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.


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]