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Brand Identity Design for Cities, Towns, and Neighborhoods

How branding can give city residents a sense of belonging and increase tourism.

Manhole covers, city flags, and neighborhood street signs all carry tokens of an underserved section of graphic design.

Branding of Cities

In every town, city, and neighborhood there's a group of hard-working people whose function is to serve their community. By making policy, investing taxpayers' money, and building community through events, services, and public goods, that same group of people spends most of their resources on ways to better their community. Seldomly is this investment in graphic design. I'd like to make the case for those groups of people. As a government official, city council member, or community organizer, read closely.

Our city councils, our neighborhood watches, and our town ordinance groups need to reconsider the role of graphic design in their places of living. A strong visual identity for a place (both physical and digital) can help build pride among residents, encourage tourism, and ultimately unify the efforts and sense of belonging of everyone in the community. 

The Context for City and Neighborhood Brands

How do designers, officials, and communities approach city branding? What's involved, who's engaged? What's at stake? These are questions we always ask, but the answers are oftentimes different than those of a business. When we think of a brand identity design for a business, largely we're thinking about selling a product or service—we want the brand identity to speak to the values of the company, and project those out to any group of people who might become consumers.

That's different from the place of a town, city, or even neighborhood. When we think about these physical places, we're usually giving visual form to something that already exists, and is constantly changing. We might tie in some of the brand considerations that a business brand identity has like expressing values, appealing to a certain demographic, and projecting a visual language, but the similarities end there. What a city brand identity ought to do is be much more place-making for citizens.

A city brand identity welcomes residents, officials, and tourists into the place.

Traditionally, the visuals that surround city-making are seals or crests. Seals are usually quite busy and, particularly in America, tend to have some sort of settler who looks like they've trekked across the land. The image usually shows the pioneer having found wheat or barley or some type of product that the land is able to grow, carried with them a weapon like a sword or a rifle to symbolize their aggressive willingness to conquer, and sometimes includes imagery of people shaking hands as a way to show two groups of people coming together to settle. Now, this is generally an American town phenomenon, because the seals tell the story about how that town or city came to be. Unfortunately, most of these stories are only told from one perspective, carry brutal histories, and no longer represent everyone in the town.

Neighborhoods are not too different. The brand identities of our neighborhoods are usually things like trees, rivers or mountains, or some physical location that reminds us of that place. Imagery is the most basic form of remembering a place. Whether a city or neighborhood, we're pulling imagery out that's trying to remind us of how that place came to be and why people came to reside where they did.

On the surface, all that may seem fine, but as towns and cities try to propagate on a larger scale, those types of visuals oftentimes don't do enough justice to the actual variety and richness of those places. Towns are richer with life. Cities are more alive than their crop. And people are more diverse than when the seals were originally drawn up–all things to celebrate.

Seals that have slogans and ribbons and ropes and all sorts of ornamentation are literal. They tell a finite story. Cities are looking forward. Neighborhoods are looking forward. Each has a promise that they're trying to constantly fulfill that's changing with growing populations, blooming diversity, and physical expansion including new buildings, programs, and businesses.

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