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In search of identification

The Multiplicity-research group poses questions to the practice of visual identity and addresses the challenges faced by designers and developers within current multicultural society. Which roles do visual identities play in societies in which traditional cultural outlines are changing? Evert Ypma, of Design2context, wrote a column for

By No author / 11-01-2008

The Multiplicity-research group poses questions to the practice of visual identity and addresses the challenges faced by designers and developers within current multicultural society. Which roles do visual identities play in societies in which traditional cultural outlines are changing? Evert Ypma, of Design2context, wrote a column for

It is simply impossible today not to stumble over it. The general public, their political representatives in parliament, the media – all seem to be obsessed by it. What I am hinting at here is the hyper-attention for identity in our present world. Specifically I will address what commissioners and developers of visual identity can do with it (or what they cannot do with it).
When I am randomly scanning the Dutch media during my visits to the Netherlands, I am overwhelmed by the enormous quantity of political statements, articles, literature, talk shows and images that directly or indirectly are related to the question of identity in this multicultural society. People get tired and sometimes reluctant towards multicultural debates, problematic neighbourhoods, and physical and rhetorical violence. The Dutch monarchy and the country’s political leaders both call for forbearance and respect and hold pleas for zero-tolerance regarding those who break the rules. At the same time, many newcomers seem to be living in a separate public sphere. They may not have watched the Dutch queen’s Christmas speech on the need for tolerance because it was broadcasted on Nederland 1, a major Dutch channel, but not on Moroccan satellite channels, Turkish media, R&B rap or You Tube.
Aside from the media treatment of the serious realities underlying the multicultural tensions, politicians and the people themselves have infused the actual problems with a dynamic of their own. How many citizens do in fact experience genuine multiculturalism? And how many people get their multicultural experience in a mediated format? Essentially, the engagement of most native people with this multicultural society, including its creation of perceptions, is minimal. It begins in mediated information and ends with incidentally cueing up together with newcomers at the supermarket’s checkout or in public transport.
Last week, fifty-seven white Dutch ‘BN’ers’ (‘Bekende Nederlander’ = prominent Dutch person) organised their own call for tolerance by initiating an online petition, but the very same day the site had to be closed for a while due to its abuse. Despite good intentions, a media initiative such as this seems short-lived because it largely has an impulsive and reactive character, as is true of many similar initiatives. How should we value or assess public relation strategies that contribute to the problematic multicultural image itself?

When I am in Switzerland, they may label me as an ‘Ausländer’, but fortunately I am generally perceived as an expatriate. During the recent Swiss elections, politics and media alike have spread polarized voices and stigmatizing images in regard to foreigners. The same applies to several fixed perceptions of Swiss identity. Still, some 21% of this country’s population consists of foreigners – who are needed to keep the high-level Swiss economy flourishing. Although Swiss people tend to be silent about it, one out of five Swiss voted Schweizer Volks Partei in the recent elections. Aggressive poster campaigns were all but ambiguous. One of them, blatantly depicting white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag, even made it to the front page of the New York Times. This negative attention for ‘racist’ Switzerland immediately prompted a response from Swiss industry and tourism boards, worrying about the country’s image and possible adverse economic consequences. These are only a few examples of how the concern for identity, apparently, continues to stir up the minds of people.

Over the past year I have been quite busy myself collecting articles and images about (visual) identity. In this respect we are certainly living in times of plenty. Efforts to structure my rapidly growing collection, in order to distil some essence of what is going on in our multicultural society, partially failed, because soon I realised that my ability to collect and select articles and images was outpaced by the publication of yet other and newer ones. Strikingly, the issue of integration or of the relationship between native residents and unknown newcomers were often simplified into concerns about demarcating identities.
In this respect Ryszard Kapuściński has subtly reminded us that the ancient Greeks always received the unknown stranger with the utmost hospitality; after all, he could be a god.*

Surely, Western European cultures do not treat newcomers as gods. Already before the turn of the millennium, a cold breeze began to prevail in cultural debates, hypnotising local societies around the globe. Native populations seem to celebrate and foster this unpleasant political and social chill out of unarticulated reasons of fear for the unknown. Neoconservative warfare is taking place in faraway countries where ‘our men’ serve in the name of peace and justice. We are informed of their achievements via the media, as if we were eyewitnesses. Has Uruzgan become a new province of the Netherlands? …The native Afghan people enjoyed the fireworks let off by the Dutch troops in celebration of the arrival of 2008, as shown in de Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.

At home people are in search of recognition and security in their neighbourhood community. But they do not make the connection between their own reservations on being involved in neighbourhood processes and their feelings of fear. A highly valued aspect in Swiss culture is individual involvement at the local level, be it in the neighbourhood, the village or in a local association. Most Swiss communities are close-knit.
By contrast, the concept of Europe seems to be increasingly less appealing to many in Western Europe. The European constitution has been rejected so far because EU-citizens fear the dissolution of their own nation. When earlier Europe stood for unity, now Europe communicates the message of diversity.

So what is the role of professional identity in all this? Something strange is going on and I both do and do not identify myself with it. Notwithstanding the enormous interest in identity in society, specialists on identity – designers and strategists of design agencies – have virtually remained silent on these issues. In contrast to the eighties and nineties, when first the digital revolution and later on the internet challenged designers in many ways, multicultural hybrid society hardly appears to be a source of inspiration or an area for exploration. Communication strategy consultants and designers develop visual identities for the public sector and the corporate sector; this is meant to serve identification processes of heterogonous audiences within a country’s borders as well as in global markets. But why have most designers ignored multiculturalism so far?

The underlying reasons, I believe, have to do with the fact that designers usually wait for clients to come with a design question, and this has resulted in a design culture in which designers themselves do not raise questions. Many design agencies will claim that they develop identity through their design of visual icons and symbols for their clients – in the same way some architecture firms write on their websites that they ‘do’ urban identity. But, as I would argue, one cannot ‘do’ identity.
The paradoxical perception of identity, which is based on a modernist perception of feasibility and underdeveloped knowledge about mechanisms of identification, constitutes a large barrier for design agencies to be involved in the essence of identity matters itself. This implies that design continues to operate at the level of tactics, rather than that it moves on to the level of strategies.
The Dutch Princess Máxima, herself a recent immigrant, was widely criticized when recently, while presenting a government commission report on ‘Identificatie met Nederland’, she claimed that the ‘real’ Dutch person does not exist and that the key to solving multicultural social tension will involve a focus on identification processes, rather than on thinking in fixed (constructed) identities.

Many newcomers try hard to integrate in their new society of course; it is only natural to somehow make the best out of a new situation and enjoy life. But man newcomers also fight being labelled Ausländer and long for a normalized perception of them as regular human beings – as participants. Interpreting ‘the unknown’ as ‘the other’, as ‘not-one-of-us’, fuels negative perceptions if not stereotyping. ‘Ausländer’ are wrongly labelled as such, especially when they are faced with the challenge of starting a new life in a new environment.
Western European countries today have large groups of people who were born elsewhere. According to the UNHCR there are as many as 200 million migrants, or 5% of the world population. They live in societies in which most of people (95%) still die close to their place of birth. Homogenous societies are confronted with hybridization. Hybrid people are confronted with natives who still are not (so) used to deal with the unknown other. Outsiders often notice what can be described as normal practices, while native residents tend to notice those aspects that can be summarized by the word ‘exceptional’.
Hybrid people come illegally in rafts across dangerous waters; others are fleeing from their homes on account of terror and violence and elsewhere they acquire the legal status of refugee; hybrid people are children from immigrant parents; or, as Bas Heijne writes in his essay ‘Onredelijkheid’ (Unfairness), they are ‘world citizens in a global network of Blackberry’s and transatlantic flights.’

The focus on multiculturalism could be changed into a focus on processes of ‘hybridization’. Other forms of hybridization involve various life patterns, and religious and professional identities. Principles of hybridization go far beyond ethnic multiculturalism and beyond what is pointed out in the present cultural debate. In fact, hybridism more closely approaches what is actually taking place in society. Sometimes I feel very Dutch; sometimes I identify myself with and feel very much attached to Swiss life – often divided by only few seconds and depending on the situation. Therefore I do not trust the idea of fixed identity; instead, I believe in situations and processes in which I am able to identify myself – a functional, normative and emotional identification.** Being a newcomer is a good excuse to be invited to participate in society. Was Máxima, with her remarks on identification, ahead of the design community?

If you like to join Multiplicity & Visual Identities of Design2context/ Premsela/ BNO you can read more about the programme.

* Source: special edition NRC Handelsblad, December 2007, ‘Over Grenzen’
** Source: WRR-report ‘Identificatie met Nederland’, Dutch government, The Hague 2007.

Image1: Photo: SVP-poster during Swiss election campaign, Genève, September 2007, Evert Ypma,
Image2: Logo Multiplicity & Visual Identities, ZHdK
Image3: Poster public lecture author Bas Heijne.

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