In 2014, Order Design Partner Hamish Smyth created a logo for a project that at the time was just a seed of an idea in the mind of Meg Daly. Months before, Daly, an entrepreneur in Miami as well as being the mother of Smyth’s partner had the idea for an ambitious project she was calling GreenLink—a 10 mile linear park underneath Miami’s Metrorail system that would support public art, recreation, and active transportation. Smyth agreed to do the branding work pro bono, as long as Daly changed the name of the project. For the renamed The Underline, he designed a bold, white sans-serif wordmark with a black railroad line (an “overline”) hovering above it. The logo is set against a distinctive Miami-inspired shade of green.
Smyth brought to the project an understanding of the role branding and design can play in civic and public space work. As an alum of Pentagram, he worked closely with Michael Beirut on a host of place-centered branding and environmental signage projects including on the initial identity for Governor’s Island and designing the WalkNYC pedestrian wayfinding system for NYC’s Department of Transportation. The Underline, while still just an idea at the time, felt equally transformative in both vision and scale. “At the time, we were putting the idea into the public so we wanted it to feel bigger than it was,” Smyth says. “With branding it’s a bit of a trick where you can make a small-one person operation feel like an established thing by using design.” Seven years later, the project has garnered more than $120 million in funding, and the first section of The Underline is set to open to the public this month.
“With branding it’s a bit of a trick where you can make a small-one person operation feel like an established thing by using design.”
Nearly a thousand miles away in Jackson, Miss., the co-founders of Carbon Office, an urban design and creative placemaking studio, have been working to secure support for the city’s own multi-use urban landscape project, Museum Trail. Taking a page from The Underline’s playbook, the Carbon team opted for a bright signature color—“Carbon teal”—to brand the project, along with a signature arrow mark and iconography. Museum Trail is currently working to add partners from the private and philanthropic sectors, as well as across local, state, and federal government to get the remaining 3.1 miles of the project funded (Museum Trail is one of a number of ambitious projects that is optimistic in finding support from Pete Buttiegieg’s Department of Transportation).
For public projects in the concept and development stage, polished branding is critical for building community support and investor buy-in. It’s also a way for residents to more fully imagine what these projects might someday look like and what role they could play in their cities. By embracing the same branding principles associated with startups and corporations, public spaces have started to position themselves as both destinations and consumable experiences.
Many public space branding systems draw on the legacy of The High Line, the seminal elevated rails to trails project that snakes through Manhattan’s west side neighborhoods. The High Line marked a turning point in how we understand and use public space. It also changed what we expect those spaces to look like. For the project, landscape architects James Corner Field Operations (the same firm leading The Underline), worked closely with Paula Scher and her team at Pentagram to come up with a comprehensive signage and environmental graphics system. And just last week, a new project in London referring to itself as “the UK’s own Highline” announced James Corner and Pentagram as the design partners for the initiative. Like its New York counterpart, the Camden Highline is also looking to transform a section of disused rail infrastructure into a walkable, elevated greenway.
Since the opening of the first section of the High Line in 2009, ambitious landscape infrastructure, linear park, and large scale public space projects can now be found either completed or in development in many cities across America, including Austin, Texas, Washington D.C., Tulsa, Okla., Indianapolis, Ind., New Orleans, La., Memphis, Tenn., Chicago, Philadelphia, and Lexington, Ky. In 2017, The High Line, recognizing this theme as well as wanting to rectify the less positive unintended impacts of these projects around gentrification, formed the High Line Network.
The High Line established a new kind of urban design typology as well as changed the way these public parks are managed as semi-public, semi-private spaces in a city. The High Line is managed by the Friends of the High Line, a 501c3 nonprofit associated with, but distinct from, the City of New York that led the original development and design process for the project, and that continues to be responsible for the ongoing fundraising, operations and maintenance of the park. This model has expanded the pool of stakeholders and constituents for this work as these conservancies opt for a mix of fundraising across public funding, private funding, programming, and earned revenue. And while these spaces are more adored and utilized than ever during the pandemic, these projects may become increasingly reliant on private sources of funding as city budgets remain a question mark in its aftermath.
Leslie Koch, the former president and CEO of the Trust for Governors Island who was responsible for overseeing the transformation of the disused 172-acre former military site, points to the rise of the conservancy model of parks funding, ownership and management over the past 25 years as a turning point in how parks and public space are branded. Prior to that time, city parks and recreation departments were solely responsible for developing and managing parks. This was the era of the recognizable but uninspiring green and brown signage with sans-serif type. ‘‘Before, there was the maple leaf of City Parks New York,” she says. “It wasn’t about identity but was about function and simple wayfinding, like where to find the bathroom. Or signage was focused on regulation, prohibited activity and what you’re not allowed to do there.”
Like the consumer goods that this visual design approach is evocative of, the organizations that govern these public spaces face funding imperatives in order to survive: They must draw in newer and more diverse audiences, (in normal times) sell concessions and tickets to events, and bring on sponsors and partners who want to be associated with what these public spaces offer. Having appealing, marketable branding is an important tool for meeting those financial goals.
Now you can find certain aesthetic hallmarks across these new projects. The use of friendly, legible typefaces like Proxima Nova and Circula, juxtaposed with bright and varied, high-contrast color palettes, and handmade-feeling abstract illustrations and shapes woven throughout. All of this is designed to invoke a sense of “variety, plurality, and inclusivity,” says Laura Stein of strategic design studio Bruce Mau. Stein and her team have led the design of Waterloo Greenway in Austin as well as rebranding projects for public space and parks-adjacent consultancy and landscape designers Sasaki and Project for Public Spaces.
These flexible identity systems and design toolkits have been designed to perform as “a swiss army knife” as Salam Rida of Carbon Office describes it. The branding needs to work across in-person signage, maps and others forms of wayfinding, as well as marketing materials, murals, merchandise (tote bags, water bottles, bandanas), across social media and digital platforms, and to be used in community and stakeholder engagement through presentations and other public-facing forms and documents. As Smyth puts it: “We try to have enough different design elements where you can make various combinations and have enough flexibility to be able to remix those parts into various recipes.”
In addition to being used to bring in support from senior funders and stakeholders, a vital function of these identity systems is building trust and affinity with their most important constituents—the communities they’re actually serving. As Koch discovered in the development of Governors Island, every design touchpoint is an opportunity to make people feel more or less welcome in that space. “Every sign—and the height of every sign—every color, every single design choice is a signal to people and has the opportunity to resonate with people and says something about who is welcome there. Nothing is neutral. Everything is intentional.” Echoing this, Stein says, “Regarding accessibility, we are always asking: Does it feel welcoming and optimistic and like it’s rooted in that specific place?”
“Every sign, every color, every single design choice is a signal to people and has the opportunity to resonate with people and says something about who is welcome there.”
For Bruce Mau Design, this requires an extensive research and community engagement process before they even touch visual design. The design team will look at the spaces and communities they’re designing for through the different lenses that make up that place—geography, local culture and people who already live there, history, and political dynamics. “It’s like a Russian doll of cultures to unpack in understanding the place you’re designing for,” Stein says.
Ultimately, these spaces play an important social and public role in our cities. But it’s hard to ignore the creeping influence of private interests in the public sphere when the branding outright encourages it. Ensuring branding efforts remain in the service of communities requires that project organizers and designers go beyond the surface of creating something that looks good across collateral. Design can, and should, help to create systems that allow public spaces to be more easily accessible and transparent for anyone who wants to be involved. As Professor John Caserta of the Rhode Island School of Design considers it, “Designers should be asking themselves, are there subtler values driven moves in their palette beyond graphic design’s normal domain?” he says. “Beyond marking and marketing the spaces, are there design-led systems that could be created to allow for easy permitting for citizen lead events? Design plays a part in encouraging use as well as in making sense of public places.”