On December 21, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende unveiled a new national logo—the first ever intended for use by all 13 governmental ministries in the Netherlands. “The goal is to improve communication and interaction between the citizens and government,” reported a press release issued by Rotterdam-based Studio Dumbar, the graphic-design firm that beat out five other Dutch companies in a competition to design the logo and collateral identity. “The unified house style will contribute to clarity and accessibility, where the National Government now presents a very fragmented image,” the release continued. “Eventually, dozens of organizations and departments that currently have their own logos and styles will adopt the designs.”
The new symbol, which is based on the official coat of arms of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, dates from the early 19th century—not a period associated with artistic excellence in the Low Countries. As such, it provoked outrage among the Dutch graphic-design community and the general public, and no wonder: It not only restyles an outdated baroque symbol, it also recycles a logo Studio Dumbar used in 2000 for the graphic identity of a minor ministry. Even so, the new logo cost the government 60,000 (about $93,000). More than just a gesture of indolence and wastefulness, it sells out two of the Netherlands’ most vaunted legacies: those of good governance and good graphics.
Design has always stood in high regard in the Netherlands, perhaps because the country is itself a product of strategic planning, having been reclaimed from the sea, tidied up, and organized to support a densely packed population. In this social-democratic state, design has helped give government a humane and open face. The Dutch postal service, PTT, for example, was until recently characterized by, and internationally renowned for, its lively, progressive graphics.
In the last quarter-century, a shift has taken place in the relationship between the Dutch government and its citizenry. The privatization of governmental services and decline in health-care and educational benefits has turned citizens into customers, who must then be sold on policies and products. Design is a governmental tool for public relations. Since being taken over by TNT, an Australian express-mail service, PTT has traded its traditional red identity for orange, not as a tribute to the Dutch national color, mind you, but as a random inheritance from the new owner.
As the Netherlands’ old established democracy tries to reconcile market-driven values and socialist concerns, it finds itself with an enormous credibility gap. More and more citizens are buckling under apathy, refusing to vote, and insisting that politicians of every persuasion are nothing but profiteers and idlers. So the prime minister has embarked on another PR campaign: He’s sought to impose unity with a logo, a visual and conceptual Band-Aid.
And not even a good logo, at that. “The National Government buys an ugly secondhand logo” was the headline of a January 4 letter to the editor of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. The hullabaloo about its recycling might have been softened had the prime minister or Studio Dumbar declared from the start that, after serious effort, they discovered they couldn’t do better than the sturdy heraldic motif already in place. That rationale was, in fact, offered by Studio Dumbar’s co-director Tom Dorresteijn, as reported in January in the Dutch online publication Cidoc: “Everything was investigated: new images, colors, and perspectives, to finally come home to the familiar coat of arms,” Dorresteijn said. “We discovered that we should not change that design.” But this explanation was offered as a rebuttal to the controversy, too late to avoid making the designers—and by extension the design community—look like charlatans, or in Dutch parlance, “sellers of baked air.”
Following another recent attack on the logo, this time from the High Counsel of Nobility, the official guardians of Dutch heraldry, the prime minister has lapsed into silence. This may well mean a fierce power struggle is being waged behind the scenes regarding the identities and autonomy of the different governmental branches. Far noisier is the graphics community, which as of this writing is looking forward to seeing the losing proposals—they’re scheduled for publication in April—and which relishes another opportunity to complain that designers are being exploited in contests just like this.
Based in Amsterdam, Carel Kuitenbrouwer is a professor at the Media Institute of Utrecht University of Applied Sciences.