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A Complex Organisation on the Cyber Space: A Study of Image and

Identity Communication of Official-City Web Sites

Abdalla, Jose Gustavo

Lecture – Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora/Brazil

Visiting Research Fellow – University of Salford/UK

Faculdade de Engenharia

UFJF, Campus Universitario

Bairro Martelos, Juiz de Fora, MG, Brasil



Cooper, Rachel

Professor – University of Salford / UK

University of Salford, Centenary Building, Peru Street,

M3 6EQ Salford UK



This is an empirical research study of Local Government Web Sites, which at the end of the century represent visual and intangible products of cities. The paper analyses the image and identity projected by cities through their official city web sites. We suggest that the communication for these pages is especially significant for the interface between local government and users. The argument we present is that the concepts of design in terms of communication (by contents and visual presentation) on the Internet must be considered as they have an impact on the interaction with users and their perceptions of the city identity. In order to test our hypothesis, we analyse a sample city on this cyberspace. The analysis of those sites addresses two main aspects: the content and the screen presentation. A perception of the cybernetic aspects and characteristics of the cities are presented in our discussion. We also discuss the relationship between image and environments (Technological, Aesthetic and User) and between the image of the site and the identity of the city. As a result, we suggest that an official web site is an important communicational tool for the interaction between council, citizens and communities. We also present some considerations to design an official city web site. We conclude that an official web site is a new environment for the city. However, it is more than communication. It is a symbolic representation of the city.



The Internet started in the later 1960s on the APARNET project. However, it is only a relatively recent concept on a global network. This universe is open, but it is not infinite. Its space includes discrete elements called the World Wide Web or Web Site of which each element is part of a complex system. Nowadays the Internet and its users are rapidly increasing and the number of sites and pages to navigate has been expanding quickly. Furthermore, as Hahn suggests: "today’s Internet is not a single large computer network. It is actually a collection of tens of thousands of network spanning the globe" (Hahn, 1996).

In this electronic context, cities are appeared in many ways e.g. tourism, local authority, information, etc. For instance, a Search Engine Company offers five thousands cities to navigate throughout the travel channel. Also there are others examples as Boston.com, USA, a local commercial www of information and news, has an impressive number of twenty million page views per month (Vermon, 1998).

Local government is considered a category of city web site. For instance, in our survey (conducted during 1997 and 1998) there were 308 official local government web sites in the UK (meaning 64 percent out of 472 local authorities) and 39 percent out of 7400 cities had official web sites in the US (approximately 2.900 cities).

In addition, the 1997 ICMA (International City/County Management Association) investigation on the local government of cities that did not have home pages 64 percent indicated that they were planning to create and just 26 percent of cities indicated that they currently did not have access to e-mail. The ICMA also revealed the following aspects of information and communication technology of cities in the USA:

"The municipal home pages are used primarily for information dissemination and citizen education.

71 percent do not have long-range information technology plans

87 percent use wireless services, including mobile radios and cellular phones

66 percent budgeted less than $50,000 for IT expenditures for the year 1998

55 percent use fibber optics, and

34 percent use satellite imagery/data in local government operations" (ICMA, 1997).

This paper discusses information and communication technologies for Local Government. Specifically, this research investigates Local Government Official Web Sites as products of cities. It aims to analyse the image and identity projected by cities through their virtual official city. We present the hypothesis that the Official Web Site is an intangible product of the cities and its design in terms of communication (textual and visual) is a deterministic factor for the interaction qualities on the sites. We suggest an environment for the design with three segments those are technical, aesthetic and user. We also suggest that the construction of an official city web site requires interdisciplinary and multifunctional views, which will include the government (mayor, councillors, senior officers, etc.), the city corporation (departments, services, agencies, etc.), IT, PR, marketing, graphic designers, communities, suppliers, etc.

In order to test our hypothesis, we analysed a sample of cities on this cybernetic space. This sample included cities from different continents but, specifically, sites in the UK, the USA and Brazil. Separately, an analysis of a group of 42 Official Council sites in the UK was undertaken. The selection of this sample was based in the following characteristics: (I) geography and economy of the city, region or country, (II) historical and cultural aspects of the city and (III) the best in class that was indicated by national associations, institutions, web site investigations or competitions.

The Internet data has been considered ephemeral by researches in this area because www is frequently reedited (e.g. a new entire web site, a www2, an up-grade of parts, new additions, etc.). However, assuming that the premise of this paper is to analyse the way that an official city is projected on the cyber space and the sample of cities satisfies the determination of statistics, we consider our data adequate to this investigation. That is our sample includes cities with different sizes (villages, towns, cities and metropolis), geographic position (Asia, Europe and American), cultural aspects (east and west societies and Europe, North and Latin America) and economy (rich and developed countries and cities based in different systems of production – industrial, rural, services, etc.). It also included different technological aspects, for example, there are cities with both internal and external IT groups.

The analysis those official sites address two main aspects: the content and the visual presentation.

VIEWS of a City

The perception of image and identity of a city does not have a single perspective. For instance, philosophies such as modernism (functionalism), phenomenology (poetics of space), structuralism (semiology of space), postmodernism (cultural logic) and poststructuralism (order and space) all present an image of a city. There is also a diversity of focus in social sciences researches. City plan ideology (e.g. technopolis, habitat, spatial segregation), theoretical cities (e.g. garden city, urban utopias), urban problems (e.g. transit, tourism and others services), economic and political views, evolution of cities and perceptions by communities and citizens (e.g. immigrants, disability people, elderly etc.) are some examples of those different views of a city.

In this paper we discuss a kind of urban interactive system between different users (local government, communities and citizens) by an electronic network. This system is related to corporation communication in both textual and visual identities and images aspects and characteristics of a city. Marketing and public relations are an important aspects. The following subsections offer a short discussion about these areas.

Urban Morphology

The first view of identity and image of a city is related to a process of perception and cognition. That is the mental image of a place is created through information signals, senses, perceptions, brain and cognition of the person (Page, 1995). The image and identity of a city is then frequently in mind of resident and non-resident people including impressions about the structure of a place, its relative location, its use and its values.

Similarly, urban identity and image has been considered by geography, architecture and urbanism researchers in terms of morphology (social and material forms of a city) and aesthetics, Lynch’s refers to the concept of imageability and legibility (Lynch, 1960), in particular and focusing on architectural aspects and landmarks of a place.

In this paper, those perceptions are conceptual aspects of a visual language. However, we suggest that such perceptions can be created using the visual metaphor on city web sites. The image of the city then is a semantic element on the official web pages.

Corporate Communication, Identity and Image

The literature on corporate image, corporate identity, marketing communication and corporate communication, the concepts of corporate identity and image are diverse. There are different perceptions in terms of the definition of image and identity (Chaves, 1990; Ind, 1992; Napoles, 1988; Olins, 1989; Reil, 1995; Smith, 1993). This paper is use Reil (op. cit.) to define the corporate identity. Reil says that the corporate identity is the personality of the company (behaviour, technology, owner identity, etc.) and its strategic position is on the "Common Starting Points of Corporate Communication Perspective" (CSP). Ind (op. cit.) suggests the corporate image (CI) "is in the eye of the receiver", i.e., it is created as part of the visual language roots (logo, marks, graphics, style, package, etc.). In practice, the design of corporate image ought to express the corporate identity and vice versa the corporate identity requires the image which represents the personality of an organisation.

Positive image

Researches in "trans-disciplinary" areas of Web Sites, City and Corporate Identity are limited. The city and the architecture on the cyberspace has been studied in many cases, such as, technical systems (CAD, GIS, etc.), theories and experimental forms of virtual cities and architectures, and interactive systems on the cities (information, business, tourism, etc.). But, there has been little work on the communication of city image and identity.

Figure 1 – Christ and Pão de Açucar’s Hill

(2 images presented to identify the city of Rio de Janeiro on the Internet)

fig1.gif (4596 bytes)

However, the importance of presenting a positive image has been illustrated in other of fields of study. Olins (op. cit.) for instance recognises the importance of the architecture and urban aspects to the corporate identity of companies on their style and personality. He provides the building examples of IBM, BMW and AEG. He also recognises the importance of corporate identity to city. For instance he illustrates the Christ in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Using the banks, Abel (1997) illustrates the effects of the symbolism (concepts) in architectural design for the corporate identity. Illustrating how financial corporations have used space, materials, proportions, concepts of aesthetic languages like technologies and styles (high-tech, classical, etc.) and other symbolic representations for the promotion of the personality of the banks through the image of the buildings. Such approaches have usually communicated that such corporations are rich, strong, different and contemporaneous. In the end, it is possible to observe how banks make the best of uses of social and material aspects of the places and symbolic aspects of the buildings to create a positive identity and image for the financial corporation.

The persuasion of the positive image is an important element of marketing communication. It is possible to cite many places, cities, and countries where are systematic and technical uses of the marketing concepts have been introduced in urban, regional or country plans (Moutinho, 1993). The cities of Dunedin (Australia) and Bad Holgastein (Austria); Canada and Ireland countries; and the Atlantic Island region have been used as examples for the communication of the image effectively.

It is evident then that images of cities are semantic representation of the real world. It is therefore important that we should consider these images in the virtual context, if indeed the use such semantics do in fact impact the perceptions of cities. It is critical that the selection of images and representations as expressive elements are considered on the WWW.

The argument we present then is that the concepts of design in terms of content and visual presentation of cities on the Web, must be considered as they do have an impact on the interaction between local government/cities and their users by perceptions of the city identity.

Public relations (PR)

The above areas have focus on visual image and identity communication of a city. Public relations is concerned with relationship between different "city" publics. Smith suggests that public relations is "the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between organisation and its public" (Smith, op. cit.). He also hints at that its influence stretches far beyond marketing and corporate strategy. The public relations then is not only communication.

City PR is probably integrated with the most aspects of the corporation and it considers a range of different groups with which a city corporation is involved. This means that PR view is an important aspect to construction the credibility of an official city web site and the view of a PR group will reflect conflicts and interests of different publics in building a www for this complex organisation. An official www as a service of the city will therefore be more then communication.



There are a large number of city sites from all parts of the world on the Internet and many ways to find a digital city on that open universe. However, every official web site has a clear characteristic i.e. they are intangible aspects of the city life at this end of the century. It represents part of the social organisation of the real places. In addition, local government has the responsibility of providing liberty, participation and efficient service provisions (Herbet and Thomas, 1990) that will still persist on the virtual world. Official City web site can be a considerable tool in this new context to support a local government.

The geography of official cities in the virtual world is not too different in terms to the real world atlas. For instance, to find an official city on the Internet in Canada the start point is the "Canadian Governments On-Line Web Site" or, in Australia, the "National Resources Databank for Australian Councils". Every official site is the product from the local government, covering political autonomy, people, news, history, events, images, landscape, and architecture.

The morphology of the city (meaning material world), however, is absolutely different on the cybernetic space. The elements of the morphology on the Internet are architecture of computers (hardware), software, graphics, textual information and so on compared to the morphological elements of the traditional city are usually urban landscape, urban fabric, buildings and so on. Therefore in the cybernetic space urban design is symbolic communication using graphic and information design.

Frazer discussing the architectural relevance of cyberspace suggests that "virtual world should not be seen as an alternative to the real world or a substitute, but an extra dimension which allows us a new freedom of movement in the natural world" (Frazer, 1994). We suggests then, that the cybernetic official city is a new context meaning a creation of new technical, aesthetic and social environments representing the city and its government and trying to make visible in this technological moment a certain local information.



The www was analysed by tabular comparison of the sample of cities chosen. In addition, we proceeded to compare the contents for local official web sites and the contents of search engine companies in order to identify differences between web site communication for a city and the range of web sites on the Internet.







City council Local government


News News and releases


  Services information


Tourism Information and visitors centre




  Hotel and accommodation


Business city information




  Support and investment




  link organisations


Education Schools and colleges






Leisure / Lifestyle and history




Entertainment Places and picture


Alternative Local links


  art and events


  Search on the web site for ---




  Contents / index


  Sport and recreation


  Feedback / complain procedure




  What’s new (on the web)


Transport Map of the localisation of the city


  General links


  Local information




  Local maps


Community Link /events /projects /services etc


  Localisation of the city (text)


Employment Job and careers


Table 1- elements and their percentages on the contents of the UK council sites



As our result, business, education and entertainment (including leisure and tourism) are three common web site subjects on the Internet. Official city web sites have used these subjects as directories. For example, they have presented statistics and analysis that those are the most important pages of their web sites. For instance, the city of Leeds has had 400 economic documents download during the last six months.

However, their aims are for local information government and services of the city. The local information is then the main orientation of those sites and despite the differences between countries, regions and characteristics of cities that are presented on the Internet, the contents of those analysed invariably have communicated similar government and services and aspects of the city though the official sites. For instance, table 1 illustrates every element presented on our sample city web sites in the UK (42 web sites)

The comparison between local and Internet reflects a symbolic view for this cybernetic space being a kind of manipulation to create a recognisable world. The design of interface systems revelled that there is "a big difference between being local and being an alien, being on own turf and being somebody else’s, enjoying you privacy and appearing in a public, feeling at home and knowing that you are out of place. So it is on the Net, as well, but the game gets some new rules, structures of access and exclusion are constructed in entire nonarchitectural terms (if we continue to define architecture as materially contracted form) and you enter and exit places not by physical travel, but by simply establishing and breaking logical links" (Trumbo, 1997).

As a consequence, we addressed two types of information in the design of an official city web site, i.e.: (I) local or (II) world/global. For instance, the US www focuses on the city corporation, local government and local services and the UK www focuses are the city (culture, lifestyle, business, etc.) being mainly designed to be local and to be world/global, respectively. Otherwise, a city web site in the UK indicated that over 40% of their users are outside of the UK and the city web site managers interviewed have considered both aspects for the information on the Internet.

The maps of communication on the sites indicate that a WWW for a city ought to provide information services to a considerable number of market segments. Indeed, the political and social dimensions should be presented in every official city site and to the different kinds of users. For instance, an interviewed city indicates that are approximately forty people, between fifteen and thirty departments, offices, etc and approximately ten suppliers involved into the process to build the city www. This means that an official city site must present clear idea of the concepts and design of the Internet at the onset. It is necessary then to answer questions about the directions and focus that the city wants in developing a web site and what elements, tools and objects will be essential for the city.

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Figure 2

Levels 1,2and 3 of the official Boston web site Consistency graphics

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Figure 3

Levels 1,2 and 3 of the official Chicago web site

Variety of graphics


Visual Presentation

We establish three concepts to analyse official web sites: Technological, Aesthetics and User. The Technological concept covers aspects of hardware (architecture) and computer language used to create a site including the structure of communication (e.g. semantic structure). The Aesthetic concept involves a definition of the visual language and characteristics and policies of image (e.g. layout of pages and semantic images of the city). Finally, the User concept is related to the functions of a site (communication, information, public access, adverting, etc.) for every City Corporation (government, department, services, etc.), communities and citizens.

In many instances the three concepts are developed in isolation. They are, however, inter related to each other and therefore decisions regarding each concept will have an impact on the web site. This suggests that city web sites must be developed using their concepts in a unified manner.

Boston and Chicago are two examples. For instance, their images are closely related to their maps of communication. The current web site of Boston is designed with branches of communication and the Chicago’s web site is a "Mosaic" of web sites (from all parts of the City Corporation). Their images have reflected these structures and illustrate a consistency and a variety of graphic presentations, respectively. (Figures 2 and 3)

To emphasise this idea, Brent Council is another example. Its graphic design only presents the contents of the site that results in the minimum use of images. For instance, the unique image of that home page is the emblem of the council.

The selection of image and choice of contents are both important to the identity of the city and to the creation of a positive and representative image for the city and the site of the city on the Internet. For instance, emblems to identify an official web site are frequently used and can be defined as a semantic image for this kind of site. Photographs are also used to illustrate material and social aspects of cities. The locality is emphasised on the photography. For example, Belo Horizonte, Brazil, which the name means "nice horizon", has presented, as in many city web sites, a skyline photography of the city.

Figure 4 -

The emblem on the Brent Council Home Page.

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Figure 5 -

The city of Belo Horizonte.

The photo of the home page on the Internet.

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The table 2 summarises our orientation of visual presentation from the sample of city web sites investigated. The structure of this table is a result of our analysis in comparing maps of communication and visual presentations of these web sites. Content Communication was discussed in the previous section (i.e. the local or global orientation). Image Communication classifies the uses of images on the site. They represent three forms: "City Corporation" (local government) and "City" (material and social aspects), (II) "Isolation Graphic Design" (specific image for the product web site that is not related to the city corporation), and (III) Mix of these. Corporate Image for the web sites resembles theories of CI: (I) "Consistency and Uniformity CI" is web sites with the same visual design at different levels; (II) "Variety CI" is web sites with a different visual design at each level of the map. (III) "Contents" is just textual presentation where there is a minimum use of images and diagrammatic screen on the pages in every level of the site. Screen Presentation describes the main form of a presentation (textual, graphic or mix). There is no dependency for any class of web site. For example, a site can be local, in Contents Communication, specific in Image Communication, Variety in CI and Text in Focus of Screen Presentation.


Characteristic of the site


City / Town


Contents Communication

Local Recife emprel.gov.br/emprel/pcr
    Seattle ci.seattle.wa.us
  World Paris mairie-paris.fr
    Hertfordshire hertscc.gov.uk

Image Communication

City New York ci.nyc.ny.us
    Rio de Janeiro rio.rj.gov.br
  Specific Bl. Horizonte bh.mg.gov.br
    Enfield enfield.gov.uk
  Mix Las Vegas ci.las-vegas.nv.us

Corporate Image

Consistency Boston ci.boston.ma.us
    Hampshire hants.gov.uk
  Variety Chicago ci.chi.il.us
    Manchester manchester.gov.uk
  Contents Brent Council brent.gov.uk
    Coventry coventry.gov.uk

Focus of screen presentation

Text Leeds leeds.gov.uk
    Cheshire u-net.com/cheshire
  Graphics Porto fe.up.pt/cmp
    San Francisco ci.sf.ca.us
  Mix Glasgow glasgow.gov.uk
    Birmingham Birmingham.gov.uk
Table 2 – identity, image and examples of city web sites


The design with the user in mind is a relevant factor for an official www, i.e., it is necessary to consider the end-user in the process of building an official city web site. The uses of visual identities readily understood by the user (e.g. icon imagery, landmarks and guides) are traditional approach to a participatory or collaborative work between environments and the end-user. The design of the www for a complex organisation (e.g. official city web site) therefore requires a process to develop, build, operate and maintain of an official web site. This involves many professional aspects (confidential information, technical documents, etc.) of a corporation. The end-user may be a relatively active visitor who participates or interacts with the designers and the www in this process (Trumbo, op. cit.).



This research of the product called "Web Sites" focusing on cities, towns and regions introduces new problems for traditional areas of study such as urban plan, graphic design, marketing, information design, sociology and geography.

The official web site is a communication tool for development of a social relationship on the cyberspace. Information, promotion, advertisements, services and so on are ways in which a web site can aid city communication. If the Internet is a new environment for local government and an official city web site is more than communication it is entire in new kind of service for the city. This also means that an official site needs both credibility and visibility on the Internet. These two aspects are developed by three characteristics of the sites, those are: the quality of the product (assurance, information, services, etc.), the social responsibility (ethics, community relations and environment designed) and the design of the corporation on the site (corporate image, corporate communications and design management). These characteristics are closely related with the corporate identity.

Finally, an official web site is a new intangible product for the cities working globally in a virtual space on the Internet, but it is also important in a local environment. However, the perception of this new tool to local citizens and communities depends on the users understanding, accessibility and ability to access and use the technology. The site must be designed with the users and community in mind. The screen presentation must be used to project the identity of the City Corporation and to build its credibility through the contents and image. The interfaces that are important to the interaction, which means they create a spatial proximity, virtual environment and social approach between people in different areas. Furthermore, the aesthetics attract and persuade people to use the web site. Therefore the development of a web site for cities must be considered carefully using a design and development process which include all stakeholders (city employee, corporation services, and offices, users and communities, etc.) considering carefully the aims and objectives of the city in their representation in cyberspace.



Abel, Chris, Architecture & identity: towards a global eco-culture, Oxford, Architectural Press, 1997

Barfield, Lon, The user interface concepts and design, Wokingham, UK, Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1993.

Chaves, Norberto, La imagen corporativa: teoria y metodologia de la identificación institucional, Barcelona, Gustavo Gili, 1990

Frazer, John H., The architectural relevance of cyberspace in Architectural design, London, Architectural Press, 1994

Hahn, Harley, The Internet: Complete reference, Berkley, Osborne McGraw-Hill, 1996

Herbet, David and Thomas, Colin, Cities in space, city as place, London, David Fulton Publishers, 1990 (2sd edition).

Ind, Nicholas, The corporate image: strategies for effective identity programmes, London, Korgan Page, 1992

Lansdale, Mark W. and Ormerod, Thomas C, Understanding interfaces. A Handbook of human-computer dialogue, London, Academic Press, 1995

Lynch, Kelvin, A imagem da cidade, São Paulo, Martins Fontes,1960.

Moutinho, Luiz and Meidan, Arthur, Cases in marketing of services: an international collection, Wokingham, Addison-Wesley, 1993

Napoles, Veronica, Corporate identity design, New York, Van Nostrand einhold, 1988.

Olins, Wally, Corporate identity: making business strategy visible through design, London, Thames and Hudson, 1989.

Page, Stephen, Urban Tourism, London, Routledge, 1995.

Reil, Cee B.M. van, Principles of corporate communication, London, Printice Hall, 1995

Shneiderman, Designing the user interface strategies for effective human-computer interaction, Addison-Wesley, 1993.

Smith, P.R., Marketing communications: an integrated approach, London, Kogan Page, 1993.

Trumbo, Jean, The spatial environment in multimedia design: physical, conceptual, perceptual and behavioral aspects of design space in Design Issues, Boston, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, volume 13, number 3, 1997

Veith, Richard H., Visual Information Systems: The Power of Graphics and Video, Boston, Massachusetts, Gower Publishing, 1988

Vermon, Mark, Keeping it close to Home in Computer Weekly (newspaper), London, ed. ----, 19 February 1998, p44.


United States of Defence Advanced Project Network (ARPANET)

Brent Council Web Site and The International City/County Management Association. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) is the professional and educational organization of more than 8,200 appointed administrators and assistant administrators serving cities, counties, other local governments, and regional entities around the world.

This kind of web site is calling in this paper Official Web Sites and we are understanding Local Government in generic term for mayor, councillors, council, county, borough and city, town or region.

Barcelona (Spain); Paris (France); Port (Portugal); Rome (Italy); Stuttgart (Germany); Buenos Aires (Argentina); City of Mexico (Mexico); Curitiba, Recife, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (Brazil), Seoul (South Korea); Tokyo (Japan); Las Vegas, San Francisco, San Carlos, Seattle and Washington DC (USA).

Brent, Leeds and Manchester in the UK; Boston, Chicago and New York in the US and Belo Horizonte in Brazil.

We used the "Best in Class" web sites presented on the Brent Council web site to choose to this sample of 42 web sites in the UK. They are: Ards, Barnsley, Bedford, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bracknell, Brent, Cambridge, Cardiff, Cheshire, Coventry, Dungannon, East Sussex, Enfield, Flintshire, Glasgow, Hampshire, Hart, Hertfordshire, Isle of Anglesey, Islington, Kent, Kingston Upon Hull, Leeds [Leeds Somerset], Lewisham, Norwich, North Wiltshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Richmond on Thames, Rushmore, Scarborough, Sevenoaks, Shepway, South Ayrshire, St Helens, Suffolk, Uttlesford, Wandsworth, Wansbeck, Western Isles, Westminster.

The ability of objects to evoke emotions in an observer and the organisation of the elements of a city that allows them to be seen as a coherent whole


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