Shades of jingoism

The return from a trip abroad provides fresh insight. Liz Farrelly comes home to the new BTA marque for Britain and finds it disappointingly nostalgic and parochial.

Good morning Britain. Back from extensive travels across America I’m marvelling at how green the place is, at least from the window of the Gatwick Express. Later, I’m phased by the hectic pace and revolted by the traffic in The Strand (such narrow roads). No doubt about it, London smells. But after opening six weeks’ worth of mail (mostly invitations to 100% Design), I woke up to the realisation that the younger, raunchier element of our multi-talented design community does, in fact, greatly improve the quality of life on this crazy little island. It’s unique blend of eccentricity and impeccable good taste sets them apart.

A couple of days later, however, I’m confronted with an example of British corporate design that may spoil all that. The new marque for the British Tourist Authority is in the vein of that much maligned British Telecom troubadour, but it would be difficult to describe it even as “whimsical”. With the realisation that I may be a closet hard-line-modernist I can safely say that a crumple of primary colours, approximating either a deflated hot air balloon or a draped coffin, does not do justice to the concepts’ aim, ie “to project a new, exciting image to Britain to potential visitors… The marque combines the stability and history of Britain with its modern and vibrant aspects”.

Tell me, please, why we need a worthy organisation, the BTA, to pay a talented bunch of designers at Real Time Studio (who have previously proved their worth with identities for the likes of the Football Association and the House of Commons Library), to attempt to sum up every positive aspect of the UK in one easy logo? Does anyone seriously believe that a single logo could represent such diversity? And if someone at the BTA genuinely thought it could, why did they resort to using a distorted version of that obvious old cliché, the Union Jack?

One reason. Research. As they proudly tell me in their press release, and I quote; “…research showed that red and blue were vital… they represent monarchy, the sea and tradition. Green reflects the green countryside, parks and gardens. Yellow and orange were… found to add zest and excitement, a hint of the unexpected and a holiday feel”.

We can all paint by numbers, yes, but don’t innovation and taste have something to do with design? And just what colour do you call those “unresolved” areas, where the happy yellow overlaps with the bucolic green and the maritime blue?

My problem could be that I’m uncomfortable with the bastardised jingoistic overtones of the Union “flag” (it’s been renamed in the press release). I can’t help thinking of Union Jack boxer shorts terrorising Benidorm Travelling around the States I was surprised to find the Stars and Stripes hanging around in such diverse circumstances, from the rafters of Niketown in New York, to flagpoles on pristine lawns running down to Lake Ontario. But there were other colours in attendance; emerald green shamrocks were plastered all over Long Island; the striped rainbow flag flew in enclaves from Greenwich Village to San Francisco, and the green and red of Mexico had a strong presence. Nailing colours to a mast isn’t solely the domain of the ruling elite, not in the States at least.

Are the Brits so reticent about nailing any colours to any mast that we’ve forgotten how to invent a meaningful symbol? Or is the long drawn out process of design by committee (the BTA attempt took two years to botch), reducing design to the level of a workable compromise? Where are those first sketches? Real Time Studio is understandably pleased with Destination, “the typeface which combines serif and sans serif”, which it designed for the project. But a new typeface with more than a whiff of nostalgia doesn’t actually address the issue, to celebrate diversity etc, etc.

OK, aesthetics aside, there was one nagging question I had to ask. The marque is intended to represent Britain, and I quote, “the English, Scottish and Welsh identities”. So, doesn’t the jurisdiction of the BTA stretch to Northern Ireland? Why, yes it does. But, as a representative of Real Time Studio informed me, the province was excluded because of the troublesome political situation. Are we to take a hint? Does the BTA have the inside line on devolution? Or did the powers that be simply write Northern Ireland out of the brief because if they can’t solve the problem they weren’t about to let a bunch of designers loose on it? What a cop out.

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