Graphic Utility

Developing a flexible, city-wide graphic system

Written with Ryan Thacker

One of the first things we new that we needed when working on our film, A Possible Philadelphia, was a flexible graphic system. Although this may be an unlikely focal point, it was important because the graphics would become a way to express ‘civicness’ across a wide variety of experiences and interactions we’ve reimagined in the film. From the role of maintenance vehicles in the city, to new lives for old park structures, to farmers markets, and lots of other bits in between, the graphics acts as a ‘red thread’ that allows diverse moments to share a common spirit. This is the thinking behind the graphic system which was executed by Ryan Thacker of Might Could.

Stills from the film

The graphic system began with research into one of the defining aspects of Philadelphia’s early history: the street grid envisioned by William Penn.

William Penn’s 1683 Map of Philadelphia

As described by the Cultural Landscape Foundation, “Pennsylvania served as an early safe haven for religious, racial, and gender equality, Quaker ideals which Penn wove into his concept for the design of [the city].”

For our film, we borrowed Penn’s aspiration to weave together different residents of his city and extended it as a metaphor of braiding the city’s various silos into one holistic, human-centered experience. The weave system adapts to accommodate new elements and the unknown. It’s also an apt metaphor for an individual person or entity’s ability to strengthen the whole.

Ryan pushed the weave concept further by considering the practicality of the system. The result was a rendering of the weave motif which relies on simple lines, lending itself to stencils and other field applications.

Sample illustration using the Might Could visual system, with a nod to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air

In the middle of the process we were reminded of the access covers that dot city streets and the concept was cemented, like these that we found during our research in Philadelphia:

While researching the city’s rich industrial history, Might Could discovered that one of America’s first successful type foundries, the Johnson Type Foundry, was founded in Philadelphia in 1706 (subsequently changing hands and names many times). Using a book of specimens from the foundry, typefaces were selected that have an affinity with those originally fabricated in Philly.

Type samples from the Johnson Type Foundry and descendants

The visual system was elaborated by interpreting graphic elements such as figures, trees, and other familiar items as decorative modules that could have been set and printed with printing techniques from earlier times:

Finally, an engraving titled “Prospective View of Part of the Commons” became a reference for how to depict a diverse set of simultaneous situations playing out in the space of the city. The engraving’s simplified perspective and reductive graphic language creates a powerful image without requiring strict adherence to geographic relationships.

“A prospective view of part of the Commons” by Christian Remick, 1726. Source.

And since the original image is actually a view of America’s first commons, in Boston, it was a helpful spark. The result is a flexible graphic system that is adaptable to a wide variety of situations and needs.

A Prospective View of the Civic Commons, illustrated by Ryan Thacker

For another take on visualizing the commons, check out our later work with Reimagining the Civic Commons where we helped them establish a visual language to convey the goals and outcomes they’re driving towards.