Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The taxi livery debacle as a lead in to a broader discussion of the importance of "design" to DC's "brand promise"

It's gonna take awhile, but I intend to do a long piece on cities, branding, and design, sparked by the book 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.

The outcry "against" various proposals for DC taxicab livery ("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.

Left: garbage truck treated to the new RVA logo.  Local government vehicles are usually underutilized when it comes to communicating brand and other messages.  (DC WASA does have the DC Water logo and "water is life" campaign, and DDOT, the transportation department, uses d. as their logo.)

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.)

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At 10:19 AM, Anonymous Alex B. said...

I'll just add this: not everything needs to be a brand opportunity.

Fire trucks are red. We expect fire trucks to be red.

Do a google image search for police cars, and you'll see all sorts of combinations that are either black and white or blue and white.

Do a google image seach for 'taxi cab' and you'll get pages and pages of nothing-but-yellow results.

Some things are just social norms that we're better off embracing rather than trying to re-brand. Some has been encoded in our laws - like traffic control devices. Construction signs and traffic cones are orange, etc.

At 11:05 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Somewhere in my photo archives I have a picture of the amazing beautiful garbage bags of Brugges. Now that is design!

In fact that is where I was hoping Richard was going with this, rather than the city "branding" campaigns. I have no doubt that nobody visiting washington goes home with pictures of the pretty circulator buses (and they are nice).

Alex, I wish you applied that logic to the strange left turns on the L st bike lanes -- clearly part of the problem is just confusion over norms.

In terms of cab, a beter solution would be the enable the class of a higher taxi cab (nicer, newer cars, credit cards, online apps, etc) at a higher price point and then brand those in red. Then let the other remain if so. I must be unsual in that the problem I have with cabs in DC is they are too expensive.

At 11:11 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Well I kinda agree with Alex B about taxis vs. design. The long entry if I ever get to it is using design methods as a key element for envisioning a city. In that sense, how cabs look could be an element of that. Or you can say some things just aren't worth doing because the "market development" costs involved in going against the grain just aren't worth the expense and the likelihood of failure in terms of ever succeeding.

At 11:24 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

charlie, wrt your comment about higher priced services, I 100% agree. Uber should be allowed, but they should have to have a published, standard rate schedule, just like other "common carrier" services.

At 1:44 PM, Anonymous Aimmie Nammy said...

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