The Journey of Creating One of South Africa’s Patriotic Symbols

In 1994, Frederick Brownell delivered on what may be the hardest and most consequential assignment any designer could receive: Design a flag to unite a nation—and do it in a week. “It scared the living daylights out of me,” he said to the BBC in 2014. Brownell, who passed away at age 79, was the head of the South Africa Department of Arts and Culture’s Bureau of Heraldry during a time when the country was in the midst of abolishing apartheid. He was tasked with the assignment after a drawn-out design contest that yielded 7,000 entries went nowhere. With barely two months before the inauguration of its newly elected president Nelson Mandela, South Africa needed a new unifying graphic symbol—fast. As Brownell outlines in his 2015 PhD dissertation, the the six-color, Y-shaped design first came to him while attending the Féderation Internationale de Associations Vexillologiques (FIAV) conference in Zurich in 1993. Like many brilliant back-of-the-napkin ideas, Brownell had actually been stewing over a new flag design for several years. He sensed that South Africa may need a unifying symbol after Mandela was released from prison in 1990.


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