New Iraqi flag, Rifat al-Jadirji, 2004
When a new CEO takes charge, often at the top of the agenda is a new logo. What better way to project the enterprise's newly redirected mission, not to mention the authority of the new regime?
Someone must have been thinking along those lines in Iraq, where the beleaguered interim Governing Council this week unveiled a new flag design. And a handsome design it is: a pure white field representing the freshly reborn nation, a blue crescent standing for Islam, twin blue bands for the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and a yellow stripe for the Kurdish population.
Iraqis, however, don't seem to be buying it.
"When I saw it in the newspaper, I felt very sad," said Baghdad supermarket owner Muthana Khalil on MSNBC. "The flags of other Arab countries are red and green and black. Why did they put these colors that are the same as Israel? Why was the public opinion not consulted?" Other Iraqis objected to the deletion of the phrase "God is great," which had been added to the old flag in an admittedly cynical move to shore up religious support for Saddam Hussein.
The design, by Rifat al-Jadirji, was selected out of "more than 30 proposals" according to al-Jazeera. Unfortunately, flag design, like logo design, is one of the most volatile of professional activities, and should not be undertaken lightly. Flags, like logos, don't mean anything in and of themselves. The swastika, arguably one of the most beautiful symbols from a purely formal point of view, has been irredeemably tainted
by its association with the Nazis. On the other hand, the American flag is a fussy affair that would not make it out of a first-year design school critique. Instead, people use flags (and logos) as tabulae rasa,
upon which they project their hopes, dreams, fears and, sometimes, nightmares.
In his classic textbook Corporate Identity: Making Business Strategy Visible Through Design,
Wally Olins describes how the British Empire asserted its control over India after the mutiny of 1857 through the imposition of "a complex set of symbols and a fiendishly complicated hierarchy of ranks," including coats of arms, heraldic symbolism and uniforms, all presided over by Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) who functioned as de facto
"design director" for the effort. It culminated in an Imperial Assemblage in Delhi in 1877 at which the new Indian "identity" was officially "launched" in an affair that involved 85,000 people in its staging. "The whole business," observes Olins, "was contrived to create new loyalties and supplant old ones in the most spectacular way."
Ah, the days when imperialists really knew what they were doing. Today's efforts seem halfhearted by comparison. The U.S.-sanctioned leadership in Iraq - like many logo-manipulating management teams before them - committed the common error of mistaking easy symbolism for difficult substance. As a dissenting Governing Council member, Mahmud Uthman, observed, "I think there are issues more important to concentrate on than the changing of the flag."
Absolutely. But symbolism can
be meaningful, as long as it's yoked to a clear idea of what's meant to be symbolized. Towards the end of his book, Olins warns that unless a corporate identity is communicated with consistency and commitment, it has little chance of success: "Where there is hesitation, lack of coordination, disagreement, there will be perpetual confusion in the minds of the audiences, and myths of a destructive kind will reign unbridled." Absent any semblance of consensus, a flag is doomed to become a target.