How can we use the power of branding to strengthen a shared identity and spark positive change in the neighborhoods and cities where we live? An effective visual identity references the culture and history of a place’s people and reflects their hopes and aspirations. Logos, fonts, or color schemes, the most tangible parts of a brand identity, are not magical cure-alls for the financial, social, and cultural ills of a city, but they can be powerful symbols and rallying cries that galvanize people to action. Here are some stories and insights on how you can create a brand identity for change in your community:
1. Be Positive. Create a Sense of Pride and Possibility.
Milton Glaser’s famous “I Love New York” logo launched in 1977, a time when New York City was nearly bankrupt, business was suffering (or leaving), and crime was rampant. Glaser created the logo pro bono for the NY State Department of Commerce to promote tourism. Since the logo launched it has helped attract millions of tourists a year to the state and generates over $30 million a year in merchandise royalties. New York has also become the safest big city in America.
While branding can help attract tourism or investment, the impact of of Glaser’s “I Love New York” was not merely economic, but also cultural. The campaign helped change New Yorkers' perceptions of their city by focusing on the positive during a challenging time to spark a sense of pride and ownership, which in turn, translated into the political will to take action. Robert McGuire, police commissioner for NYC from 1978 to 1983, explained, “You don’t think of a logo as a catalyst for the restoration of a city, but in many ways, without that slogan, the turnaround in New York’s fortunes wouldn’t have been achieved so quickly." In an interview with Glaser, graphic designer Chip Kidd went even further and declared that Glaser’s logo “saved New York.”
Glaser has since amended the campaign to read “I Love NY More Than Ever” to encourage community solidarity and support after the September 11 terrorist attacks and in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Speaking on the power of design, Glaser said, “Linking beauty and purpose can create a sense of communal agreement that helps diminish the sense of disorder and incoherence that life creates.” Creating that sense of communal agreement is a key to creating positive change.
2. Source locally.
Last year in GOOD, Zak Stone asked whether a font could help a city make a comeback, and profiled Chatype, a custom font for the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The designers of Chatype sought to “distill the city’s artistic and entrepreneurial spirit” and to proclaim the city’s “creative renaissance” to the world. Chatype’s creators explain, “a custom typeface reflects character, extends excitement, and becomes a rally point for suffering projects.” The font includes various motifs that reflect the city’s heritage and aspirations, incorporating Cherokee influences, slab-serif references to the city’s manufacturing past, as well as square geometric elements meant to evoke a high tech future.
In my work at Purpose, I had the opportunity to design the logo and identity for Meu Rio (“My Rio” in Portuguese), a civil society organization based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil that creates new interfaces for civic participation by creating online tools that connect citizens with government and each other. Meu Rio helps ensure that people have a voice in the decisions that are transforming their city. The brief was to create a fresh identity around which the organization could attract and mobilize young people for change in the city.
I realized that in order to create a design that respected and celebrated the aspirations of the people of Rio, I had to immerse myself into the culture and lifestyle of the city. I learned the language, studied the history and visual culture, and practiced capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art disguised as dance. Working with a Brazilian and US-based team, we came up with a final logo that evokes the form of a coconut, a ubiquitous fruit in Rio, which could serve as a positive unifying symbol for a community working to overcome some difficult problems such as inequality and lack of access. We used the open-licensed “Folk” font by Brazilian type designer Marcelo Magalhães as a way of locally sourcing creative elements for the identity and to signal our own commitment to the values of sharing and remix.
3. Create it with the community.
Creating a brand identity for a community is also about creating with that community. As designers, we can serve as conveners and conduits for the creativity that already exists in a community.
For a class project, five students of mine in the MFA Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts—Gabriela Reygadas Robles, Becky Colley, Liz Day, Sara Cornish, and Chelsea Wagner—proposed a collaboration with the residents of Brownsville, Brooklyn, a low-income neighborhood with some of the highest violent crime rates in NYC. In a series of community arts workshops and other engagement activities in the neighborhood, they seek to co-create a brand identity for Brownsville that reflects shared local pride, a sense of ownership over vacant spaces, and can serve as a call to action to inspire other community-driven projects for change. These students recognize the power of history and identity to revitalize a place, and invite the residents of Brownsville and others in the design community to participate and collaborate in the process.
Meu Rio images courtesy of Meu Rio; Brownsville identity mockup courtesy of Gabriela Reygadas Robles, Becky Colley, Liz Day, Sara Cornish, and Chelsea Wagner.