City of San Diego Logo

Logo, Looking for Love

By John Ball, Partner/Creative Director

The city of San Diego recently adopted a new logo, visual identity system, and style guide to help unify the communications of its various departments.

Not surprisingly, the world is full of critics.

The design community—myself included—was quick to call out the new design for being overly generic and failing to represent San Diego adequately.

The local press, including The San Diego Union-Tribune and CityBeat, has questioned the city’s fiscal responsibility for spending a reported $48,000 on something other than fixing potholes.

One intrepid reporter even commissioned a series of replacement logos for $5 apiece on Fiverr, and surveyed readers on their preferences and ability to spot the “real” logo in the group. Luckily, the city’s version came out ahead, but only by a slim margin.


Image Source: San Diego Union Tribune; Feature Image Source: San Diego Union Tribune

Leaving the crowdsourcing of important, strategically based creative work as a discussion for another day, a good question to ask might be, “How did this happen?”

My guess is that the city’s need for a new website drove the selection of what appears to be an accomplished, Carlsbad-based firm specializing in “digital brand development.” In fact, the majority of case studies on their website are, well, websites. But what you won’t see is a lot of pure, focused identity work.

This just underlines both the challenge and the importance of hiring the right agency for the job. Many firms claim to “do it all,” but they are often coming from a specific strength or particular expertise. And unfortunately, these nuances can sometimes be difficult for potential clients to discern.

The crime here is not that the city spent some money. A beautiful, inspiring visual identity can be worth the investment. It’s an asset that helps shape perception, unite teams, and galvanize stakeholders under a common banner.

Nor is the crime simply a generic output. We are all at times forced to make do with limited resources and less than optimal circumstances. When your budget only allows so much, you do with it what you can. But this was not the case here.


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The real offense was that the city spent serious dollars and got something less than stellar in return. And for that, the penalty would seem to be missed opportunity and untapped potential.

The new identity belies San Diego’s status as a global leader in life sciences and technology. Even in the arts we set a high bar, sending show after show to Broadway—more than any other US city. And while a logo should not be expected to capture every facet of a vibrant city, it’s hard to accept a sole focus on sun and sails.

To be fair, this may not be the agency’s doing. Many talented firms have been forced into compromised creative solutions by client mandates and committee complexity. We can’t truly know what led to this outcome; we haven’t seen the brief. But what we do know from thirty years of developing identities, navigating complex assignments, and feeling fortunate to call San Diego home, is that more could be done to represent “America’s Finest City.”

At the end of the day, it would seem that the city of San Diego—both the place and the client—did not get its due.

Read John’s Letter to the Editor on this topic in the San Diego Union Tribune