a city block on a sunny day. colorful banners that all say 'cultural district' hang from light poles as people walk past

Reframing Pittsburgh’s Cultural District: A journey in two acts

Tue, Apr 25, 2023

Written by: Emily Balawejder | Photos by: Seth Culp-Ressler

It is an extraordinary and daunting journey to begin.

an orange and yellow banner hangs from a light pole in front of a blue sky dotted with clouds.

Act I:

In 2019, a team of designers set out to build a refreshed palette for Pittsburgh’s Cultural District. This would be the third interpretation of how a geographic location would look and feel, both to people who have frequented the Penn/Liberty corridor regularly and who might be passing through for the first time.

As the project launched, the team considered a long list of what this design might achieve. Brainstorms lead to brainstorms and site visits left the group vibrating with ideas that took the work in an almost infinite number of directions. The fresh material would incorporate extraordinary creativity on stages, in galleries and in workshops while prioritizing space for people to meet and experience art and have the potential to see things differently. We held the storied history of this land and considered at length how we might celebrate the past while turning our attention to the future.

The brand would need to be bright, welcoming, and iconic, harboring a timeless quality and quiet confidence.

As months went by, designs piled up, and conversations stalled. It seemed that there was an intangible item that made it impossible to bring a broader team to consensus. The calendar turned to 2020 and the team had built some consensus around one design and were beginning to move forward—until it became quite clear that something very big was about to change.


With the pandemic shutdown, a longer pause and new considerations began to surface. During the 16 months of a sometimes dizzying “intermission,” it was clear that the variation that had risen to the top of a very large pile would not be quite right for a world that would never be the same.

a city block on a sunny day. colorful banners that say 'cultural district' hang from street poles

Act II:

As the Cultural District began to reopen, stage lights turned on and ghost lights disappeared, the team began to head back to the drawing board. Many of the initial conversations felt valid, but it was clear that the places the project had been would not be the places the project would go.

A new set of clear directives was set. The new brand for Pittsburgh’s Cultural District would be bright, dynamic, fresh, spatially playful, and strong. It would act as a welcome mat for those who came to the streets, granting permission to use the space to be inspired, to laugh, to cry, to be moved, to see things differently, to evolve.

The only way forward is to give all who pass through these streets—artists, guests, patrons, visitors of all kinds—some room to add to the space they found themselves a part of. All art and culture can allow us to see the world with fresh eyes. To understand a perspective or point of view and to experience that with others: friends, family, and strangers.

The design that now adorns the streets exemplifies this spirit.

There is a woven set of patterns that are discordant or harmonious in the way they intersect. Light and heavy organic hand drawn lines push the tapestry away and generate significant space: Room where something or someone is met, and perhaps where things feel different. In the negative space, there is meant to be room for whatever inspiration or understanding might be uncovered by the viewer.

The palette is bright and transferable. Sometimes a white, blank page, sometimes a vibrant color variation offers vibrancy to the streets and spaces.

a pink and blue banner that says 'cultural district' hangs from a light pole in front of a building with a green façade

“Cultural District” is set in a clean, unadorned, and confident typeface. Allowing “Cultural” to fall off the edges leans into the idea that what you find in these spaces and streets might be carried with a visitor, wherever they may go.

In 1984, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust transformed 14 city blocks into a vibrant epicenter of culture, art, food, and community known now as the Cultural District. It is once again time for dreams, vision, creativity and perhaps most importantly of all, community, to continue building on the precept that the arts can play a pivotal role in the vitality of a city.

We hope that you will find art that changes you, comforts you, helps you to find joy and connection in the Cultural District.

Special thanks:

Design team:

Emily Balawejder
Morgan Barba
Jonathan Fobear
Brian Nichols

Guidance and consulting:

Rick Landesberg
Smith Brothers Agency


“A brand is a set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships.” –Seth Godin

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