Branding places, with Lance Wyman

Tomorrow night, the legendary New York designer Lance Wyman is speaking in London on a life of design, captured in his new book.

09.03.16 | Opinion

By Scott McCubbin

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Our relationship with Lance Wyman is quite simple. It is one of hero worship. He came to our home city of Liverpool and presented to the design community his five decades of work - few people have not been touched by his classic designs. Type Lance Wyman into google and Mexico 68 will appear. To many, his designs for the 1968 Olympics redefined how the world’s most watched sporting events present themselves. Since that time it is hard to think of another event that’s come close to the standard set by Lance. Few last long in the memory and yet the clean interlocking circles embody a 1970s style (even though it was the late 60s) that will last way after all of us have left this earth.

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This is a man influenced by a tough working class background and love of Latin (mainly Mexican) culture. He is the original flag bearer of the icon, way before the likes of Apple, Nike and other multinationals began to understand their value when crossing culture and language.

During the FIFA World Cup in Brazil we even asked Lance to join in the fun with our 32|64|90 competition - a celebration of creativity and football from around the world, where 32 creatives from each country designed a poster after each match, straight after the match. Each design had to be inspired by the action - the thrills and the tears. It spiked the interest of football-loving creatives across the globe, with tweets and facebook messages being shared 24/7 during the entire tournament. Lance loves his football. He created a series of vibrant post match posters for a momentous series of games for U-S-A.

He even featured his work for the Uniform project in his new book Lance Wyman: The Monograph.

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As he lands in the country, it’s the perfect time to dig out those notes from his last trip and replay the conversation that Lance had with me during those few hours spent milling around the Tate Gallery at Liverpool Docks, drinking rioja 30 floors up in the Panoramic and then taking in our beloved Liverpool FC in the pub. The talk always came back to places. The places we’ve come from and lived in, and the influence they have on us.

Lance shares the same passion for design and places and the need for us all to understand where we’ve come from - and most importantly, to keep grounded. The stories and the people make the place. This is the starting point, as we’ve said many times in our own Placemaker.

Here’s Lance’s essential guide to place branding, all illustrated with personal stories that stay close to his heart:

1. Live and breathe the place

“When I worked on the identity for Jurica in Mexico and later on programs for Detroit and Santa Fe in the US I spent a lot of time becoming part of the towns to get a real sense of place. It’s crucial research. One thing I always try to do is spend some time riding around in a police squad car. Once you convince the officers you’re not just trying to do a report on them, you really get a first hand take on how the place works, an inside view from the street”.


2. Every place has a story

“Sometimes people have low expectations or little belief in their place but there’s always a story that you can plug into. Heritage really matters, and, for example, a lot of toughness can come from an industrial background. It’s important for designers to be brave and not to be deterred by fears that the backdrop to the story may be perceived internally as negative. It’s a piece of history so explore it, don’t throw it out.”


3. Iconography crosses languages

“When you can develop icons, you should give them a go, they can work well across language barriers. Back in the 60s iconography was such a potent and effective tool for my work in Mexico, a very visual culture. I remember coming back to New York, a more wordy culture, to find icons being commonly thought of as for illiterates. After Apple made them key to their computer operating systems they are now seen as effective communicators, common for us all.”


4. Real life experiences matter

“Designers often don’t appreciate the influence of past non-design experiences and jobs. We tend to focus only on our design life. I know the time I spent in the army, the summers I worked in factories, 12 hour days, 7 days a week to pay my college tuition, and the things I saw as a kid on my father’s commercial fishing boat are a part of me and help give depth to my work.”


5. Choose your clients and drop them if you need to

“You can’t get yanked around and do good design. Good partners matter and your client should be seen as maybe your most important partner. You should both understand and appreciate what each of you brings to the table to solve a problem.”

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6. Be prepared to be a mediator

“Sometimes keeping an eye on the design solution will help you play an important role in the politics that usually arise in an urban or institutional setting. When things turn up that derail plans it’s important to remember that you can be the one who brings everyone together.”


7. Remember your audience

“We designers talk to each other in design talk. I had an epiphany experience when I first returned to New York after my work in Mexico. As part of a city program I was asked to explain to community groups how to find and get neighborhood design students and professionals to help with their outreach programs. My first talk was to a group of around 30 in Harlem. I got through about five slides when a big black woman stood up and forcibly asked, “What the fuck are you talking about man?” She was right, I was explaining design in design talk. I asked her if her block association had a t-shirt with a block name on it – she yelled “no”. I was a little rattled but started over, this time telling the things they could do and how designers could help, in understandable terms. What started out as a disaster ended with some applause at the end. It’s a lesson I keep in mind.”   


8. Don’t be scared of clichés

“I don’t worry about clichés. If I did I would have overlooked some obvious geometric relationships during the Olympics. I try not to overlook the obvious when looking for a design solution. The obvious is usually understood by everyone and when it can be transformed into a new image it can be a powerful solution.


9. Research first, design later

“It seems such an obvious thing to say, but it’s still important to spell it out. It’s important to spend a period ‘collecting’, and the more you collect the better chance you have of successfully problem solving. One thing I try to keep in mind is don’t have an attitude, try to see what’s really there and don’t make it up!”

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10. Persevere

“I remember I was branding the stations for the Mexico City Metro and was having ongoing discussions about one particular creative concept. I had a good relationship with the architect in charge of the Metro programming but he wasn’t coming round to one particular idea. We kept searching for a different solution but with no success. Finally the signs had to be finished for the Metro stations so the design had to be finalised and sent to the fabricator. The architect finally belted, ‘Go ahead and use your Goddamn butterfly!’ I had persevered and the butterfly is the icon for the station. The butterfly image is meant to relate to local fishermen in the region the station is named after, who fish with classic “butterfly nets”. What I didn’t know at the time of the Metro construction is the station area was known as the ‘calle de mariposas’ (street of butterflies), it was a street of prostitutes.”


11. Keep your eyes and ears open

“I remember the drive from the airport to the center of Mexico City on the very first day there. One of the Olympic Committee members in the car expressed concern that the area along the way, a poorer section of the city, looked shoddy and something should be done to spruce it up before the Olympics. It surprised me. Having just come from graying wintery New York the colourful Mexican cityscape looked exciting. Everyone painted their house fronts bright colors, they even painted their flower pots. I said, almost in jest, “give them paint”. I don’t know whether my remark had anything to do with it but the Olympic Committee did give them paint. It was great, not only were there newly painted house fronts and flower pots, there were many interpretations of the Olympic graphics. I regret not having photographed more of the results.”


12. Timing and luck is everything

“You can’t predict everything and you can’t plan for every eventuality. There has to be an element of good luck along the way to make a good place brand work. I remember not being able to come up with an icon idea for one of the Mexico Metro stations. The station was named after a former vice President who was assassinated in office and there wasn’t much else to work with. During the excavation of the station site an Aztec pyramid was unearthed. I used it as the theme of the station icon. A little “good luck” from the Aztecs.


13. Make your client look good

“No one put this clearer than the then New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who was publically very supportive of a new railroad line running from south of Albuquerque up to Santa Fe. I designed the graphics in collaboration with Albuquerque designer Rick Vaughn. It was at a dinner event inaugurating the program and Rick mentioned to Richardson that we were doing the graphics. Richardson gave us clear advice, “Don’t fuck it up!”

Lance Wyman is speaking at the UCL tomorrow, Thursday 21 March, 6.30pm.

Photography by Toni Buzolic, Uniform


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