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Why This Florida City Is Debranding Itself

Gainesville prides itself on using human-centered design. Now it’s applying the same ethos to its brand.

Most cities have brands. New York has a blocky typographic logo. Philadelphia’s logo is a graphic of the Liberty Bell, with the slogan “Life, liberty, and you.” But Gainesville, Florida, has gone in the opposite direction with its new identity: debranding, rather than rebranding.

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The identity, which was designed by the local branding agency Parisleaf, is typography-heavy, with the simple word “Gainesville” as the most prominent part of the brand. It’s an effort to communicate a much deeper transformation the city is currently undergoing. Its goal? To become the most citizen-friendly city in the country, using the principles of human-centered design.

[Image: courtesy City of Gainesville]
Gainesville started that journey in 2015, when the mayor charged his government with finding a way to make the city more competitive. Over the past two years, city manager Anthony Lyons has led the effort with help from the design firm Ideo, which culminated in a Department of Doing–a new part of the city government that helps streamline the process of starting a business.

But the problem was that Gainesville’s branding didn’t reflect the internal changes happening within the local government, and therefore wasn’t communicating those changes to the city’s citizens. So Lyons and his team decided to ditch the city’s previous logo and tagline (“Every path starts with passion”) and come up with something that actually represented what the city was trying to achieve.

[Image: courtesy City of Gainesville]
“Lots of cities brand and have taglines and logos and spend enormous amounts of money on this stuff,” Lyons says. “And if you say, what’s San Francisco’s brand, you’d look and laugh. Or Chicago, Boston? You just don’t think of the brand.” So instead of trying to create a brand at great expense, Lyons decided to work with Parisleaf to create something much simpler.

It’s an idea called “debranding,” where the focus is not on any logo, tagline, or visual effect. “Instead of brands, real people and real tones of voice will become the interface between consumers and products again,” writes Jasmine De Bruycker in Co.Design in 2016. “That’s the heart of debranding.”

For Gainesville, Parisleaf focused entirely on the language the city had developed, encompassing its human-centered design approach to government. Most of the images that come along with the brand, like those on the city website, are of real citizens and city employees coming together. It showcases people first, along with the real language the city has used to spur its shift toward putting its citizens’ needs first. Rather than a tagline, they now have what they call a “tag mark:” “Citizen Centered. People Empowered.” And while most city brands include the words “City of,” Gainesville decided to just call itself Gainesville. It’s an effort to show that there’s no barrier between the government and the people it serves–they’re all just part of Gainesville.

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“It’s completely consistent with everything we’ve been doing and saying,” Lyons says. “Frankly I think if we didn’t do it that way, and came up with a cute tagline and slogan and logo, people would say, what’s the point?”

[Photo: Parisleaf/courtesy City of Gainesville]
Eventually, the new identity will become part of all visual communication for the city, but Lyons has no plans to discard all of the city’s current materials just for the sake of something new. Instead, the system will slowly roll out–though Lyons did order business cards for himself this week.

Part of this rollout includes a new website separate from the regular city website that acts as a prototype for helping Gainesville’s citizens find what they need online. The site is organized based on what citizens visiting it might be looking for–like discovering employment opportunities, finding a local pool, or exploring the city’s budget–rather than by departments. Instead of requiring citizens to know that information about recycling is under the public works department and part of the solid waste program, the website presents them with the information that they need from a citizen’s perspective.

“I fully believe it’s an approach that most governments will take over time,” Lyons says. “If it helps spread that message, it’s good for all cities. I know people don’t think of Gainesville as an interesting place yet, but I hope this kind of thing changes that.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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