Amsterdam’s identity update causes controversy

Edenspiekermann announced a major update to the identity system for the City of Amsterdam last week, but the project’s merits have been overshadowed by a public debate about its six-figure cost. We spoke to creative director Edo van Dijk about the refresh and the reactions to it…

Edenspiekermann announced a major update to the identity system for the City of Amsterdam last week, but the project’s merits have been overshadowed by a public debate about its six-figure cost. We spoke to creative director Edo van Dijk about the refresh and the reactions to it…

Last week, Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf reported that the City of Amsterdam had unveiled a new logo – one that cost €100,000, but differed little to the city’s existing marque.

The article received hundreds of angry comments from members of the public, who deemed it a waste of money, and prompted creative director Edo van Dijk to write a blog post explaining Edenspiekermann’s latest work for the city.

As van Dijk pointed out in his article, the update is not merely a logo refresh: Edenspiekermann and Thonik have spent four months designing a new set of icons and a revised set of guidelines to support the city’s identity and while it cost €100,000, it should save money in the long run, he said.

 

 

Edenspiekermann’s predecessor Eden designed the City of Amsterdam’s visual identity with Thonik in 2003. The aim was to create a distinctive but flexible scheme to replace the 60 or so logos used by different departments and services (above).

The centrepiece of the scheme was a new city marque made up of three red crosses, which have featured on Amsterdam’s coat of arms since the 13th century:

The initial identity system, designed in 2003

 

This was accompanied by a red, black and white colour palette and secondary elements that allowed each department its own distinct voice: organisations could choose a supplementary colour from a choice of 15 and use their own symbol underneath the three crosses.

When it was launched, the scheme was a resounding success: it was adopted by 95% of city organisations instead of the anticipated 60, was widely praised by the public and used on everything from rubbish trucks to billboards and earned the agencies several awards.

Work continued on the project until 2006 and by this time, Eden and Thonik had developed a comprehensive set of guidelines that offered flexibility for each city service but still communicated ‘the flavour of Amsterdam’.

 

“People from Amsterdam are known for being direct, a bit cheeky, autonomous and perhaps even slightly anarchist. We wanted to reflect that, albeit in a more subdued way, so we developed a clean and bright system based on strong, bold visual statements.

“At the time, it was a leap ahead of what other cities were doing,” explains van Dijk.

 

 

A decade later, however, the city decided to adopt a more streamlined communications strategy, and Edenspiekermann was asked to update the system to reflect this change. There will now be less of a focus on giving departments and services tools to customise communications to create their own distinct voice, and more emphasis on making all communications from the City of Amsterdam visually consistent.

 

“It’s complex politically, but there has been a major re-organisation of the city’s departments and how they communicate, which will be rolled out this year,” explains van Dijk.

“Ten years ago, the identity system was based on the principle of creating a streamlined system but giving services and districts their own supporting elements, so that the public would connect that information with its sender. Now, it’s more about the message that’s being communicated than who communicates it – the city wants one clear voice, and one clear identity, so we had to build more of a communications toolkit,” he adds.

 

Communications designed before the refresh

 

 

Rather than choose sub colours to represent their ‘brand’, departments now choose colours depending on the type of message they’re communicating: blue can be used for communications relating to air quality or water, or green for environmental issues.

Departments must use the same three cross logo  – a fourth element is no longer permitted – and it must appear in a certain size and position on letterheads and stationery. This has dramatically reduced the types of envelopes needed from 250 to 25, which should lead to considerable savings by allowing the city to place bulk orders for various departments.

 

 

All this may sound like departments now have less freedom to use the identity system creatively, but van Dijk says a key focus of the agency’s work over the past four months has been developing tools to make it easier to play with the scheme. New guidelines also provide clearer guidance on the use of photography and illustration.

 

Communications designed after the refresh. Each department now uses the same logo, without an individual fourth element, saving on stationery costs

 

 

One of the most significant additions is ‘a modular guy called Adam’, who can be placed in a variety of poses and combined with props to create an extensive but coherent set of icons.

“He’s a nice graphic tool to create stories such as visuals for brochures and advertising, and the strong graphic style works well with other elements of the identity,” says van Dijk.

 

 

It’s been a significant undertaking – and of course, an expensive one – but van Dijk says the project will simplify official city communications. “We’re making life easier by helping departments to produce documents more quickly and without mistakes,” he says.

 

van Dijk isn’t surprised by the criticism the project has received, however – after all, expensive public design projects are always placed under scrutiny, and it’s difficult to quantify the labour, research and time that goes into creating an extensive identity system to those with little knowledge of design.

Perhaps this is something governments could discuss more openly – although as van Dijk acknowledges, it’s difficult for any government to announce investments in the midst of job losses or funding cuts. More of a dialogue, however, could surely help address the issue of branding updates being seen as expensive logo revamps.

 

Communications designed using updated guidelines on illustration, text, photography and logo placement.

 

 

One week on, van Dijk says fuss over the update’s cost is dying down – he has seen a significant rise in traffic to the company’s blog, however, and hopes his article has helped educate readers about the details of the project.

The initial branding cost €1million but yielded an estimated €3million in savings. It is hoped that the update will provide similar benefits. If so, it will prove a worthwhile investment, and certainly make city communications more consistent.

  • Anon

    The long-term should always be considered and the media/public will always get riled up about any expenditure. However, for me the issue is probably the timescale of the two events – people will be annoyed that this wasn’t the brief (and accompanying solution/outcome) of the 2003/06 remit.

    After all, if the first crack at the whip saved money, and this second one will supposedly do the same again via the projected data, people will be questioning why this second strategy wasn’t the *only* strategy to be introduced, as more funding could have been saved from the very start.

    In terms of the design work itself, the new system makes so much more sense than the original rebrand, which replaced 60 completely different logos with 60 different icons under three red crosses (a move that seems sideways at best, who is going to commit 60 icons to memory as opposed to 60 logos?)

    I do like that Edo responded to the outcry publicly. For me, anything that gets everybody talking about design as a profession and as a process is great; even if the initial response is hostile, at least it gives us a platform to open dialogue and help others understand why things happen the way they do. For me, there are two schools of thinking that need completely eradicating and this story is a good start:

    1 – Non-designers considering design as a hobbyist profession of “six-figure logos” and the like
    2 – Designers scoffing at non-designers and not offering information/responses on decision-making/processes

    Get rid of those standpoints and the value of design will be much more apparent to even more people!

  • Excellent article. As a former purchaser for large, international company I know that this move by the City of Amsterdam will indeed save it — and by extension the tax payers — a lot of money.

    Incidentally, De Telegraaf is a ‘newspaper’ given to tendentious ‘reporting.’ It’s a good paper to wrap fish in, though.

  • Orange Man

    The cost was cheap as Dutch chips (with mayonnaise).

    The public will always complain about the cost as they have little understanding of the what is involved. No doubt the newspapers needed a headline for the week.

    The reasonable fee charged by Edenspiekermann would have been covered just by the council envelope savings alone.

    This would have been a good project to get paid as a percentage of the savings that will be made. A small investment up front by the city council and a recurring payment for Edenspiekermann. Now that would have been worth discussing!

  • Lol, I remember reading this (I’m from Amsterdam) and thinking the same thing, but since I’m in the communication business I know what it can cost. It had to be more than just the logo.

  • Decimal

    It’s a thankless task designing for councils (or Public Sector in general). I think it’s harder than most commercial projects – partly due to the huge amount of mundane things they cover (above: summer actiivities, construction, healthy weight and firework safety). Also, the political wrangling between depts and the thousands of taxpayers waiting to chip in their 2p-worth.

    The best you can hope for is something distinctive that fits together without drawing too much attention away from the subject. I think that’s what you’ve got above – good problem-solving design. Not spectacular but deceptively hard to do well.

    The sad thing is the ‘before’ leaflets are better than most UK councils. I think design is valued more widely in the Netherlands so the people making decisions appreciate it more than your average councillor or manager in the UK.

  • G

    The first comment is one of the best and most considered I’ve ever read on these ‘ere forums.

  • Martijn, Amsterdam

    Thank you CR! As with much Dutch Design, there has been a lamentable lack of critical debate on this branding update in the last week. Instead Dutch social media, newspapers and designers have focused on the implementation costs of the update, with the usual sensational headlines and red herrings…

    The first comment above is totally spot-on. In fact, it is a wonder that Thonik got a second shot at this gig! to basically repair the damage that they created back in 2003. In general, Thonik are good at creating frivolous and ephemeral identities for the cultural sector. A large-scale identity system, such as the City of Amsterdam, requires rigour, intelligence and craftsmanship. All qualities which Edenspiekermann will undoubtedly bring to the process.

  • I’m from Amsterdam and people were indeed mad for the waste of money. 100K isn’t nothing for a quite easy to produce logo..

  • arielko

    beyond the fact that the new design brings order and sense, and the whole buzz around this job, i think its basically a mediocre branding effort.

  • John Patrick

    Total bullshit. 100K is not the bottow line of this invoice, it’s just the price tag for some global guidelines and some sketch examples of how the housestyle will be used.

    There will be SO MUCH MORE invoices for every single piece of implementation that will be made, that I really don’t understand how everybody gets fooled by the EdenSpiekerman blabla.