EUROPE: Slicker city

This year’s European Cultural Capitals have all commissioned new logos. Adrian Shaughnessy of Intro believes that Rotterdam best exemplifies how graphic design can be used to rebrand a city

Milton Glaser’s famous IkNY logo started one of the hottest trends in modern graphic design. Thanks to Glaser’s famous urban hieroglyphic (perhaps one of the most widely parodied graphic devices ever), no modern city dares to stand before the world without its own “designer logo”.

It’s an odd development, since most cities already have perfectly adequate heraldic emblems that have served them well for centuries. But in a world driven by marketing, spin and hype, a coat of arms is no longer enough. Consequently, we are deluged with zippy logos, created with the intention of boosting trade, tourism and public awareness. These may be desirable aims, and if churning out logos by the yard keeps designers in work and off street corners with begging bowls, then I’m in favour of it. But how many of these marques can we say are any good? How many do we remember?

A torrent of logos-for-cities has been generated by the European Union’s Cultural Capitals initiative. Started in 1985, this brainchild of Greek former culture minister Melina Mercouri aims to “stimulate a lively dialogue between the different cultures of Europe”. Like a baton in a relay race, the title is passed on each year – previous title holders include cities such as Stockholm, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Thessaloníki and Weimar.

In a departure from tradition, two Cultural Capitals have been chosen for 2001: Rotterdam (www.rotterdam01.nl) and Oporto (www. porto2001.pt). Both cities have turned to graphic designers to encapsulate this important year of festivities visually. Oporto’s answer is an entirely conventional Euro-logo – pleasant and innocuous, but lacking the two “Vs”: vitality and versatility. Rotterdam, on the other hand, has produced something absorbing, brave and unpredictable. Not content with creating a mere logo, the city has devised a “house style of Rotterdam 2001”, and considering the traditional brilliance of Dutch graphic design, we should not be surprised that it is a triumph.

To accompany the event, the city has produced a 146pp book (written in Dutch and English) called Identities. This neatly designed volume describes the practical and philosophical journey taken to arrive at the style. It is an interesting and inspiring document, and ought to be read by anyone contemplating commissioning a house style for a city or a festival.

Bert van Meggelen, Rotterdam’s festival organiser, has brought an intellectual rigour to the project not often found in the commissioning of graphic design. For inspiration he turned first to literature. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, van Meggelen found a motto for the project: “Rotterdam is many cities”. This notion of cultural and social diversity provided the momentum for the commissioning of a graphic style for R2001.

A system was developed, similar in style to an architectural competition. Van Meggelen appointed two advisors to oversee the process of compiling a shortlist of suitable designers, and to devise the criteria for selecting a winner. Art historian Hein van Haaren and designer/ artist Gerard Hadders were chosen for this task. These two men put together a shortlist of European designers, who were then invited (and paid) to take part in the competition. Six companies were selected: Atelier de Création Graphique, Paris; Bureau for Tele (communication), Historicity & Mobility, Rotterdam;CDT Design, London; Mevis and Van Deursen, Amsterdam; Proforma, Graphic Design and Consultancy, Rotterdam; and Qwer, Cologne.

A brief was issued to five of the six design groups (CDT declined to take part). Entrants were urged to produce a “(typo)graphic environment”, rather than a single monolithic logo, and to make “something that can be changed, but still offers a consistent foundation in the background, so that the passer-by gets the feeling that it is about the same thing each time”. The organisers also noted the need to avoid creating an identity that appealed only to cultural elites, and pointed out that Rotterdam, the world’s largest port, is a transit city, with a young and ethnically diverse population. All five submissions are reproduced in Identities, and analysed in great detail. But two proposals stand out as manifestly superior to the rest. These are by Atelier de Creation Graphique, and Mevis and Van Deursen, the eventual winners.

At first sight, the French offering appears the richer and more imaginative of the two. However, on closer inspection, the Dutch proposal contains a robustness and a clarity – rule within chaos, in the words of the judges – that distinguishes it from all the others. It’s a remarkable identity.

In the verdict of the Cultural Capitals jury, it is: “Down to earth, practical and can be implemented straight away. It is consistent and recognisable straight away. It is also recognisable because its formal idiom is in line with the modernism that has been dominant in the Netherlands for so long. It is the only submission that is based on a graphic environment, one of the explicit criteria.”

Mevis and van Deursen have indeed created a resonant graphics package for Rotterdam 2001. The consultancy’s dynamic, yet highly controlled use of colour (predominantly black and white with slabs of pink, green, blue), their use of declamatory typography coupled with the subtle deployment of mono-photography, results in a genuinely fluid and ultra-modern visual identity. It should serve as a benchmark for all future urban identity work.

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