Flag of Providence

Symbolizing Providence

Logo of the Creative Capital
Logo of the Creative Capital (Shamelessly taken from schwadesign.com)

It’s time to party like it’s 2009, because the famous $100,000 Providence “P” of the “Creative Capital” rebranding campaign is back. The one by North Star (the community branding agency that seems unsure of its own brand I found three different ways to write its own name on its website) and local design company Schwadesign. You’ll remember that The Wall Street Journal article about it at the time included plenty of criticism from Buddy Cianci.

Generally, people tend to fall into two camps on the “P” — either you’re fine with it (not excited by it, but okay with it) or you hate it and think the City blew $100K on a substandard logo produced by an out-of-state company (Schwa’s part in this is MIA). I’m about to launch into an extended criticism of it and its use, but I actually fall into the former category.

So as I understand it, the “P” was intended to showcase the diverse array of activities and features of Providence, and the materials that North Star and Schwa created look nice, if not particularly fascinating. The worst stuff are the photos of people posing with the giant orange “P”; like it’s some sort of creepy surveillance tool that’s keeping track of the city’s residents (why orange? Unclear, though both North Star and Schwa use orange in their own logos, and Schwa apparently specializes in orange logos). There’s also the collateral that features words that contain the letter “P” (but notably not just words starting with “P”) with one “P” emphasized in some manner, like a campaign created by a conspiracy theorist convinced the 16th letter of the alphabet was manipulating events.

Following the hand-off of power to the Angel Taveras administration, the “P” was quietly de-emphasized in favor of the city seal because, as WPRI’s Dan McGowan reports, Taveras “just liked the city seal better.”

Seal of the City of Providence (retrieved from OperaProvidence.com)
Seal of the City of Providence (retrieved from OperaProvidence.com) – I didn’t include the color version, because it is awful.

The seal is the city seal. Yes, it presents an out-of-context moment of history. And it’s hard to criticize municipal seals in America, because virtually all are terribly ugly. But as the official symbol of the City, Providence’s seal does its duty, working well on documents, being embossed on things, appearing on pins and podiums, etc. It’s there to convey the official nature of the City, and that’s what it exceeds at.

The “P” doesn’t, shouldn’t, and isn’t intended to, replace the work the seal does. But what it also doesn’t do is really work as a representation of Providence the place. It strikes me that it’d work better as a logo for a political party. Compare it with the following logos:

Logo of Radical Left Party of Denmark
Logo of Radical Left Party of Denmark (via Wikimedia Commons)
People's Party of Spain Logo
People’s Party of Spain’s Logo (via Wikimedia Commons)

So while Progressive/Popular/People’s parties have lost a logo concept, I don’t think Providence really gained a good symbol of place. While the “P” might provide a good unifying feature on documents aimed at outsiders and those interested in learning about the city, it shouldn’t be used by city officials as a statement of identity or place. So when you learn this about the new City Council President’s feelings on the “P”:

It might be worth explaining to him that he has the power to improve Providence’s already existing symbol of place, specifically created for that purpose. It’s the flag. And Providence’s flag is a bad flag, desperately in need of improvement.

Flag of Providence
Flag of Providence (recreated for the web by António Martins-Tuválkin, 2008 – retrieved from http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/us-ripro.html)

The only place I consistently see this flag is at the flag pole over the Providence River between South Water Street and Dyer Street. Among flag enthusiasts, this kind of flag is commonly referred to as a “seal on a bedsheet” — the only thing lazier would’ve been making the field white, and in this case, that might’ve improved the flag, because there’d be some contrast to it. About the only thing slightly interesting about this flag is its unique ratio of 3:4 as opposed to the more common 2:3 or 1:2 ratios. But if you find that interesting, I’ve got some paint you can watch dry.

Something Providence can do to make itself unique among its peers and create a visual identity for the city is to design a flag worth using. Most municipalities in America have terrible flags; which make even decent flags stand out. D.C. has built a huge visual identity off of its flag.

Flag of Washington DC
Flag of Washington DC (via Wikimedia Commons)

This is the kind of flag people get tattoos of. That’s the kind of identification a city wants. People hold an outrageous amount of respect and veneration for flags, despite them essentially being pieces of cloth.

The City Council could tomorrow decide it was going to create a commission to select a new flag for Providence, and invite anyone to submit a new design. Not only does this improve on an existing item, it also creates a moment of civic participation as graphic designers, children, and interested citizens all try their hand at creating a new (and hopefully, better) flag. When you have your new flag (or a set of new flag candidates), you can put it to a vote and allow the City’s citizens to decide what they want.

There’s no better symbol of change for a geographical entity than the changing of a flag as one flag is lowered and the other is raised in its place. And now you have a symbol you can be proud to put in every public building in the City, to wear as a pin, to sell as postcards, etc. That’s a lot more than you can do with a letter of the alphabet.


  1. I have to say, when the orange, “P,” came out as the symbol for Providence, all I could think of was, “It looks like a symbol for where people should go to park their cars.”

  2. Personally, I like the logo. It’s bold; it stands out; it speaks for itself. I also think that the shape of the P is kind of playful/fun. It’s inviting to tourists and emblematic of the reputation Providence is seeking. I’m glad they chose a refined symbol. Looking at the logos for other cities, new logos never go over well, and they are usually riddled with ridiculous “symbolism” that doesn’t at all contribute to the sense of “place.” I hate to give an example from our own state, but Pawtucket’s symbol is blue and orange… to symbolize that it is between Providence (orange) and Boston (blue)…………

    1. My problem with city logos is that they generally are redundant. A city shouldn’t need a logo when it has both a seal and a flag. My view is that instead of the “P” Providence should’ve redesigned its seal and flag – and its coat of arms (which is essentially the seal). In fact, Providence should do that anyway, because they’re bad.

      Look at some Japanese (eg Kobe) or Dutch (eg Amsterdam) cities and the way their flags & logos/seals/coats of arms interact with each other. They are very complimentary, and you can see the way one can work with the other or be used as needed.

      New logos in general never go over well – think about UPS fighting to remove its Paul Rand-designed logo and having to keep it despite the fact it was actively harming their image. Pawtucket’s is definitely made worse if that’s the color symbolism, but again, they might want to look at redesigning the other municipal symbols.

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