21 August 2007
Gaby de Abreu, Switch Group, South Africa
Gaby de Abreu, Switch Group, South Africa

As a new democracy, South Africa needs new symbols to identify with, to look up to and draw inspiration from. With Parliament being the heart of the nation, its emblem in particular needs to span all nine of the provinces, and be understood in every language. Parliament thus began its search for a new emblem in 2006: something that would embody the spirit of the nation and capture the ideals and values of the Constitution. To make the logo even more representative of the people it serves, Parliament asked South Africans to help create its new logo, and then invited an experienced branding and design company to refine and implement this new corporate identity throughout the institution. This company was the Switch Group.

South Africa became a democracy in 1994. With so many pressing wrongs to right however, certain tasks naturally took precedence over others. It was thus only six years later in 2000 that Parliament began engaging in processes to establish symbols that were in line with the new democratic dispensation. As a result of this, the National Assembly's People's Mace and the National Council of Provinces' Black Rod were introduced and launched in 2004 and 2005 respectively. These served as the initial phases of the bigger project to establish a new symbol for Parliament.

The Process
Up until 2006, Parliament had made use of the 'old' Parliamentary emblem dating back to 1964. This was designed in the Westminster tradition, with a shield representing the previous four colonies of South Africa. The emblem also included the old South African Coat of Arms. The creation of a new emblem was thus a vital step in establishing a new identity for Parliament - representing its values, vision and mission.

When it came to designing a new emblem, however, Parliament realised that this needed to be the result of a democratic process involving Parliament's members and officials, and - most importantly - the people of South Africa. In 2006, a multi-party political steering committee was thus established. Its role: to give political guidance regarding the development and design of the new emblem; to ensure input from all political parties and see that public participation was considered in the development; and lastly to recommend a final design to the presiding officers.

The nation was thus called upon to design Parliament's new emblem. After an internal call for submissions, a public advertising campaign was launched on 20 August 2006 spanning all Sunday and some regional newspapers, as well as national and regional radio in all 11 official languages. The brief was additionally sent to design schools, design departments, community art projects and high schools. This was further supported through promotions and extensive publicity.

The brief requested that 'designers' create a new emblem for Parliament based on the following philosophy: "Parliament is a people's Parliament which acts as my voice, ensuring government by the people under the Constitution. It is where my elected representatives assemble to consider national and provincial issues that affect me. Parliament is responsive to my needs and is driven by the ideals of improving my quality of life. It upholds my values of democracy, social justice and fundamental human rights."

In terms of the competition rules, 20 finalists would be selected to take part in an intensive four-day design workshop in Cape Town, with a programme that included design and expert lectures, interactive workshops and a tour of Parliament.

This initial request for public involvement was subsequently challenged by the South African design community based on the prize being offered. David Blyth, chairman of the South African Graphic Design Council (Think) and MD of Enterprise IG, explains that although the request for public participation showed good social intent, the thinking behind it was fundamentally flawed, "While including the public made the process fully representative and inclusive - as it needed to be, the fact that no remuneration was being offered for the winning entry created an issue. This was because designers and design companies who were being invited to enter the competition in their professional capacities were essentially being asked to work for free." Think thus approached the committee in this regard, and the process was further refined to incorporate professional designers in the final stage.

The public's response to the competition was overwhelming. The 20 finalists selected from the over 2 200 entries received worked in groups to design a new logo together. Three identities were finally chosen by the committee, which then approached established design companies to refine the logos and apply them throughout Parliament's identity. As a result of Think's input, the committee decided to make use of a tender process in this regard.

Refining the design
Based on its holistic approach to both the emblem and its strategic and creative approach to Parliament's corporate identity, the Switch Group emerged tender winners. As a market leader in the South African branding and design industry with offices in Johannesburg, Cape Town and London, the Group was the perfect partner when it came to full scale integration of the new parliamentary logo. Simon Arenhold, business director: Switch Group Cape Town, explains, "The Parliament project was an incredible one to be invited to work on. A project of this nature comes along once in a lifetime, being equal in status to that of designing the national flag or working on the national coat of arms. As an agency of young South Africans, it brought out the patriot in each of us - this was our chance to make our mark in our country's history."

Gaby de Abreu, creative director of Switch Group, explains that the combination of public inclusion and professional consultation proved effective, "Parliament faced a unique problem in the creation of its new identity in that it had to develop a professionally crafted emblem whilst somehow making the process completely inclusive and fully representative of the people it serves. By virtue of what Parliament is and what it represents, it couldn't simply get design agencies to tender for the emblem. By engaging the general public in the initial stages and then with Think's input bringing in professional and established designers to 'refine' the emblem, it ensured it got the best of both worlds."

With an incredible scope of work encompassing the emblem, complete visual language, all graphic style applications - everything from print to web to the Parliamentary TV channel - and commemorative work to name but a few elements, the Parliament project was both a strategic and creative challenge. Using very specific design criteria, Switch had to ensure that the new logo reflected South Africa's diverse multi-cultural society while showing the unity of our nation; celebrated our democracy and country's new beginning while upholding the dignity and stature of the institution; and had to be dignified and aesthetically pleasing, yet meaningful and simple with a distinctive African flavour.

The unique challenge thus lay in sculpting a new identity by blending tradition, values, and the mission and vision of Parliament with the passion of its leaders and the spirit of the Constitution. Arenhold explains that in refining and developing the new logo, Switch had to ensure that the elements chosen communicated instantly and effectively, "The logo unifies four key elements: our country, symbolised by the sun; our people, represented by the Protea leaves; our Parliament, depicted by the drum, Protea and triangles; and the Constitution - the book at the base of the logo. We also went on to add the first three words of the preamble of the Constitution - 'We, the people' - to capture the essence of Parliament and what it represents. In this way, we created a holistic emblem from different meaningful components. They're simple, instantly recognisable, and work both separately and together."

The result
With a company philosophy that focuses on how a design makes you feel, as opposed to what it looks like, Switch seems to have been the right choice for Parliament. In the same way, Government's making use of a recognised branding and design house to refine and implement Parliament's emblem signals its commitment to and recognition of the power of design - and its importance in contributing to South Africa as a brand.

The new emblem and its elements were introduced to South Africa at an historic event in Cape Town on 27 March 2007. It honoured all the South Africans who had been part of this momentous project. Arenhold and his design team from Switch were there to celebrate with the rest of South Africa as Parliament unveiled its new emblem. Designed by the people, for the people, this new Parliamentary emblem promises to reclaim yet another important piece of South Africa's past and set the country on the road to a brighter future for all its people.

About Switch Group
The Switch Group is a multi-disciplinary brand consultancy. Offering its clients a complete design solution spanning through-the-line advertising, branding and design, and interior design and architecture, Switch strikes a balance between intuition and logic, creativity and strategy. As 'creator, nurturer and custodian' of its clients' brands, Switch is dedicated to building meaningful and beneficial relationships with its clients; adding real value and empowering their brands. For more information visit

About think

Gaby de Abreu is a Vice Chairperson of The South African Graphik Design Council (think). think was established in 2001 to serve the needs of the design professional in South Africa. It is the only organisation in this country specifically catering for the graphic design community. Think works to provide an appropriate voice for the profession of graphic design in South Africa to its members, the public, government, and the business community. Think is a Professional Member of Icograda.