The taxi livery debacle as a lead in to a broader discussion of the importance of "design" to DC's "brand promise"
Destination Branding for Small Cities (I argue that subdistricts of large cities function like "small cities" so that the general points still obtain). In the interim, the cover story of the December issue of Governing Magazine is on this topic, "Are Municipal Branding Campaigns Worth the Price?."
While I think that the Governing article asks an important question, and yes, a lot of the time branding "campaigns" aren't worth it, the real question we ought to be asking is more fundamental, more about the relevance of branding, brand thinking, and design thinking to questions involved in running, governing, and positioning a city.
It happens that at a presentation about 5 years ago, I misheard the speaker, a professor of graphic design from Iowa State University, who was discussing using graphic design methodologies for conceptualizing and managing commercial district facade improvement programs.
I thought she was talking about using the design method as a way to think about and manage cities and commercial districts.
But it's an important idea and one that I've since discussed from time to time in "Social Marketing the Arlington (and Tower Hamlets and Baltimore" way," "Design as city branding: transit edition," "City (and university) branding: brand deposits; brand withdrawals; brand destruction," Georgetown: A subtle but important difference between branding and identity-positioning," "Identity ≠ branding or Authenticity is the basis of identity," and "All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method."
Along these lines, in the two commercial district revitalization framework plans I've produced (for Cambridge, Maryland and Brunswick, Georgia) I made the point that elected officials and key stakeholders within a community need to think of themselves as "brand managers." This is the text from the Cambridge plan:
Just as the study team believes that “we are all destination managers now,” elected and appointed officials in particular and in association with other community stakeholders serve as a community’s “brand managers”—whether or not they choose to think of their roles in this manner.
That means that decision-making on land use and zoning, business issues, infrastructure development (roads, sewers, water, utilities, transit), technology (broadband Internet, etc.) and quality of place factors (arts, culture, historic preservation and heritage, education, public schools and libraries, etc.) must be consistent and focused on making the right decisions, the decisions that collectively achieve and support the realization of the community’s desired vision and positioning.
DC unveils 4 taxi livery options" from Greater Greater Washington, "Five More Color Schemes for D.C. Taxicabs Unveiled" from DCist) offers another opportunity to consider the issue, this time from the standpoint of managing DC through design and identity, specifically vehicles used for common carrier mobility (taxis, Metrobuses, city-operated buses, streetcars, bike sharing bicycles, etc.).
At first, I was skeptical of the need to have all the city's cabs look the same, but realize from the standpoint of "legibility" that it makes sense.
(Although it's also important to design for simplicity so that the design can be reproduced cost effectively and that it is clear rather than subtle. Relatedly, Alex B. points out in a comment in the GGW posting, the choice of yellow for taxis is over 100 years old, and is widely experienced as the predominate color for taxis in many cities across the country.)
Yellow seems fine to me, but it's reasonable to consider more forward designs, especially as an element of the city's graphical identity.
So while I think that probably the City Council legislating against the designs currently proffered ("D.C. Council may stop taxi color contest; members appalled by choices" from the Post),can be criticized as one more example of micromanaging, it's interesting to think of their concern more broadly as an expression of their role as part of the city's "brand management team."
I'm sure that's not how they're thinking about it though.
And the design method for the taxi livery should have been derived from a more comprehensive process, one that grows out of a brand identity "system" for DC. Not from crowdvoting.
A related issue is the contest underway to create the tagline for DC's streetcar system ("PSA: Propose Your Own Tagline for the D.C. Streetcar and Win Stuff" from the City Paper), which already has a stupid name "One City" derived from the Mayor's election campaign slogans. Taglines, branding, identity systems and the like aren't necessarily improved by crowdsourcing and public campaigns. What if the designs or taglines created suck? Are you stuck with them? cf. the Obama's petition initiative--secession anyone? ("With Stickers, a Petition and Even a Middle Name, Secession Fever Hits Texas" from the New York Times). As pointed out in an article in Main Street News many years ago, branding by committee tends to be a disaster.
When I was in Richmond a couple years ago, I swiped a "design identity system book" for Richmond, produced by the art and design program at Virginia Commonwealth University. See "Can The Old South Rebrand Itself? Richmond Tries, With A Dynamic New Logo" from Fast Company, although recognize that a "logo" is only one element of a brand.
-- RVA Creates campaign
And if you work with campaigns, or sign onto campaigns, it's not unusual for an identity system to be in place, with constraints on how you can use logos and other identification elements.
Were we to develop the concept of brand management for the city, such a document would have to be produced. (This isn't the Richmond item I am thinking about--which is buried somewhere in my files or piles of stuff that need to be filed--but it's comparable.)