A Civil house style

Studio Dumbar’s restyling of the Dutch National Police

In his introduction to Total Design's new house style for the municipality of Leeuwarden, in 1991, Ben Bos observed that 'house styles for local authorities are a growing phenomenon' - and he was quite right. This 'growing phenomenon' is the manifestation of a form of social evolution evident from the early eighties onwards: a tendency towards a more business-like presentation of the government and governmental services communicated in conspicuous changes to word and image.

The government has learnt to address the citizen as a 'client', and to refer to the 'market' for governmental service provision. In short, the language of the marketing manager has made its entry into the world of officialdom.

In the business-like eighties, a period in which the spirit of '.no-nonsense' reigned, the government institutions that survived privatization and commercialization felt a strong need to present themselves as modern and efficiently managed 'companies'. In the new company culture of the local authorities, 'customer-friendliness', 'working the market' and 'positive image-creation' are the terms which have replaced old slogans like 'equal opportunities' and 'distribution of knowledge, power and income'.

In addition to this marked restyling of political and administrative jargon, the outward appearance of the government institutions has also been subject to change: ministries, municipal authorities and local and national services have adopted new company logos - clearly inspired by the business community. Slowly but surely over the last decade there has been a grand clearance of the old, handed-down symbols of Authority: one after another, the awesome clawing lions and eagles, the coats of arms and banners, the swords and stars have disappeared to make way for more flexible or entirely abstract images. A good example of this is Studio Dumbar's house style for the Groningen municipal council of 1989. The municipal council, represented by the chairman of the relevant executive committee, labelled the Groningen eagle 'a green bird of prey' and told Dumbar to forget this obsolete heraldry. It is a house style like many others of its time, its most important aim being: to give the impenetrable government machinery a coherent, clear, progressive and, above all, friendly face. Studio Dumbar were commissioned to design 'the identity, that is to say the 'image', the brain position, the impression the firm wanted to make' (memorandum House style Management Groningen Municipal Council).

A new symbolism replaced the old heraldry, to paraphrase Gert Dumbar, who remarked at the presentation ceremony for the new police house style 'we have tried to change military heraldry into civil symbolism.' If you examine the graphic design employed by authorities and large companies over the last fifteen years this is definitively a trend: replacing a severe, authoritarian imagery by a more accessible, friendly design. In the case of government in the sixties and seventies, it was initially a case of restyling the old city arms and heraldic symbols (if they had not already been replaced by new abstract images) with logos which could be found in trade and industry at that period. Total Design's chequered octagon for the city of Groningen from 1970 or the honeycomb pattern for the municipality of Rotterdam from 1975, echo abstract company logos like Schrofer's Hoogovens logotype from the late fifties.

At that time, clarity, openness and modernity were all important – fairly vague but highly tangible concepts which were quite clearly missing in the old symbols of power. But gradually this new, in essence rational abstract design, came to be associated with an authoritarian mood which has been suspect in the Netherlands since the seventies.

Increasingly, narrative elements started to crop up as can be witnessed in the logo of the Ministry of the Interior designed by BRS in the late seventies which, despite its apparently severe shape, tells a story of solidarity and togetherness symbolized by the linked plus signs. And in the eighties, when the Ministry of Economic Affairs (in Dutch abbreviated to EZ) wanted a more dynamic image, the insignia 'EZ' was sketched in a fast, oblique style, as if it were conveying the message 'EZ is coming to you!'.

In recent years the trend towards a more narrative content for logos and logotypes has become stronger to the extent that logos narrate a entire short story within the space of just a couple of square centimetres. One of the most conspicuous examples of this trend was the new logotype for AKZO, a large holding company which had for a long time presented itself as a more or less amorphous conglomeration of firms. In the new logo it underwent a metamorphosis from abstract institute to warm father figure sending his children out to multiply.

The facelessness of the old firm was aptly symbolized in an austere, neutral insignia, but the new look incorporates a figure towering over it - derived from ancient Greece - with a clenched fist and an open hand - a God which giveth and taketh away... Other multinationals have also adopted an image which is no longer an abstract construction, but a direct, narrative illusion to what Groningen so aptly called 'the brain position'. The proud little man stepping out of the sundial on the logo of the Rabo bank, or the ancient chalice on the logo of the software firm Origin are all images which refer to existing, sometimes age-old stories which the company would like to be associated with.

In this day and age there is an enormous interest in symbols, perhaps even a need for them, as they can anchor our hectic existence in the continuity of life and history. In these post-modern times, in which one traditional institution after another is declared 'dead', in which concepts like 'ideology', 'truth' and 'security' have been interred in the museum of bygone misconceptions, man is on the look-out for stories, myths, and symbols which at least represent a semblance of continuity and constancy. They work just like pictograms in computer programmes: once clicked on they reveal a coherent world, a programme within which the world looks familiar and works the way it ought to. These symbols become all the more important once the 'real' world, the hard reality, can be less easily portrayed moulded into orderly frameworks. Designers of this sort of symbols must steer a middle course: they must cater to the need for clarity and security without losing their awareness of the transitory status of all signs. Temporality is a fact of life in the post-modern culture: collectively we no longer believe in 'for ever'. And even though certain institutions, like the Police, are as yet indispensable, this does not mean that they will exist in their present form forever.

Thus when an old and authoritative institute like the police needs a new house style, a great number of problems immediately face the designer. In the first place of course the practical problems: finding a design two amalgamated organizations can still identify with. However, no less important are the social and cultural contexts which have to be taken into consideration in such a design if it is to do the job effectively.

The solution Joost Roozekrans of Studio Dumbar found for the new symbol of the police is a 'pictogram' which clicks on to the whole cultural programme 'police'. It is an effective solution in more than one way. It is of course intrinsically pleasing that elements of both police organizations could be incorporated in the new symbol - but this is only half the story. Why these two elements in particular, the law book and the beacon, and not the others, the star, or sword, or grenade? Why not think up a new symbol, in order to indicate that it really is a new organization, with new duties? The answer lies in a short remark by Gert Dumbar 'We have tried to change military heraldry into civil symbolism'.

To show what is new you can't be contented without just abandoning what is old. It is the incorporation of two pictorial elements from the old design which shows that the new organization continues to be anchored in the old institute, something which of course happens anyway by making the word 'politie' the basis of the logotype! But at the same time, a pictorial image must be given to the changes that the old institute has undergone. For even the police force has not remained untouched by the social developments of the last decade nor can it avoid the prevailing trend in governmental service provision towards emulating trade and industry. The police force too is confronted with concepts like the 'workings of the market' (just think of the discussions about presenting the bill for the policing of football matches), and must aim at 'customer-friendliness' and providing a good 'product'. The time-honoured police officer is increasingly becoming one of the many players in the field of social service provision. The new social position enjoyed by the police force must be expressed in the new house style too.

If you take stock of the developments in Dutch society since the war, the conclusion is inescapable: the government has become increasingly ‘middle-class'. Although until the fifties there was still a traditional distance between the citizen and the authorities, from the mid-sixties onwards this distance has been decreasing. The development of Western democracies has led to more independence for the citizens, which has come to be known as 'participation'. Faced with citizens who dared to give their opinion - and who were increasingly forced to do so as they were asked to shoulder responsibility as never before - the arsenal of old governmental weapons was no longer appropriate. The concept 'law', for example, has an entirely different ring to it since the politicians and the authorities have come to realize that their will is no longer a question of autonomous authority, but that authority is the result of a broad social consensus. Since this realization, a law is no longer the last word, to be upheld without respect of persons, but a compromise, a preliminary solution in an on-going debate which may at any moment be adjusted to new social circumstances. The neologism 'repair legislation' is a striking illustration of this development - if the customer is dissatisfied, the 'firm' adjusts its 'product'.

The social development of the relationship between government and citizen has been sketched here in a rather concise form, nevertheless government and citizen are clearly growing towards one another, and this is shown particularly in the authorities becoming more middle class. This development is perhaps most conspicuous with a governmental institute like the police force, which was traditionally organized along military lines. The police force is an instrument of state power with which the government can impose its will on the citizen, if need be by force of arms. That is still the case, but it is of great importance to the government to defer from using this last deterrent for as long as possible. The emphasis has been shifted to their duties as service providers, and the important role the police force plays in ordering society along respectable lines.

The two developments outlined above – the altered perception of the concept 'law' and the related change in the position of the law-enforcers – can be read into the new police logotype: the word picture is a guarantee for the secure anchoring of the organization in an old and well known institute. The 'special detail' in that word picture – the addition of two pictorial elements from the old heraldry – shows how the organization has changed. The law book is no longer defended sword in hand, no longer surrounded by a shining star elevated above the ranks of mortals – instead it has become a collective agreement which must be protected, vigilance is imperative: a luminous beacon in uncertain times. This may sound a little sentimental – and it is written with some reservation because of my dislike of flattery which tends to obscure the true nature of things  nevertheless, the new symbol is a very contemporary symbol for just these reasons and indeed, as Dumbar said, a civil, rather than a military, symbol. Another advantage in the use of the word 'politie' is the fact that it is recognized internationally: the word looks similar in all languages in Latin script. The special detail added to that word by means of the symbol with the law book and the beacon is thus a national application of an international concept.

Being visible to the public eye is of great importance in an updated interpretation of police duties, and for this reason Dumbar's word logo in the design figures in an emphatic position on the back of each policeman's uniform. In this design this 'service provider' is unequivocally distinguishable from the others, the traffic warden, the security officer and the private security guard. The fact that they are so clearly distinguishable is seen by some in the police force as a threat – which shows that the new culture has not penetrated through to all layers of the firm. At the same time it shows how well the new logotype fulfils its function as a symbol: it is virtually incompatible with the old view of the officer as a watchful, but vulnerable law enforcer surrounded by a dangerous world full of potentially violent law-breakers!

Another aspect which shows that Studio Dumbar's house style for the police is not isolated from social developments and trends in design is the earlier mentioned combination of the word 'politie' with special pictorial details. This type of combination can also be found in the new AKZO logo. The profound entwining of word and pictogram (stronger in the case of the police force than for AKZO) shows that the difference between both categories, between word and visual image, is decreasing. This too is an aspect of the present-day 'visual culture': the term indicates that visual images play a very important role in our culture as information carriers, a role which is sometimes more important than that of words. Expressive signs, pictograms, logos and symbols summarize complex contents, which, had they been expressed in words, would have run to many volumes.

It seems that the role of the visual image in our time is somewhat comparable to the role it fulfilled in the church in the Middle Ages; at that time over-complex texts were summarized in conveniently arranged, standardized public images. The portrayal of a saint or of an event from the bible was not meant so much as an illustration but rather as a sort of pictogram, behind which was hidden an extensive moral and historical program. In our culture, this is the way repeated visual images work in public spaces, on television, in advertisements and in the press. A brilliant contemporary example of the way in which visual images can replace texts is the 'essay' written by the American graphic designer Katherine McCoy on the complicated connections between the environment, the scarceness of raw materials, the energy required to process them and the needs of the human being. This entire complex story has been written without using a single word, but it is nevertheless comprehensible to everyone, written in the form of a mathematical formula with visual images instead of figures.

Kathrine McCoy

It has become a very important aspect of contemporary design: 'coding' visual images in such a way that they can be 'read' coherently, so that they constitute - if need be even without words - an intelligible story.

That does not mean that the word has become entirely subordinated to the visual image. Sometimes the opposite would seem to be the case: nowadays there is practically no visual image without an explanatory text, without a few words, sentences or slogans to place it in its context. In that respect McCoy's 'essay' is an exception. It is more usual for text and visual image to merge and it has become equally normal to read a visual image as a 'text' as it is to see a text as a 'visual image'. A well-designed brand name is word and visual image in one. One of the earliest examples of this inextricable combination – and one of the most famous – is the logotype for the brand name Coca-Cola. Ever since the worldwide success of this brand became established, everyone in industry has been doing their best to give their own name, or their brand name, a similar content. They too want to enrich the simple denotative meaning of the word with a connotative meaning – alluding to an extensive range of associations which will place their brand in a favourable light. Governmental institutions have avoided resorting to this type of approach for quite a long time because of its 'advertisement-like' character, thought to be inappropriate for the status of the authorities. Now that the authorities see themselves increasingly as one of the partners in society, rather than an elevated invulnerable institution towering over it, these objections have become muted.

Studio Dumbar have interpreted the word 'politie' as a brand name, in consistency with the development mentioned above, and have made a contemporary logotype of it which is instantly recognizable to Dutch citizens and to visitors from all over the world. The corporate identity built up around this visual image, with its various applications and effects, and extra features, like the striping on police cars, fits in with the interpretation of the police as a firm which, to a certain extent, wants to distinguish itself from other similar firms by means of its own identity. It goes without saying that in this interpretation the positive sides of the firm are emphasized at the expense of the less friendly, institutional sides which 'the long arm of the law' still has, and which were represented in the old symbol by the sword and the grenade.

In this context it can do no harm to refer to an international discussion going on at the moment in the world of graphic design about the area of tension between the contemporary authorities' much sought after commercial and market-oriented presentation and the traditional public values which many privatized or non-privatized governmental institutions still represent. In an article on logos for recently privatized or independent governmental institutions in England, in the leading British design journal EYE, the design critic Michael Horsham remarked: 'By blurring the boundaries between public services and marketable products, formerly distinct hierarchies of meaning and form are in danger of remaining in perpetual motion.' (EYE 18/1995) A number of recently restyled British police logos emphasize his point: the Gloucestershire Constabulary retains its eight-pointed star with crown, it is true, but it is now encircled with the slogan: ‘Quality service with pride and care' and the Northhamptonshire Police has scrapped its stalwart coat of arms entirely and retains only a heraldic element: a sweet little flower.

In a confrontation with these examples Studio Dumbar's design stands its ground very well, despite recriminations from 'the field' that here too the new identity of the police appears to be 'too nice'. If you bear in mind that an important characteristic of Dutch graphic design, or 'Dutch Design', as it is referred to by its many admirers abroad, is its free, cheerful, anti-authoritarian approach, then Dumbar has exercised a certain degree of restraint in carrying out this assignment. For although many of the graphic works for 'institutional Holland' over the last decade have most certainly contained frivolous elements - think of Oxenaar's bank notes or Dumbar's KPN identity labelling Dumbar's law book with its beacon or his striped cars as 'Legoland design', as one critical designer has done, testifies to my mind to a far too Calvinistic interpretation of his work. Certainly there are pleasant elements, delightful to the eye, sometimes even cheerful elements in the new police house style. However, they appear to be effective without tainting the authority of 'the local bobby'. And the house style in its entirety gives an efficient and contemporary visual image of the new way this old state organization sees itself and would like itself to be seen.

a publication of the Dutch Ministery of the Interior,
The Hague, June 1997

max bruinsma