Every day we encounter symbols of national identity: the money in our pocket, our passports and identification, our flags. While these objects communicate a specific place and a set of values, do they really represent who we are as individuals? In today’s political landscape, identity seems to fluctuate more than ever: we’re immigrants, people who dissent with our political systems, people who are forcibly displaced, people who feel connected to multiple nationalities. People who defend nationalism. People who fight for entirely new countries to represent them.
It’s within this global identity crisis that Miguel Miranda and Celina Nogueras, cofounders of Puerto Rican design studio Muuaaa, developed Soft Identity Makers, an interactive, algorithmic installation that challenges the longstanding tradition of monolithic national identity systems and proposes a new way to design them.
“The idea was not to create something static because that isn’t what national identity is,” Miranda says. “We wanted a system that was malleable and flexible—where the outcome was something unpredictable.”
Today, mutable visual identity systems are prevalent in the corporate and institutional world. The MIT Media Lab logo, by Pentagram, can be morphed to express different research groups within the context of the whole department. Experimental Jetset’s visual identity for the Whitney Museum features a responsive logo. However, branding within the context of nations remains fairly traditional, even if the designs themselves are new, like South Sudan’s symbols and the Snøhetta-designed banknotes for Norway.
In rethinking what national branding could become, it almost comes at no surprise that it is designers from Puerto Rico—an island with an unusual political structure and its own nuanced identity—who are challenging the status quo.
Miranda, Muuaaa’s chief design officer, and Nogueras, the firm’s chief creative strategist, tapped into their own personal experiences in developing Soft Identity Makers. Both were born in Puerto Rico and received their education in London. Miranda worked as an architecture professor in Barcelona before opening up shop in his country of birth. Nogueras, who has a background in the arts and culture industry, traveled the globe professionally. Like many Puerto Ricans, they celebrate being from a vibrant and proud culture, while also carrying the emotional weight from 500 years of colonization. Then Hurricane Maria hit.
Like many Puerto Ricans, they celebrate being from a vibrant and proud culture, while also carrying the emotional weight from 500 years of colonization.
The storm ravaged Puerto Rico, and the events that followed—in particular, the U.S. government’s anemic relief and recovery efforts—cast its identity in sharp relief. It laid bare the island’s lack of political power, dependence on aid, and legal and tax system designed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Since Puerto Ricans can’t vote in U.S. presidential elections and their congressional representative has no voting power, calls for statehood and independence were amplified. Soft Identity Makers, presented in the Puerto Rico pavilion at the London Design Biennale in September, sparks a deeper investigation into the island’s complex identity, and national identities in general.
When anthropologists discuss national identity, they do so through markers like language, totems, ritual, dress, food, and religion. Muuaaa adopted a similar approach toward developing 45 different markers that could be used to express a national identity. But instead of designing a single visual identity using these custom markers, Muuaaa designed a process that let individuals create their own.
Muuaaa’s custom-designed markers sometimes resonated with Puerto Rican culture, often spoke to global culture, and were always visually enticing. For example, after Hurricane Maria hit, ice became a valuable commodity since there was no electricity available for refrigeration. Muuaaa created a rendering of a bag of ice printed with Louis Vuitton logos to symbolize both its new luxury status in this context as well as the dire effects of global warming. Another marker, titled “Cash is Queen,” featured a roll of paper money dipped in gold with a crown sketched above it. This riffed on a catchphrase of the finance world, spoke to the capitalist economic systems, and also nodded to a visual motif of the artist Basquiat, who was of Puerto Rican descent. Another marker featured the Arecibo message, an interstellar radio message transmitted from a radio telescope in Puerto Rico in the 1970s.
Muuaaa’s custom-designed markers sometimes resonated with Puerto Rican culture, often spoke to global culture, and were always visually enticing.
Visitors to the installation were instructed to pick five markers that resonated most with them. Muuaa assigned symbols (which look almost like astrological glyphs), shapes, and colors to each of the markers. After inputting the images into a touchscreen, an algorithm arranged the corresponding symbols, shapes, and colors into a grid. “The idea is that there’s not just a single icon that represents you—you have a conglomerate of symbols,” Miranda says.
The resulting image looks similar to the cover of the Voyager Golden Record, a phonographic record that was sent into space to communicate what earth was and the complexity of the human race with extraterrestrials. Because NASA scientists didn’t know who might find the record in space, they inscribed Rosetta Stone-like symbols on the cover to help them interpret and play the record. Similarly, Muuaaa’s identity is designed to communicate universally.
As part of the installation, the markers were printed on T-shirts and flags, which visitors could take home with them. Muuaaa printed more than 2,000 T-shirts at the London Design Biennale and visitors created more than 15,000 identities, which the studio is slowly uploading to an Instagram account.
The finished products all share a similar look, though each identity is wholly unique (even if someone used the same five markers, the algorithm would combine them differently). Muuaaa’s proposition is a play on an individual’s identity, contextualized through a national lens.
“We wanted to speak a universal language,” Nogueras says. “We’re dynamic citizens today. We think that artifacts that express identity—flags, passports, coats of arms—are too rigid. They don’t allow for evolution.”