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Can cities rebrand themselves? Peter Saville talks about manchester…

The interior of the Great Bridgewater Tunnel has been lit up with the slogans "Be Original" & "Be Modern" - Picture by Christian Bragg

Are cities brands like any others? Is it possible for a semiological, cultural approach to breathe new life into a city that lacks just that? This is the immense task famous graphic designer Peter Saville undertook. Beyond the covers for Factory Records that have made him famous, this is a meta-design endeavour by one of the most brilliant natives from Manchester.

Manchester: a city in search of itself

In 2002,Manchester, the third largest city in Great Britain, hosted the Commonwealth Games. This successful event encouraged the city to reflect upon its identity and its future. How could the city make itself more desirable to negotiate sponsor partnerships? Above all, in which direction did Manchester wish to go and how?

The Brand Manchester

Sir Howard Bernstein is the “chief executive” of Manchester (a function of operational management that doesn’t exist in France). He came to appreciate that he was the chief executive of a brand, called Manchester.

MIF Anniversary B

Looking for a creative director

Sir Howard wanted to know how his brand was considered, so he set out to find a creative director. It was not easy to determine, so the city joined in the search in 2004. After an international competition with famous names such as Javier Mariscal and the Pentagram Design, a native son was chosen: the famous graphic designer Peter Saville, well-known for his record covers that are genuine minimalist works of art.

“I happened to be chosen not because I was born in Manchester,” Saville affirms, “but because I think I was the more critical candidate. I was abrasive about the city because I cared. I was proud to be chosen over other talented creatives.”

A vision for Manchester

“My mission as creative director to Manchester consisted in understanding where the city was going, as well as the nature of its identity,” says Peter Saville. “So I started an investigation. I questioned the inhabitants, the economic actors and the local associations. They all had objectives and dreams for their city. But there didn’t seem to be a shared vision. How could we connect reality to an ambitious vision for Manchester?”

A story of perception

“I also realized that so much is to do with perception. How does the world see this city, and how does the city see itself?” So the graphic designer dived into the history of the city of Manchester…

“Manchester was the world’s first industrial city, literally inventing the modern city. Manchester was born modern. The city has always been a centre of innovations. 200 years ago, it attracted the most powerful minds of the time.”

But in 2004, the city needed to define a 21st century route. “The inhabitants didn’t know who they were. And the city lacked a collective vision. But the city retained the assets to be modern, in its significant universities, museums, architecture, energy…”

The interior of the Great Bridgewater Tunnel with the slogans "Be Original" & "Be Modern" - Picture by Christian Bragg

Original Modern

“When thinking about Manchester as the first industrial city in the world, a concept appeared clearly. A base for all the rest: “Original Modern.” Manchester as the ‘original modern’ city. This was a defining strategy not a motto, it’s a value assessment, something to measure against: asking the question is this thing we are doing / building / thinking modern, original?

Infuse the city

And it’s through this prism that Peter Saville hopes to breathe a second life into Manchester. “I saw that the concept of ‘Original Modern’ was intended to infuse every aspect of the city’s development, that it would be perceived as a real opportunity for the city to reinvent itself on a logical base that’s historically correct. As Berlin has been doing. Berlin is a fantastic example of a city repositioning itself.”

“Berlin is sexy”

Peter Saville recalls the sublime, surrealist declaration made by Klaus Wowereit in 2004. In an interview, then mayor of Berlin, he exclaimed, “Berlin is poor, but sexy!” “And he was perfectly right, Berlin IS sexy! Berlin is open to creativity, to artists, thinkers and do’ers. And when you have artists in a city, it romanticizes the place and that attracts people.”


But how can one make a city “sexy”?

How can one make a city “attractive”? “It’s the people that a city attracts that make it attractive,” affirms Peter Saville. “A city needs thinkers, creative and disruptive minds among its inhabitants. So a city that wants to rebrand itself must invent itself and needs to offer these creative minds the setting they are looking for. It’s all about becoming a cultured city, a cultured society… and hence ‘designing’ society.”

What would I like my city to be?

“Ten years ago, when I took the position of creative director to Manchester, I was driven by a single question: what would I like my city to be?”

(Re)constructing a city’s brand is a fascinating, exhausting, complicated mission. An intangible mission, a work of semiological, quasi-philosophical refounding, one that hasn’t yet offered Peter Saville all the expected results ten years later.

“I was inevitably perceived as the ‘graphic designer,’ but what I’m doing in Manchester is not graphics, it’s communications. I’m offering something else,” Peter Saville concludes.

To be continued…