Could There be a Common Visual Language, an EU Hieroglyphic?

EU Pluribus Unum?

It is amusing to think that the official European Union website devotes a lengthy link to “A Plain Language Guide to Euro-Jargon.”

Jargon is a kind of insular argot that obscures rather than conveys meaning. It is language in euphemism used only by insiders. Often it is unintelligible to the rest of us. It is undemocratic. Can good design come to the rescue? Could a rebus that replaces jargon be the answer? The Random House Dictionary defines rebus as the representation of a word or phrase by pictures, symbols, etc. that suggest that word or phrase or its syllables:  Two gates and a head is a rebus for “Gateshead,” for example.

Since 1600 rebus has been used to replace words with images, which is the terrain of graphic designers.
 On the one hand, that Euro-Jargon, given the current bewilderment between national and Continental identity, exists at all is telling. At the very least this hybrid language testifies to a common grammar among bureaucrats of all nations who partake in legislative and political wranglings no matter their country of origin. This is a comfort because it implies that decision makers despite their native tongue in some vague way understand each other. This is a great step toward unity.

© The Trustees of The British Museum

In the circa 1700 rebus above, entitled “The Hampton Court Letter, being a reply to The Epsom Ladys Answer,” a British woman spurns her suitor’s ardent advances, which were written to her in a rebus letter. The transliteration reads thus:

“Vain pragmaticall man, The style and assurance of your epistle shows you a daring bogtrotter, what earnest of ye lady’s heart could induce you to fancy your famous party and as you believe handsome overtures would be cordially received. You are a great bear for your pains, too [knave paired?] and lunatic, [straw bed, owl] pottage, Bedlam, and iron bars is what you want; [urinal/flask?] clothes her hatred, esteemed nor regarded of a [?]. The Tonbridge rake that begun this folly is a danmed liar and prevaricator, two nonesuch violents not to be uttered on a spinster, a welshman but she made address to defend herself and waived entering fool’s paradise so ridiculously. On that he charitably belies Mr J-n nobody knows wherefor, but ye scandal would not stick. Ye post stays so I can only beg you repent be content confess your treacheries and we shall become your admirers. To show [basket?], Abel Burnet, Martin Palfrey, Millicent Fane, Rose Cage, Bridget Cooper.”

The words between brackets in the text reflect the translator’s uncertainty about the exact meaning of the pictograms.

Esperanto, a cobbled together language that aimed to unify Romance language speakers, was created in 1887 to be politically neutral, one that Europeans could use as a second tongue. The idea was for the different peoples of one Continent to understand each other despite their individual national backgrounds, thus bringing about international understanding. Is that not the goal of the EU? The name Esperanto means “I hope.” Its architect L.L. Zamenhof clearly hoped for world peace through a universal language that transcended national identity and embraced a global— or for our purposes a Continental— one. Incidentally, there are currently about 1,000 native Esperanto speakers worldwide and between 100,000 and 2 million speakers extant in roughly 115 countries. UNESCO officially recognized Esperanto in 1954. The World Esperanto Association is headquartered in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Oddly, children whose parents speak Esperanto learn it best when they attend world congresses where it is spoken, not on the playground or in the classroom. This sounds startlingly like Euro-Jargon, which is used primarily at EU functions. Here is a look at Esperanto’s 23 letter alphabet and pronunciation, a recording of it, a sample text to read and a recording of that, and the translation.

Esperanto alphabet & pronunciation

Esperanto alphabet & pronunciation

A recording of the Esperanto alphabet by Jan Jurčík

Sample text in Esperanto

Ĉiuj homoj estas denaske liberaj kaj egalaj laŭ digno kaj rajtoj. Ili posedas racion kaj konsciencon, kaj devus konduti unu la alian en spirito de frateco.

A recording of this text by Oliver Ash


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

The European Union would do well to adopt Esperanto to replace Euro-Jargon because the lingua franca of the world today is broken English thanks to the CNN effect. Yet English is not the language of a united Europe. It is the language of hegemony and the colonizer. The international language of diplomacy used to be French, another conquering tongue that only those fortunate enough to learn it spoke. French was an even more undemocratic mode of expression and lawmaking than English. Replacing Euro-Jargon with rebus, a new visual language free of power connotations and available to all, everywhere— the illiterate among them— is the way to go.

Just as English has given rise to Euro-Jargon it is responsible for Bureaucrat-Speak, Corp-Speak, and “The New Doublespeak” (Lutz 1996), three other argots among many that plague humankind in the United States and around the globe. Argot may not be the correct characterization. Euro-Jargon is more a pidgin, which comes into being out of necessity, when people thrown together cannot communicate. It is the language, for example, of slavery, when Africans of different nations were forced into the holds of ships and could not rely on gesture alone to make themselves clear.

Language represents thought. Text represents language. Type expresses text. Type, then, is a symbol for language. And type is the domain of designers. Why not employ symbol in its purest form— rebus— for the clearest communication? From a design perspective symbol is a vehicle that can clearly promote unity and identity at a glance. By definition it is a visual code. Logo or rebus can speak more powerfully and more swiftly than words alone.

Logo takes its origin from the Greek logos or word. Expressed in graphics word replaced by symbol acts on us subliminally. Think of Helvetica, for example. It communicates Modern and International styles; it is the universally preferred font in the design world. We grasp the atmosphere Helvetica expresses instantly in its clean lean sans-seraph form. Yet while Helvetica suggests a time and place, it does not speak to a particular time and place nor a specific identity beyond perhaps its European-ness (at least to the thinking of people from other continents). Helvetica conveys pan-Continental identity but not a national one. It does not connote Spain or Lithuania as much as it connotes Europe as a whole. If rebus were the language of the EU, it would be freed of one-dimensionality. Every nation would be endowed with a neutral visual code, in keeping with the linguistic goal of Esperanto.

In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell writes about language that conceals rather than reveals, which is self-referential and fails to communicate meaning plainly. His essay was published in 1946, an era when like today after the fall of the Berlin Wall the world was redefining itself. Orwell condemns the insularity and euphemism that jargon implies and its negative consequences for the new world order. What would Orwell make of Euro-Jargon, so pervasive in the EU that it requires its own lexicon on the official website?

Orwell might say that politicians and lawmakers who engage in Euro-Jargon are too timid to make their point in plain-speak because if they did they would flout the unspoken rules of political correctness. Plain-speak means you and I agree on meaning. You and I agree on definition. You and I understand one another despite our backgrounds. Thus you and I would likely understand one another quicker and better in images rather than words. More germane to our purposes, Orwell would say that those who run the European Union shy from stating outright how a particular nation would preserve its identity and embrace a greater Continental one. Those who steer the EU seek to be all things to all peoples. They seek not to offend. Euro-Jargon in effect gives policymakers an excuse not to make plain policy. By implication Euro-Jargon impedes EU citizens in their quest to figure out where they come from, where they belong, what to call themselves.

When the European Union expanded in 2000, identity suddenly pushed its way to the forefront. Europeans realized that they come from both a nation and a Continent. They called themselves Greek and European but not Greek-European because that speaks to hyphenated identity, two traditions thrown together in a diluted and therefore weaker hybrid. In other words, a pidgin. The twinning of identity— Continental and national— begs a question:  Where does primary cultural allegiance lie? How not to lose their ethnic selves? Our goal as designers is to use the language of graphics to represent dual identity. Designing an EU-wide rebus as a lexicon to replace jargon is a good start. From rebus could come a logo that would be a common grammar with a syntax that preserves the European-ness of EU citizens while emphasizing the solidarity that binds without surrendering national-ness. Euro-Jargon, which Orwell would consider a great clouding of plain-speak, would die out.

How could a rebus say more? Take the definition of unanimity on the official EU site, a critical concept of accord, agreement, oneness. What kind of icon would best express that? Four hands wrist over wrist? Four pairs of feet toe-to-toe? Or take non-paper, an official EU term that means off-the-record or an unofficial document. Would a sheet of paper struck through with a red X convey that? How to denote that a document is written in one of the 23 official languages? An open dictionary with the number 23 on it? How would a rebus represent a summit meeting— a mountain crest with a briefcase? So many images come to mind, so many better ones— potent, clever, elegant— could follow. In the hands of a good designer with a ripe imagination, anything is possible.

But the impoverishment of the current EU flag or an early proposal for it like the one below is stunning:

Does this image express anything at all about a new European identity? “I Heart Any City or Country”— anything at all on the planet— can only, ever, and always mean New York. It is the city’s defining icon, a borrowed icon. The circle of 12 stars on this proposal as on the current flag doesn’t speak to culture, heritage, or national pride. A country’s own colors do that. But the most egregious design deficit of the circle is political:  The number of stars is fixed at 12. Currently 27 countries are members of the Union. The circle is mute. Like the heart is borrowed.

Borrowed perhaps from that great model of Continental Unum, the United States. Take a look at the first version of the Stars and Stripes from 1777 designed and sewn by Betsy Ross and fellow seamstresses. Note especially the circle of stars in a field of blue denoting the original 13 colonies. Does this look familiar?

Of course the circle of 13 grew into a field of 50 to represent the number of states that joined the Union. Betsy Ross’s design was elastic enough to embrace the belief that the Union would grow. Out of many, one. The current European Union flag is static.

By contrast the Bar Code flag proposal below was designed to accommodate countries to come just like the original Red, White, and Blue in an ingenious piece of 21st Century visual language. It is Orwellian plain-speak in an image. Not a soul would call it derivative. The Bar Code is the creation of Rem Koolhaas of OMA, the architecture, urbanism, and cultural analysis group based in Rotterdam, and Reinier de Graaf of AMO, the research studio counterpart.

OMA © All rights reserved

AMO sought to revamp the Continent’s symbol and visual language as a whole because it

“found Europe’s representations to be mute, limp, anti modern [sic] and ineffective in an age dominated by mass media. They [We] went on to suggest a direct relation between the absence of a visual language— Europe’s iconographic deficit— and a widespread ignorance about the activities and the origins of the EU among the general public.”

— Rem Koolhaas

Koolhaas and de Graaf achieved much more than a redesign. Their proposal was a powerful and unmistakable rebus for the parts and the whole of the Europe. EU Pluribus Unum.

The Bar Code would have spoken far more eloquently to the new face of Europe than the circle of 12 and only 12 stars because of its elasticity and the designers’ foresight. It can stretch to accommodate countries to come. The colors are those of each nation’s flag representing culture, heritage, pride. Thus it is accurate and democratic. The current flag was created nearly 60 years ago during the old order, the Cold War order. Neither unity nor individuality— certainly not design— was on the minds of the world then. Stale era, stale design. What Koolhaas and de Graaf made is fresh, heralding Orwell’s new world order and the New World of Betsy Ross. What the European Commission chose fixes the Continent firmly in the Old World. The statement behind the choice is loud:  We are comfortable in our vague visual argot.

Pictures can express what Esperanto cannot. Worked right, they can create a democratic semaphore for European unity and national identity. So take a lesson from George Orwell on Euro-Jargon or Koolhaas and de Graaf on visual syntax: Bin it (that’s a picture of an open rubbish container with an arrow pointing into it). And use rebus to design a new identity for Europe.

A different form of this essay originally appeared in “What to do with Design and European Identities,” part of Atelier Tipografic 2, an initiative of the Association of Dutch Designers and Leiden University among others. The project aims to give undergraduate students from Austria, The Netherlands, and Romania a theoretical framework to design fresh visual identities for EU countries and the greater Union.



William Lutz, “The New Doublespeak, Why No One Knows What Anyone’s Saying Anymore”, New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language, A Collection of Essays”, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1946, pp. 156-171.


“A Plain Language Guide to Euro-Jargon.”

Betsy Ross flag:

Esperanto audio and print materials:

Koolhaas and de Graaf Bar Code:

Koolhaas quotation:

“Politics and the English Language” cover image:

“The Hampton Court Letter, being a reply to The Epsom Ladys Answer” engraving housed in The British museum archives:  AN354003001, © The Trustees of the British Museum


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