Europe needs more than a design coup

A flag, a slogan, a single currency unit or a cartoon character? What is it that symbolises Europe for you? Do you really care?

The cross-European trawl of opinion revealed by think-tank Demos last week suggested few of us do. The results underwhelmed the British press, provoking virtual silence on the subject. At the launch, Neil Kinnock’s presence was the main attraction to the media and single currency the issue of most concern.

The fact is, this latest Demos exercise, backed by Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, isn’t really about Europe. It’s about perceptions of a political entity, the European Union, and how best to get its messages across. Kinnock railed against the exercise being merely a PR campaign, but that appears to be a fundamental element – for its instigators, that is. Maybe they, like Wolff Olins with its branding Britain idea, should have done a deal with a TV programme to ensure good coverage.

Now we have another, longer-standing bid to define and promote the idea of Europe to Europeans. London design group Twelve Stars is open about its agenda for self-promotion through cartoon hero Captain Euro and his team. But the consultancy does have strong European credentials. It designed the marque for the European Parliament in 1992 and boasts a multinational team.

What is more, it is aiming for future unity by appealing to children and is keen to be apolitical. We already know through the Tellytubbies and Buzz Lightyear that brand loyalty crosses oceans, let alone European boundaries.

Interbrand Newell and Sorrell will no doubt win work through its EU exercise, despite denials that an identity job is at stake; Twelve Stars merits support for its initiative, though some of the imagery may be suspect. But the interesting thing is that, like Wolff Olins, both are design groups pushing themselves – and design – into the public arena with ideas that should prompt debate.

It’s not the first time this has happened. Take the old Michael Peters Group’s foray into Green issues in the late Eighties. Retail designers such as Rodney Fitch were rarely off our TV screens then, talking up design on the high street, and Wally Olins led the bid to bring the words “corporate identity” into common parlance.

But most of these ventures were aimed at business rather than the public. The corporation was hero rather than a deeper emotional bonding such as nationality. It is good that designers are now addressing wider issues, but let’s hope there’s more to their interest than pulling off a publicity stunt.

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