September 16, 2007
From Guelph Mercury – September 15, 2007
The city’s logo is too important not to be great
The path to mediocrity is paved with good intentions. I have no doubt that our city government intends to provide Guelph with a world-class logo. But between intention and delivery something has gone wrong.
The two logos — rightly called “wordmarks” — being presented by the city as our final choice, give us no choice at all. At best, we must choose between not very good and worse. And there’s precious little time left to hem and haw and hope not to hurt feelings. This has to be asked now: can we, please, go back to the drawing board?
The most unfortunate of the two contenders is dominated by a whimsically swooping thick purple ‘G’ that ends in a big arrowhead. The rest of the word — ‘uelph’ — emits from the ‘G’ in a thin handwriting-style script of pale green that is visually swallowed by the mighty arrowhead. It might work for a small florist shop or a menu, but for a city, it’s far too frivolous and undignified.
The other design is better but boring. Again, the ‘G’ is offset in another typeface (which will compromise readability), this time in pale green, and the ‘uelph’ is pale blue with a garnish of little leaves at the top of the ‘h.’ The florist shop would love it. I suppose if you changed the ‘G’ to the same typeface as the ‘uelph,’ it might be passable.
But is passable all we want? No. We want greatness.
Why? Because this will be the symbol of our home for years to come.
We want a logo that stands with the best city logos in the world and betters our city’s brand significantly. We want it to represent our attributes and aspirations, our sense of who we are and where we are going.
We want a logo that feels graphically substantial, so that if you wore it on your shirt others would admire it. We want a logo that is strong, clear, classic, durable, evocative, distinguishing, friendly yet dignified, flavourful, and absolutely memorable. It should be simple because the more unusual a name — ‘Guelph,’ for example — the simpler the graphics can be. It should also be highly legible — which neither of the choices are — because outside of Guelph most people have trouble understanding our city’s name.
The two contenders do none of this. Zero.
The process may be the reason. It doesn’t appear there was a competition or review of top designers, nor an attempt to tie the new logo to the city’s new strategic plan. It is also clear that design experts — professionals working every day in this field — were not consulted in choosing the finalists. There was no peer review.
In the world of graphic design, which includes logos and wordmarks, the best logos almost always come from firms that specialize in graphic identities. It’s like any other field — if you want greatness, you enlist specialists in the top tier of talent.
In Guelph, we too often aim low. Mediocrity of civic symbols is a recurrent problem.
Consider the first version of the new city hall. Until there was a public outcry, the former city council proposed that a gigantic City of Guelph crest would stare down onto Carden Street from a blank cement wall. It was Soviet-like. That same council was one vote away from approving an ugly slab-cement parking garage on Baker Street that would have cast us as design morons.
The vital question regarding wordmarks is, “What does a mark tell us consciously and subconsciously?” Like words, logos are communications tools. The best ones say a lot with a little. The two contenders communicate almost nothing, except maybe “small.”
We can do better. Greatness can be achieved. But only if we have the courage to revisit the process.
Here’s how it could work. Create a written design brief that explains clearly what Guelph wants in its wordmark. Base it on the city’s strategy and vision, and require that our logo exemplify the qualities of the world’s greatest logos: depth, resonance, voice. Hire a highly capable firm that specializes in graphic identities to provide up to a dozen options. Then ask a small group of qualified local experts with much experience in esthetics, visual communication, and brand identity, to recommend the winning mark.
And do not settle for anything less than remarkable.
Symbols are important. They can say so much about us. May ours be powerfully eloquent. Please.
Tony Leighton was the founding editor of Applied Arts, Canada’s magazine of graphic design. As a professional copywriter, he works with designers daily.