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Independent Influence: The visual vocabulary of Philadelphia in collaboration with RTO+P

(Editor's note: Independent Influence is a series that explores the motivations, inspirations and perspectives of independent agencies, work and thinkers. This collaborative project is wide-ranging and an opportunity to tell the true stories of independence around the world. If you're interested in learning more, contact The Drum's North America editor at large, Doug Zanger.)

There is a certain quality to Philadelphia that shouts “independent.” The most obvious would be Independence Hall, where the United States was born. But, when going deeper, the Philadelphia area has a distinct pride in several things. First, and likely most important, is the work ethic. The city and area takes deserved pride in working hard — it’s a lunchpail mentality that all Philadelphians can agree on.

Secondly, even as the city changes, it still retains its sense of real authenticity. Each area of the city has its own “thing,” but collectively, the fabric is stitched together, creating an impactful sense of place.

That sense of authenticity is ever-present in Philadelphia’s people. As Steve Red, Red Tettemer O’Connell and Partners (RTO+P) president and chief creative officer said, “People from Philly have a passionate point-of-view on everything. And they’ll lovingly give it to you whether you want it or not.”

To those on the outside, The City of Brotherly Love is still a bit of a mystery — though anecdotally, there appears to be a mild exodus from New York to Philadelphia. Creative and technology pros are making their way south. No longer do they pass by on I-95 on their way south. It’s becoming home and, for the city, its livability and opportunity to “breathe a little more,” as I was told by a Brooklyn expat, is really becoming a competitive advantage.

“Philly has so much going on that makes it special. The restaurant scene, the art scene, music, even the bubbling tech culture,” noted Red. “But with all that, it’s retained the true grit and authentic personality of a large urban east coast city. That purity and complete lack of pretense make it intoxicating."

Indeed, Philadelphia has its grit, but it flourishes with an enviable culture and evolution. Peppered within the traditional lays a layer of new that works well together. It’s not about wholesale change, it’s about revering what has and makes Philadelphia great.

In the Philly creative community, that spirit of independence permeates. Several agencies proudly fly the indie flag and are creating standout work — and RTO+P is one of its anchors.

Interestingly, the typography of the city is a big influence on RTO+P, especially on signs.

“Philadelphia is wonderfully old and modern at the same time. And the typography in the city perfectly reflects that dichotomy,” said Red.

In Philadelphia, the common wisdom is that typography is steeped in 1770s script tradition — or neon cheesesteak joint signs. But, in exploring the city, some of the signs that one wouldn’t necessarily give a second thought to have real meaning and history, which you can see in the short film, and create a unique visual vocabulary.

Some of Red’s favorites include the King of Jeans sign, which, sadly, was taken down to make way for new construction.

“Why was it a fav? Just look at it,” said Red.

Another is the sign in front of Sophy Curson, a women’s clothing retailer, which opened in 1929.

“It instantly brings you back to another era,” enthused Red.

Like most cities, most people may not necessarily pay attention to signage and its associated typography, unless its iconic or so new that it sticks out like a sore thumb. Here at home, the White Stag sign is an example of classic and iconic Portland. Heading out of Trenton, the Lower Trenton Bridge with its “Trenton Makes The World Takes” is classic Central Jersey. The Public Market sign in Seattle is known around the world.

But as RTO+P so perfectly illustrates, there is a history, stories and inspiration that awaits at every corner. And when you visit Philadelphia, you'll have a roadmap (and a literal map) to guide you to a visual and cultural treat.

Iconic Philadelphia signs and landmarks map

Special thanks to RTO+P's Philadelphia team for helping us with this project, especially shooting and editing the video (WE HAD A DRONE!!), photos and tour around the city. Additional thanks to Hilary Craven, RTO+P CMO, for collaborating on the idea in the first place.

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Doug Zanger

Doug Zanger is the Americas editor for The Drum. He leads the Americas editorial team’s content activity in the growing region. Based in Portland, Oregon, he is committed to sharing the most meaningful stories that benefit the global industry and its people. A Minnesota native, Zanger has covered a wide range of brands, issues and personalities, including Aloe Blacc, Seu Jorge, Wendy Clark, Susan Credle, Dan Wieden, Jeff Goodby and more. Fiercely dedicated to diversity, equality and talent, he has interviewed several women in leadership roles through his Exceptional Women of the World podcast.

All by Doug