The burning of identifying marks on to the seared flesh of cattle gives us the word brand. Yet brand for us has become synonymous with corporate identity, ignoring the many other, often potent, non-commercial facets of branding. The National Socialists, for instance, branded – either by badges on prison uniforms or on the actual skins of victims – those collected up into concentration camps as undesirable elements to be exterminated: the Jews, the gypsies, the disabled, and those who were gay. And it did so with guidelines that could put a modern FMCG brand manual to shame.
If modern communications marked an uncomfortable continuity with the Third Reich, so did attitudes to homosexuality. Germany only repealed the drastic Nazi laws on homosexuality in 1994, while in the UK sexual acts between men were partially decriminalised in 1967.
When 40 years ago, against the backdrop of the US Civil Rights movement and student protests, a group of gay men drinking at a small bar in New York called the Stonewall Inn got annoyed enough at police harassment to fight back, modern gay politics was born. And with it a new kind of identity politics came into being. Social, sexual and political affiliations and beliefs were signalled with informal branding, and could even be montaged as so many badges and emblems on your lapel.
Initially, the most common visual emblem of the struggle was the pink triangle, the very image used by the Nazis to brand the gay men in the camps. Pink, as every proud parent painting a new child’s bedroom knows, is the colour for girls. The inversion of this unwritten brand guideline was a mocking element of the Nazi emblem which in turn was reclaimed by gay rights organisations as a gesture of defiance in the 1970s.
But as social attitudes softened, a change of logo gradually took place. In 1978, an artist called Gilbert Baker in San Francisco, then the gay epicentre, created the rainbow or gay flag. While the precise design has been subject to variation, its basis of a horizontal rainbow with red on top proved highly resonant. It was an image of joyous diversity rather than something that evoked painful, confrontational memories. It slowly overtook the pink triangle, and by the 1990s it was popularly adopted as the gay emblem globally.
And so it has been until now, when Studio 360, an influential New York-based radio arts programme, with its tongue firmly in cheek approached local design consultancy Worldstudio to develop a new gay flag to mark 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. (Studio 360 had previously managed to get almost the entire team at Pentagram to ‘redesign’ Christmas.)
The effervescent Mark Randall thought the existing flag had ‘too many connotations’, so he and his team at Worldstudio set to work over a day to see what they would come up with. A variety of designs were produced, mostly developments of the existing flag as well as an arresting design that reproduces existing flags in shocking pink. A refinement of the rainbow into a circular design proved to be the most popular with the public, who were also invited to send in their own designs.
‘We never expected that we were really going to re-design the flag, so what we were interested in exploring was how the process of design could tackle this kind of an assignment,’ says Randall. ‘One thing that was surprising is how many people bristled at the idea of changing the flag. I think of gay culture as being very inclusive and open to new ideas, but many weren’t when it came to this project. But for me, it was not about the end result, but the process and discussion it generated.’