Design is everything. Everything! —Paul Rand
Is the solution to San Diego’s many problems a new logo?
Not likely. But that hasn’t stopped city leaders from embarking on a new visual path, one that will relegate the city seal back to its official documentstamp status. In its stead comes a more modern emblem vetted over months that Mayor Kevin Faulconer hopes positions San Diego as a “world-class city for all.”
Faulconer, whose background is steeped in public relations, has indeed taken some shots during his tenure—including in this column—about his penchant for repeated symbolic, rather than bold, pronouncements.
Last week, the usually supportive San Diego Union-Tribune ran a story about a new website the city has launched, called Inside San Diego (InsideSanDiego.org). “The city of San Diego has become the latest local government to put its communication staff to work posting positive ‘news’ stories on a website that resembles an independent media outlet,” the story read, noting that it was part of a trend among government agencies of “bypassing or even replacing the media in the digital age.”
An accompanying poll asking the question “Should tax dollars be paying for ‘news’ stories and videos produced by the government?” was running two-to-one against the idea among readers by Tuesday.
Busted streets, sinkholes, shaggy palm trees and crumbling parks aside, this would appear to be a problem of perception from the re-election-minded mayor, who we learned this week might be facing a known competitor in the guise of former Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña in the upcoming June primary.
And yet the mayor pushes on with affairs of the PR heart. In a Jan. 19 memo to all city employees, Faulconer’s right-hand man, Chief Operating Officer Scott Chadwick, issued what he called a “new city style guide and correspondence manual” that are “mandatory moving forward.”
“This is an exciting new direction for the city,” Chadwick wrote in the email. “It will be with your cooperation that we can show San Diegans how we are coming together to build a world-class city for all.” The goal: “creating one, unified voice for the City of San Diego,” he added.
The 82 pages are replete with mind-numbing details on the genesis of the new logo, which features two orange and green swooshes meant to resemble sails, its proper use and accepted variations, as well as appropriate means to produce city documents, much of it pulled from Merriam- Webster’s Secretarial Handbook.
The response has been mixed. As one City Hall occupant noted snarkily, “Big Brother telling us what font to use.”
But talk to the folks responsible for disseminating the new design dictums from the spacious confines of City Hall’s fourth floor, and you’ll get a different take.
Bill Harris, the city’s supervising public-information officer whose days wandering the halls at 202 C Street date back to 1980, told Spin Cycle that the city’s “graphic identity” had become confusing after departments began developing their own brands, including a variety of logos.
“It wasn’t a bad thing, but there was no guidance,” Harris said Monday while giving Spin a tour of the fourth floor, now the Communications Department— or “CommD,” as its referred to by employees—that once housed the city’s planning functions and at one time was to become, under former Mayor Bob Filner, the Civic Innovation Lab, a solution-focused organization the Faulconer administration disbanded.
While the mayor’s banquet of spokespeople focus on policy issues, the CommD is the information clearinghouse for city operations. Public information officers, once scattered throughout the city depending on the departments they represented, now collaborate under one roof.
“The new logo is not meant to fix the streets,” Harris said, but over time departments started to create their own identities. “It’s just human nature,” he explained.
But Faulconer had a different idea.
“He said, no look, we’re San Diego. We’re not all these parts— we’re a city,” Harris said. “And so he’s created—and we’re helping to disseminate—a graphic identity that says, ‘This is the city of San Diego.’”
But the question remains, will this have its intended effect? Spin reached out to John Ball, who’s been a graphic designer in San Diego for 30 years and serves as creative director for the award-winning firm, MiresBall. Ball’s assessment of the logo was lukewarm at best.
“While I applaud the effort to unify San Diego under one visual identity, capturing the essence of any modern city is a tall order,” he wrote in an email. “In my opinion, the new logo is very generic, and feels like it over-weights the tourism aspect of San Diego. There is so much more to our city besides the sun and surf that the logo suggests.”
Added Ball: “The new design reinforces the one-dimensional stereotype that many, especially outside the region, have of San Diego, and in that sense is a missed opportunity. Good brand design can help shape perception, and I think our region has more to offer.”
The city’s new “Visual Style Guide” would heartily disagree, apparently. “The logo is at the core of the city’s values,” the guide states. “The ‘O’ represents a central point of origin, a rally point for all residents to share in common. The ‘Sails’ wrapping around the ‘O’ symbolize the geography and amenities that only San Diego can offer the community.”
“The design language in this document is the primary tool for the City of San Diego to communicate. The face of this communication is the logo,” the guide added.
Harris said he’s certain there will be many opinions of the new visuals, but as he noted from his “long and curmudgeonly career” perspective, the logo “for the first time incorporates a modern sense using colors that are familiar to people who live and work here.”
When Spin, however, noted that the “sails” were a natural coming from a mayor who’s an avid skipper and member of the San Diego Yacht Club, Harris laughed: “I hadn’t thought of that. That’s pretty funny. But I bet we could look out a window right now and see a sail somewhere.”