Same Bike, Different City
Graphic design’s role in popular bike share systemsBy Bryn Smith, Superscript August 20, 2013
Michel Dallaire’s quiet takeover has already begun. The French Canadian product designer is the force behind the sturdy yet elegant frame pedaling around more than ten cities this summer. Bixi, Divvy, Nice Ride, Citi Bike, Hubway. Don’t let names or neon paint jobs confuse you; the city may change, but the bicycle in the spotlight stays the same.
This was precisely Dallaire’s intention when his firm won a commission to design Montreal’s public bike system five years ago. Describing the nine-month design process as “a natural birth,” what emerged was a patentable solar-powered docking system and a corrosion-free aluminum three-speed. The program operates like any other bike share, but with more flexibility. Rentable bikes are stationed around a city, and users pay a small fee to ride them from one point to another. The portable, modular docks that hold the bikes act like furniture; they can be rearranged, moved, or put into storage (during periods of road work or snowy weather). Look closely at the Bixi prototype in two-tone silver and black, and Dallaire’s inspiration for the wide, flat, curvilinear down tube reveals itself: a boomerang. “Because a boomerang is always coming back,” said Dallaire. “And that’s exactly what we wanted to happen with the bike system.”
Today there are 38,000 Bixis on three continents, in what appears to be a rapidly expanding international bike share movement. “It was in our mind to offer this system all over the world,” Dallaire said, though he acknowledged the existence of predecessors in France and Stockholm as a huge learning advantage. The foresight of Dallaire and his team to provide ample real estate for branding is another key to Bixi’s growing success. The wide, flat surface of the angled frame does look like a boomerang, but perhaps more importantly it’s the perfect location for readable logos. Customizable wheel caps and the front luggage rack offer another high-visibility branding opportunity, something Dallaire prioritized throughout the project. “Every city has its color, its logo, its name, its sponsors. The design was realized under these constraints,” he said.
The way a city brands its bike share can be telling. New York City’s for-profit system, Citi Bike, is a traveling advertisement for Citigroup, who provided a large portion of the financial backing for the project. New Yorkers have adapted to the similarly branded Citi Field and Citi Pond, so corporate sponsorship was no real surprise. Plus, Citibank offsets high operating costs. Minneapolis and Chicago turned to local design firms to create graphics and names for their systems, Nice Ride (a play on the motto “Minnesota nice”) and Divvy (with the tagline “Divide and Share”), respectively, but the day-glo green and powder blue results are more trendy than classic. In Washington, D.C., the logo for Capital Bikeshare is a comically circuitous array of arrows, and could just as easily represent the state of politics on the Hill. Other locations using Dallaire’s system follow a similar pattern: a smattering of sponsors and a splashy name.
Dallaire attributes the success of the Bixi to its aesthetics, and urban areas adopting his design continue to multiply. Bay Area Bikeshare, serving greater San Francisco, is set to launch at the end of this month. Unsurprisingly, its logo features a sun in the shape of a bicycle crank. While the color a city chooses for its cycle may not make or break its public reception, it’s fair to ask if cities are missing a bigger opportunity. What if a fleet of 6,000 taxi-yellow bikes were traversing New York’s streets instead? Or imagine if Washington, D.C., played up its political backdrop by swapping out half the cherry red bikes for DNC blue? Capitalizing on the cities as brands themselves and toning down expected visual tropes is a way to own the bike’s ubiquitous design, and make it a unique part of each city’s infrastructure.
As the bikes become more and more common, the design of their graphics will surely carry more weight. “If there’s no surprise, there’s no seduction,” explained Dallaire.“ And if there’s no seduction, there’s no sale.”