A few days ago I was listening to an episode of 99% Invisible – one of my favorite podcasts – which was about icons that are so ubiquitous that nobody knows where they came from, yet knows what they mean, even if they don’t seem to literally represent what they mean.
My favorite example they gave was the peace sign. Looking at it, we know that it’s come to mean peace and hippies. Maybe some of us also know that it was used as an anti-war symbol. What we don’t know, is how something so simple could mean any of those things. The answer comes from flag semaphore which is the code that is conveyed by a person holding two flags in certain positions to mean certain letters. Flags held at approximately 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock represent N and 12 and 6 represent D. The inventor of the peace symbol layered these two signs on top of one another to symbolize Nuclear Disarmament.
After listening to the podcast, I began to wonder about the symbols we use here at Parks and Recreation and their meanings and histories. The one that is the most ubiquitous would be the one associated with our brand: our logo.
Since I joined the team after the logo was designed, I decided to speak to my coworkers who were here during the rebranding. For the most part, nobody really knew exactly what any of the design elements meant.
Catherine Morretta, who was our Director at the time and was part of the redesign process, kept a lot of the decisions to herself and the marketing team that helped create the new brand identity. As somebody who is really fascinated by design, I found this really strange. Why would anybody spend 12 months going through a whole rebranding campaign to then not tell anybody anything about hidden meanings or symbolism? Honestly, not just why – but how? If I spent that much time designing something, I’d be telling anybody who would listen!
Tony Thomas, Recreation Services Supervisor, recalled, “I remember Catherine telling us that the mission statement, Shaping the Future® tagline, and the building blocks were all related. And I remember she said that Shaping the Future® was more than just about shaping the lives of children – to her, it had social, emotional, and health related meanings for all ages.”
I then spoke with Jacquelyn Tyre-Perry, Recreation Specialist for School Age, who remembered a blog post Catherine wrote back in October 2011 about the logo. I was excited to finally discover the answer. When it came to the design elements of the logo, Catherine wrote this:
“Tandem to the tag line is our logo. The icon, four precisely defined argyle like squares, hooked at the corners, colored in olive, goldenrod, burgundy, and Carolina blue – is distinctive…yet through a measure of restraint, left open for interpretation. We believe that it is not the boundaries that characterize a space but the individual person and their experience that truly brings definition.”
After reading that, I finally understood what everybody meant when they said she kept her reasons to herself.
Since Catherine left the space open for interpretation, I thought I would share my thoughts on the logo and the meaning behind each of the design elements.
To me, the squares play into the Shaping the Future® tagline since when we build structures, we often use blocks or bricks. In this case, it’s not a literal building, but the building of a future for everyone. The squares are angled to symbolize energy and movement. That represents an active and engaged role in shaping the future and nicely ties into keeping people active through fitness and recreation.
The colors of the squares could represent so many different ideas. One idea I had was that the three primary colors are represented (blue, yellow, and red) which symbolize the foundational role parks and recreation has in people’s lives. Green, the only secondary color represented, stands for growth and the future.
Another idea a friend suggested is that they represent the seasons – green for spring, yellow for summer, red for fall, and blue for winter – and how parks and recreation is here for you all year round. Honestly, there’s beauty in how simple and straightforward that is.
One last idea I had with the colors was that they represent the different areas of recreation we provide. Green symbolizes open spaces like our parks; yellow is for fitness as our basketball courts’ and fitness studio’s floors glow yellow; red is for social recreation, people, and connecting hearts; and blue is for aquatics.
No matter how you interpret the colors, the interconnecting squares makes sense as they are all connected. They are layered to both literally and figuratively represent balance.
Below the squares are the words parks and recreation. When you refer to my last interpretation of the colors, you can see how the green and the red relate. The ampersand (the & glyph) being in brown is especially meaningful in that ‘and’ literally means together and when you combine red and green you get brown. This single ampersand literally means parks and recreation.
The typeface of Parks and Recreation is called Eurostile. The Wikipedia page states that Eurostile was designed in 1962 in Italy. It’s popular with headings and signage. It represents modernity and has a squarish appearance. It’s commonly used in science fiction or on sets representing the 60s or 70s. Knowing all of this, Eurostile echoes the blocks in the logo and their meaning and reinforces Shaping the Future® with the concept of being both modern and futuristic. It also has a nice connection to the founding of Parks and Recreation in the 70s (the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission was created in 1976).
The final design elements are the text City of Manassas Park and Shaping the Future® in orange located above and below the logo. Orange is an interesting choice as orange isn’t used anywhere else in the City’s branding and definitely not in Parks and Recreation. In this case, instead of tying it to an existing color in the logo, they chose something unique. That distinction, to me, represents that while we are obviously a part of the City, we are also unique. That uniqueness is echoed in the tagline being displayed in orange as we want Shaping the Future® to stand out and be just as distinct and unique as the Department is.
When I was in high school, a lot of my classmates found that when we read novels and started to assign hidden meaning to seemingly straightforward passages, it felt contrived. My English teacher explained her position with a word search. Even if the author of a word search only intentionally hid a few words, we can always find at least one word they didn’t intentionally add. That doesn’t mean the symbolism isn’t there or that we’re trying to shoehorn in meaning. That’s just how our perspective and unique experiences influence how we’re impacted by the world around us.
Maybe Catherine really didn’t assign meaning to any of the design elements in the logo. Maybe the designers picked the Eurostile typeface simply because of how it looks and that it’s easy to read at a variety of sizes. But it’s nice to dig deeper and try to find hidden meaning in branding. It makes the logo more relatable since it means more than just pretty squares.
What other hidden meanings can you find within our logo so that it becomes relatable to you?
Jason Shriner is the Marketing Manager for the City of Manassas Park, Department of Parks and Recreation. He can be reached at 703-335-8872 or via email at J.Shriner@manassasparkva.gov.