Exploring a new visual identity for the Toronto Zoo

A case study on rebranding a Canadian iconic attraction

The Toronto Zoo is the largest zoo in Canada at 710 acres. It has one of the most diverse collection of animals of any zoos in the world with over 5,000 animals representing over 450 species. It is divided into 7 zoogeographic regions: Indo-Malaya, Africa, the Americas, Australasia, Eurasia, Canadian Domain and the Tundra Trek connected by over 10km of walking trail. Their mission is:

“A living centre for education and science, committed to providing compelling guest experiences and inspiring passion to protect wildlife and habitats.”

Some of their goals include:
Conservation Impact
Advance to a zoo-based conservation centre of excellence.

Guest Engagement
To enhance the guest experience to appeal to more diverse audience and inspire conservation action.

People
Create an organizational culture that attracts, engages and retains highly motivated staff and volunteers.

Understanding & Caring
Increase awareness, understanding and support of the Zoo as a centre for conservation excellence.

With focus on the Toronto Zoo’s mission and goals, a designer was needed to create a visual identity that embodies some of these statements. The purpose was to create a visual language that can be carried through all their marketing applications to rebrand the company without having to change its logo. The branding needs to be strong, easily recognizable, convey a clear language set out by the designer, and ultimately change the company’s current image.

The main points of the brief given by the client is to understand the business, change their identity based on the research, and do this outside of their existing logo.

The research began with a brand visualization. That is, an in-depth look at the Zoo’s current image, all their branding to date on all marketing applications — basically a snapshot of what the company looks like currently. I also examined their current primary and secondary brand colours, font, imagery, strapline, and layout composition of all marketing materials.

A 2x2 competitor’s chart was also made that plotted different zoos around the world based on their popularity and logo design. This allowed me to see the position of the Toronto Zoo up against their competitors.

2x2 Competitor’s chart of Zoos from around the world

After research into the Zoo’s current branding­ — their goals and mission, it was time to design their new identity. I started with 3 different narratives: each conveys a different side of the zoo that was still in line with their business ethos. The key point here was to pinpoint the personality of each narrative and eventually convey this idea visually.

Ultimately, narrative #2 was chosen to go forward. This was the concept that was most in-line the Zoo’s mission and their human-centric goals. It is the narrative that creates most fun and appeals to the widest audience. Designing an identity that will attract motivated staff and enhance guest experience is crucial for the Zoo’s over-arching goal of promoting and inspiring conservation action. The importance of people cannot be overlooked here, without them the conservation efforts would go unnoticed.

Once the narrative was selected, I explored various identity designs based on this narrative. Specifically, I used the personalities: vibrant, personable, and engaging, to construct a mood board that can convey these ideas. I also focused on the idea of an up-close experience. The new identity was broken down into the following:

Colour: This is very important to a brand and should be easily recognizable. Different colours have different meaning and should be suitable for the brand
My approach: I wanted bold and vibrant colours, to show that the company is engaging and personable. The challenge here is to make sure the colours do not appear childish which can exclude the older demographic.

Font: The font can change the perception of a company. It sets the tone for the brand regardless of what the word actually says
My approach: I thought having a heavily typographic design would be effective in conveying the idea of an up-close experience. This is also an opportunity to create a strong visual language. With this in mind, I thought a geometric sans serif font is the most appropriate for this design. It needs to be bold to match the vibrate colour swatch and geometric in order to be stackable for a dynamic layout.

Imagery: Will the new identity use stylized photography? Icons? Shapes?
My approach: Along the same line, I approached imagery with the idea of an up-close experience. I explored the idea of images of isolated animals with strategic close-cropping. Another idea was images of close-up animal parts and fur patterns for something more abstract.

Composition: How will the photography be treated?
My approach: I explored composition that included colour-blocking, large typography, and cropped images. The idea is for the design to be simple and bold in order to capture attention.

Buyer: Who is your audience?
My approach: This design of close-cropped typography and imagery will appeal to families, adults, and children.

Best Practice: Who is the company’s competition and what are they doing well? Who are the leaders in this industry? How can your company branding break out of the mold of similar designs and stand out of the crowd?
My approach: The San Diego Zoo, is a strong competitor in their company branding. They have vibrant colours and consistent animal imagery treated with a watercolour look. This new identity for Toronto Zoo will stand out in that it will be heavily typographic and clean.

The design of this new narrative began with a magazine ad. I asked myself a few questions as I approached this challenge:

What is the desired outcome of the ad?
What is the final objective of the ad?
What do you want the customer to do and get from it?
What is the industry norm and what can you do to change that and stand out?
Is there a story to tell from the ad?
What is unique about the company?
If you break up the ad, can you still recognize it and connect it to the brand?
Can you incorporate part of the logo as a graphic device in the visual language?

I designed three different layouts based on the exploration above. To summarize, I envision a design that was heavily typographic, colourful, with elements that fall outside of the page. I wanted the outcome to be striking in appearance, heavily graphic, and uncluttered.

Layout 1
This layout uses the font Railway. I stacked with word “discovery” with an isolated image of an elephant. It is paired with an orange triangular graphic element at the bottom right corner. This layout was closest to the final design. The font placement and stacked design that is slightly cropped off the page communicates the idea of up-close experience effectively. It conveys the idea that the Zoo experience cannot be contained, and it will be personal as well as educational.

What did not work for this layout was mainly the colours and the graphic element. The colour scheme was too limited and did not show enough vibrancy. The graphic element did not connect with the rest of the design and seems like it was placed there to fill up space.

Layout 2
This layout makes use of a part of the logo as a graphic device. I took the circle from the Toronto Zoo logo and intended to use this to highlight different animals in different applications. The strapline and “discovery” would be treated as vertical text to bring a more dynamic layout. I thought the concept of a recurring graphic device can work to create a strong visual language.

However, I also found there was a disconnect here between the graphic device and the logo. The two were not similar enough make the connection that they were supposed to represent each other. Furthermore, the device boxed-in the animal making the imagery too confined. This layout also did not work as it does not allow for a vibrant colour scheme. Overall, this design was too limiting.

Layout 3
I tried to push the boundaries of colour with this final layout. Not only are the letters in bold colours, the colour-blocking of the background is meant to compliment the colourful typography. I also added a drop shadow to the colour blocks in the background in attempt to give the design dimension.

Ultimately, with this design there were too many competing elements. I was losing sight of my initial goal of the design being uncluttered. I did not want too much going on the page that audiences have a hard time focusing on any one element.

Final Design

The final design was a cleaner version of Layout 1. I explored with more colours and decided against the graphic element. I decreased the size of the strapline “up-close” as the typography and image already convey this idea. This layout works because it is bold, attention-grabbing, and perfectly communicates the idea of the zoo being a fun educational centre. The design is sophisticated enough to attract an older audience, but at the same time colourful enough to be kids-friendly. Rather than the typography competing with the imagery, they work harmoniously to visually demonstrate the idea of being “up-close” with the animals.

This design is also easily translated to other marketing applications. It can be used in combination with other isolated cropped animal imagery, as well, it can work with just typographic treatment on applications such as business cards and vehicles. The visual language here is easily recognizable, even without the Toronto Zoo logo. It also stands out in the industry as many zoos around the world tend to focus on images of animals, instead of typography with images.

Below is the Zoo new brand visualization. It is a look at the brand’s new image with this vibrant visual language.

This visual language connects back to the Toronto Zoo’s goals and mission. The bold colours and large imagery communicates a compelling guest experience. The design draws attention and appeals to a wide-range audience of adults and kids alike. The system is easily applied to all marketing materials ensuring a consistent visual language.

The main challenge of this rebrand was ensuring that appropriate research was conducted before starting the design process. It was important to understand the Toronto Zoo’s goals and mission as a company, pick ones that is the most important to the company, and hone in on translating it into a design. Since a visual system cannot represent all of a company’s goals, it was crucial to narrow in on one word to describe the company. Once, the idea of “up-close” was decided, it was a matter of conveying this idea visually through images, type, colour, layout, and composition. This visual language has successfully demonstrated this idea through all the applications. As such I have learned that research is a very crucial process in design to ensure a successful outcome.

Overall, this design solution uses a system entirely outside of the Toronto Zoo’s existing logo. The system remains coherent with the logo and works effectively to communicate a new image for Toronto’s iconic attraction.

UX and Graphic Designer in Toronto