This week, with some fanfare but little media coverage, a “universally recognized logo for human rights” has been selected out of some 15,000 submissions. The winning logo, pictured here, was designed and submitted by Serbian designer Predrag Stakić. It has now been released to the public for free use by any and all organizations looking to promote human rights. Mr. Stakić happily walks away with 5,000 Euro for his design, titled “free as a man”. If you did a double take upon reading the title, you’re not the only one. But more on that later.
According to the website of the non-profit that ran the campaign, the initiative to create a logo was launched by ten states: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Germany, Mauritius, Senegal, Singapore, and Uruguay. Over the course of several months, entries were received from all over the world, and anybody with an internet connection could log in and select those that he or she “liked”. Based on that feedback, the total field was narrowed to 100 designs that then went to a jury of experts. The jury was made up of a wide variety of artists and human rights advocates, including such well-known names as Aung San Suu Kyi, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Navanathem Pillay, and Shirin Ebadi. There were also slightly less relevant choices, such as Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia well-known for his authoritarian management style , and Roland Emmerich, Hollywood director of such artful and politically relevant films as Independence Day, 2012, Godzilla, and Stargate.
The idea of so-called crowdsourcing to create logos has gained a lot of traction in the past few years, but is not without its detractors. The benefit to the client is obvious – reams of options to choose from, and little or no risk. However there is little to no benefit for designers. There were 15,000 entrants into this competition, and each likely took anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to design entries. Within that mass of entries, there was likely a subset of professional designers looking for recognition. Like the now-ubiquitous unpaid intern, these designers are forced to give away their time and talents for free, with only a minute chance of being noticed. In essence, the entire process takes advantage of the entrants. In the context of a competition about human rights, it can be argued that such a contest disregards promotion of decent and meaningful work. The counterargument is that it gives young, unknown designers the option to get noticed, but at what cost?
The internet has democratized information. The organization that runs this competition has clearly embraced that, most obviously through its selection of Jimmy Wales as a member of the jury (and its judicious use of Wikipedia and Wikimedia content throughout its site). This is something I support; information should be as free as possible. However the contest itself takes this concept a bit too far – promoting free labour under the guise of democratic participation. A more appropriate model would have been to use the jury to choose from a set of submissions commissioned from professional designers, and then open up that selection to democratic evaluation from the internet-connected masses. That may have ended with a less desirable logo, but at least cut down on the hypocrisy.
So what of the end result? The logo itself is fine at first glance – that is, it is simple, clear, and not particularly controversial. I personally have objections to the use of a dove, traditionally a Judeo Christian symbol of peace. Human rights are already criticized for being a form of Western imperialism, and such a symbol can’t do much to dissuade that argument. Note that the only Asian country in the initiating group is Singapore – hardly a bastion of traditional values – and the only states with significant Muslim populations are Senegal and B&H. It is true that there are representatives from other regions on the selection jury, but there is a case for arguing that many human rights activists are already Westernized and not representative of their home countries, despite unflagging and commendable efforts to promote rights and freedoms at home.
And then there’s the name. There must have been at least one member of the jury who objected to a human rights logo titled “free as a man”. Only 30% of the jury was female, yet these are not women with small voices. I have personally seen Shirin Ebadi speak, and she has a voice that could rattle the walls at full volume. I can’t imagine she wouldn’t have objected. Perhaps there was a short-sighted clause in the rules that prevented the logo from being altered by the jury, but surely that could have been waived by Mr. Stakić. Poets among us may argue that there is less of a ring to “free as a human”, but that’s clearly what it should have been changed to. In the end, there’s no excuse.
If this logo begins to be used widely in human rights campaigns, raises awareness of human rights issues, and decreases costs for small organizations looking for an eye-catching design, then it has done some good. But in a civil-society sector overrun with NGOs fighting for precious few sources of funding, looking the same as everyone else is never a good idea. So I sadly predict this logo will go the way of other attempts at worldwide standards – limited use and limited audience. But it has been good public relations, and a way for the governments of these ten states to attempt to write off some expenditures as foreign aid. So along with Mr. Stakić, there will be at least a few other winners.
(Feature photo courtesy of Chatham House, London/Flickr)