Mark Byrnes

After a career spent designing album covers, Peter Saville talks about his unique role in crafting his hometown's identity.

Peter Saville is in the unusual position of building a city's brand.

Since 2004, Saville has served as the consultant creative director for Manchester, England. It's a fitting role for the artist, whose iconic record sleeves for Manchester-based Factory Records helped define the 1980s music scene and in some ways, the city itself. Now, he's helping Manchester cultivate its image in a more official capacity, assigned by the city's Chief Executive to the task of overseeing its brand.

He spoke with Cities over the phone from his London studio to discuss his relationship with Manchester, how he got the city's creative director position, and what cities mean to him.

On his ties to Manchester:

My history is tied to the city, I would say almost exclusively with Factory Records. I grew up just outside the city and I went to art college in Manchester in the '70s. In 1978, after I got my degree, I found myself co-founding Factory Records. By 1979 I left Manchester. The work I was doing with Factory brought me to London.

What Factory Records meant to the city:

The way Factory was run, all of us involved did whatever we felt. That contributed in part to how the city would be perceived.

There were certain things about the principles of Factory that transcended conventional mediums of pop, principally by not being founded as a conventional company. Factory was and still is perceived as an ideal, and that made it more significant than most record companies.

Besides Factory, perhaps only Motown Records had such an impact on a city. We played a huge part in the image of Manchester, some would say it defined it during that part of the late 20th century, it was one of the most important signifiers of the city in the 1980s. Factory's image proposed something about Manchester.

Saville speaks on Manchester and his work for the city at Los Angeles' Paley Center.

How the consultancy came about:

After a successful hosting of the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Manchester's Chief Executive, Sir Howard Bernstein, appreciated he was the CEO of a brand called Manchester. He wanted to know more about the brand and how it was perceived and if it was being optimized. So the city looked for a brand advocate. To the delight of some and the horror of others, they chose me. 

In 2004, I spent 3 months back in Manchester and tried to reconnect with what the place meant. What did Manchester think it was? What did others think?

I was not a 'fan' of Manchester but I was highly appreciative of it and thankful for the opportunities it gave me. But, like in a family, you might be curt at home but very defensive of it when you're outside. In the interview for this role I was quite critical and I even offended some people.

What made him critical of the city:

I saw the results of the '90s building boom and was frustrated with the architecture that resulted. It just wasn’t very good. Architecture serves as a signifier and even one building can change the perception of place. We've seen that in Bilbao — most people had not even heard of it before the Guggenheim. 

Other issues, I later realized, were really just matters of supply and demand. Disposable income is different now than it was in the '60s. We see money spent on entertainment more than industry and that ends up shaping the culture of the place.

I had not aspired to any form of urbanism or place branding. In fact, I was moving away from commercial design but they asked me and it mattered to me. I saw that the ambition was not a match with reality. The brand obviously already existed, it was quite clear what it was, the brand was Manchester.

The 'M' on display at Manchester's visitors center. Image courtesy Marketing Manchester.

On city logotypes and slogans:

I was not interested in an official city logotype or a slogan. City logotypes do little and slogans are a sign of insecurity. If your place needs a slogan, it has a problem. A brand is not just a logotype, it's a set of values that are communicated through actions. 

Coining the phrase, "Original Modern" and designing "The M":

I recognized a set of values true to the spirit of the city. The key value of provenance was "the first industrial city." That would justify a museum but not provide a route forward. From 'first industrial', I coined the term "original modern." In those terms, the values were timeless. They are two words that propose what Manchester is about.

We thought it might be interesting to have a signifier for "original modern," but where would you put it? All the different city entities have different logos. The marque we have made is not used as a logotype but as a brand signifier for Manchester. It's only used in the "original modern" context. Nobody actually owns it. It's a symbol of the place. You'll not see it on everyday merchandise. 

The problems that come with cities seeking out a crafted image:

Designers and communications professionals have found a willing client in the public sector that is ready to pay extraordinary amounts of money for logos that don't mean anything.

Over the last 5 to 6 years, I have learned something of what determines place. It’s only by being really honest that you can find the real issues. More often though, I see government caught up in its own rhetoric. Government tends to believe its own PR.

I’m quite realistic about the problems that face Manchester and what you might have to do to engineer its future. Cities and places quite simply are the outcome of supply and demand. If you wish to engineer the future of a place, it will come down to the people who live there. Its profile is most determined by what it exports and not what it imports.

Saville introduces Manchester's Sharp Project at MIPS, an international property event hosted annually in Cannes.

On Manchester's future:

Since the financial crisis, people are beginning to look at what they really have. What do they have that actually creates work and wealth? It’s a little late but at least we’re there.

The BBC's decentralization from London is a huge boon for Manchester. The clusters of people who will be part of that will transform the city.

Another particularly promising development for the city is the discovery of graphene. It's the greatest material invention of the 21st century, discovered at the University of Manchester by two Russian research scientists. There will significant benefits for the city from the discovery occurring here. 

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