The celebrated Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has responded to a commission from the European Union by creating a new European flag. Inadvertently, perhaps, it signals the reversal of the European project. The design takes the stripes of the 15 EU nations’ flags in all their various colours and widths, and jams them together in one eye-aching technicolor barcode. In the shorthand familiar to European citizens, it is clearly the banner of a “Europe of nation-states”, not a “united states of Europe.”
Of course, it’s folly to reduce a region of Europe’s diversity to a symbol. But apparently it’s okay for nations. Most countries, even those happily sheltered under the umbrella of the European Union, indulge in national navel-gazing. The visible outcome is usually a designer’s well-meaning, but often fatally misguided, stab at a “national brand.” Britain during the 1990s saw an increasingly frenzied series of these stunts, which earned the moniker “Cool Britannia”, but came ultimately to nothing.
Too often, these projects are based on expedient politics and poor research; they yield results that are vacuous or trite. Cities provide an extreme illustration of the problem with nations. Once proudly identified by some local craft or industry—Nottingham lace, Venetian glass, Pittsburgh steel—cities from Brussels to Buenos Aires are now struggling to put together an authentic message. More in hope than accuracy, Birmingham now brands itself “Europe’s meeting place.”
But nations have not lost their sense of self. So why are they reducing themselves to symbols and slogans? It can almost work. Spain’s rash of motifs based on the painting of Joan Miró—used by the national tourist office, airlines and banks—was appropriate while the country was being welcomed into the community of Europe; such a flamboyant expression of Spanishness was to return the compliment.
But more often it doesn’t. A fern, originally the emblem of New Zealand’s all-conquering national rugby team, currently appears on a range of that country’s exports. The national tourism and trade boards agreed to adopt the fern too, but every organization uses different artwork. Now, corporations can decree that all their collateral carries an identical logo, but a city or a country can’t. For New Zealand, the overall result is confusion, rather than a coherent national brand.
Scotland rebranded when a new tourism chief executive arrived from a major UK candy manufacturer. He was in no doubt that Scotland could be branded just like chocolate. The designer thistle that resulted from this venal exercise naturally skirts the real nationalist issue that Scotland has been a part of Britain for 300 years. Could a more considered approach have generated something not only distinctively Scottish but also modern? And just where does Scotland the Brand fit in with Cool Britannia?
The United States usually has the good sense not to mess with its cultural symbols. (The dollar has scarcely changed while Europe’s currencies have changed with the regularity of Italian governments.) But in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration has appointed Charlotte Beers, a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson, to brand the U.S. Six months on, there is little to show for the appointment other than the condemnation of No Logo author Naomi Klein. In these worst of times, it’s a reminder that national brands are crude propaganda.
And yet, nations must express their identities. In the ten years since I explored the issue of cultural expression through design in my book World Design: Nationalism and Globalism in Design, new nations have been born—East Timor the latest in a list including the new states of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Nationalism is on the increase—complete with the usual fear and hatred of those who are perceived not to belong—and not least in the US and Europe. Yet there has been no serious exploration of the role that designers could and should play. Is it legitimate, healthy, helpful to seek some expression of civic nationalism? Could this nullify its Jekyll-and-Hyde counterpart, ethnic nationalism?
These are big questions. But all we get are small answers.