Belfast develops a new logo… and so does Blackburn and Barrow.

Belfast city has a new logo, part of a 12-month re-branding overseen by Belfast City Council.

According to the Irish Times:

THE NEW Belfast now comes in six colours. Blue, grey, maroon, fuchsia, lime and aqua. It also has its own “bespoke” typeface (called Moment) and a range of adaptable taglines.

The heart-shaped design also doubles as the letter B, allowing a series of promotional slogans such as “B here now”, “B vibrant” and “B dynamic+”. According to the London-based branding agency that designed the new logo, Belfast’s new corporate identity is “simple and flexible (and) succeeds in reflecting the edgier side of Belfast”.

The Sunday Business Post indicates that the logo was designed by:

Lloyd Northover [who were] appointed to the consultancy position in June [2007]. It spent 12 months researching the perception of Belfast in current social, economic, physical, political and cultural terms, and how the city wanted to be perceived with regard to those areas in the future. Primary research and consultation was undertaken with representatives from the arts, business, development, culture, tourism, media, education and sport communities.

The logo is crisp in execution and very simple in concept. The curvilinear sans serif of the Moment typeface is determinedly modernist in tone and works well in large scale. Whether it is too simple is an interesting question. Certainly it is not visually positioned within any obvious referents to Belfast, and the emphasis on the heart, already simultaneously a classic and cliche of visual imagery relating to cities (as with Milton Glaser’s iconic “I Love New York” logo from 1977), is arguably problematic.

Whether it does reflect an ‘edgier side of Belfast’ is open to question. The use of the heart as the symbol with its overt connotations of love and affection seem to do anything but link into an ‘edgy’ visual discourse.

As notable is the choice of colours for the logo. Blue, grey, maroon, fuchsia, lime and aqua are demonstrably detached from any political, or pre-existing municipal, connotations. That is, one presumes, quite deliberate. Branding Belfast requires a near-herculean effort to break the visual chains of an overly familiar past in order to present a neater less complicated construct for the future.

And that simplification, on both a design and ‘mythic’ level is certainly evident in the new logo. That it could apply to Barcelona or to Bogota is not in any sense to criticise it, for its function is to transcend previous meanings and introduce more ameliorative – albeit more anonymous – contemporary concepts.

But, this essential universality is reinforced by a news report in the Guardian from today (31st of July 2008) which notes that:

The troubled history of local council logos has thrown up another spat after rival authorities managed to end up with exactly the same clever piece of design based on one letter.

Both highlighting the letter B, the promotion campaigns of the north-west of England towns Barrow-in-Furness and Blackburn use an identical twist on the letter, tilting it slightly and extending its bottom bulge to form a heart.

And not merely are the logos identical to one another but conceptually identical to the Belfast logo. Bar stylistic aspects, such as the border around the two logos and a slightly different proportion as regards the shape of the heart, these are clearly derived from the same design root. They appeared in public in Barrow in March and Blackburn in May.

And then there is the issue of slogans that accompany the logos.

Barrow’s artwork is a romantic – and anatomically accurate – pink design that sits above the slogan “Love Barrow”. It was unveiled in March. Just over two months later Blackburn announced its version, a design that gives the town’s name beneath a B, coloured lime green.

For Belfast a similar process has occurred with various suggested tag lines such as “Be here now”, surely the only instance in tourist history where a city has borrowed from an Oasis song in order to promote itself, or the “B happy” on the tee-shirt in the illustration above. Interestingly these reference emotions, not a sense of place as with the Barrow logo. Not for the Belfast logo any sense of the Falls Road, or Short Strand, or the docks or City Hall itself in all its dour Northern English municipal grandeur. There is, it must be admitted, more than a hint of the rapidly developing Belfast of the peace process, the anonymity of apartment blocks and commercial development. And perhaps in that sense it succeeds more than it fails.

As to the ramifications, if any, should Belfast, Barrow or Blackburn decide to consider taking action over this excessive proliferation of Bs:

Robin Fry, a copyright lawyer with Beechcroft in London, said that a £200 trademark might protect the B, but the council registering it would have to show the likelihood of confusion. “This would be difficult as Barrow-in-Furness is a port and the gateway to the Lakes, while Blackburn is 20 miles inland.”

Considering that the Sunday Business Post quotes a price of £180,000 sterling, Blackburn Council might well feel that the price tag of £60,000 sterling was a snip at less than half the price. And they might also take comfort that Belfast, being on a different island, might well have even greater difficulty in protecting its investment if the analysis presented by Robert Fry is correct.

By contrast consider an earlier, if less lauded, visual solution used by the city. Many of the same concepts are present, but the execution is more hesitant and less certain. It is probably wrong to suggest that the use of a smile falters in comparison to the dogmatic conceptual thrust of the heart shape in the new design, but in terms of sheer visual and emotional power it is enfeebled by the comparison. And while the B as heart is in its own way is forced, the lower case serif F trailing off into a smile is more so, a distortion of the letterform rather than an enhancement. The two ovals representing eyes are adrift from both text and smile. Again, this logo utilises a simplification so that the contradictions and paradoxes of the actual city of Belfast are smoothed away, but this is a purely municipal imagery whereas the newer logo has a modernist anonymity which could be that of a city or that of a car.

These logos, and their counterparts in New York, or Barcelona, are means to an end. They avoid referencing the actual city and instead position themselves as vehicles of the ‘tourist experience’. They cover the souvenirs, the plastic shopping bags, shops and museums and generate a sense of the city as consumable and in doing so they detach the city from its reality. The experience is all. And because the experience is – in so many respects – so similar is it any wonder that three entirely different locations should chance upon a near-identical visual solution?

Ciarán Swan

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