Following the vote for Brexit, there was a remarkable sense of speechlessness, especially among British “Remainers.” The mostly negative debate about the consequences was countered in a creative way by the acclaimed British design and architecture website Dezeen. They approached Brexit in a playful manner, asking their readers to create a new passport design for the UK to replace the maroon EU passport. The contest seemed to have its finger on the pulse, being featured by BBC TV and British national newspapers such as the Daily Mail, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and the Evening Standard.
“I was sentimentally attached to my passport as a sort of diary of where I’ve been in the world, but I think my relationship with it dramatically changed after the Brexit vote,” says founder and editor-in-chief of Dezeen Marcus Fairs. “I realized it was a very confused document: the format of the European passport, mentioning the European Union as well as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – which is a very complex structure anyway. I realized that the story of my identity, looking at the passport, was not simple at all.”
More than ever, having the right passport can be the deciding factor on whether you can travel the world or not – but this important bundle of paper sheets seems almost like a fossil in today’s digital times. “Actually, we did an interview with somebody who designs passports,” reports Marcus Fairs from the preparations for the passport design contest. “He said the passport could be on your phone in the future, it could be embedded in your brain, or it could be like a tattoo or something …” Nevertheless, they favored a more conservative approach, sticking to the well-known format: “We didn’t specify that they had to stick to the format but we did say it has to be practical. We wanted something that could theoretically be introduced in two years’ time as the new passport. Therefore it had to satisfy international regulations, it had to be machine-readable, and so forth.”
For the design critic, this approach has tangible benefits: “How would we judge a passport tattoo against a normal passport, for example? We wanted participants to focus on the symbolism and the materiality of a given format.” He hoped to spark creativity with this decision as well: “Often when you give people constraints, you can actually be more creative than without.” In contrast to most other design contests, the Dezeen team did not ask for images, but for real objects: “We wanted people to make passports. We wanted to have physical things that you could hold in your hand and flick through. They are objects. You form a relationship as soon as you hold them.”
Marcus Fairs is founder and editor-in-chief of the design website Dezeen. He is an award-winning journalist and author focusing on architecture and design, and was the first blogger to be awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He is said to be among the 100 most influential figures in the UK creative industries.
In the end, about 200 passport design concepts were sent to the Dezeen headquarters in London, where a jury of design experts made a critical appraisal of all of them. Alongside Marcus Fairs, the jury included The Guardian architecture and design critic Oliver Wainwright, director of the London Design Museum Deyan Sudjic, graphic designer Margaret Calvert, and Anita Taylor, dean of Bath School of Art & Design and chair of The Council for Higher Education in Art & Design. The participants were mostly designers, but also students and amateurs. They hail from 30 countries; the youngest participant is 12, and the oldest 83.
Many of the works reflected the Brexit vote in one way or another. Playing with the result of the vote, one entry for example blended the old British passport and the current one: 48% of the cover depicts the maroon EU passport design and 52% the old blue British passport design. One extremely playful approach is the shimmering passport that can be worn as a neck pouch. According to its creator, it is meant both as an official document and as an eye-catching conversation starter. For the latter, the designer added some basic conversation phrases inside, in languages from all over the world.
Some proposals clearly showed the creative frustration of “Remainers” regarding the Brexit vote – some more subtle, and others in quite an explicit way. Yet others focused more on nature, the landscape, and the sea. A Norwegian designer played with the rainy weather, featuring a rainy grey cover and visa pages illustrated with weather reports, rain, snow, and sun. Another example based its design on visualizing geological data from the UK.
The most interesting passport designs from the contest will be displayed at London’s Clerkenwell Design Week and in the London Design Museum. Its director Deyan Sudjic was part of the jury – but before having seen the first designs, he was a little hesitant to present them, according to Marcus Fairs: “It took him a long time to agree that we could exhibit three. Halfway through the judging he said, ‘I think we can have maybe five.’ And then he said, ‘I think we can have maybe ten.’ And the number kept going up.”
For a more in-depth look at the range of design works, as well as the winner, please visit www.dezeen.com.