Can Graphic Design Spark San Francisco’s Renaissance?

As the Golden City grapples with its well-publicized doom spiral, a consortium of business executives is spending $4 million on a feel-good campaign to rescue the city’s damaged image.

In the 1970s, New York had plunged into a nadir. The city barely scraped through a major fiscal crisis as a widespread blackout provoked looting and arson. Amid the chaos, Milton Glaser sat in a taxi and sketched what would become the I ❤️ NY logo, a Robert Indiana–esque napkin doodle that has since become inextricably linked with New York’s identity. Fast forward a few decades, and San Francisco finds itself in a similar situation. Once a haven for liberals, artists, and hippies, the Bay Area is now grappling with sky-high rents, rampant crime, a homelessness crisis, a drug epidemic, and soaring office vacancies prompting speculation about Downtown entering a doom spiral.

Much like how Glaser’s off-the-cuff sketch lifted New York’s collective spirit—a pattern that would repeat itself as the city reeled in the aftermath of September 11, 2001—San Francisco is attempting to brighten the mood. A group of local corporations recently launched a $4 million advertising campaign with the sole purpose of rescuing the city’s reputation. Consisting of the phrase “it all starts here” written in a sleek sans serif font and rendered as a stylized street sign, the campaign aims to reassert San Francisco as a place for innovation and possibility. It will appear on 375 billboards, bus shelters, and posters across the city ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, an international gathering of government and business bigwigs held there in November. 

“Tell me where Rolling Stone, the mountain bike, the skateboard, rock and roll, or the computer began,” Rich Silverstein, a San Francisco transplant and co-chairman of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, the agency tapped to develop the campaign, told Fast Company. “The list goes on and on. I wanted to go to San Francisco because there seemed to be no judgment here—anything was possible. I still believe that spirit is here.” 

While the campaign may deliver brief flashes of feel-good sentiments, it remains to be seen if momentary morale boosts translate to moving the political needle. San Francisco is notoriously mired in bureaucratic infrastructure to the point where installing a single public toilet devolved into a Sisyphean undertaking with a $1.7 million price tag. There’s also the reality that “it all starts here” was created by Advance SF, a coalition of executives from Bank of America, Uber, Deloitte, Visa, and OpenAI. It risks verging on “marketing try-hardism,” a fate that quickly soured New Yorkers on a like-minded consortium’s hamfisted attempt to modernize Glaser’s logo this year. Fortunately, San Francisco’s slate is relatively blank—let’s just see if the executives can secure the right permits to embed “it all starts here” into the city’s consciousness for longer than 30 days.

(All images courtesy of Advance SF.)

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