Rebranding cities

I just came across The Londonist’s London Rebranded: The Capital’s Changing Names, Mapped:

80 years ago, the word Fitzrovia was yet to be coined. 70 years ago, nobody talked about the ‘South Bank’. 50 years ago, Chinatown would conjure images of Limehouse. 40 years ago, Canary Wharf was little-known outside the docks. 10 years ago, nobody said ‘Midtown’. Today, nobody says Midtown.

Nothing is eternal in a city like London, and that includes the place names. New Cross was once known as Hatcham. The village of Garratt, famous for its mock mayoral elections, long ago vanished into the sprawl of Wandsworth.

In recent years, the pace of change, or proposed change, has accelerated. Neighbourhoods right across the capital are looking for pseudonyms, as property developers, business improvement districts (BIDs) and the occasional cultural or residents’ group seek swankier names to attract attention. The most egregious example is Midtown, coined a half decade ago by the local BID to encapsulate the traditional areas of Holborn, Bloomsbury and St Giles. Many more examples are competing for recognition, from Tyburnia to London’s Luxury Quarter. Some areas are pluripotent with possibilities. Londonist’s office, for example, might be located in Tech City, the Silicon Roundabout, SoSho or Hoxditch. Or maybe just plain Old Street.

A March 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible covered similar ground:

In San Francisco, the area South of Market Street is called SoMa. The part of town North of the Panhandle is known as NoPa. Around the intersection of North Oakland, Berkeley and Emeryville, real estate brokers are pitching properties as part of NOBE. An area of downtown Oakland is being branded as KoNo, short for Koreatown Northgate. But no one actually calls it that, or at least, not yet.

There is not really a name for this naming convention. They are not quite acronyms, not quite portmanteaus, and not just abbreviations. We at 99% Invisible have been calling them acronames, or if you want to get in the spirit of the thing: AcNa’s for short.

These sorts of rebranding and renaming activities are signs of gentrification, plain and simple. In 2011, New York politician Hakeem Jeffries proposed the ‘Neighborhood Integrity Act’ to restrict developers from concocting new names without community involvement:

The bill wasn’t successful.

Looking back over history, different places are more or less open to this sort of change, but it always happens incredibly slowly. In the case of London, place names only tend to change (or at least catch on) with the arrival of a new Underground station.

I wondered about the cartographers’ role. How do they label areas? Where are the boundaries when talking about places commonly referred to only by compass direction (e.g. SoHo in Manhattan is short for South of Houston Street)?

In the UK, the neighbourhood/city/county boundaries are of differing levels of importance. I live in Milton Keynes, and the neighbourhoods here are very clearly defined by the grid system of roads. There is no confusion where, say, Heelands ends and Bradwell Common begins. As made clear in the links above, other cities don’t have this clear definition.

The boundaries of neighbourhoods have have partial influence in terms of some public services, like waste collection and school catchment areas. But most key services (police, fire, ambulance) go on county lines which tend to be more established and agreed.

If we were to engage our neighbourhood residents on boundaries and names, a participatory and democratic approach might be to:

  • Consider historical information. Who were the settlers or early established populations living in the area, and what terms did they use? (In fact: what languages did they speak?)
  • Take into account plurality of voices. Some locals will side with property developers and want a new place name if it means their properties increase in value. Others may focus on status and/or self-identity and will disagree. What other groups exist? Which are the largest?
  • Consult user-generated content and ‘consensus’ sites. Asking 100 people to define their neighbourhood is likely to result in 100 different answers. How has Wikipedia been updated over the years? Who has been doing it? What maps have been created using Google Map Maker? (Not that this approach is immune to error.)

In any case, things in cities do not change quickly, and anyone who hopes they will (like overzealous property developers) are kidding themselves. Designer Mitchell Joachim, in this conversation with writer Darren Anderson, is talking about the slow progress of cities through changes in their architecture, but I think the same thinking is applicable to these sorts of name and boundary changes:

When we think about cities, it’s the same level of thinking. It’s not as difficult to think about cities as it is to create the Apollo mission, because we don’t have to invent a lot of the engineering from scratch. When you talk about changing cities, the actual city morphology doesn’t shift overnight. Take, for example, my iPhone. From a napkin sketch to an actual device you can purchase, it’s a five year process. So if I said, “holographic smart phone,” which by the way I just pulled out of my ass, someone in Apple will have an okay version of the technology required, but it’s five years before you have a pretty shitty but working model. That’s the scale to change a telecommunications device.

Architecture is forty years before you see a paradigm shift. You can see all these experimental buildings with unbelievable forms, but that’s not the everyday act in architecture. Doors and windows and roofs and boiler heaters take a long time to change. I’m not going to buy a super-sustainable boiler until the current one I have utterly fails or simply costs me too much money. So that’s when you see replacements in architecture. And with cities it takes a hundred to 150 years before all of this discussion and all of those different scales rationalise themselves and become everyday practice in city design. To be a really good city designer, you need multiple hats, bridging multiple disciplines, looking at all facets of technology and how society evolves at their timescales before you find a new city.

Joachim goes on to consider the last time this sort of city branding worked—the creation of garden cities:

Thinking of historical cases that have worked. One is Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. That worked because it was a meme. It had a great title. Who didn’t want to live in a garden city? How do you argue against that?

But that’s one too many threads pulled upon for now.

How to create your own thesaurus

John Saito has an interesting approach to writing product copy—he created his own thesaurus from common themes he frequently writes about.

These words aren’t exact synonyms of the word “mobile.” But they’re words that you can use when talking about the benefits of a mobile app. I found this list a lot more helpful than anything I could find in thesaurus.com.

Once I had this list, it was so much easier to write some quick copy:

  • “YouTube goes where you go”
  • “Bring your music with you and never miss a beat”
  • “All your favorite videos—right at your fingertips”

You get the idea. Once your list is big enough, you can just pick a few phrases and iterate from there. Copywriting becomes a lot easier when you have a list of words to start from.

The typography of Stranger Things

Alice Vincent, for The Telegraph:

Stranger Things’s opening credits are an ode to typography. The drama’s title emerges only after the credits have woven their way through them, the lines that make up the letters glowing like the red neon bars of a Motel sign.

I knew it was reminiscent of something, but wasn’t sure what. It turns out that the typeface, ITC Benguiat, is also used on the Choose Your Own Adventure books, as well as Strangeways, Here We Come by The Smiths.

The typeface’s designer, Ed Benguiat, also designed logos and typefaces for Ford, the New York Times and Playboy, as well as Planet Of The Apes and Twin Peaks.

(Of course, you can make your own Stranger Things logo.)

The typography of John Lewis

A 2012 post for Eye Magazine:

As an early adopter of Modernist themes in retailing, John Lewis used Helvetica from the 1970s to the 90s. A classical note was struck in 1989 with the introduction of Elan capitals for the store names in the John Lewis Partnership (including many acquired stores such as Coles Brothers and Pratts, which were still known by their original names until the 1990s).

I always liked this monogram-style logo by Hans Scheduler, originally from the 1960s:

John lewis Partnership logo from the 1960s

After Helvetica, the company went on to use (briefly) Elan and now a modified Gill Sans:

It was not until this century that Gill Sans was introduced as the John Lewis type family. Interviewed in 2001 for the John Lewis in-house magazine, Cooper had acknowledged the need for further change: ‘The new typeface we will be using on everything from signage to stationery is very elegant and looks contemporary – ironic really, as Eric Gill designed it in the 1920s.’

On what street did you lose your childlike sense of wonder

1: Karaoke ebooks

This is terrific. As you might guess from the ebooks part of the name, it creates Markov chains from your tweets, but it forms rhyming couplets and sets them to MIDI music. Brilliant.

2: Stop your team using technical terms and jargon – disambiguity

Most weeks I am ridiculed by someone for insisting on plain language – avoiding acronyms and technical language / jargon in particular. People tell me that I’m slowing the team down by making them use proper words, and that their end users or stakeholders expect them to use technical language.

These things are both true. You should still use plain language.

3: Across the USA by train for just $213

Traveling coast-to-coast across the United States by train is one of the world’s greatest travel experiences. Amazingly, it’s also one of the world’s greatest travel bargains — the 3,400-mile trip can cost as little as $213.

4: Scenes from our unproduced screenplay: ‘Strunk & White: Grammar Police’

BEAT COP
It’s over here, detectives. The body was found about an hour ago.

STRUNK
Use the active voice, rookie.

5: As the Guardian Berliner format turns ten, we look back at a decade of design change

Ten years ago this month the Guardian launched its Berliner format. We talk to its creative team about a decade of rapid change at the paper, and examine how design is now more important than ever in helping us navigate an increasingly complicated media landscape…

6: How to Have 106 babies (and counting)

Ed Houben is Europe’s most virile man. And after years of donating sperm the “normal” way (sterile room, cup, cash), he and some women looking to get pregnant for free began cutting out the middlemen and getting it done as nature prefers it (sex!). Today, Houben has over a hundred children—and Ed the Babymaker is in greater demand than ever. We imagine you have some questions

7: How Spotify’s Discover Weekly cracked human curation at internet scale

The algorithms behind Discover Weekly finds users who have built playlists featuring the songs and artists you love. It then goes through songs that a number of your kindred spirits have added to playlists but you haven’t heard, knowing there is a good chance you might like them, too. Finally, it uses your taste profile to filter those findings by your areas of affinity and exploration. Because the playlist, that explicit act of curation, is both the source of the signal and the final output, the technique can achieve results far more interesting than run of the mill collaborative filtering.

8: Me Inc.

The paradoxical, pressure-filled quest to build a “personal brand.”

9: P.G. Wodehouse On The Dangers Of Literature

It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.

And:

Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.

10: Apologies To The Queen Mary turns 10

A truly terrific album gets a good anniversary review.

Apologies To The Queen Mary is far more approachable, an album that spins universal reverie out of family trauma, relational struggle, and spiritual crisis. It’s music that renders the horror and delight of life on Earth as an epic struggle we all share. “I’ll believe in anything!” Krug sings at the album’s peak, desperately reaching for a fresh start and the freedom of some anti-Cheers: “where nobody knows you and nobody gives a damn.” Apologies To The Queen Mary itself can function as that kind of common ground, a set of inspiring songs many kinds of people can rally around, if only for a few fleeting moments. A decade into its history, it remains music worth believing in.

11: Future reading

I’m not entirely swayed by this piece—straw men abound—but it seems to have gotten a lot of people talking about books and reading and formats and focus, and that can only be a good thing.

From 2009 to 2013, every book I read, I read on a screen. And then I stopped. You could call my four years of devout screen‑reading an experiment. I felt a duty – not to anyone or anything specifically, but more vaguely to the idea of ‘books’. I wanted to understand how their boundaries were changing and being affected by technology. Committing myself to the screen felt like the best way to do it.

11: Nihilistic password security questions

On what street did you lose your childlike sense of wonder?

12: WEIRD SIMPSONS VHS

To cheep, as a young bird

1: An interactive guide to ambiguous grammar

This might be the best thing I’ve read all year. I didn’t guess where it was going.

2: The great big Twitter purge (you probably haven’t heard about)

Specifically the millions of followers that have been wiped from dozens of so-called parody accounts, the influential profiles that satirize celebrities or pop culture. The most powerful accounts have audiences in the millions, and their owners can make thousands of dollars per day through sponsored posts. But many accounts are being accused of stealing the content they share.

3: Facebook’s new spam-killer hints at the future of coding

When Facebook engineers needed to build new anti-spam system, they turned to Haskell, a relatively niche programming language. Here’s why. (This is of broader appeal than it might first appear!)

4: Today I fucked up by letting my brother take advantage of my Yu-Gi-Oh! card addiction

A cautionary tale of why you should always follow doctor’s orders. No matter if your siblings bribe you.

5: How podcasts have changed in ten years: By the numbers

I’ve noticed since starting a podcast of my own that research on the field is scant. Most of the research I’ve read has focused on listener behavior, which is fine for marketers, but other questions about the medium have gone unanswered. I decided to address a few.

  • What iTunes categories have the most podcasts?
  • How many podcasts are launched per month?
  • How many podcasts are active?
  • How long is a typical podcast episode? How often is a typical podcast updated?
  • How many podcasts have explicit content?
  • How many podcasts are not in English?
  • How many ratings or reviews does a typical podcast receive?

6: Tools we use 1: Publishing print newspapers online: CMSs

Which newspaper sites use which CMSs? I expected to see a big difference between BLOX for U.S. dailies and WordPress for everything else, but the gap is huge.

7: A brief history of yippee-ki-yay

The yip part of yippee is old. It originated in the 15th century and meant “to cheep, as a young bird,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The more well-known meaning, to emit a high-pitched bark, came about around 1907, as per the OED, and gained the figurative meaning “to shout; to complain.”

8: Create free brand & design style guides with Frontify style guide

Manage logos, images, colours, typography etc. See also Canva for Work.

9: Tips for writing and editing news stories involving trans people.

10: Dear pedants: Your fave grammar rule is probably fake

It turns out, virtually all authoritative sources agree these rules are nonsense. We can consider the authority of historical texts before the advent of these pop grammar rules. Does historical record show that speakers were breaking these rules before they even existed? Yes. Or we can appeal to literary usage by expert wielders of the English language such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, James Joyce, Mark Twain to name just a few. They’ve all had their fair share of grammatical ‘errors’. There are examples throughout the history of the English language of many of these grammar rules being blithely broken by speakers. Even the style guides of contemporary publications such as The Economist admit that “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.” Or as Geoffrey K. Pullum wryly translates it “this mythical and pointless prohibition against a natural syntactic construction has never been defended by any serious grammarian; but observe it anyway, because we’re scared of our readers.”

11: Lastly, type I’m feeling curious into Google.