Designing a Legible City

Bristol’s City ID is redesigning the way we experience urban areas. Its latest project, for Southampton, hopes to put the UK city firmly back on the map for residents and visitors alike

Visually, Southampton is a bit of a mess. Heavy bombing in the second world war and some brutal urban planning have left a fractured and confused city. Enter City id. The Bristol-based firm specialises in addressing the ailing visual identities, wayfinding systems, signage and communication infrastructures of urban areas. To date, City id has worked on innovative transport systems in both Sheffield and Newcastle and run out its successful Legible City campaigns in Bristol and Dublin. Each project aims to connect visitors and reconnect residents to their environment. Now City id has turned its attentions to Southampton.

CREATIVE REVIEW: City ID is quite unusual in that you focus specifically on urban design and wayfinding projects for cities. Can you tell us a bit more about the studio?

MIKE RAWLINSON, City ID: We’re a small team but we’re pretty unique in the UK in that our focus is a mix of urbanist design thinking and an under­standing of people in places. We’ve moved beyond just signage and information systems, things that are just added into cities. We think about the whole journey that a resident or a visitor might make and all the elements of that journey: from websites to street paving. It’s about seeing the city through the eyes of its various user groups.

CR: How do City ID’s Legible City projects work?

MR: The idea is to help glue and connect a place together and to think about an identity that is necessary for that place. A lot of our work is synthe­sising a city’s environments and to make the confusing simple. We’ve worked in Sheffield, in Newcastle, for example, with each project taking on local characteristics and issues like the economy and transport. It’s highly collaborative work with product designers, typographers, planners: a lot of it is about balancing clients, transport people, councils. We have an ‘open studio’ so we move the whole team to the particular environment we’re working on, enabling us to be more immersive. City ID’s philosophy is partly based on that level of engagement. You have to read the city you’re designing for. Bristol Legible City was, in 1999, our first project that thought about what people really need to use when they’re in a city centre. We wanted to improve the ‘user experience’ of Bristol and did so through some 40 projects over a five- year period. The work won some awards and other cities then looked to Bristol for how to improve communications with their residents and visitors.

CR: How does the Legible City concept relate to your ongoing work in Southampton?

MR: The design process is transferable and has been of interest to many other cities from as far away as Japan and Australia. Off the Bristol work we held a Legible Cities conference so designers could see how to market a city. Legible Cities acted as a touch paper and Southampton was interested.  Other offices started thinking that this was an idea that they should explore. When Bristol needed more funding for the project, it looked to the EU as there they see it as a good idea to explore the role that design has in differentiating places. Bristol came together with a small group of cities like Southampton, Kaiserslautern, Leverkusen and Bruges and they got EU funding to develop their individual projects.

CR: What do you bear in mind when looking at what a city’s identity actually needs?

MR: In terms of our initial engagement, one of the things we do is question the brief and the wants of the client. We’ve noticed that if people have an idea, they’ll want to go straight to the solution, not get to it through the thinking. Certain clients just want what we did on our last job but that just creates potato-print environments, non-places, clone towns. That kind of design underplays a city’s differences, which can’t be good for the economy. We should encourage a design culture that supports ingenuity and difference. You need efficiency and some standardisation in the work, but when you’re in a place, you want to be somewhere special and unique, with locally derived ideas. Design doesn’t think about places enough in this way. Some architects merely parachute from one project to another. So as a designer you have to get to the psychology of a particular place, in the belief that people really do make places.

CR: What were the problems you saw with the existing identity of Southampton?

MR: The identity of the city had been developed in a fragmented way. It wasn’t a holistic approach. The city has a wonderful past – it’s the home of the Spitfire, fibre optics and it occupies a global position as a cruise terminal – but many people sense that it’s a city in decline. As with the Portsmouth regeneration programme, we needed to do something here that would support the economy, attract businesses, make it a more engaging place and improve the quality of life.

CR: But how can a new identity achieve all that?

MR: If you have the opportunity to develop a visual identity for a city, you work on thousands of touch­points all over that city. We look at a visual identity as encompassing not just a logo and a strapline, but texturing, colour, type, how the city is commu­nicated across in print, product and web design.

It should glue common services together. The city can then have its own voice reflected in myriad different things. And the city’s voice is very important – there’s the whole issue of marketing to people who want to invest and develop the city, so they need to see there’s a vision there and something they can use to develop themselves.

A city has its own dna and what we’re doing is plotting a path between the elements of the dna. The Las Vegas’ of this world [have that naturally] but for most of our cities they need to find another path. Distinctiveness is therefore of relevance to the economy and not just for tourism or for visitors. Residents need to still feel part of a place, and feel connected to it. It’s hugely powerful, understanding people and their needs and, in Southampton, the voice wasn’t threaded through the different parts of the city. We have to thread together the journey experience, from taking a bus to walking, through a range of products and services. Pull together the bits that then make sense to the user.

CR: So how does it work, do you start by actively researching the city itself?

MR: Yes, to get the overall picture of a place we employ lots of different techniques. We trail members of the public, do urban analyses of the city’s structure, look at their web presence, how the city already communicates. We explore it through the user perspective, basically, be it through the web or public transport. We do market research, eg is it better to invest in new tourist information centres, or new digital or mobile technologies?

CR: What specifics did you look to bring in to Southampton?

MR: We looked at the structure of the city – it’s fragmented and quite difficult to understand, so we developed an idea of an information ‘thread’, or a wayfinding thread, that could direct people from point to point. The transport system was woven into the pedestrian system, for example. This threading idea aimed to link a series of hotspots within the city, the key retail destinations, the education clusters and the hidden areas of the city that are interesting. We felt we needed to shine a torch on various parts of the city and thread them all together. These were then over­-laid with the transport systems.

CR: And how did that impact on the graphic work that City ID produced?

MR: The thread idea informed a graphic concept and also a product concept for the signage. We looked at tabbing on maps, through the use of pictograms and text, highlighting points of interest, where to go for a drink, see something cultural etc. We wanted to put the idea of threading into the rationale behind the pictogram design and type and so worked with Dalton Maag on this aspect.

BRUNO MAAG, DALTON MAAG: City ID saw typography as a very important part of the identity and signage programme. Southampton is a port city, it’ll provide support to the Olympics, so it was clear that we needed a character set for all European languages. We ended up with a single weight of a bold display font for location signs and three weights of sans serif text fonts. The display font had to be attractive and form an identity, while the text font had to deliver pure functionality.

RON CARPENTER, DALTON MAAG: The display lettering style also needed to link in with the robust letterforms used on ships and containers which are very much part of Southampton’s maritime activities and the representational forms that were to be used on maps that City ID were developing. A sense of confidence was required along with a need for something which looked contemporary and sufficiently restrained to ensure a long shelf-life.

CR: Was the typography put through trials too?

RC: Yes, we presented a number of trials, based on the word ‘Southampton’, a few from each of our designers here at Dalton Maag, to provide a good mix of interpretations. Some were considered to be too ‘bookish’, some were thought to be too retro­spective whilst others were considered too delicate, or informal. The chosen route was developed over a period of weeks and many variations around the initial theme were explored. Sometimes these involved universal issues such as weight, x-height and repeated elements and features, each of which can have a strong influence over the design as a whole. Some individual letters presented a partic­ular structural problem that we had to overcome so that they integrated with the overall concept. We had to subdue the spirited lowercase by maintain­ing a more formal and authoritative structure in the capitals.

MR: Typographically, we went with the notion of threading something together. Type can act as an expression of place as much as architecture, so the pictograms and typography can be more important than a building. They act like a watermark.

CR: When do you test the work as a whole?

MR: We held sessions all over the city, worked in different environments, churches, arts centres, with design managers, institutions, stakeholders, even the football club, which raised the contentious issue of what colours we were going to use.

CR: In that the red and white of Southampton FC were already strongly identified with the city?

MR: Our early analysis – and our gut feeling – was that the city’s colour was red. This was based on the football club, old imagery of the cruise liners and the portside landscapes of containers. But for our visual thread, we wanted a regular base colour and consistent typography, a visual point of refer­ence for any document or product. Why not try to start from scratch and design every item unique for the city? We thought it was important to develop a back­ground colour that functioned in a system, so we chose a range of sea greens, the colours of the city itself. These colours could also be overlaid with other colours to highlight various services. As well as the red of the football club and transport within the city, there are the orange colours of the containers and cranes, while brown was the language of heritage and cultural places. The colours had to work psychologically but also represent certain facets of the city itself – hence we ended up using a broader colour palette than just the teals and sea greens.

CR: What stage are you at now with the project?

MR: The project is rolling out. There are four major online portals for the city, recoloured using the design language, print communications, the maps we produced for the city centre – all carrying the same identity as the wayfinding system. The long-term aim is to extend it through the transport system but not overbrand the city. It should connect the neighbourhoods but also go into the parks and public spaces. It’s a living idea, not just one project with one solution.


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