Designing a city logo is a lot like branding a company, except there are infinitely more historical, cultural, societal, and political implications to consider. Every city in the world has a distinct identity that gives it a soul and a sense of purpose, and it is the daunting job of designers to capture this identity with a single image.
We found eight of the world’s most compelling city logos that accomplish this, and dug into the stories behind the designs.
The municipal logo for the capital of the Netherlands is as minimalistic — and direct — as it gets. It adopts the city flag’s red color as well as its St. Andrew crosses (also a shorthand for the city’s infamous Red Light District), and affixes the city’s name to it. The original 2003 design had “Gemeente Amsterdam” (City of Amsterdam) on one line, but an upgrade by design studio Dedato B.V. in 2014 added a line break to nest “Amsterdam” below “Gemeente” and provided a cleaner look to the current version of the logo. A logo that, for all its simplicity, is effective in its modern look. The stacked Xs are somewhat evocative of the canal houses that line the city’s waterways — tall, neat, and ordered, just the way the Dutch like them.
Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town’s logo, designed jointly by agencies Yellowwood and King James in 2014, came with a mission to visually represent the city’s forward-looking frame of mind (“Making Progress Possible. Together” is the city’s motto). That led the agencies to look to the horizon, literally, and find inspiration in the city’s most famous landmark: Table Mountain. The mountain’s silhouette became the foundation of the new logo, linked and repeated to form a circle. The additional concentric circles were created to convey a city both “layered and harmonious,” and the vibrant colors capture the energy of the city’s culture.
When the city known as “the soul of Russia” hired designer Natalia Chobanu in 2013 to create a new logo, she set out to merge the city’s traditions with a modern design. The logo — like the culture — is built on tradition. According to Chobanu, the shape of the logo is directly drawn from cultural artifacts like a kokoshnik (a traditional Russian headdress for women), the halo of a Holy Mother icon, and even part of an old map of the city. Those inspirations were then abstracted into the geometrical figures found in the finished product, which make it look both unexpectedly (and intentionally) modern and vibrant for an old Russian city.
In 2009, the Australian city assigned design firm Landor the task of rebranding their city’s image for the first time since the 1990s. Landor had a few goals, like advertising the city’s sophistication to the world, and creating a logo that would remain modern for years to come. While dreaming up possible logos, they explained, “the diversity of Melbourne became a sacred concept.” They captured this beautifully in two ways: The diverse shading of colors in the logo (see more variations here), as well as the linked and overlapping polygons that make up the symbolic “M.” Together, it all creates a fun and modern vibe that would convince anyone to visit Melbourne.
When the French-Canadian city’s logo was designed and unveiled by Georges Huel & Associates in 1981, it featured a beautiful rosette accompanied by the text “Ville de Montréal.” A minor update in 2005 aside (“Ville de” was dropped, and “Montréal” was shifted to the left of the flower-like image), the logo has remained unchanged. Not just because it became so beloved by the city’s people, but because the number of intended meanings layered into the rosette is a dizzying feat of symbolism. A few examples: It’s an adaptation of part of the city’s coat of arms; each quarter of the rosette is both a V and a M, to represent the initials of “Ville de Montréal”; the heart-shaped petals represent love for the city; the four petals evoke the ethnic groups that founded the city (French, English, Scottish, and Irish). It’s a remarkable accomplishment to stack so much meaning into one simple design, without sacrificing aesthetic.
Prague, Czech Republic
Created in 2002 by design firm Studio Najbrt, the main objective of the new logo was to provide “a symbolic hand extended to all visitors coming to Prague and a reminder of the city’s history as a center of different cultures and nationalities.” That’s why, in addition to channeling the city flag’s color scheme, the logo features several variations on the city’s name. Each one is “Prague” in a different language, and meant to reflect the Czech Republic capital’s diversity. The eye-drawing white line that separates the “Pra” root from its suffixes is also a wonderful symbolic touch, conveying the idea that the city has a core foundation, but one mean to be built upon — whether by residents or tourists.
São Paulo, Brazil
In anticipation of both the 2014 Brazil World Cup and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, designer Rômulo Castilho was given the task of creating a logo that would “promote São Paulo as a unique destination full of opportunities, services, and culture.” That uniqueness is immediately captured in the logo’s vibrant colors, which readily evoke Brazilian festivities like Carnival. The firework-like shapes emanating outwards from the city’s name cleverly creates the impression of a city bursting with life, services, culture and — above all else — fun.
Created by ad agency Hakuhodo, and revealed in October 2015 in anticipation of the 2020 Toyko Olympics, the city’s new logo is very simple. However, the simple design has big conceptual ambitions. The designers created it to encourage those looking to fill in the inferred blank space before the ampersand with themselves. In that way, the logo becomes a vehicle for engagement, true to the massive metropolis of Tokyo and the endless opportunities (traditional, modern, and downright weird) it offers. The logo effectively says to tourists, and even to residents, “Make this city yours.”
Top image by Doremi