What does rule Britannia?

So, do you think Britain’s identity needs rethinking? Design Week has asked this and other questions to give key players in the design community a chance to get their voices heard.

You can hardly move these days without encountering a talking shop about the image of Britain. Wolff Olins’ collaboration with BBC TV’s Money Programme on Britain plc, the Design Council’s New Brand for New Britain document and debate asking Does Britain need a new identity? and the Demos report , Britain, all fit the bill.

Interest in the country’s future, already hotting up because of the impending millennium, was fuelled by the election in May of a new Labour Government. The tragic death four months later of Diana, Princess of Wales, fanned the flames.

Meanwhile, the launch of two identities conceived in the days of John Major and Tory rule captured the headlines. Newell and Sorrell’s work for British Airways, a global commercial company, was generally acclaimed as a concept, though the media made much of the fact the new look only featured the representation of the Union flag on the tail of Concorde. It was specially woven by Chatham Historic Dockyards.

Real Time Studio’s lurid image for the British Tourist Authority had a bumpier ride, criticism this time centring on both the quality of the design and a profusion of flags, the Union flag wrongly perceived as dominating the green and orange of Ireland’s standard.

Now we await the outcome of a third commission, again for Newell and Sorrell, this time looking at the British Council (DW 24 October). The Demos report had already identified that between them the British Council, the BTA, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department of Trade and Industry spent 800m of public money a year on promoting Britain abroad. Why, some people argue, should they continue to do so under separate banners, which surely only confuses the identity issue for Britain?

And then there is the big one – the question of an all-embracing national identity on the scale of the Joan Miro image for Spain or the identity review Denmark is currently undergoing.

Peter Mandelson has said: “A modernised, rebranded Britain is an essential condition to secure the investment, trade, jobs and prosperity we want to achieve in our country.” In the same speech, the minister without portfolio added that “rebranding is about more than logos and badging”. But there is suspicion among designers that the various reports and initiatives will culminate in a “visual branding” exercise for Britain, and that the job will be allocated behind closed doors, without reference to the wider design community.

To get design’s voice heard, Design Week has decided to raise the debate publicly and air it over the coming weeks. This week we start with the results of a trawl of opinion among major players on the international design stage. Respondents include Terence Conran, WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell, Sir Clive Sinclair, Massimo Vignelli of Vignelli Associates and Stefan Sagmeister, both from New York, Joe Kieser of South African-based KSDP Pentagraph and Regina Ko of Design Innovation in Hong Kong

We have deliberately excluded from the survey those (such as the Design Council, Wolff Olins, Real Time Studio and Newell and Sorrell) that have had their say, though we will be happy to publish any response from them.


The overwhelming majority of respondents (75 per cent) feel Britain’s image needs rethinking, with Terence Conran and Bartle Bogle Hegarty supremo John Hegarty both seeing it as already a continuing process of change. “Every day it is changing for the better,” says Conran.

Interestingly, there’s little consensus from overseas respondents about the country’s existing identity. “It’s not very obvious. No one really knows what it is,” says Ko in Hong Kong, while US graphics man Alexander Isley describes Britain’s identity as “an enviable one as far as countries go”. UK-born Mark Diaper of Dutch design group UNA focuses the argument on economic performance. “Britain’s design community cannot save British industry through an identity review,” he says. “Only British industry can save itself.” Tellingly, another Brit abroad – Perry King of King Miranda Associati in Milan – describes Britain as “an island with an important past, off the coast of Europe”.

There is some concern about the idea of “branding” the nation. BT design head David Mercer sums it up, saying that while Britain needs to rediscover its brand, “It does not need another logo… this would be missing the bigger picture and attract inevitable cynicism.” Jewellery retailer and journalist Janet Fitch meanwhile adds: “We are not a product that needs branding.”

All this comes against a perception from some that we’re seen as “old-fashioned” and “traditional”, while we want to be seen as “youthful”, “innovative” and “dynamic”. But several respondents believe we’re already there in reality, it’s just that people don’t see us that way. Malcolm Garrett of AMXdigital, for example, detects an optimistic and enthusiastic atmosphere already – something he’d like to see sustained. But he perceives the need to combine the positive attitude he sees to British design and the view of British people as being “arrogant and strange”.

WPP chief executive Martin Sorrell, Conran, Hegarty and CDT Design’s Mike Dempsey agree perception has shifted. Britain, they say, is already viewed as “promising”, “rising”, “optimistic”and “changing”, with Tony Blair and London being cited by Vignelli in New York and others as factors in the current upturn in attitudes. Ko goes one further, saying she’d like Britain to be the European capital in five years time, while top design industry bosses like Sorrell and Hegarty would like to see it as the European hub of creative services in the years to come.

The Union flag provokes a similar mix of emotions. A strong lobby supports the flag, but a few think we need a second symbol. Callum Lumsden of interiors group Lumsden Design Partnership says the Union flag should be retained alongside a new symbol, while Hegarty urges us to “use it properly”. Dempsey too wants to retain the flag, but sees it as “a masterful solution to a different problem”.

Richard Murray of branding specialist Williams Murray Banks observes that “if you think of Britain as a brand, we do have one of the best differentiated flags in the world – its quirkiness is reflective of our eccentricity”. Citing the Dutch example, he sees redesigned currency as a great way of spawning changes of attitude about a country.

As for the name, Britain wins hands down with our sample, with WPP’s Sorrell alone in retaining “Great” as an affix and architect Jestico & Whiles citing the e-mail address @Britain.co.uk. Only three respondents thought UK on its own was the right title.

Among the more esoteric names suggested is Spiceland, coined by Justin Banks of Williams Murray Banks before the girl group took a popularity nose-dive, and FCUK (For Creativity UK), “borrowed” from fashion chain French Connection by Martyn Bullock of Red Jacket. On the one hand, we have The European Republic of Britain from Paul Sternberg of voluntary sector lobbying group The Media Trust, on the other Little England from recent Seymour Powell recruit James Woudhuysen, who previously worked with Philips in The Netherlands.

So Britain it is, complete with Union flag. But that still leaves the question of how perceptions can be changed to update the image from heritage centre to thrusting, forward-thinking nation. Design can help, but how? Any ideas?

See also Letters and Comment, page 11

‘Things are happening all the time which are changing [Britain’s] identity. Don’t let’s try to force the pace. Let it happen naturally’

Terence Conran

‘Fundamentally, an identity must truly reflect the personality of an organisation or, as in this case, a nation. To not do so is superficial. A change to Britain’s mind-set will take time and will need help’

Mike Dempsey, CDT Design

‘Britain’s identity is fine in visual terms and I can’t believe anyone will ever change the flag. However, there is room for change in the broader definition of identity’

Richard Watson, Global Design Register

‘The UK has a great tradition of graphics. Respect it. Clarendon/Times Roman/Gill Sans’

Massimo Vignelli, Vignelli Associates, New York

‘Canada’s tried, and it made them look corporate and bland. You’re doing fine’

Alexander Isley, Connecticut

‘The greatest equity lies within Britain’s tradition. Without it you have not got much change left – why change?’

Joe Kieser, KSDP Pentagraph, Johannesburg

‘There are many good things about Britain’s identity, but they need to be modernised and given a youthful, dynamic dimension’

Paul Sternberg, The Media Trust

‘Within the global identity of Britain we should have the scope for individual regional identities’

Nick Johnson, Simpson Associates and the McEnroe Group, Manchester

‘The desire to produce a new identity for Britain is not about dressing up as something we are not. It is merely catching up with the reality of a multicultural, diverse and essentially liberal country of great contrasts. International attitudes to Britain take a lot to change and high volume is required to shift old, now unreal views of our previous arrogance and staidness’

Clive Grinyer, Director, product design, Fitch

‘There’s a huge opportunity here for the design fraternity to play its part in influencing and creating this new Britain. Let’s not allow it to slip’

David Mercer, Head of design, BT

‘Any identity will only work if there is some depth to the reason for doing it. Any initiative of this sort will have to be reinforced with a meaningful, dynamic strategy’

Callum Lumsden, Lumsden Design Partnership

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