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$200,000 DC Grant Funding Arts District Branding Initiative

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this news story can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Four sophisticated graphic design proposals for the creation of a marketable brand to advertise an arts district in the Logan Circle, Shaw, 14th and U Streets neighborhoods were unveiled to a small audience of community activists in the Long View Gallery’s spacious premises on 9th Street on Monday evening, November 1st.

The designers had been tasked by project leaders Andrea Doughty, Mary Brown, and their lead branding consultant, Carol Felix, with developing a coordinated logo for an arts district name together with a graphic design within which the logo could be imbedded, and a complementary panel which would give visual meaning to the arts district announcement. All of this would be intended to incorporated into pennants and banners to hang from street lamp posts throughout the proposed arts district as part of a $200,000 project funded by the Mayor’s Neighborhood Investment Fund.

The project’s mission statement emphasizes that the branding and logo should remind viewers that the arts district being announced and celebrated was about “more than just art”; that the proposed district is in fact a place where people live, go to school, work, dine out at restaurants and bars, and shop in stores as well as attend musical performances, stage plays, and art gallery and studio openings throughout the district’s commercial and mixed commercial/residential streets, as well as commute throughout the area daily.

The designers also took to heart that nature of the proposed boundaries for this large and ambitiously projected district, stretching from Massachusetts to Florida Avenues and from 16th to 7th Streets. Even these marked delimits are thought by many to be somewhat elastic — even porous, especially on the 16th Street side. And all of this to be designed in compact and compressed illustrations which could successfully compete with the existing and lively lights and signage throughout the projected district; moreover, with both visual and cognitive impact for the arts district logos and banners that would create images capable of sticking with the viewer.

The results of this competition are fascinating and no doubt reflect the aesthetic backgrounds in the visual arts, typography and design, and the worlds of electronic and print advertising media backgrounds of the several designers.

The Design Alternatives

Scheme #1, called “City Grid” (see image on page <**>), offers two different color palettes for a flat, planar-style geometric construction of what the designer calls city blocks and streets which cumulatively create an arts and design district. Four colors, which are the colors used by all four submissions, or the alternative of a simple black and white ensemble, are offered as alternative colorings. The four colors are a medium density pink and a similar appearing peach together with a bright aqua and an egg yolk yellow. Their vibrancy on all four proposed banner and pennant design colors would be a function of their glossiness and how well that glossy brightness would stand the weathering of sun and rain. The narrower pennants would also display a “mini brand” for a sub-district component of the larger arts district — in this example, “Shaw.” Further, the banner’s generic musical instrument in this and each of the other sub districts, a bass fiddle, would vary depending on each of the “mini-brand” areas being incorporated in the larger district.

Scheme #2 offers two different forms of the same logo —  the first humorously designated the “happy a,” the second the “bullseye.” A vertical lettering of DCAC, signifying DC Arts District, with the top letter appearing horizontal, and the bottom three turned sideways are symbolically meaningful and somewhat abstract with two different color palettes –- one being halftone black and white or black and light gray, and the alternative being pale pink and light lime green. The mini-brand name “Mid City” bleeds off the sides of both pennant designs and the slogan “it’s more than art” appears at the bottom of the narrower banner, which is to be hung like a pennant.

Scheme #3’s logo is the idea of “No Boundaries” for this concept; it cleverly uses spare lines and symbolic circles to create an outline segment of a component of the original L’Enfant design for Washington City with its distinctive traffic circles and angled streets overlaying a classical street grid in what the designer calls “a pointillist halftone style . . . in a direction that is scalable and flexible.” (See image on page 1.) The DCAD logo is ingenious; whether or not it is immediately recognizable as DCAD is another matter; it is certainly visually arresting as is that of the mini-brand typographic design for “U Street.”

Scheme #4 (also shown on page 1) is designed to maximize visual impact; it shortens the logo to “Arts District” and creatively leans a letter ‘A’ against that of a ‘D’ for the shorthand logo. Using the same color palettes as the other designs in a more dramatic playing off of one color against that of another adds to the impact’s power as do the lively type faces.

According to project leader Andrea Doughty, proposed names for the art district were selected in a set of 175 intercept surveys conducted recently at seven locations, six of which were at Metro stations during weekday evening rush hour and the seventh at American University in late afternoon,

After reviewing community comment on these four proposals, one will be selected by November 15th to comply with terms and conditions of the grant, again according to Andrea Doughty and Project Compliance Officer Mary Brown.

A More Recent Development

In a move surprising to most attendees, the branding project leaders held a second unveiling on November 8th at the Hamilton Gallery of branding, logo, and tag line boards with the proposed brand names of Arts District; DC Arts District; and Arts + Design District using the Scheme #3 as the preferred choice from the four schemes shown the previous week at the Long View Gallery. The three other schemes were discarded. New boards were prepared and shown at the Hamilton Gallery presentation with various alternatives for graphic and typographic elements complementary to the “no boundaries” mapping design of scheme #3, together with a bolder color palette within each of three new alternatives.

Further community comment and critique was solicited by the project leaders who were present to lead community members through the new boards. First, however, a spirited question and answer period occurred, focusing on the following: (1) what happened to the hundreds of colorful artistic images sent to the project leaders by neighborhood artists during the period around the time of the first and second meetings; (2) what happened to such proposed brand name designations as “mid-city” and “uptown arts district”?; and (3) why are only Shaw, Logan, and U Street — and no other neighborhood names — shown as the single presentation of subordinate, or “mini-brand,” names?

Branding consultant Carol Felix answered the first question by stating that selected artistic images apparently from those submissions will become black and white or halftone photographs for printing on the wide, visual depiction of the arts banner. As to the dropping of the proposed “mid-city” name — the real thrust of the second question — Andrea Doughty explained that the name had become “too hot to handle” due to the strenuous objections of Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who was joined in his objections by the Shaw Main Streets, Inc. and Destination DC. Reflecting on the issue with this reporter, Graham observed, “We have powerful designations already for this arts district — Shaw, Logan, and most importantly for this purpose, U Street. Why invent — why manufacture — something new?” Further, Graham objected to the very concept of Shaw, Logan, and U Street being thought of as “mini-brands” or as subordinate to some higher level branding designation. Doughty had informed the attendees that neighborhood areas not in Shaw, Logan, or U Street but within the designated arts district would have no subordinate or “mini-brand names” on their banners.

A final version of a winning set of banners, complete with branding, logos, tag lines, graphics, and arts images will be selected by a focus group of local stakeholders in the next several weeks, concluded project leader Doughty.