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Chicago's Navy Pier Ferris wheel

How Chicago’s Navy Pier Rebranded

Hal Conick

Chicago's Navy Pier Ferris wheel

“To design for Navy Pier is to design for Chicago itself,” ColorJar’s CEO says

When Navy Pier was built in 1916, it was known as “Municipal Pier.” In legendary architect Daniel Burnham’s “Master Plan of Chicago,” he had planned Navy Pier as one of five piers, but none of the others were built. The pier eventually became one of Chicago’s top tourist destinations.

This year, Chicago brand strategy and design firm ColorJar was given the task of creating a new logo and visual identity. While rebranding Navy Pier, ColorJar sought to maintain the pier’s history and spirit. ColorJar took inspiration from a 1927 photo of Navy Pier’s signage, using a similar font for the rebranded logo. Now, the brand is being rolled out to be seen by millions of Chicago visitors.

“Pressure is a privilege,” says David Gardner, founder and CEO of ColorJar. “ColorJar is honored to have partnered with Navy Pier to create its new visual brand identity, designed to help fuel the world-class destination’s next 100 years and beyond. To design for Navy Pier is to design for Chicago itself, as the Pier is an iconic element of the city’s famous skyline. Creating a vibrant and welcoming new identity for an important part of Chicago has been one of the most rewarding experiences for ColorJar to date.”

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Marketing News spoke with Gardner about the research, theme and new color scheme of the Navy Pier rebrand.

You researched the history and strategic mission of Navy Pier to create this campaign. How long did the planning process take?

The new visual identity system is part of a multi-year brand improvement program. We built upon a year of research and consumer insight work and began the logo process with one month of dedicated brand strategy work before starting the visual design phase.

Is there a theme or message you hope this rebrand relays to visitors and potential visitors?

Navy Pier’s new brand platform is “Where Fun Lives Large,” and the visual identity is designed to showcase the Pier as a vibrant destination. The Pier has changed in new and important ways, and the completely new mark is an invitation for the world to give Navy Pier a fresh look as well as to help fuel the bold new vision for what the Pier is becoming.

In the case study, you talk about the colors of the rebrand, such as Navy Pier Blue, Lakeshore Blue and Leaf Green. Why was color such an important part of this rebrand?

A strategic objective of the rebrand was to convey the vibrant energy of the Pier. Any strong logo must first work in black and white, so once we solidified the mark in black and white, we then created a color system inspired by the Pier itself to enhance its sense of vibrant energy. Additionally, adding vibrant color to the brand further helped deliver on the all-new look after years of an all-blue brand identity.

Have you received any feedback or criticism on the rebrand that you’ve found especially interesting?

They call it “The People’s Pier” and with any rebrand this public, everyone has an opinion. We’ve been delighted with the positive response. We strategically created a mark that was more evocative than literal, so that the viewer could interpret meaning for themselves. It was a thrill during the first consumer testing to hear people say “fun, energetic, Ferris wheel and fireworks.”

The photos of Navy Pier from the 1920s look almost unrecognizable from 2019 photos, but you ended up using a very similar font to signage used in the ’20s. Why did you bring that classic-looking font into the rebrand?

Our design challenge was to completely revolutionize the Navy Pier brand without losing its soul. We looked for ways to hook into its past to preserve connection to its rich history. Navy Pier has used slab serifs fonts for its logo for decades, so we stuck within that font genre but selected a new slab serif font that was warmer, more welcoming and more modern. The supporting typography we chose for the broader visual identity system was inspired by a 1927 photograph of the Navy Pier sign, which we hope evokes the timeless soul of Navy Pier. While revolution was still our goal, if you push too far from core elements, the logo starts to feel new for the sake of new, but without connection to the soul of the brand.

It’s interesting to look back at old photos and see the relative lack of activity at Navy Pier. Now, it’s exploding with color and people. What do you hope people think and feel when they look back at this rebrand 100 years from now?

We designed the new brand identity to be timeless, so it is our hope for it to be in use for years to come. For those who look back to 2019, we hope it’ll be clear that the new visual brand identity exemplified a significant inflection point for the Pier, increasing its importance as an iconic piece of the fabric of Chicago and the city’s famous skyline.

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at halconick@gmail.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.