A real sense of the place

Capturing the unique sense of a town or city is a difficult task for any identity designer

Thirty-five years ago, the American designer Milton Glaser scrawled four characters in red crayon on an envelope: a butterfly wing beat that would unleash microsystems of madcap marketing and wayward design in towns and cities all around the world. Glaser’s taxi-seat doodle became the first modern ‘place brand’. In drawing tourists back to what was, in the mid-1970s, a bankrupt and crime-ridden city, I heart NY was an active part of New York’s regeneration, and it still generates $30 million a year for the state from merchandise sales.

It’s one of the world’s most imitated logos; imitated not only in the sense of variations on the theme, but also in the sense of a million local politicians thinking they can emulate its revitalising waves of warm feelings in their own urban backyards by simply ordering a logo from Bob’s Brands around the corner.

We’re living through a pandemic of place branding; a plague of droopy skylines, spiritless straplines and limp, handwritten place names. Thriving in a world of international city-on-city competition, urban regeneration and unprecedented growths in travel, tourism and relocation, the virus has run wild. All too often, identities are hastily commissioned, with a minimal budget, and subjected to committee approval processes that wring proposals dry of any personality, and fail to connect with local communities or visitors.

“The brand of a place is determined by what that place is doing,” says Peter Saville, whose Original Modern programme for Manchester City Council is spearheading the city’s marketing campaign. “The brand of a city or a place is not like the brand of a commercial product that you can reshape and reposition. There’s a lot of branding projects being sold around the world for cities and states and nations. And the design profession should be ashamed of itself for what it’s doing.”

Occasionally, though, gems appear in the mud, such as the identity developed for Destination Shrewsbury by the branding and tone-of-voice partnership, We All Need Words, and up-and-coming design studio, & Smith. Its two central elements – a typographic system that mixes Dalton Maag’s Effra font with glyphs derived from the town’s Tudor architecture, and a slogan that local businesses can customise (‘A Shrewsbury One-Off Since .. .’) – create something that shops and attractions can feel close to and retain their own small slice of. Crucially, it captures the uniquenesses of the town – the little things that make it different.

“We consciously didn’t want to brand the town with a heavy hand,” says & Smith’s Dan Bernstein. “The charm of a place like Shrewsbury comes from things like the handwritten label on a jar of jam. The stories, old and new, about who’s stayed where and when.” The issue of committees was dealt with swiftly, upfront, with a client who was supportive of strong ideas from the off. “A lot of the project was about thinking of Shrewsbury more like a commercial client,” says Rob Mitchell, one half o fWe All Need Words. “The mistake people make with place branding is that they want to keep the people in the town happy – which is important – but that shouldn’t be at the expense of what visitors want to know, see and buy.”

The truly commercial clients in this field – property owners, developers and business communities -are still learning, too. Branding systems such as the one Land Securities has unveiled for its redevelopment of London’s Victoria district (where it owns a staggering volume of building stock) are inoffensive at best, a vehicle for photography and CGis of buildings that shies away from trying to reflect or convey the area’s character. At least they kept the name the same, learning from the Candy Brothers’ (thankfully aborted) project to rebrand Fitzrovia as NoHo, and the attempt by local businesses to lump three historic districts – Bloomsbury, St Giles and Holborn – under the unusable compound moniker of lnMidtown.

Communities resist and repel place brands if they are perceived as empty, false or unnecessary. “The idea with Ancoats was to create a sense of identity for an area crying out for it,” says Mark Lester of Mark Studio. Lester’s modular ‘A’ brand for Ancoats, a post-industrial corner of Greater Manchester undergoing regeneration, created a grid from the facades of former factories and warehouses. “The [regeneration] project always felt real,” says Lester. “[With the identity] we were bringing what’s there to the surface. You get a lot of areas that brand themselves thinking that a logo will make up for the limitations of the place. It won’t. It’s got to have a truth to it.”

Michael Evamy is the author of Logotype, out next month. evamy.co.uk

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