Back to the Mar-Apr 2019 issue

Five Steps to Establishing Your City’s Visual Identity

By Alyssa MacLeod

First, and often lasting, impressions are almost always visual in nature. Imagine walking into a room full of strangers. Before you have a chance to talk to anyone, you will make assessments and assumptions about individuals based on their physical appearance. It’s only human nature.

It’s no different for a city. Your city’s visual identity tells your citizens about the city, and it is often your first introduction to citizens. What kind of first impression will it make?

At the City of Oakdale, we realized in 2017 that we had an identity crisis on our hands. We had more than five different versions of our logo, which were all being used differently in various applications. There was no consistency in our visual representation or how we were branding ourselves.

The importance of your visual identity

A strong, clean visual identity presents a professional image. Consistency is key when it comes to visual identity. Combined with clarity, consistency communicates stability, competence, and credibility. These are traits that will build trust and cultivate confidence in the city among your constituents.

Though consistency is crucial, it is also one of the most challenging things to achieve when you have multiple departments and individuals communicating without a well-articulated, common vision or set of guidelines surrounding your visual identity.

Perhaps your city is facing a similar crisis, and you’re wondering what you can do about it. It doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive or complicated to get your visual identity in order. The City of Oakdale engaged in a simple process to tighten up our visual identity that is easy to implement in-house. The result was a professional, consistent brand, and it even received an award from the Minnesota Association of Government Communicators.

Step 1: Conduct a branding and identity audit.

This is an important first step to gain an accurate picture of what your current visual identity looks like. Our audit included taking account of our digital files, assessing our visual representation on the web and social channels, and collecting branded materials from all departments. These materials included forms, applications, brochures, letterhead, business cards, and signage. We identified and documented instances of duplication and inconsistencies in terms of color, font, style, and logo usage.

Step 2: Identify the elements of your visual identity.

As mentioned previously, Oakdale had no consistency in its visual identity. We had to identify and clarify the elements we wanted to make up our visual identity moving forward.

The most important visual element is the logo, which is the heart of your visual identity. Since Oakdale was using several different logo styles, we took the opportunity to create a new, updated logo, and we removed all the old versions from the system (see the new logo at left).

We also designated a color palette and font family that coordinated with the logo and were to be used on all city-branded materials.

Step 3: Create a visual identity manual.

The visual identity manual should identify all the visual elements of your identity, and demonstrate how to use and apply them.

Our manual includes examples of correct and incorrect usage of the logo, the formulas for our designated brand colors, and a sample of the brand font family. It also includes samples of layout for commonly used resources like letterhead, business cards, and email signatures. We provided the manual to all staff members to use as a guide to ensure our visual identity was being presented consistently.

Step 4: Develop a logo and template repository.

You want to ensure that your visual identity is being represented consistently by everyone in the organization.

To make this happen, we created branded templates for commonly used files and documents. Then we stored them in a common location that all staff members can access.

Step 5: Update existing materials.

The final step in our process was to revisit the inconsistencies that we identified in the branding and identity audit. Then we updated existing materials to incorporate the newly identified elements of our visual identity.

By following these simple steps, you will be well on your way to averting—or solving—an identity crisis!

Alyssa MacLeod is communications specialist with the City of Oakdale. Contact: or (651) 730-2722.