Columbus is a small town of 45,000-plus citizens in South Central Indiana that boasts one of the highest concentrations of significant modern architecture featuring buildings by renown architects like Eero Saarinen, I. M. Pei, and Richard Meier, who benefited from the patronage of J. Irwin Miller, President of Cummins, a Fortune 500 corporation that designs, manufactures, and distributes engines from its headquarters in Columbus. Miller set up the Cummins Foundation and offered the city it would pay all the architects fees for new public buildings in Columbus. As many of you know, Paul Rand designed Cummins’ logo but he also played a role in designing the city’s logo, a version of which remains in use today. Recently, the Columbus Area Visitors Center worked with Chicago, IL-based Thirst to develop an overarching identity program for the city’s four key neighborhoods.
In 1974, Paul Rand designed Columbus Indiana: A Look at Architecture. This book showcased the city’s modernist architecture. The cover featured a playful motif referred to as the “Dancing Cs,” and with Rand’s permission, Columbus adopted the dancing Cs as its graphic identity.
In 2017, the Columbus Area Visitor’s Center leadership initiated a project to connect four neighborhoods with design. The goal was to develop neighborhood graphics that allowed for visible connections throughout the city by giving form to the unique personalities of each neighborhood.
Rick Valicenti and Bud Rodecker led the research and design process in collaboration with Greater Good Studio. Our process began with community engagement presentations and interviews, as we believe that Columbus residents know their city’s design legacy best. Many vibrant exchanges revealed that the community had a keen awareness of design. This creative process was richly rewarded with inspiration from Columbus residents.
This is not a typical identity project but given its origin story, it’s a very interesting case study and a prime example that our job can sometimes require us to NOT be original but instead celebrate and expand on past or existing ideas and applications. That is not to say, there is nothing original in Thirst’s work — especially as you progress down the post you’ll see how awesomely it starts to build up — but that, to a certain degree, their work was more of an anthropological task and reimagining what could be done with the existing legacy of the place that, aside from fantastic architecture, also consisted of contributions from the likes of Alexander Girard and the Eames.
The “Dancing Cs” is something most of us have seen in design history books or stumbled across online and they reflect the kind of simplicity and playfulness emblematic of Rand that, for better or worse, many of us revere to the point where it shan’t be fucked with but Thirst has done a great job of just that by keeping the core idea and execution intact but building on it with some twenty-first-century flair and modern-day flexibility to expand to various applications — tote bags weren’t yet the rage in 1960s corporate identity projects.
Paul Rand wasn’t the only designer working in Columbus at the time. Alexander Girard was instrumental in developing the main street master plan and designed the interiors to the famous Miller House. Charles and Ray Eames were ever present with their furniture. To create more variety, we introduced iconography to the pattern inspired by Girard and Eames.
The graphic program takes on slightly different executions for each of the four neighborhoods, starting with the more straightforward approach of Downtown Columbus that only features the “Cs” and building up graphically to the other three with the introduction of a range of abstracted “C”s and other Mid Century-esque dingbats.
By the time you have scrolled to this last pattern, hopefully you are cheering and/or golf-clapping because this is some pretty fantastic and distinctive work that builds an idiosyncratic and locally relevant design language that will add to the charm of the city.
All the applications are renders so far, so it’s hard to get super excited about them but given Columbus’ ability to make cool and ambitious things happen — check out these killer “C” bike racks — I don’t doubt that in a year or two many of the applications here (and some of the sculptures shown at Thirst’s website) will be implemented. Given that we live a short 40-minute drive from Columbus, I’ll make sure to Instagram it when it happens.