Hi. On July 9, 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was born. After two hard-fought civ­il wars, it’s peo­ple from the more than 60 tribes of this East African land vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to break from Sudan and become the world’s newest nation. 

My name is Anne Quito. Last September I trav­eled to Juba, South Sudan’s cap­i­tal to research first-hand the prag­mat­ics of design­ing for nation­al iden­ti­ty. I want­ed to get up close to the process of mak­ing emblems, sym­bols, and struc­tures that com­prise the brand­ing kit of a start­up nation.

Banner announcing the South Sudan Independence Day Celebrations

Now, the time between the ref­er­en­dum in February and its Independence Day dec­la­ra­tion was short, less than five months to pull it all togeth­er. That’s less than five months to ges­tate a nation.

So how to you design a nation from scratch? Is there a design check­list? I think a list is impor­tant, not just as a reminder of action items but as a doc­u­ment that denotes the roles and oppor­tu­ni­ties for design­ers to par­tic­i­pate in build­ing a nation. In my research, I found no such list­ing, at least not one that dis­tills a series of design tasks. So here’s my list.

Some things are obvi­ous: make a flag, a map, the seal, the mon­ey. But how about find­ing some­one to lay out the Constitution? Or maybe some­one to put togeth­er the cus­toms land­ing forms? I’ve ordered the items in this list quite sim­ply, but each one is actu­al­ly a com­plex and fas­ci­nat­ing design project.

Since the six-color South Sudanese flag is a carry-over from the army, today I’d like to talk about item num­ber 2 on the list. The behind-the-scenes sto­ry of their nation­al seal.

In Juba, I met Hakim, a project man­ag­er in the print­ing press who was part of the coat of arms design com­mit­tee. When we met, I noticed that he was wear­ing a shiny pin on his shirt pock­et bear­ing its design. With pride, he slipped it off, hand­ed it to me so I could look at it clos­er. Let’s look at it together.

The main design ele­ment is an eagle bear­ing a shield. The bird is a fish-eating eagle com­mon to this region of East Africa. Now, I don’t know about you, but to be hon­est when I inspect­ed it, I was rather under­whelmed. The design was so gener­ic it could’ve been clip art. It had zero graph­ic dis­tinc­tion. Hakim was observ­ing me admire his pin, and I could bare­ly hide my disappointment.

I had many crit­i­cal ques­tions for Hakim. Like, is that Times New Roman on the scroll? Two, were they per­haps inspired by the American Seal—I meant copy. Did they know that the eagle, that par­tic­u­lar one, was also on Namibia’s emblem? And why is the design so sim­i­lar to that of Sudan’s when you just vot­ed to sep­a­rate from Sudan? Also, were you aware that the fish-eating eagle that you picked was actu­al­ly a klep­topar­a­site, a bird that feeds by steal­ing food from oth­er birds?

I mean, does the nation brand­ing flock of eagles real­ly need anoth­er mem­ber? I want­ed to tell him, Hey, I think it’s been done before. It’s kind of so 15th cen­tu­ry.” Does the world real­ly need anoth­er eagle/shield car­touche com­bo from this 21st cen­tu­ry state? How often do design­ers get a chance to craft a country’s logo? Surely there must be room for inno­va­tion. It seems that we are stuck in a stale­mate of safe choic­es” laments the cere­bral Dutch design firm Metahaven. As a graph­ic design­er, a big part of me agrees with Metahaven, and per­haps if I had not spent any time in Juba, I would join them in disdain.

In hind­sight, I think I may have dis­missed South Sudan’s coat of arms too quick­ly. I real­ized that maybe I had been obsess­ing over the wrong details. I learned from Hakim that the most-debated ele­ment was not the eagle, but the shield. Their chal­lenge was to find a pat­tern that did not resem­ble the mark­ings from any of the 60-plus tribes too close­ly. Hakim’s com­mit­tee worked through rounds and rounds of revi­sion, pre­sent­ing to an eth­ni­cal­ly diverse cab­i­net of 28 min­is­ters from these tribes. That is 28 art direc­tors, com­ment­ing on every comp.

That very design debate actu­al­ly echoes the roots of the ongo­ing eth­nic con­flicts that besiege South Sudan today. Last December, a rebel fac­tion led by its oust­ed Vice President, who comes from the Nuer tribe, chal­lenged its Vice President, who comes from the Dinka tribe. South Sudan still finds itself every more debat­ing its nation­al iden­ti­ty, and to this day they’re still tool­ing with that cen­tral shield.

Design for emer­gence oper­ates on a dif­fer­ent set of cri­te­ria steeped in the pol­i­tics and urgency of its time. I believe that in this sce­nario, hav­ing these so-called safe choic­es is not a bad thing. During this time of emer­gence it’s good that we have defined a graph­ic lan­guage of nation­hood, expe­di­ent vari­a­tions of heraldic tra­di­tions of crests, car­touch­es, and coats of arms. A lin­gua fran­ca of legitimacy.

Taking a step back, what is the pur­pose of this emblem, any­way? The coat of arms func­tions as the country’s seal of authen­tic­i­ty, a val­ida­tor. I argue that it’s for­mu­la­ic con­struct adds to its graph­ic author­i­ty. This new country’s emblem must look legit so the papers, peo­ple, and places they mark look legit­i­mate. In the con­text of emer­gence, nation brand­ing is impor­tant for two reasons. 

One, these offi­cial state sym­bols func­tion as mark­ers, pro­vi­sion­al fen­ce­posts to stake out bor­ders. I say pro­vi­sion­al because they need not be per­ma­nent. A nation brand is not a tat­too but a start­ing point. After all, the American flag has been tweaked 27 times. Also, this col­lec­tion need not be a closed set. Soon we get a nation­al beer, a nation­al foot­ball team, some riot­ers, pop stars, George Clooney adding to the South Sudanese word cloud. We’re all co-designers in this ongo­ing iden­ti­ty project. But while South Sudan is still in the process of becom­ing, its legit­i­ma­cy is prop­a­gat­ed through its nation branding.

Two, these graph­ic devices are con­tain­ers, reser­voirs of trig­ger points that store and spark a sense of nation­al­ism. To bor­row from the Bengali his­to­ri­an Dipesh Chakrabarty, they’re tools that help us pierce the veil of pover­ty and incom­plete­ness and imag­ine our­selves as some­thing bigger.

Three images: a card indicating the two hand gestures used in the independence vote; a banner showing same; a woman holding her hand in the secession gesture

But there’s anoth­er rea­son. The design for the South Sudanese con­text is to con­sid­er that only one in three peo­ple can read. Its lit­er­a­cy lev­el is pegged at 27%, the world’s low­est accord­ing to UNESCO. The prob­lem is so preva­lent that dur­ing that ref­er­en­dum, hand sym­bols had to be intro­duced in the design of their bal­lot. A raised palm indi­cat­ed a vote for seces­sion from Sudan, and two clasped hands indi­cat­ed a vote for uni­ty. In this con­text, sim­plic­i­ty clar­i­ty, even lit­er­al­ism is key.

The expe­ri­ence of going to South Sudan has left me with an indeli­ble and hum­bling les­son about my own crit­i­cal myopia. As crit­ics, could we at times suf­fer from a short-sightedness where we’ve boxed our­selves into a lim­it­ed field of vision and in so doing cast our­selves as priv­i­leged com­men­ta­tors danc­ing around font and form, out of context?

Every design ques­tion I asked in Juba was answered with a polit­i­cal response. There, I real­ized that design was impor­tant, but was part of a larg­er pic­ture. I want to leave you now with an image of Michael Saki, Deputy Chief of Protocol, shown here busy prepar­ing for the Independence Day cel­e­bra­tion. In this scene he’s rum­mag­ing through a ware­house and comes face to face with his identity.

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Still from video excerpt ~10:1011:05

Thank you.

Further Reference

Presentation listing at the Lingua Franca conference site, and Annes's bio with link to an extract from her thesis.

"SVA Alumnus Anne Quito on ‘Branding’ Switzerland and South Sudan" at SVA Close Up.

A post by Anne at Works That Work about this research.

NPR interviewed Anne about this project. [with transcript]


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