Hamburg’s creative light pole design

It’s very handy when your in-laws live in such an aesthetic treat like Hamburg: You can explore its architecture, history, and heritage in detail. Here is a great example of how a clever approach can support a city’s story and create a memorable scenery: The design of the light poles in Hamburg’s new urban development in an old part of the harbour is mimicking the shipyard cranes in the distance. As a result, the poles and cranes merge in one coherent and impressive canvas. Kudos for the outstanding approach and great attention to detail.

Underground Branding

Location branding is in high demand. Cities are especially keen to launch superb visual styles to attract tourists. These styles reflect as well as promote certain (often idealized) self-images. Visual styles are usually based on heritage, local culture, or acclaimed landmarks. They play a key role in our perception of places.

Recently, cities have started to pay more attention to their subway systems – not traditionally seen as attractive sites for image-making. But underground stations with their signage, themed interiors, and vintage layout can sometimes be better brand ambassadors for a city than overrated, polished tourist traps.

Here is a comparison of two subway systems I visited recently. It’s clear at first glance that their concepts and desired perceptions are completely different.


Washington, DC

The Washington Metro, planned in the 1950s and built in the 60s and 70s, is monumental: Huge brutalist concrete blocks make you feel insubstantial. Stations are built to impress. The whole interior could be easily mistaken for an atomic bomb shelter or a hidden underground runway. You are immediately reminded that you’re visiting the capital of a superpower.


Stockholm Metro System


The Stockholm Tunnelbana is quite different, especially its Blue line (19 stations). There’s no trace of imperial ambition. Its core concept is the commuter experience. Stations feel spacious, well- thought out, safe, and warm. The first impression is that you’re crossing through a gate into a different world, or a newly discovered vanished civilization.


Location branding can be a very touchy affair. The visual identity I did for the city of Ivano-Frankivsk was off to a controversial start; it needed time to grow on people. Recently, it has been officially adopted as the city’s visual identity – almost three years after the initial launch. 

Eustace Vladimirovich Tilley

The cover of the New Yorker’s March 6 issue was in Cyrillic. Every year around its anniversary (February 21), The New Yorker displays its mascot Eustace Tilley on the cover. His outfit and the context varies; typically, it reflects the magazine’s content and is a commentary on the times. This is an excellent example of supporting a brand through a familiar face.

In the March 6 issue this year, Eustace Tilley is shown as President Putin and his butterfly as President Trump. This hilarious play on the two leaders’ relationship is emphasized further by displaying the magazine’s masthead in Cyrillic. In the upper left corner, in a small black bar, we find the original logo; maybe the editor feared that the cover could be mistaken for a Russian magazine.

The story behind Eustace Tilley dates back to the first number, released almost a century ago. At that time, The New Yorker was a rookie. It was conceived as a gossipy periodical, what today we would call tabloid journalism. The founders didn’t have enough ads, so humorist Corey Ford came up with an ironic Victorian-style dandy character to fill the empty pages. Eustace Tilley was featured on the first cover (drawn by the art editor Rea Irvin who also designed the iconic New Yorker font) and in a couple of playful stories about making the magazine. Incidentally, Tilley, with his ironic appearance, intensely curious about a butterfly, became the perfect face for the magazine’s future voice: intellectual, yet humorous.

Hygge - The Danish Way of Happiness

Happiness got its unofficial brand name. It’s called Hygge. This unofficial branding comes from the officially happiest* people in the world: the Danes.

According to “The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well” written by Meik Wiking, the CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Hygge is the Danish secret behind a happy life.

The book doesn’t provide life-coaching fluff for instant happiness. Wiking doesn’t presume that you’re an accomplished individual seeking that meaningful ‘something’ in your life. Quite the opposite, Hygge is simply about spending valuable time with your family and friends.
Hygge teaches that happiness is not just about you: Let go of your ego for a bit and embrace empathy. Hygge is natural: That’s why plastic is not Hygge. But memories are. Share your memories and cherish precious moments with your closest ones, advocates happiness ‘brand evangelist’ Meik Wiking. 

Hygge is so irresistibly Scandinavian that we can soon expect it to flood our everyday lives. Be prepared to search for Hygge food, Hygge clothes, Hygge conversations topics, and so on. Don’t take it as just another fashionable trend. Trends are ephemeral. If something is ephemeral, then it’s definitely not Hygge.

* Update: second happiest. In the latest version of the World Happiness Report from March 2017, Norway has upstaged Denmark:

Toblerone - A Dragon’s Sweet Tooth

In an earlier post, I mentioned that some designers avoided using the colour purple, and how Milka embraced it as a signature brand trait. Today, I am going to tell the story of another chocolate champion – Toblerone – and about another signature brand trait – the product shape.

People crave exciting narratives as much as chocolate, if not more. And if the stories around our objects of desire are not mouthwatering enough, we tend to invent better ones. Toblerone’s iconic triangular shape is so distinctive that has generated various theories about its origin.

One very common hypothesis is that the shape is a stylized version of the famous Matterhorn mountain peak, which is also depicted on Toblerone’s packaging. (The image of a bear, Toblerone’s hometown of Bern symbol, is hidden within the mountain.) 

However, the company’s website states that the chocolate’s design was inspired by a pyramidal figure of dancers at the Folies Bergères in Paris. According to this story, the founder’s son was so impressed with the show that he shaped his product after what he saw. This sounds a lot like marketing in hindsight to me, though.

Maybe the most imaginative theory is about “dragon’s teeth:” The story goes that the origin of Toblerone’s shape is connected to World War II and the anti-tank emplacements common in Switzerland at the time. These concrete wedges known as “dragon's teeth” were placed in border areas to protect Switzerland from a possible Nazi invasion. According to this theory, the chocolate bar’s shape is much more meaningful, symbolizing powerful guardians of freedom. However, Toblerone trademarked its triangular shape in 1909, well before WWII and even before the first modern tanks were in operational use. In fact, the dragon’s teeth in Switzerland are colloquially known as the Toblerone lines because they resemble the shape of the chocolate bar, not the other way around.





Toblerone Lines, photo by Alistair Scott

Toblerone Lines, photo by Alistair Scott

Yellow Stitches

I was 16 when I got my first Dr. Martens. Unfortunately, they were shoes not boots, and they didn’t have the iconic yellow welt stitching. My friends questioned my shoes’ originality and accused me of wearing cheap knockoffs. In my teenage universe that was a serious offense and I risked being shunned.

Putting aside the scariness of how brands influence our social behaviour from an early age, I have always been curious why my teenage villain, the yellow welt stitching, was such a big deal. A decade later, I learned about “Brand Attributes,” a set of traits which support the narrative behind a brand and shape its personality. Understanding the importance of these traits can be crucial in brand development and decide on its further success. In other words, we fall in love with brands because we are seduced by their attributes. If we can’t identify them, we question the brand’s authenticity. For example, a red Ferrari is always going to feel a bit more authentic than a black one. In my case, the yellow welt stitching was the key attribute that I was missing.

Dr. Martens, with its yellow stitching and other attributes, won the hearts of young people and became a symbol of rebelliousness. The story goes that its durability and firmness appealed to workers in Britain’s blue collar suburbs. But the real breakthrough came when the early ska-loving skinhead youth embraced them as an inevitable mark of their style in the 1960s.

To learn more about the history of Dr. Martens visit: