A new branding scheme for the small Indiana city builds off of its reputation for sophisticated modern design.
Columbus, Indiana, may be modest in size (46,850), but its commitment to modern design is hard to ignore. So when the city recently decided to give itself a branding refresh, it paid homage to its own visual history.
The result is an identity program that utilizes one of the city’s most famous graphic elements—its dancing C’s—to create visual hallmarks that will emblazon the sides of city buses, transit stops, water towers, and tote bags.
According to Karen Niverson, executive director at the Columbus Area Visitors Center, the idea for the redesign came about as its neighborhoods were trying to figure out how they could each create distinctive identities that fit in with the larger community. Initially, she said, the city went into the project intending to create a set of brand new designs. But after bringing on Thirst, a Chicago-based design firm led by Rick Valicenti and Bud Rodecker, they discovered that the best way to make something new and exciting was to use a design element the city had been holding onto for quite some time.
In 1974, designer Paul Rand created Columbus Indiana: A Look at Architecture, a chronicle of the city’s architectural history. The book’s cover had a pattern of C’s scattered across the front, which Columbus quickly embraced. More than 40 years later, Columbus residents still consider the design to be a part of their city’s fabric. When Thirst surveyed residents, it found that the descriptors most often used to describe the dancing C’s were “fresh,” “exciting,” and “reliable.”
“I think they see [the dancing C’s] as timeless—as a marker of our community,” she said. “They recognize that it communicates who we are: a steady force, but fresh and reliable. It was a little surprising, but very heartening that the people recognized the value of that great graphic design.”
Columbus’s rich design history is due in large part to the Cummins Foundation, instituted by J. Irwin Miller, which would pay a project’s architectural fees provided the client selected an architect from the foundation’s list. As a result, world-class architects have found work in a small town 45 miles south of Indianapolis. Notable buildings include Harry Weese’s First Baptist Church and Eero Saarinen’s Irwin Union Bank, both of which are National Historical Landmarks. Local elementary schools have a program called Young Designers, which teaches fourth graders about design and takes them on downtown architectural tours.
Rodecker wanted to be sure that the new visuals would create a sense of community, with elements that speak to each individual neighborhood. Thirst asked neighborhood representatives to fill out information about graphic styles, typeface, and color palates that they thought matched their communities.
Each neighborhood in Columbus has its own distinctive features. The Airpark, with its small local airport, is also a hub for college campuses and universities. Downtown Columbus, the historic district, is home to much of the city’s famous architecture. State Street has a more industrial feel. Area 76 is a neighborhood off of the interstate known for its mall.
The designers started to assign color, size, and shape to the various neighborhoods, trying to work each community’s features into their design. In the Airpark, for example, they decided to create patterns that varied in size and included dotted lines. This was partially a reference to flight charts, and a nod to the students “learning and growing” within the neighborhood. State Street’s designs, meanwhile, have dashed C’s and the elements are are uniform in size to symbolize construction and manufacturing.
“While each neighborhood has its own distinct voice and perspective, the hope with this project is to unite them all, to feel like they’re all part of Columbus: part of a core,” said Rodecker.
The new designs—for the Airpark, downtown Columbus, State Street, and Exit 76—are vibrant and playful. Each uses the same five colors, but in different ways. The bright yellow background of downtown Columbus shows up in bold and dotted C’s for the Airpark. Starbursts and suns spring up alongside the C’s for Exit 76.
Currently, the Airpark has already begun using the new designs on directional signage, and Columbus has ordered new city buses and bus stops that feature the design scheme.
If these dancing C’s seem more alive now, that’s exactly what Rodecker was hoping for. He believes that design elements, like any other part of city infrastructure, need to be kept up-to-date.
“We value our heritage, but we understand the need to advance the culture of excellence and good design that we have in this town,” said Niverson.
“What was surprising to us was how [the dancing C’s] had been forgotten about, left to not evolve, or grow, or change. They felt in disrepair,” Rodecker said. “The idea of… bringing it forward into the future was our attempt to restore and give permission to the community. It liberates them to think about this as theirs, as part of the community identity. It lets them grow with the future.”