Branding and signage are essential aspects of any successful urban environment. The above painting by Jean Beraud, 1882 shows one of the famous Paris kiosks which not only provided advertising space in a newly urbane and consumer society, but provided a strong Parisian brand: when you see this kiosk, you think “Paris street.” Birmingham has not done a good job branding itself–a pity since there are talented graphic designers here, and places worth branding. Reflecting the fact that the city as a whole has struggled with how to project its own image, we are often disappointed by the lack of good, local public-sphere branding around here. This past couple weeks have brought a few examples to the fore.
First, a couple items that were denied at Design Review Committee last week. The above is a proposed 15 x 20 foot banner (that’s big) to be located on the alley elevation of John’s City Diner on Richard Arrington Blvd. North, advertising the services of City Action Partnership, or CAP. This great organization provides supplemental security and motorist assistance to downtowners–and has certainly been instrumental in making the downtown core one of the safest neighborhoods in the metro. Advantage Marketing presented this design to advertise CAP–but it was sent back to the drawing board for being too incoherent for the average person to understand. The image is confusing; the “Big Wheels” seems to be advertising something else altogether; the font sizes aren’t balanced, etc. CAP does too great a public service; it deserves better design to communicate their mission. And the public deserves something much better to look at.
Next up in the denial section was the above–a proposed new illuminated sign at the corner pier of Two North Twentieth, the former Bank for Savings Building at the corner of Morris Avenue and 20th St. North. This iconic building from 1962 is the City’s most prominent example of International Style architecture, following in the footsteps of the groundbreaking Lever House on Park Avenue in New York (1952), and a decade of countless copies across the nation (and world). It has never had any signage identifying the building near ground level (many know it from it’s giant, illuminated advertising marquee on the roof). Not only is the proposed signage uninspired, but it doesn’t even match the building’s logo (itself a tepid, uninspired moniker): “20th” is not spelled out like “Twentieth” which is the actual name. The committee sent this one back to the drawing board too. I hope that a cool, illuminated, and creative solution that works with the rhythm of the concrete panels on the second floor can be devised. This building and this corner need good signage, not haphazard non-design.
A different kind of mismatch is found at the approach to Railroad Park, where recently banners announcing the Five Points South neighborhood went up. Yes, the Five Points neighborhood stretches all the way north to the railroad tracks. But as a tourist destination and mental construct, Five Points is the area directly around Five Points Circle. It is confusing to say the least, to see these banners when one leaves the new Railroad Park–whose immediate neighborhood has already been envisioned as a distinct entity for redevelopment and marketing purposes (tentatively called Parkside). Showing these banners a dozen blocks away from Five Points Circle is not the right way to go. We should be developing a final name and logo for Parkside (contest, anyone?) and putting those banners up. They can even say in smaller print “part of the greater Five Points Neighborhood” if necessary. Of all areas, this location needs more focused branding, not territorial marking. The money for Five Points banners should be spent on kiosks or other needed items near the Circle itself.
[Sidebar: right across the railroad tracks the Fountain Heights neighborhood extends all the way from the bungalows north of downtown south to the edge of Railroad Park. But does anyone really consider, besides City committees and attorneys, McWane Center to be part of Fountain Heights? Of course not, it's in central downtown and desperately needs its own sub-neighborhood brand.]
Which brings us to our last comment: just like the new neighborhood around Railroad Park that deserves its own brand, other parts of central downtown are long overdue for the same. Other cities large and small–from Portland to Austin to little ol’ Mobile–have branded neighborhoods downtown to great effect: banners and publications use the logos, people say “I’m headed down to —” or “great new lofts are opening in —”. Here all we get is a vague “downtown” or “loft district”–fairly indistinct terms. Just look at what passes for branding in the so-called “loft district” above–signs put up perhaps in the early 1990′s which, in a classic branding nightmare, state “Historic District” with the words “Arts” “Business” and Lofts” interchangeably used on different faces. Which Historic District? Business??? Really? These terms are meaningless. The 2nd Avenue sub-district needs boundaries, a logo, and a name. Downtown should be sectioned off so that lofts east and north of Morris are in NoMo; those west of 20th are in West Central, etc. I am just making up these names–branding experts do this sort of thing much better and all the time. We need to make it happen soon.
Whether neighborhood or building signage, this City needs to demand better branding. It’s one of those things that you take for granted until you see how much sharper it can be in travels to different cities. We have the local talent. There are great examples around of their work. We just need much more. Employ them!
Stay tuned for a post on some of the great public-sphere signage that we do have around here.
[thanks to mbell1975 for the Paris kiosk pic]