In Type We Trust: Typography and National Identity in the Age of International Style and Global Citizenship

In Type We Trust: Typography and National Identity in the Age of International Style and Global Citizenship

This paper explores the intersection of typography and visualized national identities.  It is rooted in the theoretical foundations of typography, visual language, semiotics, and national identification.  It examines the use of the so-called neutral typefaces of the International Style by individuals and state institutions.  This is set against the backdrop of globalization, in which new economic and social environments challenge traditional forms of national identification.  International identities have risen as the tools of globalization have created new social and political realities. This paper concludes with a case study that examines the Norwegian government’s use of a custom-designed typeface in marketing itself to a global audience. The critique illustrates the interplay of local and international visual identities and typography’s role in constructing meaning.

Theory and Method

National Identities

Benedict Anderson (1983) characterized nations as “imagined political communities” (p. 6).  A nation is not a concrete entity but, instead, is a fluid and internalized concept that is open to reinterpretation and reinvention.  National identity refers to a collective embodiment of national attachment, which can be based on common geography, language, religion, or other unifying factors.  National identities begin as conceptual and intangible, but individuals and institutions solidify national identities by using language, both discursive and non-discursive.

The political entity of a nations-state is separate from the social construction of nation.  The term nation-state traditionally refers to the sovereign political entity whose geographic boundaries coincide with the distribution of a national community.  Formal states can exist without ethnic cohesion or a socially homogeneous community, like in Iraq or Serbia. Imagined communities of nations do not necessarily end at state borders: Many Georgian citizens identify more as Russian than Georgian.  Tribes in the Kashmir region pay little attention to the borders between India, Pakistan, and China. Nation-states serve as good approximations of national communities, but they are not absolute indicators of its populations’ national identity.

National identities serve instrumental purposes both inside and outside nations.  Identities inside nations take on responsibilities of maintaining social cohesion, judging values and behavior, and defining collective purpose.   By referencing an established national identity, citizens of the United States can band together as Americans, recognize and reinforce the characteristics of “good Americans,” and debate America’s future and place in the world.  Outside a nation’s borders, national identities serve to distinguish between groups of people and define criteria for the inclusion or exclusion of individuals from the group. National identities are central to international commerce and diplomacy and serve as ideological starting points for nations. The process of identity formation never occurs in a vacuum; it is always with reference to nearby or competing groups. Group identities are often formed in reaction to outside forces or events that threaten a group’s affluence, tradition, or existence.  It is within this marketplace of competing and conflicting identities that nations find the context which to define themselves. Individuals are the principal authors of their own national identities, but state institutions play a formative role in translating national sentiments, values, and purposes from an intangible and conceptual form into the concise and intentional language of national identities.

States construct visual identities that build on the same principles as corporate branding.  Like the brands that serve to sell products, national brands, above all, sell ideas, emotions, dreams, and memories.  A nation-state will position itself in regional and global contexts by employing a carefully crafted set of symbols.  Flags, slogans, spokespeople, and songs all are used rhetorically by nation-states and other social institutions. Language and symbols are not just representative of an identity, but are an active tool in creating, reinforcing, and transforming national identification.  Language is at the core of imagined communities as shared systems of language are the building blocks of identity. A shared linguistic foundation is necessary for societies to be able to reference a common reality. For imagined communities to be cohesive and meaningful amongst their members, Aeillo noted that it is “vital to be able to generate and rely on myths, of shared and distinctive identity-in the form of stories, images, rituals, monuments, historic events, and typical landscapes” (2007, p. 6).  The Stars and Stripes, “one nation under God,” the Star-Spangled Banner, and the neo-classical architecture of Washington D.C. are all used in establishing the laws, values, and norms that dictate American life.  National symbols do not simply reflect a nation’s place in the world.  National symbols are formative forces that regulate political motivation, acceptable citizen behavior, and help steer national interest.  National institutions commonly employ symbols and language to build national identity, but they can repurpose less obvious subjects to instrumental means. Automobiles, apple pie, the Great Plains, and bald eagles all carry powerful messages about America’s relationship to the land and citizens’ assumed social responsibilities.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are used as model citizens and post-mortem sources of moral and legal direction.

Global Identities

Nation-states are not the sole institutions of social and cultural association.  New forms of social organization have replaced the nation-state’s traditional role as gatekeeper of culture, security, and economic stability. Social institutions characterized by their transnational, international, or non-national qualities can carry out the social and political functions of nation-states.  For example, the European Union (E.U.) has assumed economic and political responsibilities that were once held only by nation-states.  The E.U. positions itself to compete with the United States, but with the added challenge of 27 sovereign member states speaking 23 official languages.  Unique to the European experiment is its profound diversity and international nature. While nations are traditionally forged out of common ethnicity, race, language, or geography, the E.U. is rooted in its profound heterogeneity among its 500 million citizens (C.I.A., 2008).  The E.U.’s identity challenge lies in balancing the competing concepts of diversity and unity.  As the E.U. has expanded, it has seen a struggle between graphic symbols promoting European unity and those that emphasize the continent’s diversity. The European flag was adopted from the Council of Europe and does not have an official relationship with the E.U., but it is traditionally used to represent the E.U. (see Figure 1 in Appendix). The flag features 12 yellow stars set against a dark blue background.  With the 12 stars representing the twelve original states, the image regards member states equally, though it omits the 15 member states that have since joined.  All of the stars are the same size and are placed equidistant from each other.  The entirety of the E.U. member states’ immense individual flavor is visually assimilated into the two-color symbol of unity.  A flag proposed in 2005 attempts to recognize the diversity and individuality of member states (see Figure 2 in Appendix). Resembling a multicolor barcode, its individual stripes correspond to the color schemes of member states’ flags.  Each member state is recognized for its individual characteristics in this flag.

The conflicting symbols represent the debate over Europe’s visual identity, but they also address the profound challenge of defining and creating the nature and future of Europe’s political reality. Symbols and reality share a symbiotic relationship in which reality informs symbols and symbols inform reality.  According to Aiello, political realities are “represented by means of symbols, but also and perhaps most importantly established discursively via symbolic production” (2007, p. 8).    The function of symbols is not passive; symbols are actively used by humans to shape environments and relationships.  Europe can portray itself as a single unified entity, or as a nuanced symphony of individual nations.   In whichever direction Europe pursues in its visual rhetoric, its political reality rides in tandem.

Other non-state organizations have problemitized traditional national identities.  With the rise of multinational corporations, a single national identity for some individuals becomes irrelevant.  An IT professional with a home in Poland, a job in Italy, and a paycheck coming from the United States will be able to forge a sense of association and attachment with multiple nations.  Individuals are the authors of their own national identity, but they draw heavily upon the official symbols and language of their imagined communities, regardless of whether they are local or international.  These social consequences and political environments of globalization present new forms of national identity.  As nation-states compete with other institutions of social organization, the vocabulary of national identity is subject to revision.  New symbols, grammars, and communication models have risen with the advent of international identities.  A functional understanding of these new forms of visual communication begins with an overview of the faculty of human language.

The phenomenon of language is understood to one of humankind’s distinguishing characteristics.  Chomsky (1965) proposed the existence of a universal grammar in which the human brain is “hard-wired for language.” All humans, regardless of native language, are born with basic cognitive rulebook for organizing language.  Humans are able to internalize complicated sets of rules and conventions.  This cognitive structure also allows for tremendous creativity with language and the ability to create completely original thoughts and expressions.  By agreeing upon grammar structures, language users can contextualize abstract symbols and create common meaning.  It is only with common syntax that language users can express meaning.  Symbols themselves are devoid of meaning; it is within users, contexts, and environments that symbols assume any significance.  Language is tied to its context, but it is not a static entity. Meaning is subject to change over time as new users in different environments employ the same symbols.  As established previously, symbols and language are never just passive reflections of users or realities; rather, they are actively used by humans in constructing and manipulating reality.  Burke (1966) famously defined man (humankind) as a “symbol-using animal.”   Burke argued that human reality is not rooted in physical surroundings and behavior so much as it is a projection that emerges from the symbols around us.  Stressing the active nature of human language use, Burke added that humankind should be considered a “symbol-using, symbol-making, and symbol-misusing animal” (p. 31).  Along the same line, Hall summarized language as “symbolic action,” and noted that “its nature is such that it can be used as a tool” (p. 15).  Language is never just a reflection of reality or experience; it is an integral part humans’ effort to create and manipulate their world.  This active role is apparent when language is used to define communities and individuals.  Words, stories, and images are commonly used to communicate national identity. A less obvious graphic element, however, the typographic style of letters, is mobilized in unique ways for rhetorical purposes.  Typography is commonly used by nations and individuals to express national identity.


Typography is a system that bridges abstract language with concrete letterforms.  The physical act of writing illustrates the “symbolic action” of language.  The process of physically edifying internal ideas constitutes deliberate and powerful action.  Typography translates visual language for human sight and links letters to a set of rules that organize and contextualize the abstract forms.  Bringhurst (2002, p.15) testified to this point:

A writing system is built of a set of symbols, a set of definitions for the symbols (that is, a graphic lexicon), and rules for their use (graphic syntax).  The symbols, most of the time, are realized as glyphs, which are visible, repeatable marks and shapes, constrained by the propensities and limits of the human hand and eye.

Bringhurst (2002) outlined four central assumptions of typography that are used in this paper.  Writing is abstract, codified, its symbols are defined in terms of something else, and the system is stylistically as well as symbolically self-contained (p. 15).  Meaning is created only through collective agreement among users of letters, and the meaning exists only within the framework of its syntax.  Letters do not acquire meaning directly from their visual characteristics.  The visual qualities of letters serve as a graphic lexicon and are used to organize typography into the stylistic unit of typeface.

A typeface is defined as complete set of characters (letters, numbers, and punctuation marks) that share a stylistic origin and consistency.  In typography, the term font designates a specific member of a type family such as roman, bold, or italic.  The definitions of typeface and font have been blurred with the rise in popularity of desktop publishing.  In this paper, typeface will refer to stylistic families of letters, examples of which include Times New Roman, Gill Sans, and Helvetica.  The characters of a typeface consistently resemble each other in the measurement of stroke width and taper, the presence and appearance of serifs-the horizontal strokes found above and below vertical letter strokes, the relative scale of letters’ “bodies” (x-height), aperture-the relative openness of round characters like C and O, and axis-the slant or skew of letters relative to a vertical axis.

These visual measurements are used to distinguish and characterize typefaces. Visual symbols are by nature abstract, but they are not arbitrary.  The vocal idiosyncrasies of a language can be linked to the visual appearance of its vernacular typeface.  Schwemer-Scheddin (2002) argued that script is “connected directly to language and its geographic linguistic areas” (p. 55).  Schwemer-Scheddin stressed that German blackletter (Olde English style) captures the nature and national consciousness of the German people because it visualizes the German language’s particularities (see Figure 3 in Appendix). The German language is characterized by intricately built words that combine nouns, adjectives, and verbs to create rich “word images.” In comparison, Latin-based languages (such as French and Italian) focus on a progressive syllable-by-syllable rhythm that promotes logical and linear thought.  The German language is rooted more in imagination and classic narrative. Although letterforms frequently have origins in physical entities like rivers, tools, and celestial objects, they should be understood as unique symbols.  Just as Chinese ideograms only faintly represent the trees, mountains, and human anatomy from which they originated, letters have evolved extensively over time so that it is no longer appropriate to make such associations (Bringhurst, 2002).  As the British typographer Eric Gill famously remarked, “letters are things, not pictures of things” (1936, p. 44).

While letterforms are by default abstract, typography proves to be a powerful medium that is capable of expressing emotions, ideas, and experiences.  Brumberger (2003) explored the “persona” of typefaces.    Brumberger found that people consistently assign personality attributes to different typefaces.  Some typefaces were described as serious, while others were official, light-hearted, or silly.  Viewers are conscious of the relationship between typeface and the emotions or concepts they represent.  Typographic literacy varies among cultures and individuals, but people are able to quickly and consistently make judgments about the personality and emotional effect of a typeface.  Brumberger highlighted the active role of the reader and noted that viewers’ prior experience, knowledge, and biases direct their interactions with visual language.  Never is the audience a “passive recipient of presented information” (p. 207).  Owing in part to the rise of desktop publishing, typesetting has become an everyday activity for millions of people.  Individuals should be understood as intelligent users and consumers of type.  While people consistently agree upon the meaning or rhetorical effect of a given typeface, never can a typeface achieve a meaning that is universally accepted or interpreted.  As visual meaning is dependent upon its context, any study of typography should be based in its users and environments.

Type and National Identity

Rhetors can achieve different ends by using the same symbol set in new environments to appeal to different audiences.  The turbulent history of German blackletter illustrates the adaptability of typefaces as well as the creative and constructive role of the individuals and institutions who use type.  Just as national identities are forged in reaction to outside oppression or influence, blackletter has been used to oppose conflicting hegemons.  Rising out of the Teutonic script tradition, blackletter first became associated with the Reformation movement of Martin Luther (see Figure 3 in Appendix). Latin type was linked to the Roman Catholic Church and its political and social oppression.  Proponents of the Reformation enlisted blackletter and the German language as symbols of the struggle against the church. Hundreds of years later, the Nazi party embraced blackletter as the essential visual representation of the German people and used it extensively in its propaganda (see Figure 4 in Appendix).  Hitler abruptly switched course in 1941 and denounced blackletter as “Schwarbacher Jew-letters.”  For the 40 years following the war, blackletter retained strong impressions of Nazism, and Germans refrained from its use, choosing instead “neutral” typefaces.  Individuals associated with gothic and death metal music adopted blackletter typography, as well as fringe groups associated with Neo-Nazism.   Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, young graphic designers have exhumed blackletter and are exploring its potential in ways that shed its former associations.  These designers use blackletter to capture modern Germany’s ideals of peace, democracy and environmentalism.  Blackletter’s long history of reinvention shows that there is nothing about its appearance that makes it German, Lutheran, or Nazi aside from the meanings that are socially assigned and reinforced by tradition.  Typographic legacy, however, is powerful and durable. Type designers after Nazism took careful consideration of the national and ethnic references embedded in letters.  Designing in reaction, type makers worked in pursuit of absolute typographic neutrality.

International Style

The International Style finds its roots in the years following World War I.  Avant-garde type designers after 1918 rejected nationalist and vernacular styles (Dodd, 2006).  The contemporary belief maintained that art should contribute to all of society.  Influenced heavily by the art and philosophy of the Bauhaus, the International movement gained momentum in Switzerland in the aftermath of World War II.  Intellectuals attributed the violence and destruction of the war to animosities fueled by nationalism.  This aggressive and destructive nationalism was reinforced in art and design that emphasized ethnic particulars, cultural and geographic specificity, and ideological fundamentalism.   To promote neutrality, designers and artists began to create with the express purpose of post-national unification.  Architects stressed absolute function over form and created a minimalist aesthetic.  Type designers stripped letters of the ornamentation thought to refer to ethnic or national roots. Brumberger (2003) wrote that the designers set out to “eradicate nationalistic characteristics by creating typefaces that were free of historic and cultural association” (p. 207).  The argument stipulated that the world would continue to arbitrarily fight and compete among national lines if their visual communication reflected concrete ethnic and cultural attributes.  The Marx-influenced Frankfurt school critiqued social structures which disenfranchised individuals and led to suffering.  This body of philosophy was formative for the fathers of the International Style.  Switzerland’s central European location may have contributed to its push toward visual standardization.  Sandwiched between four larger European counties, Switzerland certainly had a stake in neutrality.  As a result of Switzerland’s German, French, Italian, and Romanch-speaking regions, even domestic communication took on an international flavor.  After experiencing two world wars in 30 years, the Swiss saw the merit in diminished national fervor.

International Style typography is characterized by its absence of serifs, a mechanical rhythm, and its geometric balance (see Figure 5 in Appendix). Crafted with industrial precision, the letters feature bold and invariant strokes.  Schwemer-Scheddin (2002) described Max Medinger’s iconic International Style typeface, Helvetica, as “the typeface without characteristics-the perfect type for an unheroic, economically practical democracy” (p. 59).  The International Style pursued absolute visual neutrality and sought a function of unbiased and efficient communication. Universality was at the core of its mission.  All users of all backgrounds should be able to use the same letters to communicate infinite unique messages to vastly different audiences.  Content should determine a printed word’s message, not its stylistic allusions to ethnicity, empire, or nation.  The International Style’s visual references were not to be based in any location, language, or people. Letter design turned introspective and pursued a form that was geometrically true to itself and its unbiased function.  Any outside typographic allusions would taint the designers’ goal of creating a socially benevolent typeface of neutrality.  Swiss graphic designer Joseph Müller-Brockmann subscribed to the belief that if graphic design was to “inform and enlighten without being manipulative-[it] had to be based on objective criteria” (Müller, 2002, p.17).  The result is a balanced minimalist aesthetic that is reminiscent of a le Corbusier building (see Figure 6 in Appendix) or a well-designed parking lot. Stylistic variation among letters is minimal-all letters resemble each other on a basic level.

Despite its aspirations of absolute delocalization, International Style’s incredible exposure and success abroad has led to it being seen as distinctly “Swiss.” Outside Switzerland, the International Style is frequently referred to as “Swiss Style.” The names of two of the most famous Swiss typefaces illustrate the paradox: Univers reaches for absolute adaptability, while Helvetica originates from the Latin word for Swiss (not Switzerland as it is commonly reported).  Even as designers make every mathematical effort to engineer out distinctive letter characteristics, the reality remains that meaning is created socially in the contextualization of symbol sets.  Not even meta-abstract letters are safe from “symbol-using and abusing” humans.

Background and Rhetorical Situation

The following case study will examine the rhetorical function of typeface in Norway’s official international public communication. The analysis will focus on the development and use of a second-generation International Style typeface.  In 2005, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) decided to rebrand itself with a new visual identity to be used in its international communication.  Their project focused on the visual design of a family of official Norway websites for individual countries.  The United States’ site is located at http://www.norway.org.  The MFA maintains the network of websites that serve as the official portal to Norway for 89 countries and is available in 18 languages.  Visitors to the website access a broad range of information about Norway, including Norwegian news, travel guidance, visa information, and connections to its embassies and consulates worldwide. Norway attempted to build a comprehensive portal to itself as a government, nation, and culture.  Its vast target audience includes anyone who needed information or services from Norway. The MFA faced a complex design challenge. It held the responsibility of creating the first impression of Norway for visitors from around the world.  The site needed to visually communicate a sense of “Norway-ness” to an enormous and diverse audience.  It had to achieve this without appearing overly folksy or backwards.  Norway recognized the need to balance pastoral themes with modern symbols to show that it understands and embraces the dynamics of a modern world.

“Norway-ness,” however, means different things for different audiences.  Norway may invoke images of cross-country skiing and lutefisk in the United States, while in Brazil it alludes to Bacalaou (a spicy dish featuring Norwegian salted cod), and in Sub-Saharan Africa, Norway is a distant source of humanitarian aid.  It is likely that in Sweden, Norway means something entirely different.  Different groups meet Norway with unique sets of background information, cultural familiarity, and historic relationships.  The MFA had to cater to a diverse base of visual consumers. Viewers from Japan, for example, encounter the website with different visual vocabularies and experiences than English or Israeli visitors.

The MFA needed to be selective and deliberate in its choice of imagery, text, and type.  Its job was to capture the distilled essence of Norway that could be communicated effectively across vast cultural landscapes in a very limited space.  The attributes of Norway that the MFA selectively amplified needed to be general enough to connect with a global audience without being overly vague or trite.  This is very similar to the task of logo designers for global corporations.  An earlier example of Norway’s strategy to represent itself internationally can be seen in 1994 when Norway hosted the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.  Norway employed a hybrid theme of traditional and modern imagery that amplified the past-present dichotomy and left the viewer with an incoherent understanding of Norway (Fjeldberg, 2006) (see Figure 7 in Appendix).

The MFA decided that an original Norwegian typeface should be a central part of Norway’s new international brand.  The Norwegian government commissioned a typeface specifically for MFA use and maintains exclusive rights to it. The typeface is named Aeroportal and was designed by APT Designs of Oslo (see Figure 8 in Appendix).


Aeroportal is characterized by its sans-serif minimalist style that is typical of Scandinavia.  Aeroportal’s rounded shapes border on the voluptuous and reference warm humanist letters.  Characters that would normally contain sharp points [w, y] are drawn instead with a curve equal to that of the O.  The typeface features a wide aperture that alludes to openness and air.  Its letterforms are built with a relatively light stroke is distinguished from the thick slabs of International Style type.  The design strips away ascenders and descenders, leading to the effect of further abstracted letterforms.  The contrast between letters is reduced to create an equality and harmony among the letters.  The typeface is geometrically balanced and maintains a strict formal consistency with itself.  Above the text is a relatively small Norwegian coat of arms: a mythical lion creature wielding an ax.  The text reads (in lowercase letters) norway: the official site in the united states (see Figure 9 in Appendix).

The website appears identical on all of its international sites with the exception of the name of the country and the language.  Aeroportal was designed with an international character set that allows it be set in Polish, Russian, Spanish, and 15 other languages.  The family of sites achieve a homogenous aesthetic and are identical in site layout, color, imagery, and navigation.  No modifications are made for the audiences of communist counties, Muslim countries, or for populations that have never seen mountains or snow.  The site for Finland appears strikingly similar to the site for Ghana (see Figures 10 and 11 in Appendix).


Norway’s visual identity represents a new generation of typography that is a descendant of International Style.  The first generation of Swiss type designers embraced the mechanical efficiency of uniform sans-serif type and lived in a world that was busy rebuilding factories, machinery, and autobahns.  International Style was built on a foundation of raw linguistic utility: The same letters that adorn a forklift should be able to advertise an orchestra concert or a laundromat.  Norway contributes to this second generation of International Style typography with Aeroportal. This typographic style came out of time dominated by computers, whereas the first generation of International Style grew out of an age of diesel engines and assembly lines.  The second generation is fueled by bits and bytes, not bolts and rivets.  The rise of an information economy invited a new lettering style that distinguished itself from the brute utility of International Style type.  The physical conditions of work were reflected in the new lettering style.  Bringhurst (2002) notes that the lighter weights of the global post-industrial aesthetic are stylistically linked to a “world of greater automation and lighter, faster transport: one where factories are airier, work often more sedentary, shift times often shorter, and where references to Marx, whether in or out of fashion, rarely inspire inquisitorial zeal” (p. 16).

In its use of Aeroportal, Norway chose to identify itself nationally in a unique way.  Instead of relying on references to ethnicity, language, or religion, Norway appeals to a concept of technological internationalism that is rooted in globalization.  Norway’s international identity expresses a set of traditions, values, and norms.  This international identity should not be understood as a lack of identity; it is a specifically international identity. This identity is created, marketed, and manipulated to serve Norway’s national agenda.  Norway’s use of Aeroportal as a light, harmonious, and technological typeface points to its branding goals.  Norway seeks to be an entirely inclusionary and adaptable player with its typographic identity.  It presents itself as a nation of technology, friendliness, dynamicism, and openness.  Its branding approach is not unlike that of a multinational consulting firm or a wireless internet provider. This international identity serves Norway well in its economic goals.  Norway is rich in off-shore petroleum resources, but it is largely a service economy.  It exports lumber, cod, and hydroelectric power, but it is a much larger provider of human capital.  Norway sells expertise abroad in design, information technology, health care, and third world development.  With a population of less than 5,000,000 people, Norway’s domestic market is too small to provide for its standard of living.  It relies on the European and global markets to sell its goods and services.  If Norway should continue to sell natural gas to England, information technology to Poland, and development consulting to Nigeria, it can’t put forward a national brand that narrows the idea of Norway or casts it in an exclusionary light.  It is clear that Norwegian officials were aware of Aeroportal’s rhetorical effects. The Norwegian Design manual (2006) states that Aeroportal expresses “friendliness, simplicity and credibility, and evokes images of waves, motion and travel” (p. 1).  The press release for the launch of the new website describes it “young, lively and appealing.  The type…forms a subtle but distinctive theme that expresses friendliness, clarity and dynamism” (p. 1).

Norway could portray itself differently to individual nations, but it chooses to invest in a comprehensive and standardized visual identity.  Norway knows well that viewers in Saudi Arabia bring different typographic background and perspectives than viewers in Austria or China.  Norway determined that viewers across the globe were interconnected and experienced enough to support a basic typographic literacy.  Norway chose to appeal to a global visual vocabulary that would recognize modernity, technology, and generic friendliness when it saw it.  Norway’s graphic consultants decided that the world had seen enough Microsoft, Pepsi, and Starbucks logos to allow Aeroportal to make its intended impression.

Brand recognition is an important function for corporate identities, but CEOs know that there is a big difference between recognizing a logo and a consumer’s act of buying an advertised product.  Recognizing the transactional characteristics of national identity, state institutions brand themselves knowing that they have a product to sell. States know that the process of recognizing and interpreting national identities is critical, but they are aware that symbolic identities can affect viewers on a deep, fundamental and active level.  The influence of symbols is not limited to their interpreted meaning in an established context; symbols can lead to the construction of entirely new systems of understanding. This symbolic function is known as “myth.”   Mythical signs do not simply refer to preexisting meanings found in social contexts, but instead help create the worldview that determines a culture’s conceptualization and understanding of something.  These worldviews are what states ultimately hope to sell.  Aiello states that mythical signs don’t serve to represent, but instead to “naturalize an historical and cultural concept. Myth causes an immediate impression and is thus experienced as innocent and eternal speech” (2007, p. 30). Functioning as mythical language, Aeroportal may have the long-term effect of naturalizing a worldview of collaborative globalism that is aligned with Norway’s strategic vision.  The Norwegian government sees an interest in promoting a globalized worldview that encourages openness, standardization, friendliness, and informality.

Globalization as an economic and social phenomenon is characterized by the increased flow of goods, information, ideas, and people across national borders.  People with access to the tools of globalization are able to interact and collaborate with people from all parts of the planet.  Individuals are less tied to the limits of a single national citizenship and are able to interact with people and institutions thousands of miles away.  An individual who leverages the instruments of globalization may be born in India, educated in France, and working for an American company in Africa.  Corporations in the past have been able to separate countries categorically as suppliers, markets, and competitors. In a globalized economy, one country may fill all three roles.  Co-national, international, and non-national identities are products of workplaces and social environments that are not limited by national restrictions.  Individuals can create personal identities using a diverse palette of national and cultural associations.

States that are served best by globalization will promote their globalized worldview in their visual rhetoric. Norway will succeed in a world characterized by international collaboration instead of international confrontation.  Norway’s political, military, and economic realities do not encourage traditional power politics.  Norway discourages unilateral military action while prizing dialogue, consensus, and collaboration.  The Norwegian government sees an interest in promoting a national sense of self that is open to global investment, employment, and outsourcing.  Its economic well-being depends on its ability to maintain open and friendly trading relationships with a long list of nation-states.

Norway subscribes to the belief that nationalistic sentiments that demonize rival nation-states are detrimental to global economic health.  Friedman (2005) proposed the “Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention” which stipulated that any two members of Dell Computer’s global supply chain will not fight a war against one another.  The cost of losing a spot in Dell’s lucrative and increasingly diverse supply chain outweighs the benefits of engaging in warfare.  States will do what is in their perceived best interest.  In distributed and interconnected economies, many states will determine their best interest to be in preserving a dull status quo that allows for efficient international trade.

State institutions compete as buyers and sellers of identity in a global marketplace.  The rhetorical goals of nation-states goals often align with those of another global marketer: international airlines.  Global airlines have an interest in promoting ideas of safety, speed, friendliness, and modernity.  Often as nationally owned and supported carriers, they simultaneously attempt to represent the home nation in a positive light.  Like nation-states, airlines cater to a vastly diverse customer base: anyone needing to travel is considered a potential customer.  Airlines employ imagery that invites and includes while building trust and loyalty.  Norway’s design challenge runs parallel to the corporate identity goals of airlines, and they both arrive at the same graphic solution.  Swiss typography is hugely popular in airline logotypes. Lufthansa, Air France, and SwissAir all boast Swiss style letters (see Figure 12 in Appendix).  These typefaces brand airlines as international and accepting of modernity, speed, and technology.  Airlines based in the United States such as Delta, American, and Northwest employ International Style type (see Figures 13 and 14).

Although the visual rhetoric of international airlines matches up with that of some nation states, the task of airlines is limited in comparison to national governments.  State governments are responsible for defending its citizens and maintaining a military.  The visual rhetoric of Norway contradicts the status quo of the global military environment.  Aeroportal’s thin stroke and lowercase letters are particularly relevant in this area. The Norwegian Design Manual requires that Aeroportal be used only in lowercase. The thin, lowercase letters suggest friendliness, informality, and modernity.  Nations and governments that are engaged in global competition do not normally choose to associate with these characteristics. If Norway is attempting to craft a relaxed and inviting visual identity, lowercase letters serve its purpose well.  If Norway wants to position itself as a powerful military force, its thin, lowercase letters may not function best.  Contrast the Norwegian lettering with the “BushCheny04” logo (see Figure 15 in Appendix).  The BushCheney logo’s capital letters and thick strokes create a bold impression of strength and power.  The characteristics of Aeroportal in turn reflect Norway’s international political reality.  Norway is a largely demilitarized nation that maintains a minimal military capacity.  Moreover, Norway is the home of the Nobel Peace Prize and prides itself on being the world’s top charitable giver in terms of percentage of GDP.  Norway’s rebranding forms part its national strategy to position itself as a collaborative and non-threatening participant in the global economy and balance of power.  Norway, however, does not concede in this international identity to being a powerless or ineffective participant.  After a careful market analysis, Norway identified the niche that will serve it best. Norway’s rebranding reflects its unique selling point and positions itself to exploit its situation.

Part of Norway’s national strategy is grounded in its ambiguity and generality.  The neutrality of International Style type allows other nations to project their own goals and ambitions on Norway.  Norway is whatever you want it to be.  This branding maneuver positions Norway as a neutral participant in global commerce and culture and appeals to a nonspecific euro-generality.  This allows Norway to communicate without offending and to participate without threatening.  While Norway’s visual identity takes into consideration its unimpressive militarily conditions, it is not a passive reproduction of its situation.  Norway’s typeface doesn’t reflect Norway; it creates a Norway that’s ready for market.

Aeroportal serves to create Norway’s international identity, but it could just as effectively promote an online social network or luxury bottled water.  Aeroportal is currently associated with Norway, but its meaning will certainly evolve and develop over time.  As a 60-year-old movement, International Style type has achieved such a status of ubiquity in commerce and design that it is problematic to come to conclusions about its cultural and social impact.  Typefaces such as Helvetica are thoroughly ingrained in the visual landscape of the world. It is with the help of Helvetica that humans navigate nutrition labels, tax forms, subway systems, and Wal-Mart shelves (see Figures 16-18 in Appendix).  Helvetica appears on the tags of American Apparel and on the back of the semi-trailers that transport it.  International Style type is defined more than anything by its flexibility, utility, and neutrality, but like all typography, its meaning is ultimately determined by its users and their environments.   Paradoxically, the International Style’s neutral typefaces have over time been linked to corporations and publications that invoke capitalism, conformity, and generalized euro-modernity.  Ironically, the founders of International Style were neo-Marxists.  Designing a typeface without characteristics may avoid the historical references of a given time, but it can’t supersede the reality that letters are innately abstract.

While designers may base their work on rational and objective principles, design is always linked to its environment.  Design is born out of limitation and remains married to its context. When a piece of design is transplanted to a different environment or place in time, its function and meaning are subject to change.  Designers who understand the nebulous qualities of language will know that a typeface’s meaning is never fixed or finite.  Design ultimately concerns the interaction between humans and their environments, neither of which are constant. While designers control what they create, they can’t dictate how a give piece of design is used, abused, or repurposed.  The social consequences of letters and images depend on the motivation of their users.  As long as humans are symbol-using animals, they will use typography to express themselves and promote their interests.



Imagined communities have long used typography as a rhetorical tool.  As typographic style and technology have evolved over time, so have national identities adapted to shifting social and political environments.  National identities are never static; they are constantly being reinvented, corrected, and reinforced. Nation-states see a clear incentive in sculpting effective and powerful national identities.  States can mobilize the language and symbols of national identities to establish social realities and political order.  The success of a nation-state depends on how well it can identify its position in the world and exploit the opportunities presented in its niche.  The world’s balance of power and resources is as volatile today as it has ever been.  In today’s global marketplace of identities, there will always be non-state actors that are eager fill the gaps left by nation-states.  Non-national organizations, communities, and companies are rapidly filling the traditional role of nation-states. Al-Qaeda, anarchist groups, and myriad online communities are active in establishing group identity and positioning themselves to compete globally.

The rise of international identities highlights the changing economic and political realities of a globalized world.  Some nations-states see their best interest in an international national identity that is defined by its neutrality and flexibility.   As of today, the jury is out on the long-term consequences of the international identity.  However, the case of Norway may give us a preview of the future of national identities in a globalized world.  As the relationships between communities, nations, and individuals evolve, new expressions of identity will be needed to distinguish and define groups. As long as we inhabit a planet with limited space and resources, we will use symbols to create, defend, and negotiate our place in the world.


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