Oh, London

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Unless you’ve been sleeping under a stone for the last few weeks, you’ll have struggled to ignore the fact that Our Great City of London (or the Greater London Authority and its Mayor, to be precise) have decided the time is ripe for a re-brand. It’s been holding a highly controversial public tender – with the Olympics looming, it seems there’s a desire for a unified visual approach for the city.

The whole ‘˜brand’ for London issue was probably kicked off by the various ‘˜ON’ variants introduced by previous Mayor Ken Livingston. Which was then confused further by Visit London’s own variant on the theme (they’re the tourist ‘˜bit’, in case you’re wondering).

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In the early noughties there was meant to be an overarching ‘˜brand idea’ (courtesy of Interbrand) which became known as ‘˜London Unlimited’ and involved some fairly standard stock shots and slightly dodgy kaleidoscope graphics that no-one wanted to use. So no-one did.

In the meantime, Film London was done, Visit London was done by Wolff Olins…

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‘¦and johnson banks and Circus did the inward investment arm which was re-named Think London.

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Put all the elements together, and yes they were disparate. And a bit confusing. So another attempt was made in 2006/7, this time by Wolff Olins, to bring the ‘˜essence’ of London together, and a thought based on ‘˜London: Planet City’ was presented, but never adopted.

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In the meantime, Visit London (courtesy of Saffron) adopted some nicely centred Akzidenz (as you do), and apparently tried and failed to persuade the other players to adopt the same livery. Maybe they were asking ‘˜why Akzidenz?’, who knows.

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Step back from London (and typography) for a minute and you can understand why one of the world’s greatest cities would want a coherent, strong, central brand. After all, look what Amsterdam did – they removed 55 separate department logos and replaced it all with the three crosses of the city flag.

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Very nicely done. A round of applause for our orange friends, and their designers, Thonik. (Although it was almost immediately confused by this I Amsterdam work, but that’s besides the point).

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Just as ‘˜I love New York’ will continually complicate any attempt by New York to rebrand (ie there’s a famous symbol there that isn’t going away), any attempt by ‘˜London’ to change its spots faces an immovable, immutable object with a century old back-story – the London Transport Roundel. No-one with any brains is going to change that. It sums up ‘˜Transport in London’, yes, but it currently sums up ‘˜London’ as well.

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Add to that the furore concerning the London Olympic logo, and any attempt to draw those nice, neat, clean up slides that brand consultants like to do is immediately buggered.

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You can propose all manner of smart symbolic devices to draw together parts of the equation, but some significant parts aren’t going to re-brand. Cue messy diagram.

Anyway, back to the pitch. The bit that’s got everyone talking is that the GLA, in their own sweet way wanted people to wade through a massive tender questionnaire, write some pithy words on the issues, and oh, yes, chuck a few scribbles in while you’re at it.

The legal, ISO-thirty-three-thousand-and-thirty-one tender stuff in current UK tenders is tricky enough. Add in the ‘˜how multi-racial is your workforce’ questions, then theΒ  ‘˜please tell us the sexual preferences of your designers’ stuff and tempers start to fray and evenings lengthen. But apart from assessing exactly what sexual habits have to do with logo-design, anyone left with an ounce of self-esteem is left with a very ethical conundrum – ‘˜yes I want to have a shot at London’s logo, but do I really want to be giving ideas away for free?’

At johnson banks, our route through these tricky waters was to write the obligatory pithy document, but rather than show any designs per se, we showed a few brief diagrams then concluded that actually, perhaps they should consider this?

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(Yes, of course, we’re being biased, but we’re always being told it would make a great logo for the city so we thought we’d propose it).

Unsurprisingly this, er, single-minded approach has gone down like a proverbial lead balloon, and no we haven’t been asked to go any further. No surprise there then. Several notable figures such as Martin Lambie-Nairn have already denounced the whole thing, and many people have rightly queried whether chucking a few hasty scribbles in a document is really the right way to go about this, or indeed even remotely professional.

One brave/reckless/misguided/inspired (choose your own adjective) approach came from Moving Brands who set up a public website for this public tender. They’ve also been shown the door, which, considering the amount of work they did, was probably quite gutting.

The issue here isn’t so much who will be selected (the pain of the process means only the larger groups have the firepower to get through the tender requirements), the issue is what will be chosen. We know that the London Olympic bid logo free pitch was a fatally flawed process: remember, from 1100 applicants that included this’¦Β Β 

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‘¦they could only choose this.

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The ‘˜real’ 2012 involved proper presentations from proper companies, but there seems to be a feeling at the GLA that someone somewhere got bounced into the final Olympics logo, and the hoo-hah that came with its launch was perhaps undesirable.There’s a view that this time around, real Londoners should be involved, or at least have a say.

How the ‘˜public engagement’ part of this project will manifest itself is yet to be seen. Any attempt at further ‘˜free’ or ‘˜public’ designs will only result in more mockery and/or accusations of crowd-sourcing on the grandest of scales. Only the briefest of skims through the entries so far to Moving Brands self-initiated competition reveals just how scary design can get when placed in the hands of the public.

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What can we conclude from this? That buying big design projects in this country continues to be completely inept? Maybe. That the chances of London getting a decent logo are pretty slim? Perhaps. That London already has its unofficial logo, and that’s the famous roundel? Probably.

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Maybe we’ll get a logo straight out of ‘˜brushstroke central’, the universally accepted design approach for tourist brands.

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But here’s the best bit. When is the logo needed for?

The first of November.

So that’s 7 weeks to consult, engage the public, design and implement a highly controversial brand that will have to co-exist with the TfL roundel and the Olympic mark, whilst gluing together all the other, disparate organisations? Oh, London, what have you done’¦