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From Window to Logo

Designing the “perfect” logo is a winding road littered with failed fonts, well-intended but misguided icons, and superfluous design elements — necessary artifacts that serve to catalog the arrival at a confluence of meaning and pleasing aesthetics.

With other logos on the books for Saigoneer, Saigoneer Korean and Urbanist Hanoi, we had already established some design guidelines to look to when it came time to create the branding for Urbanist Vietnam, our new Vietnamese-language lifestyle website.

A quick note on the “Urbanist” term — Urbanist was chosen as an umbrella brand for everything we publish across numerous platforms. Though there are exceptions, content across all our sites is created to impart knowledge and entertain. It offers a constantly evolving, real-time record of specific communities and cultures that share national borders, from covering art exhibitions to the cultural significance of instant noodle packets to photo essays that chronicle urban and rural spaces and the interesting intersections of the two.

In 2017, Saigoneer recognized that our voice and interests could reach places beyond Saigon and thus, we decided to expand to other cities in Asia beginning with Hanoi. Then, we became aware that there needs to be both uniformity and localization when branding each new outlet. Brainstorming sessions arrived at the naming convention Urbanist, followed by the name of the city or country it would cover. Once we had the naming system settled we began working on the logos which would also require similar qualities.

It seemed obvious to look for iconic pieces of architecture or landmarks that embody each location’s unique character. Urbanist Hanoi, for example, features Chùa Một Cột. The process is a fairly straightforward task for city-specific brands, but Urbanist Vietnam’s scope is the entire country, so it requires an all-encompassing national image.

Urbanist Vietnam’s first logo depicted a typical shophouse that one can find in cities across all of Vietnam. One of our former designers had already crafted the perfect starting point for this design with the illustration that we’ve been using for the back of our business cards for the past several years. From this, we created a simplified, vectorized version of this image.

From a symbolism perspective, this logo hit the mark as it was both widely recognizable and enduring. However, it didn’t function well as a logo. Being vertical, it was a perfect candidate for the back of a business card, but the many different places a logo appears — from the large header of a website viewed on a wide desktop screen to the small section of a Facebook feed seen on a phone — requires flexibility in size and orientation. 

OK, so that was scrapped. We knew we needed something square, and we also wanted to feature architecture. While Taiwan may have a building like National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall that can represent the country as a whole, picking a similar iconic one for Vietnam presents a number of problems: local structures are typically identified with a specific region; contemporary buildings are too vertical in shape; older square-shaped buildings are often the result of colonialism; most of Vietnam’s home-grown modernist buildings are sadly not iconic enough as standalones.

So we doubled down on the simultaneously ambiguous and ubiquitous, adding a modernist townhouse and contemporary multi-story home to the original shophouse. This added more flavor and diversity to the imagery while accomplishing the goal of squaring the logo.

 

 

Cool, well we’re done!

Nope.

While we really liked the graphic, upon revisiting it a week later, our opinions had soured on its use as a logo. Too busy, too many lines and unrecognizable when reduced in size.

We were slightly deflated, knowing we needed to start from scratch. Luckily, we stuck to our architectural guns and sought to draw inspiration from smaller structural elements instead of buildings. Flipping through a copy of Mel Schenk’s Southern Vietnamese Modernist Architecture and browsing the Vietnamese Modernist Architecture Facebook group, we knew we were onto something as we gazed at geometric gates, shades, vents and the like. 

Fortuitously, on the day we were started down this path, Brice Coutagne posted dozens of modernist architectural elements on the aforementioned Facebook group. At this point our interest was officially piqued and we began to expand on these designs and transform them into logos.

As we explored, we found that window designs were among the most appealing features and did some general searches that yielded the ornate yet clean lines found in imperial Hue structures.

Of these, a traditional symbol representing longevity showed the most aesthetic promise but ran into issues of too much religious imagery, Chinese influence and lack of Vietnamese originality.

However the Hue buildings contained other types of windows, and one in particular — found in the Thiên Mụ Pagoda complex — stood out due to an abstract, almost modernist design. We found this especially interesting because the temple dates back to the 17th Century. As it has been renovated and rebuilt numerous times, our research couldn’t determine its construction history and when this particular window was installed. Clearly a fact-finding mission to Hue to talk to the pagoda’s resident monks is in order as soon as possible.

Not only did we fall in love with its aesthetics, but its imagery also matched: it is unique, makes nods to traditional design elements without adhering to strict Chinese symbolism and one could interpret its lines as a street layout typical of Vietnam’s cities, where straight boulevards are interrupted by sudden right angles, curving detours and pocketed hẻms. 

We made some general tweaks and simplified the design before including it on a list of 5 final options, the rest were the aforementioned longevity symbol and three versions inspired by the traditional Đông Sơn bronze drums. Putting the choices in front of current and former Saigoneer and Urbanist Hanoi staff generated enough consensus to make a final decision. 

As we launch the Vietnamese-language Urbanist Vietnam, we understand that this logo will be the first thing many people see and thus judge us by. We hope it reflects our commitment to exploring and sharing Vietnam’s unique history, style and charms in a way that is simultaneously playful and rigorous.

 

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