Signposting the city

Guardian Cities recently discussed how typefaces have been instrumental in building city identity. The story kicks off with the case of the the Dutch city of Eindhoven, which was hit hard by the decline in manufacturing over the last few decades.

In Eindhoven, things started going pear-shaped in the 80s, but went horribly wrong in the late 90s when the Dutch electronics giant, Philips, abruptly shifted its head office to Amsterdam, finishing off two decades of gradual pulling away.

Manufacturing goods for Philips had been the lifeblood of Eindhoven for decades and its loss was a severe blow, not just to the city’s economic base but also to its sense of pride and self-esteem. But where other cities might have floundered into a major downward spiral, Eindhoven showed typical Dutch pragmatism and began to reinvent itself to rise from the ashes in a different form.

The empty factories left by the departing Philips became affordable real estate, allowing for a number of startups and creative companies to move in, take root and thrive. This new burst of creativity in turn spurred Eindhoven’s technology and design sectors to new and imaginative heights.

As this flurry of activity began to change the nature of Eindhoven, so city planners began to nurture the idea of rebranding the city to match its new state of being. As design had rejuvenated the city’s economy, it seemed appropriate that design should also feature as a strong part of the rebranding campaign. Planners suggested creating a distinctive city typeface.

The city marketing department liked the idea, and commissioned various agencies to work on it. As they played around with sticky tape to make the font sketches, they discovered that the way the letters looked when outlined in tape, rough, with the corners missing, somehow reflected Eindhoven’s new identity as a post-industrial city still uneven around the edges.

Dutch designer, Remco van de Craats, believes that typeface can and does reflect the uniqueness of a city. Calling it the ‘voice of the city’, he asserts that type has ‘a lot of effect on the atmosphere of a place’.

Further examples can be seen around the world, such as the distinctive signage of London, Paris or New York, or the new Cyrillic typeface currently being created for Moscow’s imposing underground system. Some people, mainly font designers, say that the city’s identity is closely tied up with its typeface. They believe that the font somehow contributes to forming part of the city’s distinct personality.

Many cities are hopping on the bandwagon and commissioning new typefaces to help boost their image and bolster their identity. It’s easier for large famous cities to achieve this, but what about smaller, lesser-known ones?

The small US city of Chattanooga is currently involved in a project, funded by crowd-sourcing, to create a new city font. One of the lead designers, Jeremy Dooley, believes that a smaller city lends itself better to this kind of project because it is less diverse, less fragmented and people are more likely to reach agreement on what the font should be like.

Dooley points out that typefaces in mega-cities have achieved fame and become imbued with meaning in a largely organic way, over the years. This has often happened via their use as part of the city’s transport network, which has given them a high degree of exposure to everyone who visits or lives in the city.

Chattanooga’s deliberate attempt to introduce new fonts as part of a city’s rebranding is a more experimental approach. One might argue that this somewhat ‘artificial’ method is similar to those branding projects that try to impose a new logo or slogan onto a city. This is an ineffective way of generating a new identity.

Of course, brand consultants have thought of this already, and they have come up with an explanation. According to London-based brand consultant Paul Bailey, a successful city typeface must tap into ‘what makes this place this place.’ It must reflect the existing personality of the city, or that of the city in transition to a new phase of being.

However, there’s a risk that by getting too carried away with typeface, city marketers can fall into the same trap as that of logos and slogans.

A strong typeface is a useful addition that may enhance the image of the city on a superficial level, but a typeface alone can’t rejuvenate an entire city identity.

As with logos and slogans, it can only be effective if the proper groundwork has already been done. If the city is doing well in terms of economy, infrastructure, environment, governance, safety, culture, etc, then a suitable typeface could be used to add an extra cherry on top of an existing range of positive achievements.

When used without this foundation, typeface is unlikely to have significant effect on the image of a city. It would be like putting lipstick on a pig.

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