How do you brand a country from scratch? That question was the basis of Anne Quito’s (MFA 2014 Design Criticism) final thesis project (watch her presentation below). To find her answers, she traveled this year to both Switzerland—where “national identity is a full-time obsession,” she says—and South Sudan, the world’s newest nation.
In Switzerland, Quito studied how the country uses federal policy and iconography to reinforce and communicate its cultural heritage. In Bern, she met with an official from the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property to learn more about the passage of “Swissness” legislation, the guidelines that regulate, for example, why Swiss-style cheese made with milk from French cows can’t officially be called Swiss. In Geneva, she took a close look at a saga surrounding a 2005 competition to redesign Swiss banknotes. The winning portfolio featured images like platelets, viruses and embryos to showcase the country’s science and research industry. It was a refreshing and unorthodox approach—and the public would have none of it. Swayed by the outcry, the Swiss National Bank decided instead to go with the second-place winner, a design featuring snowflakes and mountains, which was thought to better represent the conventional Swiss “brand.”
Quito then made her way to Juba, South Sudan, to research the evolution of a national identity for the country, which was founded in 2011. South Sudan’s coat-of-arms, she admits, left her underwhelmed at first glance. The eagle-shield design is “a trope so commonplace that it looks ready-made,” she reported. To her eye it appeared formulaic and unremarkable, a “non-design design.”
But when she spoke with the designers and project managers hired to create the state seal, a politically charged back story unfolded. South Sudan is a nation where more than 60 tribal groups speak dozens of languages across ten states. Cultural sensitivity, not aesthetics, is a top priority. The new emblem would have to communicate unity, neutrality and inclusiveness. Quito came to realize that her opinion as a design critic was beside the point. “Through symbols that project nationhood,” she wrote, “South Sudan has successfully staked a claim on a territory and earned representation on the global stage.”
Quito’s experiences in both countries also taught her that no matter how old or young a nation may be, its identity is never static. South Sudan plunged into a brutal civil war just weeks after she left, and the people she interviewed were exiled to Kenya or Uganda in the wake of violent ethnic factionalism. In Switzerland, an anti-immigration bill—seen by some as a means to preserve Swiss identity and by others as xenophobic—narrowly passed. “As national identity and borders are defined, contested and debated,” Quito wrote, “my chapters have similarly had to be revised or updated. The study of nation-branding is a moving target.”
Such frustrations and challenges (like Quito’s week-long stay in a converted shipping container in Juba) are inevitable with field work of this magnitude. But there were pleasant surprises, too. After interviewing representatives from UNESCO and the South Sudan Ministry of Culture, she was asked to provide a copy of her presentation, Designing a Country From Scratch: Nation Branding in South Sudan, to the country’s first cultural institution, The National Archives, slated to open in 2015. The leap from inquiry to legacy may be a design critic’s greatest journey.
Anne Quito recently won the first Maria Popova Scholarship for Homecoming to Purpose.