I heart city branding: a look at Berlin, San Francisco and Melbourne


Vintage postcards from: Berlin (left); Melbourne (middle); San Francisco (right)

In the last two decades, this little thing called globalization has changed a lot of things — our great big world is all of a sudden a whole lot smaller. Not only can we travel the world comfortably, quickly and fairly cheaply, we can  also shop around for destinations on the internet instead of trying to find the perfect guidebook in (heaven forbid) a bookstore or through good old word of mouth.

But, this new ease of discovery comes with its own fallbacks, or at least challenges. It poses a particular question and problem for each city and nation. These municipalities are now charged with the task of creating for themselves a unique identity. A city, now like any other marketable product, must create for itself a reputation to market to the Key Three (residents, tourists and industry) through singular images that will resonate around the web, not to mention around the world. The logo must appeal to and represent these disparate groups in order to succeed. Now thats a tall order! However, it is in fact a tall order that city officials are shelling out the big bucks for.

The beauty of this new age is city branding can be completed on an official level, with logos commissioned by the government, or on an unofficial level, directly related to the citizens and lovers of these cities themselves, where we create our own identities.

Let’s take a look at the official and unoffical branding of 99designs’ home cities: Melbourne, San Francisco and Berlin.

City Seals

City seals began as a city’s coat of arms. In an older city like Berlin (well at least older than babies San Francisco and Melbourne) seals were a lot like logos, although significantly less proliferated with a lack of Internet (ooooh imagine the times). However despite their various ages as cities, each of our three cities featured here have their own seals, each beautifully ‘old-school’ and detailed.

San Francisco‘s seal reminds us of the city’s beginnings as a port town which brought gold-hungry miners to the shores of California from all over the world. The Latin inscription reads: Gold in Peace, Iron in War

The Berlin seal in its most original form goes back to the 13th century! Here is one from the 18th century when the bear started factoring into things: While no one can totally remember how the bear came to represent the city of Berlin there are many rumors. One of which claims that Berlin, the name of the city, comes from a diminutive form of the Middle Ages German word for Bear (now Bär, then Bër). So perhaps the bear is the very reason for the city’s name itself (which is ultimately the biggest part of any city’s branding).

18th Century Seal (left) Flag (middle) for documents (right

The seal started featuring the bear in the middle of the 18th century. Some later designs featuring the bear, including the flag of the city itself, or the image you might see on some official documents with a slightly different implementation.

And in The City of Design, you can be sure there have been some clever modifications by the city’s creative residents

Melbourne‘s seal, adopted in the mid 1800′s, features the ever popular Australian kangaroo and the city seal mainstay: the lion.


Berlin spends more than 5 million USD per year on their branding campaigns (and admittedly, it seems to be working quite well). But the competition is stiff. The world is your oyster, and the more cities and nations brand themselves the more people know about how fun and exciting our world is and how many options there are.

Melbourne has most recently come up with a new (and might we comment, most excellent) logo for their city.

Part of what makes this design so visually excellent are it’s cutting-edge angles and seeming extension into 3D. More importantly, its usages extend to many realms of branding. Not only does the actual ‘M’ look delightful in the upper left hand corner of the city’s website, the multi-linear ‘belly’ of the design reappear as a background to the city’s website. It is used as icons all over the site and works well in multiple implementations. Considering the city spent close to $75,000 US dollars on the design (from a Sydney firm), it looks like money well spent on a welcoming, forward thinking design for a welcoming and forward thinking city.

It is exactly this similarity between what the city ‘stands for’ and its branding that city officials and their designing friends are looking for. Melbourne is a city that prides itself on its reputation as a laid back place to live and visit.

On the Berlin front, here is one (there are, indeed many) of Berlin’s city logos.

This logo features most prominently on the city’s tourism website, and thusly prominently features one of the city’s most visible and famous landmarks, the Brandenburger Tor. This impressive piece of history, the giant gate that watched Kaisers come and go and was stuck in between East and West Berlin throughout the Cold War, and watched as the people demanded that it be torn down. Appropriately so, it is selected to represent this city. It is part of their ‘be Berlin’ campaign, whose pun comes at the cost of  a departure from the city’s native language, perhaps a sign of the growing internationality to this ‘City of Design’ (named by UNESCO, not a city marketer).

This one is used more frequently as a tourist logo, most frequently appearing on the sides of shot glasses and on plush bears. Members of our Berlin offices don’t ‘t find this logo particularly creative, but understand that it lends itself to easy implementation.


Finally we have San Francisco. This City by the Bay, with such a huge number of iconic landmarks dotting it’s measly six square miles.  They do show the beloved Golden Gate Bridge on this unofficial tourism website:

But they chose this as the header to their city website:

Yes, we know, its questionable at best. But at least they’re still using that good old city seal! And, interestingly enough, other influences from outside the official sphere of logo-dom.


This side of city marketing, in which official branding has been subverted and used and seen as an unofficial love for the city is almost like the opposite of San Francisco sports teams. In a city that is lacking in official branding the binary has gone the other way, with unofficial sports logos made for the spirit of the people are now being used by the city government itself.

Although the above images may make it seem as though SF is currently lagging in the logo game, the city is fortunate enough to get free (or semi-free) branding from its currently ridiculously successful sports teams (remember that banner from the SF government up there). Pick your poison: The 49ers (or Niners as they are lovingly known) and The Giants. The Giants already won the World Series this year as well as only two short years before and the Niners are kicking booty for the second year in a row, heading all the way to the Superbowl (which we here in San Francisco find pretty super!)  While the simple logos for these teams have long stood in as the city, they have recently increased their value due to the success of the teams. Go team SF!

San Francisco 49ers (left) San Francisco Giants (right)

These logos, which this here native didn’t even realize were made of the city’s initials until well into her second decade here, have spawned mad crazy appreciation, even this hand contortion which has then inspired necklaces and T-shirts:

Do you see the SF logo (yeah its hard, but keep looking)

Sports are a huge part of a city’s branding. If a city wants to maintain pride and national or international respect and attention, they must maintain a successful and memorable sports team. That is why they (again) shell out the big bucks as these institutions balance on the line between official and unofficial symbols of the city. Perhaps it is their connection with the unofficial that allows them to connect so well with the pride of citizens.

Berlin and Melbourne also have sports teams. In Melbourne this is especially important where much of their identity is based on the Aussie sporty lifestyle. Their three main sports, well aside from surfing and all other water sports, mate, are Australian Rules Football, Rugby, soccer, even cricket! The soccer team, the Melbourne Hearts actually just got a new logo, which is whipping up interest in the design community (l), although the football club (m) steals a good amount of fans as does the rugby team.


Soccer team Melbourne Heart (left), Rugby team Melbourne Rebels (middle), Australian Rules Football team (right)

Another logo needed to be created for the Australian Open, happening right now in Melbourne. This image that would be seen on the television sets and sports magazines of tennis fans the world over was important to make sure that it would pop. This is what they got:

Good work Melbourne on taking advantage of an opportunity for city branding.

Berlin as well has its own various sports teams, whether its the Berlin Eisbären (Polar Bears), the hockey team, or Hertha, the soccer team that struggles ever so valiantly against the powerful Bayern-Munich:

Hockey team Eisbären (left) Soccer (Fußbol) team Hertha (right)

While sports are far and away definitely not the defining factor of Das Berliner Leben (Berlin Life) — that would be music and art — this image of the Eisbär is another implementation of the many bear related images that relate back to Berlin.


One part of each city’s infrastructure that is constantly used for city pride is its transportation. It seems logical that to really understand a city, you have to understand its public transit. To really live somewhere, you need to know what station you get off at, what your line is, in fact, the transit system may quite possibly be where you spend most of your time while living in a city. So it better be good, or at least interesting.

Perhaps most important has been city’s metro map’s themselves. Maybe it is because the nature of these designs are what becomes the most practical map of a city, the most obvious guide of how to navigate a city, and one that must be properly implemented in order for it to be easy to use and visually attractive; able to be effectively used as definitive symbols of each city.

Berlin‘s well designed, perfectly colored and amazing ease of use cannot be understated as a contribution to what makes the Berlin U-Bahn one of the best city transit systems in the world.


Here’s Melbourne:

And San Francisco, with its ever-complicated 293874392874 (no not really, just about 90) bus lines:

But each of these cities and transportation offices also have their own logos.

We may be partial here in San Francisco’s 99designs office, but the SF MUNI (municipal transit) is one that we have been loving and head-scratching over for years.

If you look ever so closely, you’ll see that it says MUNI. Its subtle, and that is part of what makes it so great. Its like a secret just for locals.

Some people have so much love for it that this happens:

Now if that’s not brand love I don’t know what is. Not to mention this image comes to us from a website called munidiaries, a whole website devoted to the brand and not just its beloved logo.

Another secret for locals is the Berliner U-Bahn (short for Untergrund Bahn, or underground train).

The city, first of all, places images of the city on the trains themselves, with these darn cute mini Brandenburger Tors on each window of the fleet. Additionally the yellow color of each train makes it an easily recognizable image when seen coming around the bend of the track, or making someone’s German tourist photos obviously Berlin as opposed to Hamburg, or Bremen, or wherever.

Melbourne is not without a transit logo as well:

More importantly though are the ways in which citizens appropriate these transit symbols as signs of their identity. Lots of this is with T-shirts.

Representing your line. Its like saying ‘Yeah, wuddup, I know where I’m going and I know where I come from!’ Like these T-shirts from Berlin (left). Melbourne’s green trams have become a source of pride for the city that has been working hard to get away from its well-known reliance on cars (middle), and this San Francisco BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) T-shirt uses the transit map to define the entire area itself (right).

Street Art

Part of the reason why 99designs chose these three (fabulous) cites for our offices is because of their inherent inclination towards design and the arts. Now any old city can give themselves a large budget and make a pretty logo. But what really makes these cities pop is the design and art culture running through the streets like water.

Berlin in particular shines in this aspect. After the wall fell in 1989 much of Eastern Berlin was like a no man’s land, but more like everyone’s land. Graffiti was popping up everywhere, most notably along the East Side Gallery, a section of The Wall that was converted to a sort of museum on the subject of peace and understanding. It is in fact the longest running, in both time and length, open-air gallery in the world. Impressive Berlin, impressive. Many of the images, commissioned by famous artists from Germany and beyond, have come to be a representation of the state of the city since the wall fell, and have come to represent it’s new freedom and its new and insistent nurturing of art and creativity. We like that. It also happens to majorly encourage tourism, and they like that.

Some samples:

They show up on postcards (1), are über-famous political statements that have made their way to mugs and ashtrays and read at the bottom My God, help me to outlive this deathly love, (2) are just plain trippy and cool to look at (3) or feature East  German relics like the Trabi, which was the only automobile sold in Eastern Germany (4).

But you’ll have to go to see the rest. Look, we got you!

This tradition of art in the name of freedom and in the name of the people has continued all over the city to the point where it is now one of the biggest attractions to visitors in this city. What discerning Berlin tourist hasn’t taken at least one graffiti shot or been to Kunsthaus Tacheles (R.I.P). It is the very idea of graffiti in Berlin and defines the spirit of the city. In a city post-Cold War, where freedoms were limited but The People were meant to be of the utmost importance, the city of Berlin now markets itself as a place where there is not just freedom, but also still the spirit of The People.

One of the more famous graffiti’s in Berlin, by artist BLU, is said to represent the coming together of East and West Berlin. It also happens to be around the corner from our Berlin offices.

Just something as simple as this can promote the most pride in the city of Berlin:

A liberal sprinkling of a variety of ‘Ich Liebe Dich’ marks all over the city is enough to make any resident or tourist have mad Liebe for Berlin.

Some other recognizable pieces, these two happen to hail from Kreuzberg:

By Alice (left); Unknown, Kreuzberg (right

Melbourne is also hugely famous and popular in regards to graffiti, not only in Aussieland but also the world over (and that, my friends, is the goal). The city has become the official ‘underground style’ capital of Australia. Whereas Sydney has the Opera House and Olympic grounds, Melbourne has the art. It is in fact graffiti that is the most recent part of Melbourne’s self-branding as the art capital of Australia.

Deb (left); Unknown Artist (center-left); Unknown Artist, Photo by Andrew Bertuleit (center-right); Ghostpatrol (right

San Francisco, is unfortunately just a little bit behind the other two cities. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and say that there is no street art in San Francisco. Check it:

Screen Shot 2013-01-25 at 3.37.00 PM

Swoon (left); Anonymous (right)

A piece by Swoon, one of graffiti’s leading ladies, graces the SF Mission District next to the heart and soul of SF: tagging. While perhaps less visually appealing and a little more egotistical, they are ultimately just less of pieces and more short bursts of creativity, which can be fun to experience when peeing at a bar or walking down the street. And this here guy is pretty sweet.

And, (warning SF secrets about to be spilled), San Francisco has its own kind of East Side Gallery, in a Mission alleyway called Clarion. Filled with a constantly shifting array of contemporary street-style art, this gallery for the people is becoming one of the hottest thing about potentially the hottest neighborhoods (The Mission). In fact, it seems to be a hearkening to The East Side Gallery itself with the stated goals of inclusiveness and artistic variety. Now thats some inter-city love. However these murals or street pieces, or whatever you would like to call them, all show an aspect of San Francisco’s identity.

Keeping the hippie vibe alive and free in SF, by Megan Wilson (left); Looks like Tuppence a bag, but also paints a stunning portrait of something that San Franciscans see daily as part of the city’s homeless culture, by Daniel Doherty (center-left); America’s gay capital does it right by Unknown Artist (center-right); Sirron Norris paints these lil blue guys all over the city (right)


But, really, there are symbols in everything from a city. Be it San Francisco mayor Ed Lee’s mustache as a source of city pride:

Or images relating to SF’s local hippie heroes The Grateful Dead, there’s that famous Bridge again:

The logo for Berlin‘s favorite club (left) or street party (right):

The Berliner Ampelmännchen, which literally translates to Little Streetlight Men. Go…STOP:

Or, a humorous, in both name and style, architectural icon like the Melbourne Cheesestick:

This curious yellow stick has become quite the landmark for the Melbournians. Maybe its just the hilarious name that makes you want to grab something long and cheesy or its design which is quite difficult to fathom. Or maybe its just what welcomes Melbournians home on a drive into the city from the airport.


The important thing to consider about city branding, is that it is a wild beast, and one that refuses to be tamed by official city logos. While the idea of a city as a brand is the real deal in today’s international marketplace there is so much more to what people think of when they think of a city other than an ‘M’ on a website or an outdated-seeming city seal.

There is a larger form of design that covers each and every city that is made not only by the officials, but by the creators of the city itself, and by the citizens, by the people who make the city what it is, the people who create the city’s brand without maybe even knowing about it.

This branding can come from any logo design, whether its for the government or the coffee shop around the corner. No matter the size, you can make an impact on the way the world sees a city. And that is something pretty powerful.

For more cool images from these three cities, check out the Pinterest boards we have set up in their honor.

What does your city branding look like?

I heart city branding: a look at Berlin, San Francisco and Melbourne | manda | 4.5
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