Bubble lettering has come a long way since it first appeared on school exercise books in the 1970s and 80s, via logos for radio stations and bubble gum. It sank without trace in the 90s but it’s on the rise again, like an irrestistible legible dirigible.
Interbrand Australia has just taken bubble lettering to new heights in a major branding programme for Darling Harbour in Sydney. It’s probably not the world’s first inflatable brand; and it may not either be the first time a government department has ordered a set of signs made from 20ft high inflatable letters, when one considers Expos, Millennium celebrations and major sporting events. It is, though, something that was worth sticking up for in a long, painstaking passage towards sign-off, and it’s an awful lot of fun.
Which is precisely what Darling Harbour is to most people who visit there. The former port is where Sydney and its guests go to eat, shop, watch movies, go bowling, see bands and watch fireworks every Saturday night. Named after an early Governor of New South Wales, Lieutenant-General Ralph Darling (presumably a Captain Darling somewhere along the line, but maybe not alongside a Captain Blackadder), the precinct attracts around half a million visitors a week.
Its owner, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, asked Interbrand for a simple, strong identity that could unite the precinct and reflect its sense of fun and energy. Interbrand’s creative director, Mike Rigby, was aware of a shift in place branding. “For many years, tourism was all about a top 10, a bucket list, the big icons, and getting the photos to prove it,” he says. “The new tourism ideal is to immerse and live like a local for a few days. There has been a shift from place, landmarks and icons – to people, attitudes and experiences. For us, the best place brands own a clear attitude and carefully craft stories around this.”
‘Inflatable’ lettering captured the attitude of Darling Harbour and offered the chance to bring a visual cohesion to its sprawl of attractions. Rigby, a doodler of bubble lettering at school and already responsible for one fairy bulbous font while at Manchester’s True North (an inflation of Tate’s font, for its Gustav Klimt show in 2008), had to steer the concept past a multitude of boards and stakeholders, including government departments, property developers, retailers and tenants. “We had a few battles along the way,” he says, “but in truth most could see the immediate potential in the solution.”
Immediate potential this scheme has in large volumes. The advertising is great fun and the signs and inflatables bring colour, vivacity and a festival feel to a stretch of harbourside where some of the architecture is showing its age. Although it would be gratuitously party-pooping to point out that all balloons go flat eventually, there’s a question mark over the longevity of the balloon-based brand.
Like a good night out, Sydney should just enjoy it to the full, let it run its course, and only then worry about what comes next.