Why ‘Government’ & ‘Creative’ Aren’t Usually Found in the Same Sentence
By: Michael R. Shannon
Prince William County, VA — where I live — has an official seal that’s been in use since 1854. But that seal — or logo, to use up–to–date terminology — just wasn’t happenin’ for the county staff. Staff evidently felt a balance scale held over a bunch of tobacco leaves just screams 19th century. Plus the tobacco is a big problem. Who wants a logo that can only be displayed 25 feet from a building entrance and never in a bus shelter?
So the staff hired a firm based in the People’s Republic of Maryland to design a modern logo for the county. Something the economic development staff could use in their marketing efforts. A new design in keeping with the county’s prosperity, potential for job creation and spectacular rush hour gridlock.
There were probably a few simple guidelines for the designer on what not to include. No stars and bars allowed and no cotton. If the design incorporates a Civil War reference, the symbol must be limited to either a nurse or a female impersonating a soldier, preferably unarmed, or maybe wounded and suffering from PTSD. The staff certainly wouldn’t want the public to think they’re in favor of guns or violence.
Other than that, the county has a wide range of sites and events that have shaped its history. To name just a few: two major Civil War battles, Quantico Marine Base, the largest number of foreclosed homes in VA, the only Northern Virginia county to take up an anti–illegal ordinance (some overlap in the last two), a shooting site from the Beltway Sniper rampage, John Bobbitt’s bobbed penis, a George Mason University satellite campus, innumerable cul–de–sacs that make it impossible to get there from here and jam packed I–95 (more overlap).
So what did taxpayers get for their money? A shiny dark blue square surrounded on three sides by a shiny lighter–blue square and even though the design just screams “Prince William County,” the designer still put ‘Prince William County, Virginia’ in all caps below the squares . As you can see from the accompanying photo, it’s bland, boring and bureaucratic — all the modifiers a politician wants associated with his jurisdiction. What’s more, it has no relation to the county other than the fact we paid for it.
On the other hand, my wife thought the shiny blue sheen on the logo was reminiscent of aluminum siding and harkened back to the county’s previous image of a region inhabited by trailer park rednecks.
In an online comment a gentleman named Tom Fitzpatrick explained that while his first impression of the logo was negative, “Now that I’ve had a chance to settle down, I realize I’m not really being fair. I’ve just learned that the County’s first choice was a dead on representation – 8 clowns sitting around a table deciding how much to cut taxes by raising them a little less. However, there were copyright issues with Ringling Brothers, the catered lunch was already eaten, and it was time for another international trip by the members. So, this is what they came up with, within those constraints.”
County spokesman Jason Grant defended the “design” choice, “The brand is the connotation, it’s not a literal meaning. It is a new logo. The connotation isn’t there because it’s not affiliated with anything yet. . . . Does it literally represent Prince William County? No. That’s not the type of logo we designed. It shows there’s a sense of place, there’s a cornerstone, it’s corporate, all these things that people will fill in.”
That droning you hear in the background while Grant speaks is not cicadas, it’s corporate buzzwords. Hint for government flacks: any time your explanation would not look out of place in a Dilbert speech bubble, you are losing the argument.
According to Tom Jackman in the Washington Post, Grant claimed the staff was borrowing a marketing strategy from Madison Avenue. Grant said Nike’s swoosh logo doesn’t look like a shoe or Lance Armstrong injecting dope, but over time it comes to be associated with the brand and all its products.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s also one of the most consistent indications of incompetence. Besides borrowing strategy from Nike, the county is also going to have to borrow some money to make this logo penetrate the marketplace. Nike’s annual marketing budget of $2.7 billion is double PWC’s entire annual budget of $1.2 billion. By my calculations, at that rate of spending in 159 years the double boxes logo still won’t have the market identity of the current county seal.
The staff claims the logo only cost $750, while the website Sheriff of Nottingham in Prince William County asserts the logo design was part of a redesign contract that cost between $9,500 and $11,000. Either way taxpayers would have received more positive benefit if they’d just sent the money to the IRS and told them to have a party.
You could have gotten better design work and made at least one PWC family happy if the staff had solicited logos from high school or college art & design classes.
But now the bureaucracy has dug in it’s heels and it appears we may be stuck with this collection of right angles. So in the spirit of public service, I’ve come up with a few slogans to use with the logo at no cost to the county.
Prince William County Where — Every Square Peg Has a Square Hole
Prince William County — You’ll Love Having Your Company Absorbed by the Borg
Prince William County — Land of Boxy Houses and Boxy People
Prince William County — Home of the Square
Prince William County — Where the Cube Farm Is Our Identity
Prince William County — Embracing Boredom Since 2013
Michael R. Shannon is a public relations and advertising consultant with corporate, government and political experience around the globe. He is a dynamic and entertaining keynote speaker. He can be reached at email@example.com.