Generator Z

An ideas lab for teens and afterschool providers to reimagine the future of afterschool.

A green background features a white rectangular box in the center with the word "GENERATOR" in black at the top. Below it is a large blue letter "Z". The overall design has a clean and modern look.


Afterschool programs are an essential for teens as they explore their identities, forge communities, and stretch their legs into adulthood. But all too often, the afterschool programming and funding process doesn’t actually account for teen’s voices. The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, which funds community-building initiatives in Southeast Michigan and Western New York, had an usual idea. As they set a grantmaking goal of improving afterschool experiences for high school students, the foundation’s first step was to talk to teens — thousands of them.

Teen opinions count

With the Teen Opinions Count survey, 10,000 young people in Southeast Michigan and Western New York’s cities, suburbs, towns, and rural communities weighed in on what matters to them. The findings of this survey served as the raw ingredients that became Generator Z.

The Generator Z website unfurled over multiple release dates. To lay the groundwork for the initiative’s reason for being, we built data visualizations that tell the story behind the numbers in the Teen Opinions Count survey.

A map depicting Southeast Michigan and Western New York with specific counties highlighted in black. Text to the right highlights a survey called 'Teen Opinions Count' from before 2020, where 10,000 teens shared their post-school activity preferences.

The 10 themes young people care about most

Equipped with thousands and thousands of data points from Teen Opinions Count, the foundation teased out ten themes that surfaced again and again across demographic groups. Today’s teens are driven by incredible curiosity; have an awe-inspiring command of technology; see society through serious awareness of themselves and the world around them; and are ready to lead in times of change.

A visual depicting “10 Afterschool Themes” such as Mental, Social and Emotional Health, Identity & Acceptance, Growth & Wellness, Friends & Community, Excelling at Learning, Jobs & Careers, Creative Arts & Culture, Fun & Games, Playing Sports, and Life Skills & Balance.

A generative brand

Across the ages, young people excel at making things for themselves using the tools available. The Generator Z name and brand captures its spirit of collaboration, boundless possibilities, and mutual investment. Generator Z plays off the often-cited “Generation Z” that defines young people born between the late 1990s and early 2010s. The name also evokes the creative act of generating as well as the energy produced by generators, echoing the spirit of new ideas and ways of working that form the core of this unorthodox grantmaking initiative.

A grid of eight colorful squares, each with a unique variation of the word "GENERATOR" inside a rectangular frame. Each square's background and design style differs, featuring different colors and artistic representations of the letter "Z".
A colorful, grid-like display of various digital designs and layouts. Each section features text in different fonts and colors, images of phone screens, color swatches, and graphic elements set against vibrant backgrounds like yellow, blue, red, and green.
Three social media profile cards for "Generator Z." The first card features Abigayle T., age 18, sitting outdoors. The second features an individual, age 15, holding a book. The third card features Charles, age 17, smiling and pointing at the camera.

A digital platform that gives teens a voice

How might we find common, compelling ground between two very different audiences: teens and nonprofits? What kind of digital experience would attract, welcome, and embrace these two groups, while also supporting the grantmaker’s ambitious, unconventional program on a technical front?

A website landing page on a coral red background features a header titled "Hey, afterschool providers...". Below, it describes a grant initiative offering $3 million total grants, with individual grants of $100,000 to $500,000 for afterschool innovation. A button labeled "Apply for a Grant" is present.
A webpage with a 3-step guide:
1. Read through teen-generated insights and ideas.
2. Apply for a grant with an afterschool proposal inspired by Generator stories.
3. If selected, report back on your progress and challenges.
A "Sign up for updates" button is at the bottom.
A collage of four images. Top left image: A woman with Down syndrome smiles against a gray background. Top right image: A woman with curly hair smiles outdoors. Bottom left image: A woman takes a selfie in a blue restroom. Bottom center image: Five friends smile and pose together outdoors.
Five smartphones display different pages from a website. The content covers topics such as the influence of teens on culture, learning, and sports, teen opinions, and a campaign named Generator Z. Charts and images of teens are shown, with vibrant colors on a yellow background.
Generator Z required a clever team to bring to the table what we wanted to ultimately elicit in teens and nonprofits: joy, authorship, and the space to experiment. Hyperakt did just that.
Abir Ali
Special Projects, Generator Z

A guided publishing workflow for young people

The first phase of the Generator Z website made the submission process for becoming a teen “Generator” readily available. Interested teens could put themselves forward to share their experience through a combination of written narrative, photographs and illustrations, audio clips, and video—with compensation of $1,000 for their valuable insights. In order to accurately reflect a diversity of perspective and experience, factors like race, gender, age, and geography informed the final selections.

Screenshot of a page titled "Where You Have the Power," featuring a purple dragon character. The form includes fields for player preferences in SuperSoul 7, such as name, pronouns, and class choices. Several buttons and checkboxes are available to select various options.
  • 2,347
    teens applied to participate
  • 1,000
    selected to published essays
  • $1,000
    awarded to each teen
A collage of colorful cards displayed on a screen, each featuring various personalized notes, quotes, brief descriptions, and photos. Prominent "Z" logos in purple, yellow, and blue adorn the background and cards, creating a vibrant mosaic effect.

A picture (or video) is worth a thousand words

Generator Z is built to encourage creativity and free expression, and today’s teens are incredibly media-savvy. That meant we needed to plan for a wide variety of ways that each of the 1,000 teen Generator’s stories took shape. In less than one month, each and every teen responded to a slate of eight questions in their preferred medium. From image orientation to media type and word count, it was the ultimate responsive design challenge. Our design system accounted for over 50 possible layout variants based on how teens chose to respond to the questions.

A large grid showcasing various webpage wireframes with different layouts. Each wireframe contains placeholders for text paragraphs, headings, images, and video thumbnails, depicting multiple design options for web content organization and structure.
An image displaying six vertically arranged web pages with diverse color backgrounds: peach, blue, red, yellow, green, and teal. Each webpage features various text blocks, images of people, and other multimedia elements, indicating different articles or content sections.
Hyperakt genuinely connected to the work, invited creative risk, commanded their expertise, and had fun doing what they do.
Abir Ali
Special Projects, Generator Z

A two-way street

The heart of Generator Z is the conversation between teens and afterschool providers. The Foundation allocated $3 million to provide grants to afterschool providers ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. The hook? Each grant application needed to draw direct inspiration from the stories shared by teen Generators. To help potential grant applicants navigate a thousand Generator stories as their source of ideas, we built in filters for age, gender, location, and interest.

Building authentic accountability

Six months after the grants are given, each afterschool program grantee will publish a multimedia story in the same freewheeling format as the teen stories, to show how their program is advancing. The teens have the ability to comment on the stories that drew inspiration from their narratives, providing additional guidance and insight as the programs continue to develop.

We adore every single professional who worked on this project. There is no other team that I could imagine working with to help create the magic of Generator Z.
Abir Ali
Special Projects, Generator Z

Project Credits

Project Team
  • Abir Ali
  • Erin Thompson
  • Good Done Daily
  • Catherine Pink
  • Emily Tinklenberg
  • Scott Hoch
  • Olu & Company
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