I’ve always loved the Union Jack as a design icon and strong symbol of our country. Visually it is as dynamic now as it was when it was first approved as our national flag by parliament some 101 years ago. It’s been around far, far longer and undertaken a few changes along the way but I’ll let Wikipedia deal with that side of things.
In recent years there seems to have been a resurgence in its visibility across all walks of life. When I was growing up my overriding memory of the Union Jack was an association with the football hooliganism that was rife in the 1980s. This link is reflected, in no uncertain terms, in the DVD artwork for Green Street Hooligans 2.
I also vividly recall gazing in wonder at the scale of what is reportedly the largest Union Jack in the world as I traveled to and from Cowes on the Isle of Wight. This, for me, is a symbol of British ingenuity and invention painted to commemorate the Queen’s Jubilee in 1977 and still there in all of its patriotic glory today.
The far right have also taken the Union Jack as their own and, recently, have attempted to bring their views into the mainstream by associating themselves (the BNP) with our proud Churchillian history. As Charlie Brooker eloquently pointed out, the fact that they’ve employed a graphic designer who ‘tries to stab your eyes out with primary colours’ has meant that their attempts to commandeer the Great British brand have failed, in no small part, to bad execution.
This extreme side of our culture isn’t the only group to take the Union Jack for their own. They’re everywhere! In one small kitchen I found the following items tastefully adorned with the iconic Great British brand ID: mug, tea towel, apron, plate, cutting board, cake tin and packet of tea bags. Yep, I’m not the only one in our house who thinks it’s a great design classic and with every middle class lifestyle brand from Boden to Jan Constantine to Emma Bridgewater adopting and adapting the union of red, white and blue it’s difficult to avoid.
Some examples are, quite obviously, better than others. Some act purely as decoration whereas others have an aesthetic and conceptual originality that makes them worthy and lasting examples of the Great Britain brand implementation programme of the past 50 years.
Britain is cool (but sensitive).
Britain is multicultural.
Britain is green (or so the French would have us believe).
Britain doesn’t need to conform.
Britain is fed up with the credit crunch.
Britain is a brand within a brand.
Britain is a nation of eccentric tea drinkers.
Britain can design. Classics.
Britain is a work in progress.
So, a quick design analysis – why is the Union Jack such a strong brand? Part of its appeal is undoubtedly because it is a product of a union between the separate nations of the United Kingdom. This very prominent show of unity is pretty powerful stuff when you consider some of the historical angst between nations (particularly England and Scotland).
Togetherness aside, the strong angular lines of the flag are both striking and timeless and seem to signify a sense of diversity and direction, both looking inwards to our island existence and spreading outwards to foreign shores. Combine these dynamic graphic elements with the red, white and blue colour palette and the result is a brand that any self-respecting integrated agency would be proud of. On the face of it this seems to be at odds with our global tag as a reserved nation but then we did put ourselves out there and create the most widespread empire the world has ever seen. Hardly the actions of a nation of wallflowers.
And what of the red, white and blue? As with all design analysis, it’s all down to interpretation – red could be considered as passion and blue as tradition and trust. White often signifies purity but, as with some of the examples above, sticking to the traditional brand guidelines isn’t always a necessity.
Why we are seeing so much more of the Union Jack than ever before? Is it because we as a nation are looking for a strength of character and a past we can be proud of in the face of global recession? Is it because we’re building up to the biggest sporting event we have ever seen in this country? Is it because we’re still riding on a wave of royal optimism after the Golden Jubilee? Has the Union Jack been embraced as a positive symbol by the mainstream in defiance of the rise of the right?
I don’t believe it’s any single thing but I do know that the Union Jack continues to endure as a true design classic because of its strength as a brand that can take on all comers and still remain distinctly and defiantly British. The reputation of brand UK may have been muddied by booze cruises and political differences but, as one of the many millions of brand guardians, I still firmly believe that it is indeed the best brand in Britain (if not the world).