Jacob Dlamini, in his seminal text ‘Native nostalgia’ (2010), confides that the first time he heard the term ‘economic sanctions’ used in the township was in the early 1980s when he woke up one day to discover the local Barclays Bank had been renamed First National Bank (FNB). Notably, Dlamini continues to list “a bottle store and … the biggest news agent in Katlehong” as signifiers of urban life of Katlehong, but only the bank is recalled by brand. At the time, the re‐branding of Barclays engendered a storm of protest in South Africa, both in design circles, and amongst members of the public.
Perhaps less known than the infamous ‘rabbit’ and ‘AK-47 rifle’ is that a local design firm – Ernst De Jong Studios – was asked to submit an alternative to the ‘imported’ identity. In the late 1980s, 30 years after he established himself as a young graphic designer in Pretoria, it was also De Jong who was tasked with persuading a white, patriarchal Nationalist Party Cabinet meeting that a white patriarchal male had no place on South Africa’s currency: the result was the CL Stals – Second Issue: the ‘Big Five’ bank note series.
This paper outlines challenges inherent in proposed research with regard to the individual designer as an ‘interactive dynamic of the community and society in which he or she is embedded’. Ernst de Jong and his studio arguably shaped many of the shared values, practices, processes and products of an ostensibly ‘modern’ South Africa through the construction of visual identities of communities – both corporate and national – from the 1950s to the 1990s. By importing his experience of American modernism into an African context, De Jong brought diverse influences to bear on his task of ‘imagining’ a nation. Intersecting with debates on the nature of history writing, and writing design, this project grapples with ideas of modernity, domestication, and South African graphic design history in its reflection upon the life and practice of a singular South African communication designer.