Introducing De Jong: reflections upon reconstructing the life and practice of a white English-speaking designer



Media & Communications Design


  • design history, biographical

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.

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