How We Created the Logo for CityLab

When creating a new brand identity, design matters.

On May 15, we relaunched The Atlantic Cities as CityLab, with a new address, a mobile-, tablet-friendly design, a cleaner aesthetic, and a brand-new identity.

The Atlantic Cities launched in September 2011 as a place to “explore the most innovative ideas and pressing issues facing today’s global cities and neighborhoods.” The original Pentagram-designed logo was created to fit in with the Atlantic family.

As the site approached its two-year anniversary, it was clear that the great content was being limited by an aging website design that was quickly becoming harder to use and navigate.

It was also clear that Cities maintained a loyal audience, independent from the other Atlantic sites.

So as the site redesign kicked off in early 2014, we had a couple goals for a new visual identity:

  1. Because so many of our readers access the site on mobile devices, the logo had to work on small and big screens alike.
  2. We wanted the brand to convey the vibrancy of a city, while maintaining a sense of authority.  

I worked with The Atlantic magazine’s creative director, Darhil Crooks, to explore a few approaches. (Watch this awesome explainer on how Darhil revamped the magazine design.)

Here’s a quick look at what inspired my logo drafts.

In drafts A and B, the map pin as the I came from the ideas of city as place: Home is where you are, and city dwellers both inhabit and explore their surroundings. This concept was simply too literal, especially when CityLab dropped its former tagline, “Place Matters.”

Drafts C and D referenced directional signage for urban dwellers and commuters, with a nod to subway and airport signs.

But something bothered me. Had I seen this concept before? Blerg—this is precisely the concept behind CB2, and they nailed it. So, back to the drawing board.

Drafts E and F were a play on the street signs and directional arrows often found in a cityscape. While cheeky in concept, the down/up arrows could unintentionally connote negativity/positivity.

Darhil developed drafts of the logotype with the idea of deconstructing the letter forms, in contrast to the way a city is constructed.

According to Darhil, “The inspiration came from cities themselves. I wanted to do something that was modular and based on the idea of grids, blueprints, and city planning. I started by looking for a font that was perfectly geometric, with even spaces, but I couldn't quite find the right fit. So instead, I ‘built’ the letters. Each one is made from either a circle or a rectangle, or a combination of both. From there I gave it the stencil look to emphasize the geometry and angles.”

Darhil’s designs are seen in drafts G through I.

These forms break down into simple shapes.

We zeroed in on draft G.

This bold, simple treatment appealed to our team. We continued to refine this draft, making adjustments in the gaps, kerning, and weight so the logo could scale down gracefully. We topped it off by refining the letter C: adding a gap and opening up the counter.

We settled on this variation and added the logo to the new CityLab previews. The logo clearly fit within the feel of the new site design, and there was much rejoicing.