Brand Politic: Contextualizing Design’s Superpowers in Emergent States
In hindsight, I realize that I had been asking the wrong questions all along. As a critic of design, I had a myopic obsession with the emblem’s lack of graphic distinction. It was not going to win any design awards, I thought. But looking back, this was not the creative assignment during the time of emergence. The very fact that the coat of arms has made South Sudan look like a legitimate nation is enough—a high achievement in design and world affairs.
“We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians,” said Massimo d’Azeglio. Speaking at the inaugural parliamentary meeting of the newly formed Italian kingdom in 1861, the prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia captured the greatest challenge of newly formed modern states: how to create a national identity that would unify a disparate population. In 2011 the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest country and the 193rd member state of the United Nations. The new East African nation comprises of a population of over sixty tribes from five major ethnic groups, speaking sixty indigenous languages across ten states. As with the Italian republic a century and a half ago, defining its unifying identity became (and remains) South Sudan’s most urgent project. The perceived need for official symbols, such as a flag, bank notes, coat of arms and a first national building—establishes unique roles for designers and architects during a time of emergence. It’s not often designers get to design a country’s image from scratch.
Juba, South Sudan, April, 2011—There was no time to waste. After a nationwide referendum resulted in a resounding 98.83% affirmative vote for independence from Sudan, the newly appointed South Sudan officials had less than six months to design a nation. With the declaration of independence ceremony set for July 9, there was a long to-do list, and near the top was to design the national coat of arms.
The South Sudan coat of arms comprises of an eagle and a shield over a spade and a spear. “It’s a fish eagle,” explains Hakim, a graphic artist and manager at the Juba County printing press. Hakim was a member of the technical committee handpicked by the minister of culture tasked to select, refine, and finalize the state emblem.1 The forty-something pressman with an affable smile was wearing a simple white button-up shirt, his only accessory being a plastic-coated commemorative pin bearing the South Sudanese coat of arms. He wears it every day, he told me, touching the pin on his shirt pocket just below his heart.
“The fish eagle is powerful. It can pick up a small crocodile with his claws. It has great vision and can see from afar,” Hakim says, taking off the pin so I can inspect its design closely.
The choice of motif is intriguing: A bird of prey often mistaken for a raptor, the fish eagle is a kleptoparasite that feeds by stealing food from other birds. I ask Hakim about its symbolism. Hakim ignores my question. I bring up the fact that the fish eagle is actually Zambia’s national bird, and is used in their own seal as well as in Namibia’s. Did they consider other animals for the emblem? What about the bull? (I recalled seeing a billboard painted on the wall of our camp with the words: White Bull Beer: The Taste of a New Nation). “This was what the majority liked,” Hakim explained. “Ultimately, the vice president decided. And that beer is from South Africa, not South Sudan,” he added.
According to Hakim, the central shield was the most debated design element. South Sudan is a nation composed of ten states with more than 60 tribal groups, and so the design on the shield could not resemble any markings from any one tribe too closely. The challenge was to find a pattern that was neutral yet meaningful—an inclusive and unifying symbol for all. Working 24/7 in a suite at the Sahara Hotel in Juba, the nine-member committee huddled around a computer loaded with CorelDraw, turning around the several required versions of the design as rapidly as possible. They bonded over long nights away from their families, sequestered in the modest space that had become the design nerve center leading to the July 9 independence ceremony.
At every juncture, all twenty-eight cabinet ministers were required to comment—essentially to art direct. “Drop the wings… turn the head to the left…” When designer and decision-maker share authorship, consensus is often elusive. The politics of aesthetics is a loaded discussion.
After weeks of debate, the National Legislative Assembly ratified the final design in June, with only four weeks until Independence Day. But there was no time to celebrate. There was still a long list of official documents, medals, passports, letterhead, business cards, signage, and other communication materials to prepare.
From an outsider’s point of view, there is nothing remarkable about the design of the South Sudan coat of arms. It is looks formulaic, almost a non-design design. A survey of existing coats of arms testified to the ubiquity of the eagle-shield-cartouche combination.2 The trope is so commonplace that it looks ready-made. It was the graphic design equivalent of an instant meal.
In hindsight, I realize that I had been asking the wrong questions all along. As a critic of design, I had a myopic obsession with the emblem’s lack of graphic distinction. It was not going to win any design awards, I thought. But looking back, this was not the creative assignment during the time of emergence. The very fact that the coat of arms has made South Sudan look like a legitimate nation is enough—a high achievement in design and world affairs. Through creating an array of symbols that project nationhood, South Sudan has successfully staked a claim on a territory, earned representation on a global stage, and bought themselves time to continue the debate about their national identity.
As we say goodbye, I ask Hakim if he likes the final design. He nods, deftly slipping the button back on his shirt pocket without looking. “I’m very proud to have been part of the process. It’s a story I can tell my grandchildren,” he beamed, his eyes visibly welling with emotion.
Design Checklist for New Nations: A Projected Priority List
- Choose an official name.
- Disseminate an official map.
- Design a flag.
- Compose a national anthem.
- Choose a capital city.
- Design a coat of arms.
- Print official letterhead, stationery, business cards, and correspondence cards for departments.
- Design and print currency and banknotes.
- Update signage on all government buildings.
- Obtain International Dialing Code from the International Telecommunications Union.
- Obtain Internet Domain Extension from the International Organization for Standardization.
- Launch national website.
- A nationwide contest was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage in March 2011. The Ministry received twenty-six entries, including a submission from the artistically inclined Health Minister, whose design was not selected. Chol Anei Ayii took the first prize, Moses Kur Akech second, and Mark Mabior won the third. Ayii later sued the government for defaulting on the five-thousand-dollar cash prize. ↩
- An updated visual gallery of national coat of arms is available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallery_of_country_coats_of_arms ↩