Branding a city: What makes a successful design?
There’s a lot to juggle when creating a city’s visual identity – ideas, people, history, expectations. The designers behind the brands talk us through their approaches and strategies.
How do you create a brand that encapsulates an entire city? Making a destination economically and culturally attractive through a visual identity is no small feat. It has to do a number of seemingly contradictory things: it should be clear but subtle, universal but unique, instil a sense of belonging in residents but have a global appeal – all while standing the test of time.
And it’s an emotional matter. The recent rebranding campaign for New York City, led by Founders, took the iconic I ❤ NY symbol designed by Milton Glaser in the 70s and applied small changes – a different pronoun, a sans serif font and a 3D graphic heart – that sparked a huge global reaction. Many called the WE ❤ NYC campaign a failure, while others got behind the inclusive message and modernised design.
With so many design elements, stakeholders and views to consider, is there a recipe for creating a successful city brand? The ingredients depend on the vision. Marketing specialist Maryam Banikarim, who ran the NYC campaign, says it’s all about purpose. “Clearly understanding your goal and who it’s for matters.” The aim of the rebrand was to infuse pride in New Yorkers and “drive civic action” by encouraging citizens to volunteer in their communities. “This is a moment for ‘we’ not ‘me’,” she explains. “The campaign isn’t trying to replace the original mark; it’s designed to exist alongside it and bring NYC residents together. Whether you love the mark or hate it, do something for your city.”
“There’s no culture yet, there’s no people yet. We have to create our own image through the design”Diaz Hensuk, the Indonesian Association of Graphic Designers’ board of advisors
In his book City Branding: Theory and Cases, Keith Dinnie claims that a strong place brand should identify a clear set of attributes that “powerfully express the unique character of the city”. This was the approach behind the rebrand of Christchurch, NZ, which launched last month. Following the 2011 earthquake that damaged much of its infrastructure, the city needed to “find its new identity with a big ‘I’”, says Jeremie Feinblatt, vice president of strategy at Resonance Consultancy, who worked with economic development agency ChristchurchNZ to produced a fresh narrative aimed at attracting external groups to visit and invest in Christchurch.
Jeremie and his team spent time in the city to understand its “soul”, and conducted surveys that asked thousands of businesses, residents and visitors about their aspirations and perceptions of Christchurch. They discovered that its image as the “Garden City” was important, as well as being a good place to balance work and leisure, leading them to create the promise: “Christchurch is a playground for people.” Jeremie calls this process “from logic to magic” and argues that it created a strong value proposition to differentiate Christchurch from other destinations.
Drawing on a city’s history works for rebrands, but what if the city doesn’t yet exist? Working with the government, the Indonesian Association of Graphic Designers (ADGI) is helping to create the visual identity work for Nusantara, Indonesia’s newly planned capital city, which will see the capital move from Jakarta to the island of Borneo. It is set to be inaugurated next year, and urban planners and architects have designed the landscape, but the physical city is still being built.
“Your brand has to align with the values shared by the community and reflect their reality.”Jeremie Feinblatt, Resonance Consultancy
Starting with a blank canvas is one of the main challenges, says Diaz Hensuk, who sits on ADGI’s board of advisors. “There’s no culture yet, there’s no people yet,” he says. “We have to create our own image through the design.” The narrative ADGI has devised seeks to present Nusantara as “a home for all” to meet the government’s professed aims of promoting economic equality and inclusivity, and decentralising the country by shifting the focus from the dominant island of Java.
The association invited its members across the country to participate in the logo-making by submitting their own designs. There were 500 submissions in total, which were then painstakingly whittled down to five finalists, with the winner voted for by the public. The winning designer, Aulia Akbar, was announced just yesterday by Indonesian president Joko Widodo; his logo is called “Pohon Hayat Nusantara” (Nusantara’s Tree of Life) and was inspired by the symbolism of trees from west to east Indonesia, representing the rich biodiversity in Indonesia’s ecology.
The aim of the competition was to “create a sense of ownership by allowing people to be part of Nusantara’s development,” says ADGI communications director Primo Rizky. “It’s like a design election, democratising design through the public.” A collaborative method that seeks input from local groups is vital to branding a city, says Jeremie from Resonance Consultancy: “Your brand has to align with the values shared by the community and reflect their reality.”
“It’s like a design election, democratising design through the public.”Primo Rizky, Indonesian Association of Graphic Designers
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Logo submission by Ismiaji Cahyono, one of the five finalists in the Nusantara design competition
“When you’re creating a city symbol that has to garner love, you have to start with what people already love and know.”Jeffrey Ludlow, Point of Reference Studio
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Oslo rebrand (Copyright © Knowit Experience (formerly Creuna), 2019)
Recognisability is another key element of a city brand’s design. It has to “feel familiar” yet avoid obvious stand-ins, such as landmarks, says Marc Ligeti, lead designer at Knowit Experience (formerly Creuna) who worked on the rebrand of Oslo, Norway. The city seal, which depicts St Hallvard, its patron saint, has existed in the same guise since it was introduced in 1924. Marc and his team set about refreshing the symbol, making it modern and minimal but still recognisable – and more usable for city employees in their communication materials. “Less clutter, more clarity” was their strategy, he says, plus drawing on the city for inspiration when choosing colours and fonts. The blue and green hues of the brand represent everything from streetcars and the fjord to Oslo’s parks, while the bespoke font, Oslo Sans, is inspired by the city’s street signs.
Madrid-based studio Point of Reference took a similar approach in their proposed rebrand for their home city. Creative director Jeffrey Ludlow says they aimed to reflect “the terracotta roofs and brickwork” of the Spanish capital with a fresh yet familiar colour palette. “When you’re creating a city symbol that has to garner love, you have to start with what people already love and know,” he adds. Having entered a competition launched by the city council to brand Madrid as a tourist destination, in which all of the proposals were rejected, POR decided to spread awareness of their design by publishing it online anyway.
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Madrid Tourism rebrand proposal (Copyright © Point of Reference Studio, 2018)
“This campaign is about attitude and knowing the city, and that’s not something you can dial in; you need people who understand the nuances of the place.”Maryam Banikarim
These design decisions embody a core consideration in city branding: to “accurately reflect the community that lives there,” says Matt Kitto of Christchurch-based McCarthy Studio, which implemented the visual design. Using Resonance’s brand narrative, McCarthy worked with Māori design studio Ariki Creative, as well as Tahu Robinson, an independent creative from the local iwi (tribe), to ensure the city’s bicultural heritage was represented. The logo incorporates the city’s name in both languages and its dual lines are a nod to ‘haehae’, a technique used in whakairo (Māori carvings), plus the two sides of the Avon River’s banks.
Being Christchurch locals was important in enabling McCarthy and their design partners to create an identity that combines its diverse cultures. However, there are benefits to having an outside lens. It offers impartiality, says Jeremie of Resonance, which is based in Canada but creates destination branding globally. “If you’re branding your own city, you may come with preconceived ideas or personal emotions that cloud your judgement.” Jeffrey agrees, having lived in Madrid for a decade: “You have a bit of critical distance but also an understanding of the local condition.”
As WE ❤ NYC was aimed at residents, not tourists, having a team of New Yorkers working on the branding was a prerequisite, says Maryam. “This campaign is about attitude and knowing the city, and that’s not something you can dial in,” she says. “You need people who understand the nuances of the place.”
These insights informed hyper-localised aspects of the campaign, such as a bespoke set of emojis symbolising New York’s five boroughs, posters designed by local artists and a series of tongue-in-cheek, pithy statements that reflect New Yorkers’ attitudes, such as: “We get more done by 8am than Boston does in a day.”
“It’s about bringing in the story of the place, and that’s the people who live there, who travel there, who call it home.”Matt Kitto, McCarthy Studio
Maryam sought input from a wide network of local creatives to encompass a range of perspectives – yet involving multiple stakeholders with competing views can present tensions. “The challenge is what do you do with all the feedback, when there are so many people, without making compromises,” says Marc Ligeti. It’s a delicate balance between managing expectations and trusting your instincts.
There is also a huge weight on designers’ shoulders to develop a striking brand that acts as a city’s persona “for 10 or 20 years into the future… that’s a lot of stress to put on your team”, observes Matt of McCarthy Studio. The pressure is equally, if not more intense with a brand-new city, says ADGI’s Primo. “Nusantara as the new capital has to represent Indonesia’s whole culture and people,” he says. “The visual identity has to be more inclusive.” The team had to dig deeper into their creative reserves to reflect the spirit of Indonesia through a narrative that highlights Nusantara’s verdant location as a forest-covered island and its maritime qualities as a destination that connects people through its seas.
“Great design elicits emotion, it starts a conversation and it makes the world better.”Maryam Banikarim
Despite the pressures, design teams recognise that it’s impossible to please everyone, and engagement – whether positive or negative – can yield results, as Maryam and Founders discovered. Despite the cacophony of polarised voices regarding the rebranding, Maryam says WE ❤ NYC was successful because it fulfilled its aims: after 3.2 billion people saw the campaign in its first 48 hours, more than 4,500 residents volunteered to give back to the city. “New Yorkers are very opinionated, but whether they loved it or hated it, they saw themselves in the mark.”
The success of the campaign, and of all good city brands, is that people connected emotionally to a story about their community. “It’s not just about producing a mark that is the icon. It’s about bringing in the story of the place, and that’s the people who live there, who travel there, who call it home,” adds Matt.
Beyond merely a logo or a strapline, a city’s brand is its promise of value to residents, visitors, investors – everyone. And, when done right, it can powerfully contribute to the legacy of the destination and to visual culture. As Maryam puts it: “Great design elicits emotion, it starts a conversation and it makes the world better.”
WE ❤ NYC campaign (Copyright © New York State Department of Economic Development, 2023)
About the Author
Dalia is a London-based freelance arts and culture writer and lecturer. She draws on her Middle Eastern background to tell stories of its creative and cultural richness, and is also editor of a zine about the impact of gentrification. She has written for publications including Gal-dem, Vice and the Financial Times.