Considering the Visual Language of a City
19th Century French poet Charles Baudelaire was taken by the special character and romance of the city. “What strange phenomena we find in a great city,” he mused, “all we need do is stroll about with our eyes open.” And the cause for such wonder is clear—a city’s architecture, its flashing signs, crowds of passerby, whirring modes of transport, a symphony (or cacophony) of visual and aural cues abound in every modern urban space, at varying degrees and to different tunes from place to place.
As designers and lovers of all things visual, we’re always fascinated by the abundance of details and cues presented to us everytime we travel. And, as we travel to more places, it becomes eminently clear that every city has it’s very own unique flavor, often a fascinating mix of the place’s history, present mood, and vision of the future. To inspire a bit of wanderlust (and perhaps some thoughtful tourist practices), we’re taking a closer look at the visual language of a few of our favorite cities around the globe. Read on...
Baudelaire’s home base of Paris boasts one of the most recognizable aesthetic identities the world over. Ever a muse in literature, philosophy, and art, the City of Lights is associated with romance and beauty, and it’s really no wonder when even the windows, balconies, and metro signs evoke the charm of a time past. Cafes with elegantly lilting cursive names, cobblestone streets, apartment building facades the color of parchment, ornate iron balconies, even the Eiffel Tower itself all contribute to an aesthetic that feels unmistakably Parisian.
Takeaways: Romantic, artful, storied
NEW YORK CITY
New York City is one of the most diverse and distinct places on Earth. From neighborhood to neighborhood, the storefronts, building facades, and overall mood and feeling shapeshift. Clean, modern lines are punctuated by bursts of collaged graffiti and artful clutter. Uptown Manhattan, the Lower East Side and Chinatown, Central Park, each so uniquely their own flavor... But still, Manhattan has a remarkably consistent visual language. This is largely due to the ubiquity of the New York City subway system and its iconic signage—that sleek and modern Helvetica typeface calling out the trains whether you’re on the Upper East Side, in pulsing Times Square, or lowkey and grungy Alphabet City. The New Yorker reports: “In 1970, [Massimo] Vignelli and [Bob] Noorda completed the New York City Transit Authority “Graphics Standards Manual,” a hundred-and-seventy-four-page document that established the subway’s modern identity.” To this day, those guidelines continue to create a citywide aesthetic throughline that melds with the ever-evolving landscape of the city.
Takeaways: Cultured, distinct, modern
Of course, there is the beach—palm trees, sunshine, ocean breezes, and blue skies. L.A. is nothing upon first blush if not an idyllic vision of endless summer set to the tune of the Beach Boys. But Los Angeles, the City of Angels, is also Hollywood, grungy Venice Beach, and picturesque Rodeo Drive. A dizzying sprawl of a city, L.A. evades easy definition. Hugely diverse—think Beverly Hills and then, think neon signage and taco stands—LA’s visual language is diverse, no question, but it is defined by some common threads. During the 1940s, Hollywood experienced its Golden Age of film production, and so the city’s development boomed. The city’s visual cues are often rooted in these midcentury typefaces and tones. Add to that the colorful roots of L.A.’s long-standing Mexican population and you have the makings of a very unique mixture of flavors and visual ingredients.
Takeaways: Youthful, diverse, breezy
Vibrant color and graphic impact pervades the visual identity of Mexico City, the capital and most populous city of Mexico. The Aztec roots of the city (and Zapotec and Mayan roots of surrounding regions) can be seen in textiles, iconography, and street art. The imagery associated with traditional Day of the Dead celebrations extend beyond the holiday’s observance. Meanwhile, striking works by Mexican architect and engineer Luis Barragan, a contemporary of modernists like Le Corbusier, can be found throughout the city. In 2004, Casa Luis Barragán, his studio and home located in Mexico City, became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Still today, his artistic legacy injects a bolt of prismatic color, clean lined modernity, and graphic elegance to the city’s unique visual identity.
Takeaways: Vibrant, unique
In many ways, Tokyo is a feast for the senses—the city’s sensory cues come at you from all directions. The plush, pastel, glittering flare of the Harajuku movement, the flood of flashing signs, the heaving crowds at the world famous Shibuya crossing all make up the city’s visual language. But Tokyo is not all bright lights. The city’s visual language is also steeped in the aesthetic history and traditions of Japanese culture. A refined and deeply minimalist aesthetic, pared down color palettes, and quiet moments provide reprieve.
Takeaways: Soft, sculptural, experimental
Another city of dualities, London’s air of stately history (you know, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, afternoon tea, etc.) is tempered by its stellar art scene (both modern, over at the Tate, and highly traditional, over at the Victoria & Albert) and quirky inhabitants. The crisp, picturesque western enclave of Chelsea finds its edgy opposite in East London neighborhoods; London Fashion Week is actually regarded as one of the more experimental of the global fashion weeks (despite venues at places like the neoclassical Somerset House). But despite the dual nature of the city, there are overarching elements that contribute to the city’s visual language. The iconic red AEC Routemaster stacked buses that snake through the city come to mind, as well as the street signs. In 1967, British designer and architect Misha Black (who is responsible for many archetypal London designs) created street signs that featured a thin black line, black condensed type, and a red postcode. The design of the font itself, Univers Bold Condensed, is copyrighted by Westminster Council. Another iconic London type, none other than Times New Roman, was designed in 1929 for the Times of London by Stanley Morison of Monotype.