There’s more to British design than branding

This week we’ve seen an attempt by the media to revisit the issue of branding Britain, presumably for want of something better to debate. Once more we heard Radio 4’s Today programme, among others, wheel out the likes of Mark Leonard, author of the 1997 Britain report for think tank Demos, to share their views on “Britain the Brand”.

The first report coincided with the launch of New(ish) Labour and the optimism that a long-awaited change of Government brought in its wake. Initiatives such as Creative Britain were high on the agenda then, as London became cultural capital of the universe in the eyes of the world’s youth and the UK was seen abroad as a hotbed of entrepreneurialism.

Things are very different now, with confidence at a bit of a low in the City and across the countryside. The best excuse the media could muster this time around to reconsider Britain’s image is the Royal Mail’s new stamps to commemorate St George’s Day, designed with traditional heraldry in mind. And, oh, yes, we are virtually on the eve of a General Election.

It is remarkable how quickly that original Demos tract has become a historical document. It offered six “storylines” upon which to build a new image for Britain: creativity; the global hub; the hybrid nation; buccaneering entrepreneurs; silent revolutionaries; and fair play. Of these, few have survived untarnished since the report was penned, but then slogans are inevitably hard to stick to as life moves on, especially at the rapid pace we’ve seen over recent months. Those buccaneering e-commerce entrepreneurs have proved particularly vulnerable, though only a few years ago Demos and others seemingly in the know were urging us all to look to the Internet as the sure-fire future, in a culture where knowledge was tipped to be “information with attitude”.

With so few elements staying in line for very long, the task of creating a long-term identity for a country seems impossible. Cynics might say it takes a strong national direction such as a war to clarify the issues and rally everyone behind a particular flag. Otherwise the variables of economic fortune, race and social inequality tend to come more strongly to the fore. The Government finds it hard enough to present a unified front, as Rodney Mylius pointed out in a recent letter (Letters, DW 5 April).

But one of Britain’s strengths thrown up by Demos is its creative community and that isn’t about to go away. We in design need to concern ourselves more with harnessing that asset to address real issues – such as restoring tourism to the country – rather than trying to set in time by badging the UK’s cultural shifts.

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