Sunday, April 6, 2014

Critiquing the Austin Logo

Cities that want a logo must be the worst clients a graphic designer can work with. No one is ever happy with their work, including me.

So I was mostly pleasantly surprised by the recently unveiled logo for Austin, Minnesota, the subject of a story in yesterday's Star Tribune.

For those not from around here, Austin is home to Hormel, which makes Spam. The city even has a Spam Museum.

Designed by the Minneapolis communication firm Haberman after (I'm sure) extensive research and discussion, the logo was announced in March to an almost unanimous chorus of boos.

"It makes us look like Spam is the only thing that's happening in Austin."  "It looks like a can of sardines." "Why can't we use a tree?" "What's up with the tag line?"

I immediately "got" the concept and thought the pulled-up corner at top left implied that there are good things and even surprises inside the city. I thought the tag line was a bit of a stretch, with its too obvious, chamber-of-commerce boosterism. And I have some other minor tweaks in mind, which I'll show below.

But I agree with the city's director of creative visions for Vision 2020, who was in charge of the process. Spam is something Austin can claim that no other town can. It's a fun and light-hearted concept. And she's definitely right that "when you design by committee, you sort of end up with nothing." The Strib story went on to paraphrase her as saying "Some cities seem so afraid of making a statement that they end up with little more than a squiggle for an image." Yes!

Residents also objected to the $58,000 price of the project, $48,000 of which was privately raised and didn't come from the city. I don't have a problem with that price tag, which seems pretty reasonable for what I bet was a bunch of work by professionals who are putting up with one of the worst nightmare client scenarios. People always object to the cost of identities and seem to have no awareness of what it takes and how long it will be used. It's an investment.

People also are complaining that if Austin is so talent-packed, why was a Minneapolis firm hired instead of one from Austin? Haberman, I can imagine, offers a much broader range of services that were needed for the project, such as focus group research and managing the input process from a range of stakeholders in the city. It's not just a matter of one free-lancer going off by herself and scribbling a couple of ideas on a napkin.

With all that said, I still would suggest a couple of tweaks to the design, in addition to coming up with a tag line that doesn't try quite so hard to be clever.

First, I'd get rid of the tilted A and its deformed right foot. What's the reason for that? What does it add?

I'd also clear up the overlap between the pull tab and the top of the A. The way they overlap currently makes it look a bit like a graduation mortar board hat. Distracting.

And the sardine can complaint is not completely wrong. A Spam can is tall, and the left and bottom drop shadow implies the can is shallow. Better to get rid of it all together. It also makes it simpler, focusing attention on the most important detail, the pop top.

Finally, I've removed the tag line altogether, not because I'm opposed to having one, but because they should rethink it. And while they're at it, why are the sans serif letterforms in the tagline different from the ones in the sans serif city name? Note the pointed N and A in the tag line vs. the flat ends in Austin, and the lower crossbar on the A. The tag line typeface is basically art deco, while the type in the name is more plain. Why confuse everyone with two similar but ambiguously different styles?


David Steinlicht said...

Makes me wonder if this logo is a tribute to the new-ish DC comics logo with the peeling D. That logo is -- in a way -- a tribute to the peeling sticker thing that was kinda big in design three to five years ago.

I agree that the deformed "A" is confusing.

Is the proportion of the can top correct? It seems a bit too narrow. I could be wrong.

If I were to pay tribute to the Spam look, I'd go all the way and use rounded sans serif letters. And I'd use a darker blue and toss in some yellow for the letters. THAT is the Spam look to me.

Michael Leddy said...

I like your version more than the original. But the can still looks like a sardine can to me. And a Spam can has its name on the side, not the top. David’s last paragraph says what I was planning to say, that it should look more like the Spam can (or go in another direction).

I think the tilted A is supposed to suggest a pull-top ring. Kinda clever, but also kinda ugly.

Pete Hautman said...

The design *might* have been influenced by who donated the 48K in private money. Maybe if Hormel had kicked in a little more, they would have gotten those rounded letters...
But I like it. Both the original and your simplified version.

Daughter Number Three said...

David, the proportion of the shape is pretty close to the Spam can.

I think they were trying to skirt the Spam reference without being too close to the specifics of the lettering or color scheme. Maybe hoping to head off the objections that they got anyway.

Michael, it hadn't occurred to me that they might be thinking of the A as the ring. Huh. Could be right.

I agree that it's kind of problematic to refer to a can that has its label on the side by putting words on the top.

Though I can see an argument being made that this is another way in which is not literally a Spam can and so therefore can represent Austin more generally.

Gunther said...

The font used in the original logo (Kabel, if I am not mistaken) and the combination of blue and white remind me of Nivea.

Daughter Number Three said...

I think the Nivea blue is much darker (more like the usual Spam blue, actually)... and not to get into a font ID war, but Kabel has tilted ends.

I thought it was more similar to Metro with a Gotham C and K. Or even better, Eagle is really close, though the P and D shapes appear to be just a bit squarer than in the tag line.