Category Archives: design

Hartford Rebranding

Many people, including me, have weighed in on the progress of Cundari’s effort to brand Hartford. Three campaigns with three logo marks were presented, and the feedback seems to be overwhelmingly negative. Comments on Hartford Courant articles aren’t typically worth the pixels they darken, but these include the criticisms I’ve heard most often:

  • Why was a Canadian group hired instead of a local designer?
  • They look like hospital logos.
  • These are generic marks.
  • They don’t do justice to Hartford.
  • They don’t express what Hartford means to me.

Now that I live in Washington DC, I no longer qualify as a local designer. However, I still love the city, have many, many, many friends there and want it to realize its fantastic potential. I’m also deeply interested in graphic and identity design, and the challenge of developing a mark for the city was too appealing to resist. After lots of research on Hartford landmarks, placebrands and the masters of identity creation, I sketched a bunch of ideas and developed a few. Here’s a look at the process:

Unsurprisingly, I quickly honed in on the “H” letterform and what ideas it could incorporate and represent: exclamation points, arrows, hearts, roads, rivers, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. I wanted to come up with a mark that had multiple points of meaning, but I wanted it to be bold and simple. So began an intensive period of experimentation with shapes and negative space. For that, precision and speed were vital, so it made sense to move from paper to the computer. I came up with a few ideas that were encouraging, but I ended up rejecting them for different reasons.

1. Love Hartford.

I went to a Jolie Holland show this week, and one particularly memorable line of stage banter was that “New York City believes its own hype.” This is embodied in its tagline, I ♥ NY. Hartford is maybe the opposite, in a lot of people don’t realize what’s great about it, even if they live in the city. The “Love Hartford” slogan is a command, a wake-up call, and maybe a plea. Implicit in that is a call to action: show that you love Hartford. Do something.

I discarded this idea since it required more than two colors to set off the heart from the trunks of the H, and I couldn’t get it to work to my satisfaction by changing the size and spacing of the elements.

2. Let’s play.

This was really exciting at first. The shadow very subtly creates the “H” and the Soldiers and Sailors Arch in the negative space. Those same elements, with the shorter left leg, also resolve as the body of running child with arms spread wide, while the old crescent moon outlines the child’s upturned head. Ultimately, I decided that it wasn’t bold enough to be a mark for Hartford. Another designer could probably make it work, but I decided to go in a different direction.

3. Historic Hartford.

My desire to create an energetic and propulsive mark led me to to work a lot with upward-pointing arrows, which brought me back to the peaks of the arch, which in turn brought me back to the “H” letterform. That territory is simply too fecund for a literalist, which is what I am. In this logo, the arch and “H” stand out as the most obvious symbols, while the negative space at the bottom echos the top of the mark and suggests a city skyline viewed at 45 degrees. Every arrow points up in this mark, expressing the trajectory of Hartford. The angles also remind me of Gothic Tuscan woodtypes, a callback to the past. I like this mark for its simplicity and boldness, but felt I came up with something better.

Final: Your Hartford.

This is your city. Whatever you contribute to it will be repaid with interest. Once again, we have the “H” and Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Arch as the primary symbols of the city. Within that container, things start to get even more interesting. The upward arrows are again present, but their paths are traced through the negative space in the mark, suggesting the choice and individuality of the “Your Hartford” campaign. The city can be what you want it to be. The elements are also separated into a stylized “y” and “h” to reinforce that tagline. Finally, a slimmer “H” is contained within the larger “H” and stands out in blue with the two-color variation of the mark.

I thoroughly enjoyed working on this project, and I’m happy with the final mark. At the very least, it expresses what Hartford means to me: accessibility, intelligence, sophistication, history, beauty, depth and potential.

Hartford Branding

My erstwhile home, Hartford, is rebranding itself and soliciting feedback on three logo choices designed by Cundari. As a designer who has done client work, I’m a fan of the Paul Rand model, where a mark is meticulously researched, designed and refined by the designer. The presentation goes something like:

“This is your new mark. You’re welcome.”

The success of that model requires a great designer, but it also requires the audience to be receptive to something new, something bold and perhaps something not immediately accessible. I wonder if this climate exists anymore, one in which people are generally open to ideas that don’t immediately align with their preferences. The internet has ushered in an era of personalization; companies have discovered that they can make more money giving each person what he or she wants, whether it’s a particular combination of cream and sugar in a cup of coffee or news with a certain political angle. I think that the more we’re served ideas that we already agree with, the less likely we are to entertain alternate points of view and the less analytical and self-critical we become. This is scary.

It’s probably unsurprising that I prefer the visionary design of an individual, where ideas are gathered and synthesized in the research phase of a project rather than throughout. I just think that crowdsourcing, while at least seeming to be more democratic and utilitarian, ends up literally compromising a vision. To me, great design doesn’t compromise.

All of this won’t stop me from providing my critiques on each of the three proposed designs, especially since they’re asking for feedback. It’s an exciting project and I envy those who were charged with encapsulating the wonderful city of Hartford in a mark. The logos were taking from the Metro Hartford Alliance presentation.

Logo 1: New England’s Rising Star

First, let’s talk about color. There are six here, including the text at the bottom. That’s too many. It’s entirely possible to make an effective design using the entire spectrum of color, but I’m worried that in this case, it’s a lazy shorthand for diversity, vibrancy, etc. that every city wants to be. I think a logo should be specific rather than general, and the colors are entirely forgettable. The strangest choice for me is the odd pumice color of the “Hartford”.

I’m including a grayscale version (that wasn’t included in the presentation), because it’s important to consider every potential usage and there are many instances where full color is not viable. It also makes it easier to focus on the shapes. The star is clear regardless of the color, and if Hartford plans on persisting with its “New England’s Rising Star” slogan, I think it’s a good choice. It’s also the only one of the three marks that uses a symbol that has meaning, rather than the letter “H” as the centerpiece of its design. As others have pointed out, it looks quite similar to the recent Hartford Hospital rebranding.

The lowercase type, in Safran Bold, is another interesting difference from the other logos. It’s less formal, more open, more relaxed and fun. Again, the suitability of this depends on the rest of the marketing campaign, but I think it’s a reasonable choice for this mark, particularly since part of the goal is to make the city attractive for tourism.

Logo 2: Pixelated

Apparently designed for fans of Tetris, there are even more colors in this second mark, which translates very poorly into grayscale. The vibe of this logo seems to be one of sophistication, conveyed by pixels and the rounded type of Platelet Regular. I don’t particularly like the type, which I imagine is meant to balance the hard edges of the mark. I’d rather there be some consistency, with the “H” in “Hartford” be the same shape as those used in the mark.

The arrangement is also curious. Beyond locking together four H’s, the shape doesn’t symbolize anything, nor does the negative space contribute any meaning. Again, it’s somewhat forgettable. I’d love to see a map, or some other symbol of the city rather than something that’s just diagonally symmetrical. Also, I find myself continually hoping one of these will appear.

Logo 3: Leaning Tower

I’ll give Cundari the benefit of the doubt that they weren’t influenced by my Hartford Metro Map logo (a cousin) or Matt Stevens’ April Fools Day rebranding of Home Depot (almost exactly the same thing). There are lots of designs that use the negative space in the “H” as arrow stems, that I’m sure they came up with the idea rather than stealing it. However, the fact that so many people have come up with the same idea and used it means that it’s not new or unique, both of which are important for a mark like this.

The colors are, once again, too numerous, and the type (Trade Gothic?) is uninspired. The stoplight colors (plus blue) also don’t associate well with the arrows. I like compasses and I like the idea that there are many places to go and see in the city, but don’t think this is the answer. And ultimately, the sheer ubiquity of this concept should preempt its usage.

In summary, I think these marks are generally OK, but not good and certainly not great. Though I have no evidence for this, I suspect that the multiple colors were a direct request (demand?) from the client. Each of these would benefit from a more limited color palette, which would in turn require more thinking about how to make the shapes of a potential mark more interesting. Of course, it’s easy to criticize and hard to come up with something better, but I had a lot of fun trying to come up with an alternative logo for the CT Whale, and if I can find the time, I’d love to try to come up with a few ideas for Hartford.

Hartford Museum Passport

I’m thrilled to announce a project that I’ve been working on for the past few months: the Hartford Museum Passport. The passport is designed to be carried by public school children in Hartford, CT and stamped by the city’s museums. At the end of a passport carrier’s visit, each participating museum will stamp and endorse the passport.

Copies of the passport are also available to anyone who backs the project at a significant level.

The goal of the project is to encourage more museum attendance among Hartford’s children and their families, particularly those who wouldn’t otherwise have an interest in visiting the city’s cultural institutions. Please back the project and share it with friends!

Connecticut Metro Map

As a companion piece to the Hartford Metro Map, I put together an imaginary metro system for the entire state of Connecticut in the celebrated Modernist style of Massimo Vignelli. The state is rotated counterclockwise, its contours are smoothed into basic shapes and major cities are nudged to fit along the main southwest to northeast artery, dubbed the Constitution Line. Other corners of the state are served by the Colonial, Nutmeg, Mill and Mystic Lines.

The Connecticut Metro Map is for sale now as a 23″ x 29″ poster through Zazzle, with all proceeds (about $7 per poster) going to Teach For America in Connecticut.

See a larger version here >>

Buy the map here >>

Connecticut Metro Map

Waiting for Superman Dribbble Contest

Waiting for Superman Poster

Want a dribbble invite? Earn it by making the most impressive Waiting for Superman poster and link to it in the comments. Contest will close at 12pm EDT on Friday October 22, 2010.

Waiting for Superman is a wake-up call. The public school system in the United States is failing this country’s children. There are no miracle cures, no quick fixes, no silver bullet solutions. The problem requires attention, involvement and hard work. At every turn, the focus must remain on providing every child with an education, even and especially at the cost of adult comfort and satisfaction. Children must come first, not only in rhetoric but in action.

Please be sure to submit your name and email when commenting so that I can contact the winner.

Art Show at La Paloma Sabanera in Hartford

Quick note for Hartford locals: come celebrate the successful funding of the Hartford Metro Map while enjoying some art and mulled cider at La Paloma Sabanera Coffee House from 5pm – 8:30pm tonight! I’ll be showing some pieces made over the last year, including several from Sea Tea Improv gig posters. Some posters will be for sale and others will be available to order. Every cent from tonight’s sales will go to ConnectiKids, along with all post-printing proceeds from the Hartford Metro Map. See you there!

La Paloma Sabanera Coffee House
405 Capitol Ave.
Hartford, CT 06106

View Larger Map

Hartford Metro Map – The Process

Order a copy of the map at Kickstarter

The Hartford Metro map elides several of my deepest interests: maps, travel, Hartford, urban planning and graphic design. I still stumble across old notebooks with sketches of imaginary maps, Utopian cities with concentric bands zoned commercial, residential, industrial, recreational, infrastructural, etc. The urban models usually feature perfect circles with wide boulevards radiating from vibrant city centers. Like many of my fancies, these sensibilities are indulgently Parisian; I’ve always been big on symmetry.

Paris Metro Stop

Eventually, the realization has come that symmetry is an obvious-but-not-unique mechanism to achieve balance. Interesting graphic design usually employs more complex forms of balance that I’m just starting to recognize and incorporate into my own work. To this end, grids and visual design concepts, like the rule of thirds, have helped immensely.

Imposing balance on something organic and seemingly chaotic is both challenging and fulfilling. Hartford is clearly not a circle. Its roads aren’t perpendicular. Its neighborhoods aren’t neatly bounded. Its river doesn’t run at 45 degree angles. But through a map, those irregularities can ironed out. Particularly in a metro map, the cartographer has license to compress, expand or otherwise warp distance and geography to accommodate the purpose of the finished product: as an aid to quickly and easily navigate the transportation system.

In the Hartford Metro map, I had the extra benefit of being able to place my own stations, which was the logical starting point. Hours of poring over a gigantic Google Maps screenshot of Greater Hartford helped me decide on most of the station locations. Reading Hartford blogs and discussions with friends gave me other ideas. As the map began to take shape, a few other stops emerged that seemed to make sense.

Hfd Google Map

Hartford not being particularly large, it made sense to extend the network beyond the city limits. This allowed me to include many more stops, making the map fuller and more interesting. It also kept it more plausible than it would have been if I had put stations every hundred yards within the city. There are only a few stops that were somewhat shoehorned in, namely Hockanum, Trout Brook and Westmoor Park.

Hartford Metro Line Draft

To me, the biggest existing problem with Hartford’s public transit is the disconnect between the downtown area and the West End. I-84 effectively cleaves the city in half, both a physical barrier and a symbol representing the dominance of the car as the preferred method of transportation here (though Hartford bicycles seem to be on the rise). The twin hubs of State House (downtown) and West End (in the West End) admit the dual “centers” of the city. Still, with only one stop in between, the areas are well-connected by rail.

The inclusion of several schools (M.C.C., Trinity, UHart, UConn-Hfd/SJC) reflects the importance of affordable transport for Ramen-subsisting college students, giving them access to explore and contribute to all areas of the city. The Buckland Hills and UConn Health Center stops were placed to create a link between me and my friends, Dan and Marta, in Farmington and thus obviate the need to get in a car.

With the most necessary stations selected, connecting them provided the next challenge. Strong north/south and east/west axes were fundamental, providing a functional and aesthetically pleasing backbone to the map. The lines needed to accommodate easy travel within the city and extended service to its suburbs, suggesting a loop in the middle with lines radiating outward.

Draft of Hartford Metro Map

The orange line, my personal favorite, was tasked with running down Farmington Avenue to link downtown with the West End and West Hartford. Much of the map looks to Harry Beck’s iconic London Underground map for inspiration, and the idea of a downtown loop (Yellow Line) was one product of that. The Red Line was designed to connect the north and south ends of the city, filling a gap left by the downtown loop.

Running NW to SE are the Blue and Brown lines, providing downtown access to those on the fringes of the city. From SW to NE, the Green Line offers a route to the airport, while the Gray Line connects Hartford to both Boston and New Haven, or The Rest of the World.

Hartford Metro Timetables

With only seven lines, colors seemed the most appropriate nomenclature (as opposed to numbers or letters), though I did also number the lines. This was mainly a nod to the Paris Metro, which I studied extensively in Paris Metro Style: In Map and Station Design, and simply because I like the way numbers look in circles.

Graphic Elements
Harry Beck famously made a map for the Paris Metro that employed his signature axises and 45 degree angles. He also stylized the Seine. He apparently didn’t appreciate Parisians’ fierce pride in the geography of their city and their river, because they wholeheartedly rejected his map. I hope Hartfordians are less fanatical about how the Connecticut River is represented, because I think the stylized version adds quite a lot to the Hartford Metro map in terms of color, shape and balance.

CT River

My previous experiments in logo design and using negative space haven’t been hugely successful. Naturally, that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm and conviction that an imaginary metro map would certainly be branded with the system logo. Such details are the difference between raw and polished. Aesthetically, I love the simplicity of some of the old Parisian logos (sensing a theme here?) with a slab serif “M” in a circle. However, I wanted my logo to be original, and incorporate an “H” to reinforce the “Hartford-ness” of this particular metro system. With the H&M combo, it didn’t take long to see that there was an opportunity to put some arrows in the negative space.

Hartford Metro Logo Sketches

By itself, I actually prefer the version with just the vertical arrows to the one where the diamond is completed. In the interest of legibility, though, it made sense to go with the latter.

Hartford Metro Logos

System Fares and Hours of Operation
It was important that the Metro be cheap in order to cement its place as the preferred method of intracity transit. It was equally important that it be a flat-fee system, which makes journey planning easier and prevents coin-related entropy. Paying $2 to get to Boston or BDL would’ve been a bit outrageous, and thus was born the State Departure Surcharge. Calling it a “surcharge” instead of a tax satisfied me more than it should have done. To me, that sort of spin-doctoring gives the map a bit more humanity.

My initial idea was to generate complete timetables for every stop on every line. That would’ve taken far too long and wouldn’t have fit on the map anyhow. As it was, the Hours of Operation had to be set in very small type.

Map Design Rules I Obeyed
– Use a consistent typeface. I chose Gotham Condensed: clean, legible, narrow, civic.
– Type shouldn’t be kerned or sized inconsistently in order to fit text into the map.
– Station names should be close enough to clearly indicate which station it is referring to.
– Station names shouldn’t crash over lines.
– Station names should be on the same side of line when possible.
– Lines should run horizontal, vertical and at no more than one other angle (45 degrees looks cleanest).

Map Design Rules I Disobeyed
– Lines shouldn’t change direction under stations.
– Lines shouldn’t change direction unless necessary.

While I think the finished product looks good, it was the experience in overcoming design challenges and the sheer enjoyment of working on the map made this project so rewarding. You can get a 27″ x 16.5″ print and support ConnectiKids by pledging $25 on Kickstarter.

Hartford Metro Map

I just completed an imaginary Hartford Metro map and am currently exploring printing options. At this point, it looks like a run of about 100 prints, 27″ x 16.5″ on heavy paper with a matte finish.

The price point hasn’t yet been set, but all proceeds will go to ConnectiKids, a Hartford-based “independent, non-profit youth development agency whose mission is to connect kids in Hartford to their potential by providing year-round enrichment opportunities linked directly to school curricula, taking a holistic approach to youth development, and exposing kids to role models who inspire positive choices and big dreams.”

In the coming days, I’ll be preparing a process post, where I detail the evolution of the project including station selection, line layout and timetable development while discussing the various design choices made along the way.

UPDATE: You can order your copy here:

Interview With Myself

Wherein I answer questions asked by me.


Q: Where are you getting your inspiration for the type of things you’re working on now?

A: In my latest stuff, I’ve been trying to achieve the kind of aesthetic found in Little Golden Books; I love the saturated colors and rough textures of those drawings. There’s a fascinating mix of simplicity and complexity in those images. Plus they have more than a whiff of nostalgia, which I can’t really resist.

Q: What parts of your work are you dissatisfied with?

A: Originality has become more important to me, particularly in terms of the materials I use. It’s the main reason I’ve begun moving away from photographic stuff (especially photos taken by others) and towards hand-drawn things. To me, the work I’ve entirely entirely from scratch is more fulfilling. I also think I’m better at it than photography or collage.

Q: What skills would you most like to gain or improve?

A: I’m actually pretty pleased with how my Photoshop skills are progressing (advice to aspiring designers: learn how to use the pen tool!), though obviously I’d like to get better. Understanding and creating color palettes are areas where I could definitely stand to improve. More generally I’d really like to be able to play music better. My friends and I meet fairly regularly to play together and it would be nice to be able to contribute a little more complexity and variety to proceedings.

Q: Speaking of music, what are you listening to right now?

A: A lot of folksy stuff (Department of Eagles, Tom Brosseau, Beach House) and also a lot of more electronic things (Phantogram, Miike Snow, Dan Deacon). Both types of music are different, but I find them equally good for a work soundtrack. Naturally, I also listen to the music my friends and I have made.

Q: What projects are you working on now?

A: I’ve actually just made a spreadsheet to track them all because the sheer number demanded organization. I’ve got 18 different projects to work on. Most are posters, but there is also a board game, some video things, some music things, some architectural things, some events and a few others that I can’t say too much about right now. I’ve been fortunate to do stuff for CT comedy troupes & Mark Twain House and there are plenty of other irons in the fire!

Maybe my favorite part about all of this is working with friends. They’re a fantastically smart, talented and interesting group of people and it’s thrilling to be able to collaborate with them on stuff.

Q: Any insufferable, curmudgeonly final words?

A: Yes, actually. Turn off the TV and do something. It’s more fun and energizing to create than to consume.