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The passports of the Kongeriket Norge, as Norway is known in its official language Bokmål, recently began sporting a fresh new design. It took a long time for the design from Oslo studio Neue to realise, and the wait has paid off.

By Thomas Wagner.

When it comes to the diverse imagery of its natural landscapes, Norway is without doubt a unique country. If one were to believe outgrown fictional sources such as Douglas Adams’ novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, planet designer Slartibartfast was once even awarded for his design of the Nordic country’s coastline and its deep, narrow fjords reaching far into the land’s inner. Be that as it may, the landscapes between Nordkap and Skagerrak, with rugged mountain terrain, shimmering blue glaciers, austere plateaus, fertile valleys and numerous coastal fjord tributaries, are in any case a geographical trademark.

Norwegian passports in salmon, turquoise and white

The first thing that stands out when looking at the new Norwegian passports that have been issued since mid October are the covers, which have undergone a colour change to fresh pastels. A total of seven passport types are being issued and are primarily identified through three colours: the ordinary passport for Norwegian citizens has a salmon-coloured cover while the diplomatic, official and special passports are wrapped in turquoise and emergency passports in white. (Immigrant passports in grey and refugee travel documents in blue complement the above).

The cover text has retained its gold finish, however the information in Bokmål, Nynorsk, North Sami and English and the national coat of arms are now aligned left instead of centred, as was formerly done. This gives the cover a less solemn appearance and quite makes the old passports and their dark burgundy colour feel as if they were products of a remote and somewhat dusty era. After all, the two-stage design competition in 2014 had called for a concept with a recognisable theme and a functional design of high quality. Improving the security of Norwegian passports, identity cards and travel documents also made up a further reason for the redesign.

Identification both practical and sentimental

Identity documents have an official legal function, though for their owners they also have a significance of a personal nature. For this reason, the document holder should be able to feel like a proud owner and treat the documents with respect. That is why the designers at Oslo design studio Neue felt from the outset that it was important for the passport to be perceived as more than just an official document. They believed that its overall impression or aesthetic charm should consciously contribute to its owners’ identification with their country, with a design attesting to a feeling of belonging and connection with Norway that crosses differences such as age, gender and region.

Neur Norwegischer Pass aufgeschlagen
Aurora Borealis im Norwegischen Pass

Mountains, glaciers, coastal fjords

Neue won the competition all those years ago with a concept that puts the country’s deep historically rooted connection to nature and the various landscapes of Norway at its centre. The designers write, “The landscapes surrounding us give a sense of belonging and pride, and fill a symbolic function for the entire nation. Images of scenery and landscape can easily become clichés, but by being widely accepted and deeply rooted in Norwegian culture, they are also very easy to identify with. In addition, to Norwegians, nature is more than beautiful scenery. It supplies us with rich fisheries, clean hydroelectric power and various other industries.”

Play of dots and lines

However, what proves to be extraordinary about the passports’ graphic design is not solely that it foregrounds the nature and iconic, sparsely populated and often sublime-appearing landscapes of Norway in a broad panorama from north to south. It is only because of the way in which its presentation forgoes touristy decal-like motifs and consistently abstracts itself from scenes of postcard idyll that something unique is created. Because visas and other information must be affixed to the pages of the passport, and because these pages must be perfectly legible, the pictorial illustrations are realised in light blue tones that could just about be transparent. They are reminiscent firstly of watermarks and secondly of subtle drawings on banknotes.

A picture of a landscape creates an allure entirely of its own, as the Lofoten mountains emerging steeply out of the sea do here for example, visualising natural pyramids that are as rugged as they are sublime using soft lineaments, cross-hatching and dots. The scenery achieves an entirely magical effect under UV light when the detail radiates in vibrant tones as if it were coming to life, such as the light of the aurora borealis beaming out as a shroud over the sky or the light that falls on specific layers of the coastline.

Waldlandschaft im Norwegischen Pass
Leuchtende Landschaft im Norwegischen Pass

Having been considered down to their detail and realised with skill, the quintessential landscapes – appearing like recollections from a collective memory – demonstrate a paragon of Scandinavian design minimised to the essential. While it is safe to expect that a passport documents the holder’s belonging to a nation, it is rare for one to also communicate that aesthetically in a convincing manner. There are good reasons why the talk was of the “coolest passport on the planet” when the concept was presented six years ago, with British newspaper The Guardian asking, “Is Norway’s new passport already a design classic?” It is easy to imagine the admiring looks that this passport will attract, even if the holder were hitch-hiking through the galaxy.

All images: © Catharina Caprino

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