Red, white and new

Like it or loathe it, Wolff Olins’s identity for UK plc says it’s time for the nation to move away from bobbies and beefeaters. David Varley has been saying this for years and suggests how to do it

The recent Money Programme on BBC2 featured designers at Wolff Olins demonstrating how the image of Britain should be portrayed to the rest of the world. I was involved with the very same problem when working for the Central Office of Information in the Sixties, promoting the UK’s exports at exhibitions and trade fairs overseas.

As a young designer, I knew one of the first things I needed to do was to change the image of the UK which at that time was being portrayed by beefeaters, bobbies, guardsmen, Big Ben and thatched cottages. These were usually in the form of crude cardboard cut-out figures.

It was in 1964 when Terence Conran was recruited to design a exhibition entitled The Role of the Industrial Designer in British Industry, that I, with Conran and Rodney Fitch, became involved in my first overseas exhibition in Moscow. There was not a beefeater, guardsmen or thatched cottage in sight. The show promoted all the latest well-designed goods selected by the Design Council and featured the work of industrial design students from UK art colleges. The show was claimed a great success and portrayed a new image of the UK.

For a number of years, I continued working with the COI, Department of Trade and Industry and the British Overseas Trade Board designing exhibitions and graphics to promote British industry worldwide. I concluded that there was nothing wrong with the Union Jack, rather in how it was used and the images associated with it. I started to use the images of the time as new symbols of the UK, the Rover 2000, the Range Rover, Mini-Moke and the Mini, the Molton bicycle, Concorde and the Jodrel Bank telescope.

Combined with these images, the Union Jack was adapted and incorporated in various logos and posters to promote exhibitions from oil pipelines in Japan and spring fairs in Munich, to a British shopping week in Bologna. For a time, I had reasonable success, but there was always an underlying desire – surprisingly from British industry and not Government officials, to harp back to beefeaters, guardsmen and bobbies. I would often arrive at an exhibition site only to find that the British exhibitors had smuggled out such cut-out cartoon figures and propped them up beside a display. I either won the argument for removing them or had to accept that no one had any idea what I was talking about.

On the eve of the 21st century have things changed? Definitely not. Many British companies fail to appreciate the value of good design and are reluctant to take advice on promoting products and using new images. Only a few weeks ago I travelled to Brussels and saw the same original cut-out figures of guardsmen and bobbies used in a travel agent’s showroom promoting the UK. At the new rail station in Lille, France, these same images were used to highlight a Eurostar information point.

I agree with Wolff Olins; we do need a new image for the UK to take us into the next century, but I’m not convinced it’s the word “Britain” on a little red and blue rectangle. A logo is incidental to the overall problem of the UK image.

The Union Jack is probably one of the world’s most memorable flags. We need to associate the national flag with quality and design excellence.

As in the Sixties, the answer to a new image for Britain lies somewhere with the Design Council, with backing by the Government, the Confederation of British Industry, the British Council and the best of our designers working together to win over British industry and help it promote goods and services overseas.

We should also look to our art schools, where talent for the future should be developing. We need to get back to the days when highly skilled and talented students were besieged at their diploma shows with offers of work.

As a freelance designer, I am still involved in promoting the image of a new Britain with various organisations representing British industry. Hopefully, programmes like The Money Programme, Wolff Olins’ efforts and the debate in Design Week will highlight the need to promote a positive image of Britain, especially with export promotion.

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