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.