The four-starred Chicago flag flies with pride on bricked bungalows and tattooed biceps around the city. The first star represents Fort Dearborn, the military outpost that became the city. The second marks the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which burned most of the city down. The third stands for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which brought us the Ferris wheel as an enduring architecture masterpiece. And the fourth was for the Century of Progress Exposition in 1933, marking the end of the Great Depression and the rise of the Atomic Age.
As part of a new unified visual design system, the city of Chicago is getting proverbial a fifth star. That star is for the citizens of Chicago, there to combine their identity with the city itself. “We’re trying to break down the barrier of cities and its people,” says Jason Kunesh, design director of the Departments of Assets Information and Services with the city. “[We’re] saying we’re all designers, and you can remix as we can.”
Chicago’s new design system is a turnkey visual identity that allows disparate city services to operate under a single banner, from their signs to their websites. Many cities have inconsistent branding, which can cost millions of dollars yearly to maintain. In turn, major cities across the globe, including New York, Boston, Melbourne, and Oslo, have modernized and standardized logos, typefaces, and best practices in an effort to cut costs. Chicago estimates it can save anywhere from $5 million to $10 million a year by taking some simple steps to unify the design of 29 different departments around the city with its brand. That figure sounds astonishing, but it is in line with what other cities have accomplished. Even the United States Department of Digital Services has taken this approach to cost cutting, saving millions in the process.
The Chicago Design System only copies the strategy of these other cities. Developed in conjunction with Ogilvy, it has an aesthetic that is uniquely Chicago. There’s a new typeface, developed by typographer Patric King. Dubbed “Big Shoulders” after the Carl Sandburg nickname for the city, it features snaking M, N, and W glyphs that are meant to evoke shoulders. (The visual effect is, perhaps, more figurative than literal, but the glyphs are distinctive if nothing else.) Meanwhile, the general colors and layouts of the brand are all inspired by the Chicago flag.
The Chicago flag hasn’t always been an icon for the city. It has existed since 1917, but only in the 1990s did a new wave of young adults moving into Chicago help make the flag popular. Today, it’s omnipresent across the city, all over private bars, on social media, and plastered on a million products that aren’t just purchased by tourists; as Chicago Magazine puts it only a little jokingly: “Chicago’s Flag Is A Much Bigger Deal Than Any Other City’s Flag.”
Under the previous mayor, Rahm Emanuel, as Kunesh began early research on the city’s visual history without anyone’s explicit permission, he knew that elements such as the city crest, with esoteric symbology including a Native American figure and baby in a seashell, would need to be cleaned up to live on in any design system. But the flag’s elements of blue bars and red stripes seemed naturally unifying, and so it would make a strong visual basis for the city’s brand look. “The flag is constantly being remixed by people all the time anyway,” he says.
When Mayor Lori Lightfoot took office last year, Kunesh’s department got the formal green light to push the project forward. He tells me he was happy to see the mayor’s philosophy that “equity and inclusion” would be the basis for the city’s future, because that lined up well with their thoughts on the Chicago Design System.
The typeface is designed to be legible, with clear strokes for people with visual impairment. The colors of blue, black, and red offer high contrast that’s accessible, too. But the biggest inclusive strategy is that people can literally download the city’s visual assets to make their organization part of the city’s own logo—an approach somewhat reminiscent of the Hillary 2016 logo, an H that could adopt an unlimited array of causes. It just takes a blue box, a red star, and whatever your logo is—from a rainbow flag promoting local pride to a Puerto Rican flag promoting local heritage. Official organizations within the city, such as the Department of Transportation, use an almost identical visual scheme. The only difference we see in the brand materials is that official logos run horizontally, and fan mashups run vertically—though obviously there’s nothing stopping the public from remixing the Chicago brand however it likes.
Chicago is still a long ways away from moving all of its organizations under this new, unified branding, and Kunesh admits that some tweaking may be necessary as the city gets feedback from the public. To the best of his knowledge, however, Chicago is the first major city to make its citizens a literal part of its visual identity. And what could be a more appropriate way to depict a place than with the people living inside of it?