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.

20 thoughts on “Hartford Branding”

  1. i agree with almost everything you say here, good post. i don’t think they’re really crowdsourcing this, though. rather, they are doing a public feedback approach, which i think can be good. i do like the rand model of identity design myself, since it requires a deep understanding and a high degree of confidence once a direction has been chosen as the strongest.

    i think all of these designs lack that confidence, and i would go further than you and say that they are all bad. it’s unfortunate that a large advertising/communications agency like cundari would produce such lackluster work. the impression i get is that they just didn’t have much time to work on this, or they put the most junior designers on it, and were like, “eh, that’s good enough”.

    what i don’t see in any of these designs is anything about hartford. there’s no grit, there’s no detail that speaks of the architecture or history, there’s very little character at all. they look like standard corporate logo fare that is cold and impersonal but made up to be warm and inviting by painting it with fun colors. that’s why they all look like hospital or healthcare logos to me.

    i know this is the initial concept phase, but if i were the client i’d throw them all out and tell them to come back with something they really believe in, and tell my why it’s great. i’d much rather have seen the branding directions as copy only – just focus on the content and ideas. then pick one and build a great visual identity on that. the problem here is that they probably have one they like best, but it’s industry standard to present options like this and pretend they are all equally strong, even though at least one of the three (probably two) didn’t get as much attention or enthusiasm.

    i hope they are bold enough to recognize this work as simply stuff you need to get out of the system on your way to a really great solution. that will free them to go deeper and come up with something that can reflect the city and represent it proudly.

  2. Great points, River.

    I had a little argument with myself about whether this qualifies as crowdsourcing, and decided it does since the design isn’t done, but could/will incorporate public feedback. As I said, it’s possible that the designers may not have been given a free hand to craft something that’s more of a departure from the neutered options here. “Lacking confidence” is a great way to describe these efforts.

  3. Great rundown of the proposals. It just occurred to me that the “H” with arrows might just be a diagram of Hartford at 5PM on a weekday, with everyone running from the H in all directions.

  4. Nice post and summary of the logo directions. I’m surprised by how similar they all seem, but after reading this morning’s presentation I understand better what the conceptual directions are supposed to involve. They fall short of what Hartford means to me and its great nickname, the Hartbeat, at the center of the state, where so many great things intersect. But the concepts are meant to sell something, I guess, and some things can’t be bought, so here we are focusing on the attraction of live events. Okay, so, parameters.

    How do these marks reflect live events, or attraction? They don’t hold meaning or elicit thoughts of a place. I think the iQuilt-related firm Suisman Urban Design actually did a much better job brainstorming ways an H could be used (if it must come to that):


    Particularly interesting to me would be the use of the Soldiers & Sailors arch, simplified, as an H, as you can see in the last example in the image. It references history, a real location, and it’s graceful. What do these other H forms offer?

    I think the design team isn’t quite sure what they are driving for. I agree that it would be better to show just one direction that they feel confident is the right one. The concepts are interesting, and the mosaic concept has some appeal, but is that going to draw an audience to live events? Great to have the discussion, at this point, but I’m also concerned about this relatively weak visual display.

    Brian, I’d love to see what you can come up with.

  5. Brian, wholeheartedly agree with your comments. My initial reaction to these logo ideas are: trendy colorful logos with no substance. None of these generic marks do any justice to Hartford. I’m all for thinking out the box, but frankly none of these work. I applaud the fact that you created a greyscale version. When viewed in greyscale, the logo fails. All logos should be successful in greyscale.

    Logo 1. Stylized rip-off of new Hartford Hospital logo.
    Logo 2. Generic trendy space invader mosaic quilt – snore. Poor font choice.
    Logo 3. Fail. Arrows depict folks leaving Hartford. Slanted H reminds me of Enron logo + Home Depot.

    None of these logos truly reflect Hartford. Even sadder, they were created by a company in Canada.

  6. This pisses me off. I don’t live in Hartford but really still love it. These rebranding efforts smack to me of mediocrity. Hartford has an authenticity about it that these schmucks are not able to grasp – these campaigns are about as authentic as Michael Buble or Olive Garden. Anyways – I have a couple of thoughts about a logo / theme.

    Also, while I was typing this, I thought of this:

    The logo concept I was thinking is this(ish):

    H (H) A (i) R (s) T (t) F (o) O (r) R (i) D (c)

    The letters in the parentheses represent the shadow behind the letter. Hartford would be shadowed by Historic. Maybe one each for each concept history,literature, invention.

    People need to think of Hartford differently. It is not Boston or Providence. We have our own legacy – one that should not try to target as many ppl as possible. We need to define our target audience. We should target quality, legacy, arts, not sheepish South Windsor suburbanites who the the Shops at Evergreen walks sophisticated or Blue Back Square urban.

    Now, I’m thinking that these different themed logos (literature, innovation, architecture, etc) could work as light pole banners that, at street level, would have a cool fact about Hartford (take your pick – Colt, Twain, Wallace Stevens, Sigourney, Hartford Fire, the First written constitution, architecture, oldest public museum, oldest cont operated newspaper, Pope Bicycle, etc. etc. etc.) A bit in the vein of what Phil Schoenberger did with the marble on the new building around the corner from City Steam. The idea will be to marry what is truly interesting, authentic, etc. to what is unique about the city – the restaurants that aren’t corporate Blue Back bs, Then even an Historic Hartford facts tv ad campaign…etc. I’ve always thought that a world class literary festival would be great, that is not at all geared at all towards the mediocre corporate, go running in your Reebok during lunch tastefree Farmington Woods consumers that work and live around it, but to the real literary community. This is just an example of what can really revive the city, not this “Our TGI Fridays City has an all you can eat lunch buffet” bs branding.

  7. I thought it was a mixed bag of bad and more bad design executions. Here are my comments regarding the logo design.

    The logo designs missed the mark completely! Hartford’s brand should evoke hip, urban, fun, sophistication. Look around- from cool restaurants to cool art to cool parks, none of the logos represent who we are and what we want to be remembered for. Instantly. That’s what a brand identity does, right?

    The mosaic was too noisy and the color palette was not appropriate, very quilt like and childlike. Or a tablecloth? The lower case h design, been there done that look and very haphazard and resembled toy blocks.

    The 3rd was a design one could easily see in any design reference book and reminded me of a hospital sign along a highway.

    Where they did excel and this is odd, was the thought and execution of the campaigns. The moment campaign was fun and could speak to a multitude of audiences.

    If I’m going into Hartford it better be hip and fun, cuz NH and NoHo, NYC and Boston are all around the corner so create a logo that is. These failed miserably, the color choice, the logo design rational within the campaign looked forced. It almost seemed as if the designer and the copy writer were on 2 totally different planes.

    A few questions:

    How was it that a Canadian firm be awarded this project when there are a multitude of talented agencies regionally and …nationally?

    What is the budget and what was been spent thus far?

    As a owner of a brand agency in Hartford, I was beyond disappointed on many levels. The logo and campaign seemed to be driven by 2 very different drivers.

    I’m glad others were not on board with the selection of a Canadian agency, I mean….really? OK, so maybe no one fit the bill in the city, maybe not regionally. Are you kidding me, no one fit the bill on a national level either? This project is so important, not only to the renaissance but to redefining who we are as a city. I am keeping my fingers crossed they walk away from ALL the direction. The research gathered? not that startling either. Geez, Cundari, geez decision makers- Wait! Is it because the Hartford team (not real clear who that is) has no experience in developing a brand? Hmmmmm. This would answer the question of how the heck this went so wrong.

  8. Thanks, Heather. The Hartbeat angle is definitely an intriguing one. I like the idea of establishing the city as the heart of the region.

    I also agree that the Soldier’s & Sailors Arch could inform a successful “H” logo, rooting the mark very concretely to Hartford.

    I don’t know when, but I hope to come up with something, to contribute to the dialogue if nothing else.

  9. Thanks, Gary. You highlighted problems that a lot of folks seem to be having with the three logos presented. They somehow lack soul and vigor.

    I’ve seen a lot of indignation at the choice of a Canadian firm to do the redesign (despite their strong portfolio of work). Ideally, a Hartford firm would have the chops as well as local knowledge to produce a fantastic mark. Failing that, though, I don’t have a problem with casting the net further afield to try to ensure the best possible identity for the city.

  10. Thanks for the comment, Walter. Your ideas are interesting, though I think a successful logo in this case would be better off trying to distill the essence of the city, expressing it with simplicity and elegance. Hartford is so many things to so many people, and it’s tempting to try cramming all of that into a mark.

    It’s interesting to me that you don’t seem to think residents of Hartford’s suburbs, particularly wealthier ones, are worth wooing with this campaign. I’d argue that those people help support culture and business in the city, and it’s better for Hartford if they spend more time (and money) there rather than driving in for one event and then driving out again.

    That said, I can certainly appreciate the sentiment of loving this great city and wanting it to have an equally great symbol.

  11. Thanks for commenting, Cynthia! I found the answers of some of your questions in a blog post on the excellent Real Hartford.

    1. Cundari, the Canadian firm, was one of several firms interviewed, including local ones. They were adjudged to be the best.

    2. According to the Hartford Courant, Cundari was hired for $200,000.

    As for the location of Cundari, would you be less upset if a firm in Oregon was hired instead? I’m surprised that their nationality is such a sore point for so many people.

    There’s still a lot of work to be done, and I wouldn’t be happy if any of these were selected as the finished product. But I have faith that the Metro Alliance and Cundari can and will do better.

  12. I really enjoyed the analysis, Brian. I don’t have the expertise in deconstructing logos as you and others here, but I enjoy reading it a great deal. I’ll try to share a couple thoughts.

    First, I was able to attend the end of the evening session tonight at the Hartford Public Library, and also had the opportunity to speak briefly with a few people at the Hartford Metro Alliance. One thing that I took away from that was that there’s a difference between what those who work a lot on a branding effort such as this value and what the general public values. To Jordan et al., it’s the description and overall mission of each branding suggestion that is most important. It seemed like the logo was simply a jumping off point to the deeper, evocative meaning of each branding campaign represented by the copy on each of the giant placards presented. On this point, I think that Cundari is doing a fine job so far. The concepts presented are pretty interesting when you read up on what they are trying to present. However, to the general public, the logo is the most important aspect: the mark itself. After all, this is what we’re going to see on buses, signs, websites, and walls. On the quality of that work, I defer to your above analysis and each thoughtful individual’s opinion.

    Secondly, I’m very glad to read your response in the comments to “the Canadian concern.” The only applause of the evening session came after someone asked why the firm selected wasn’t from the city, region, or *country*. This surprises me that this is an issue. I’m more and more becoming an advocate of the concept of a “global community.” That borders are arbitrary and imaginary lines that only serve to separate and divide people, be it the Canada-U.S. border or the Hartford-West Hartford city line. (Isn’t this branding effort aimed at getting people to cross these heavy CT town borders, after all? Go ahead and cue “Kumbaya” for me) While it would be great to say a local Hartford firm was the one selected, wouldn’t a firm based in Toronto have a better sense of our regional identity than one in say, Phoenix? The world is having an unfortunate increase in this type of “us vs. them” mentalities. Personally, I prefer to give this project to the best and most committed firm out of merit, rather than a jingoistic sense of duty.

    I’m excited to see the fruits of your further input and analysis.

  13. Great comments, Rich. Thanks for highlighting that it’s a work in progress, and that there’s a lot more to each proposed campaign than just the single mark. At the same time, they surely must have known that the logos would be the focus for much of the feedback. I think that’s manifest in Kerri’s observation as well: “Interesting how much more upset people are about branding than they were about HDTC convention shenanigans”. Just as there’s nuance and complexity to the city’s political scene, each of the three branding campaigns is less concrete than its respective mark. It’s easier for people to “like” or “dislike” a logo than a deeper idea.

    Glad to hear some support for the decision to look at firms beyond the borders, too. It sounds like the choice was made on merit, just as it should be.

  14. @Brian,
    to me crowdsourcing is getting the crowd to do that actual work, whether it’s creating content or designs or data. anyway, that’s why i draw the distinction. incorporating feedback is different to me. see definition on wikipedia:


    “Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call.”

  15. @Rich H.,

    great input. i would echo brian by saying that cundari, as a supposedly top-flight marketing firm, should have known that presenting the concepts as visual packages would have the effect of sidetracking people and that the logos, as the most easily grasped part of the package, would be fixated on. if they want us to think about and evaluate the messaging, i wish they would have presented just the messaging. just give me the words. present them clearly and attractively, but simply. then i can focus just on the content of the message. and in that regard, i agree that there are some promising directions in the messaging. i hope they will build on those, but throw out the current set of visuals as simply the obvious ideas that needed to be gotten out of the way.

    as for the issue of them being a canadian firm, i agree that it’s not a big deal in and of itself. if they were the best firm for the job, out of those that applied, then that’s great. and they’re closer than a firm in s.f. or phoenix, so the fact that it’s across an international border is a red herring. i do have a hard time believing that there aren’t firms closer to home that have the capability to do this work, and do it well, but maybe they didn’t apply, or didn’t know about the opportunity. regardless, the problem i have is that the actual work would indicate that they are *not* the best firm for the job, as i think they have made a major misstep with this initial presentation, and come across looking like amateurs. i hope they redeem themselves by coming back with some much stronger versions in the future.

  16. I wasn’t even aware of the Hartford Hospital rebrand, still the first version screamed hospital to me. I thought children’s hospital though. It was the colors. Isn’t this palette too often used in children’s marketing (The logo for CT Children’s Medical Center, for instance)? Also, makes me think of 4H.

    Like you, I thought Tetris for #2. More troubling and unfortunate is the close resemblance to the Altria logo.

    The third try does nothing for me. I think you are too kind to assume originality on their part. Hartford paid $200K for this? They could have gone to generic logo farm to get the same thing for $99 or gone a little fancier for a buck-twenty-five.

    #Disaster #WasteOfTaxPayerMoney

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