with designer Rob Pennington to understand his creative process, design philosophy, and to go behind-the-scenes of a military branding effort he led called GuardSmart in Tennessee.

A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Rob Pennington worked for the Tennessee National Guard for almost five years as a web developer.

When he started in 2013, his mission was to improve the Guard’s web presence and redesign the main website. “But like most jobs,” he said, “I ended up with way more design projects than expected!”

That wasn’t a problem for Pennington though, because he absolutely loved to design—especially in helping create beautiful and meaningful brands.

“Giving an organization an identity—an appropriate and beautiful one—is an exciting and significant undertaking,” he said.

“A brand is what people will first see when they begin a relationship with your organization. It should never be overlooked. If your brand looks unprofessional, that will be most people’s first reaction to your organization.”

The Goal of the Project

The Tennessee National Guard’s Education Department helps soldiers with their education benefits, including the Montgomery GI Bill and various initiatives and training.

Pennington was asked to create artwork to represent their new campaign to raise awareness to soldiers about training options provided to them. This project was called GuardSmart.

“Once I kicked off the project, I developed an even greater respect for soldiers serving in our military. My goal was to create a brand worthy of them.”

Pennington’s vision was a clean, modern identity that clearly communicated through design that this program is beneficial, trusted, and made specially for members of the military. The design was intended to be used on digital assets along with promotional items such as shirts, stress balls, stickers, and magnets.


After going through several ideas and sketches, Pennington was most inspired by the classic chevron (the upside-down “V”).

“Not only is the chevron widely recognized as the symbol for rank in the military, it doubles as the letter “A” in the logo. The chevron inserted into the middle of the GuardSmart logo created a clean identity—simple and versatile for use on any item.”

(Check out more images of the GuardSmart logo here).

The Creative Process

In his words, Pennington takes us through his design process:

1. I began designing on my trusty, old-school paper sketchbook.

2. I then used my dear friends, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, to create the design, mockups, and placement.

3. Lastly, I shared the work to coordinate approvals. The Tennessee National Guard’s Education Department had given me free reign to design the brand. But as with every design process, there were things I had to explain to get their team to fully understand my vision.

One struggle that always comes up in design is helping the client understand that more is not always better. You don’t need a drop shadow and a stroke on everything. Some of the best designs are the simplest.

I shared the importance of using the brand within specific guidelines. No, they couldn’t stretch the logo, or change the logo to purple, for example. Every typeface, length and color has been carefully thought out during the design process, and changing it would change the branding.

4. As soon as the organization heard the vision and understood the logo usage guidelines, they loved the results.

CW3 Mary V. Deel, education officer for the Tennessee National Guard, said, “Your ability to relate a patriotic color scheme and with the chevrons used by all military branches was the key to enable multi-component usage.”

“The logo is easy to understand and the initiative behind it fulfills the message. The logo doesn’t align with just Army or Air, but incorporates both services and allows each to tailor the specifics of a program they want to highlight within the ‘GuardSmart’ outline.”


Since the GUARDSMART brand launched, the Tennessee National Guard’s Education Department has seen two times as many phone calls and emails daily.

Deel said they’re getting calls every day asking what the GuardSmart program is.

The assets created is helping soldiers realize, “this is important for me and my military career.”

“Our military members now know when they see ‘GuardSmart’ on anything, it reminds them to ask about important benefits they have earned and how to better use these for a more positive military experience,” Deel said.

Deel added that every member of their team incorporates the logo into their signature blocks. They have commissioned several items to further promote the initiative.

The most positive feedback has been from those in the fulltime force, especially the recruiting and retention battalions.


GuardSmart will be the Education Department’s continuing platform when they present to military or civilian audiences.

The organization works with several post-secondary institutions across the state. The hope is that those who see the logo will immediately recognize it as central to the identity of the Tennessee National Guard. Deel adds that she hopes the National Guard Bureau (NGB) will adopt it and use it across all 54 state and territories.

“I’m still working on posters, flyers, and promotional materials for GUARDSMART (the project began in 2016-17),” Pennington shared. “I’ve learned so much about the military and government organizations in the process.”

“One big lesson for me was that government work doesn’t have to be boring. Just because a program or organization is a serious one doesn’t mean the design has to be drab and uninspired. It’s important for designers to strive to understand the history and inner workings of the organization that they’re creating for. If they do, then the designs will reflect that passion.




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