Category Archives: Politics

Defining Design in 2013

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Over the last year, I’ve learnt a few things about (to borrow Nat Hunter’s phrase) the bleeding edge of design. I’ve been working on a research project looking at the application of design skills to help reform Britain’s public services, and at the same time I’ve been co-organising a talks series critiquing the emerging field of Social Design: what is it?, who is doing it?, what questions does it throw up?

Compared to its origins in optimising the products of Victorian industry, it’s clear that design functions very differently in the context of the public sector, and in the face of social challenges: the material is often intangible, the ends are not profit-seeking, and the ethical considerations are more apparent. The people doing it have often migrated across from other design fields – product or industrial design for example – and their numbers are growing. But precisely because it is a field not wholly preoccupied with producing beautiful objects, it isn’t always proportionately represented in the world of design awards. This is a shame, as increasingly we ought to be encouraging our designers to think about the social and environmental implications of responding to a brief, as well as the economic or commercial ones. Just think of the wonderful solutions that might result if all the designers currently showing chairs in Milan decided instead to apply their creative brainpower to addressing the chronic disease pandemics that result from our sedentary lifestyles.

For this reason – the fact that social and service design rarely gets pedestal space – when asked to put forward some suggestions for the Design Museum’s Designs of the Year Award, I deliberately sought out work that had overt social intentions. There are indeed plenty such projects represented in the 99 shortlisted entries – I particularly like Kit Yamoyo by ColaLife – and I really hope it’s a sign of the times that this and the two projects I chose won their categories.

The Folding Wheel by the young and sharp-minded team at Vitamins Design is just a good old-fashioned brilliant solution to a problem – but one that you’d be unlikely to be aware of if you hadn’t ever had to use a wheelchair. A great combination of user insight, technical prowess, and market opportunity, that adds up to a better life experience for millions of people. I’m so glad they’ve won, and I’m only sorry the UK couldn’t furnish a manufacturer bright enough to make it for them (it’s now being manufactured in the US).

And the winner, gov.uk, hopefully needs little introduction. Everyone in my office is tired of hearing me sing its praises I’m sure, but as someone who spends their life looking out for even the faintest signs of design intelligence in government, the progressiveness and design leadership demonstrated by the GDS has totally bowled me over. The website design itself is of course a vast improvement, and a great lesson in how not to overdesign. Its pared down aesthetic is not only accessible to the full range of users, it’s a wholly appropriate look for government in times of austerity. The process of simplification inherent in moving all department sites on to one platform has saved Whitehall an awful lot of money. The real achievement, though, is one that you can’t see: the summoning of political willpower and can-do-ness required to bulldoze this change through 24 reluctant departments. And the result is, remarkably, a government IT project that hasn’t catastrophically failed. Who knew that was possible?!

But to end on a less cynical note: by awarding gov.uk the Grand Prix of Design of the Year, the Design Museum has sent a very helpful signal to the design community about exactly what kind of design we should, in 2013, be celebrating.

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How the mighty have adapted

French-Dining-Room2

I recently had the privilege to see inside Cliveden House, once a residence of the Astors, now a luxury hotel. I went there primarily to interview MD Andrew Stembridge in relation to a piece of research on service design, but did not want to miss the opportunity to have a look round this historically significant and beautiful house.

(NB Cliveden is most often noted now for its part in the Profumo affair: the location of THAT swimming pool. Which is all I’m going to say on that front.)

I had actually been to visit the gardens – a National Trust attraction – before. On that occasion, being welcomed as a member of the public into the wonderful landscaped grounds with all their follies and exotic planting and statuary, there was a sharp contrast with the inaccessibility of the house. Now run as a private (and very sumptuous) hotel, it is beyond the reach of lowly National Trust daytrippers. Looking along the tree lined vista to the facade of the house, I wondered if this is what mere mortals felt like in the old days, gazing wistfully at the great house and only able to guess at what went on inside.

It also reminded me of the reciprocity that exists in the composition of house and gardens of this kind – both designed to frame the spectacle of the other. Being enveloped in the gardens is one thing, but their entire arrangement can only be realised from an upstairs window, when they reveal themselves to be one vast canvas. Unfortunately, at Cliveden one can only appreciate both dimensions of this relationship if you can pay.

I have mixed feelings about this inaccessibility: my initial sense of exclusion was moderated after a tour with the very lovely and knowledgeable Operations Manager, and not just because I had been admitted inside.

A little potted history of Cliveden: an aristocratic residence placed at just the right distance from London to receive Royal visits, it was absorbed into the Astor dynasty in 1893, and given to Waldorf and Nancy Astor as a wedding present in 1906. When Nancy finally died in the ’60s it was given to the National Trust, briefly became an educational establishment, and finally turned into a 5-star hotel.

Houses of this size and age frequently seem to risk bankrupting the families that run them. The theme running through many big house histories is that of the labour of love that eventually overwhelms its creator. They are essentially giant works of art, and the detail and care and investment is mind-boggling. Anyone who has ever tried to work out how to arrange furniture, or what sort of picture might suit a wall, can imagine that the composition and construction of these homes – stuffed full of art and artefacts – is a life’s work. This is why the resource of the National Trust is so valuable, in providing a way to preserve these artworks, and at the same time democratise them, opening them up to the public. Indeed one could argue it is only by democratising them in this way that the old elitism they represent can be reconciled with the democratic sensibilities of the 21st century.

The difference with Cliveden was the Astor’s stipulation that the House must not become ‘a museum’. The property was given to the Trust on the condition that it continue to be (as it had been all its life) a place of parties and fun. Its current incarnation as a luxury hotel lives out this stipulation. But it also maintains its elitism.

This raised an interesting conundrum for me, as it must have done for the National Trust. The Trust, for all that it preserves the rich materiality of these places, is rarely able to keep their meaning intact, precisely because their mission to ‘preserve for the nation’ transforms it. The life of such properties, the private histories and political significances, founded on class and elitism, is normally at least part of their interest and the reason they were worth preserving in the first place. This ends as soon as they pass into public hands and inevitably become museum showpieces: they stop having their own life, or start having a very different one at least.

With somewhere like Cliveden, that deeper meaning, the life beyond the bricks and mortar, was only ever accessible to the well-heeled few – and this (with the exception of a scheduled house tour on Thursday afternoons) continues to be the case. Whilst it would of course be a shame if the house were lost altogether, and there is a certain romantic attraction to the idea of the living artwork, the question for me is: what is the nature of the value to the public in preserving a place so far beyond the reach of most? Tricky…

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Speaking of International Women’s Day…

Caravaggio - Medusa

This will be a very short blog: it would have been a tweet if I could have boiled it down to 140 characters.

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I would like to make a point about language. Specifically, I have found much of the commentary around Vicky Pryce’s trial rather depressing. I know Vicky a little bit – and I don’t want to make any comment about the facts of the case or the verdict. But I do want to say something about the way it has been discussed.

Apparently it is impossible for journalists – and others – to make comment without drawing on the traditional ‘angry woman’ tropes. And since Vicky happens to be Greek, it has been even easier to lazily call on such classical references as ‘Fury’, ‘Medusa’, ‘Medea’, ‘Harridan’, ‘Harpie’, etc.

This is annoying for two reasons. One: stereotypes are rarely helpful or sophisticated. They are reductive and serve only to simplify the discourse, rather than enlighten it. Cases and people get shoehorned into the familiar rather than understood on their own terms.

Two: the particular stereotypes mentioned above have been long-standing tools for the demonisation of femininity and thus, ultimately, the repression of women. It is depressing that we still cannot seem to shake them. Even more depressing when the journalist exploiting them happens to be a woman.

I know that there are women around the world suffering far greater wrongdoing than this bit of labelling – it’s easy to write off as a case of ‘#firstworldproblem’. But the two ends of the spectrum are utterly related, and one of the things that unites them is language.

Language matters: it is subtle and pervasive. It shapes how people think. And too many people are careless with it.

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Design Means…

Made in Peckham, by Hendzel and Hunt

What do composing the audio-brand for a Chinese TV channel, building furniture from old pallets, and making ice cream in liquid nitrogen have in common? These were all activities described by my fellow panelists Joe Glasman, Jan Hendzel and Mike Knowles at a discussion earlier this week at Goldsmiths University. The rather open topic of the debate was ‘Design Means…’, with a more provocative subheading: ‘Can anyone be defined as a designer?’

Earlier in the day, in preparation for this debate, I had been reading a paper about the vexed question of ‘design thinking’. This concept suggests that there is some unifying capacity that underpins all design disciplines. It has been used – mainly by certain design consultancies – to promote the idea that designers’ skills might be valuable beyond the traditional realms of design: such as business management, for example.

There are indeed numerous examples of designers doing good work outside of the discipline they trained in. But it is still a somewhat flawed concept: one learns to design, and practices design, in an iterative loop of thinking and doing. It is entirely questionable whether the thinking element can be meaningfully divorced from the doing. One can’t move a design problem forward by thinking alone. But when the doing bit happens in such different spheres as cooking, cabinetry and composing, can there still be said to be a common process?

By the evidence of the debate on Monday night, I would say, tentatively, yes. As I listened to Joe Glasman explain the process of composing music and sound for various clients, I understood him to be describing a design process. And there were clear similarities to how the other speakers described their own practice: Mike Knowles of culinary troupe Blanch & Shock on how to make the perfect meringue; furniture maker Jan Hendzel of Hendzel and Hunt on constructing a table and chairs from reclaimed materials. All are directing their creativity and craft expertise to a desired (and sellable) end, working to certain constraints and briefs.

Exploding cake, by Blanch and Shock

What so evidently unites them, beyond an inclination to be creative, and a client whose needs have to be met, is the craft expertise underpinning their work. They have all, painstakingly in some cases, amassed their ten thousand hours of practice, and more. This incredible breadth and specificity of knowledge about their domain was immediately apparent in the way the spoke. And also – to me at least – in the quality of their output. This is what qualifies them for the title of designer.

But ‘design thinking’ potentially challenges the supremacy of the professional designer. It implies that non-designers might learn to do it, and that there are ‘design tools’ which could be wielded by anyone, regardless of their professional background. This is particularly relevant in relation to the question of design in policymaking. If policies and public services are conceived of as ‘designed’ processes, that implies the need for some new skills to be embedded across the public sector. But as the public sector is not about to fire all its economists and hire a load of designers (crudely), one seemingly obvious way to get more design nouse into the public sector is (re)training of existing public sector workers.

Is this valid? Can anyone be a designer if given the right toolkit, without those years of practice?

I suspect there is a happy medium somewhere, but another commonality between my fellow panellists was what they saw as a lack of appreciation of their hard-won mastery. Joe Glasman commented that the development of some DIY design tools (such as photoshop) has led many people, clients included, to believe they really can do it themselves, rather than paying a professional. And Jan Hendzel commented that it was always a battle to convince clients of the cost incurred in hand-making beautiful furniture.

Advent Calendar Cabinet, by Hendzel and Hunt

I would suggest this is because, at present, design sensibility within the general public is minimal. And I would question whether it’s possible for anyone to develop an appreciation of a skill without understanding it a bit, and having, at some point, had a go themselves. So I think it’s important for everyone to have had some experience of designing, specifically in order to be better commissioners and clients. But this doesn’t make them designers.

Whilst I am inclined to take a very broad view of what design means, I don’t believe that just anyone can qualify as a designer without some hard graft. My favourite definition (perhaps because the latest and newest) is to liken design to physics: an attribute of almost everything, evident everywhere in the man-made world. And while most of us may understand it a bit, and all of us are undoubtedly affected by it, not everyone can be a physicist. Or a designer.

Many thanks to Lior Smith and Marion Lean for organising this debate.

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No aspiration without inspiration: women, boardrooms & fiction

Over the course of a few days in January there was something of a Nordic-themed media flurry. David Cameron invited some of his Nordic counterparts to a summit in London, before flying out to participate himself in the Nordic Futures Forum. Top of the bill in those discussions (apart from ‘how to steer an economy safely through a recession’, and ‘how to run an efficient and trusted welfare state’) was the question of how to get more women into the workplace and boardrooms.

Norway seems to be taking the hardest line on this, having already introduced enforceable quotas. But this is a treating-symptoms-rather-than-cause measure, and the causes are, at present, poorly understood. Given how keen he seems to learn, Cameron might heed the significance of the appearance of a certain freckle-faced red-haired girl in the debate. Pippi Longstocking – a staple character in Swedish childhood – cropped up in a paper presented at Davos, entitled ‘Pippi Longstocking: The Autonomous Child and the Moral Logic of the Swedish Welfare State’.

The ‘Pippi’ analogy in that case was about a particular conceptual balance between individual, family, and state. Quoting from the paper:

Though the path hasn’t always been straight, one can discern over the course of the twentieth century an overarching ambition in the Nordic countries not to socialize the economy but to liberate the individual citizen from all forms of subordination and dependency within the family and in civil society.

Underpinning these politics is a particular notion of social relations:

Authentic relationships of love and friendship are only possible between individuals who do not depend on each other or stand in unequal power relations. Thus autonomy, equality and (statist) individualism are inextricably linked to each other.

Whilst there is a clear role for the state (enabling as many people as possible to be economic producers), there is also a heavy emphasis on personal capacities and behaviour (taking the initiative). For those familiar with Astrid Lindgren’s books, it should be clear that Pippi is a trope of such independence and individualism. She is also – and this is the key – a hugely engaging and inspiring fictional character.

For those not well acquainted, a quick resume: she lived in a tree-house and held decadent tea parties; she had an assorted band of animals as companions – including a monkey in a little red jacket, and an old horse; her absentee father was a pirate who occasionally dropped off a few bags of gold; she had a wonderfully eclectic wardrobe, including the impractically long socks for which she is named; she was freakishly strong, could walk up walls (with the aid of some special glue), turned washing the floor into a domestic alternative to rollerskating, and was forever saving the day. She is every child’s dream of parent-free, unsupervised adventure and fun. As many children have, I loved her.

I can see now that she is something of a feminist icon. But at the age of 7, I wanted to be like Pippi not because I was self-consciously a feminist, rather because she did heroic things, had a good time, and was unquestioningly the author of her own destiny. I wanted to be like her, and emulated her accordingly, pigtails and all. I’ve lost the pigtails now, but a certain strong-willed-ness has remained with me into adulthood.

Fiction can be (is) incredibly powerful in suggesting possible lives. Fiction draws the reader in, invites their imagination to pick up where the words on the page end. It troubles me, therefore, that I can’t think of many grown-up (female) characters who are exciting in the same way as young Pippi. I am no longer so enamoured of the tea-parties-in-trees lifestyle, and I am missing a replacement.

In fact, I am burgeoning on despair at the utter lack of equivalent heroines in adult fiction. What happens to Pippi and her peers when they hit puberty? Too often, as soon as girls are old enough to fall in love, the pursuit of said state invariably becomes the story. Other things might happen along the way, but bagging a man is the ultimate goal. (The reverse is rarely true for male characters in fiction. James Bond normally bags a woman – or rather several – as a sideshow to a much grander story.)

The sad thing is I’m not sure James Bond and Carrie Bradshaw are accurate reflections of how much men and women care about love and relationships as opposed to the other things in their lives. I’m not sure it’s naturally the case that women are more prone to fixating on men than the other way around. But it does feel as though there are legions of chick lit heroines – and their romcom film equivalents – who can seem to find nothing else to talk about. ‘Sex and the City’, for all it apparently achieved in terms of un-demonising female promiscuity, did nothing to reassure women that their primary focus needn’t be men. (It also seems to condone some pretty flighty behaviour.)

A little more often I would like to read a story, or see a film, where the protagonist was an interesting woman, doing exciting things, and where her lovelife wasn’t foregrounded as the premiere plot feature. I’m looking for a grown-up Pippi. Yes, there are a few. But there will have to be a lot more in order to combat the avalanche of low-grade cultural output – books, films, TV, adverts, music videos, fashion – which tells British women that their sexuality is their personality, and their identity is contingent on men.

To return to the starting point, to the question of why there aren’t more women in UK boardrooms: it is about inclination – and inspiration – as much as possibility. The door may be open, but women have to aspire to walk through it. And what will prompt them to ‘aspire’ is more complex than, for example, a more generous stance on paternity leave. The answer must, at least partly, be in presenting women with some more varied and inspiring options in the popular forms we daily consume.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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Disrupting the Discourse

The sight of the above had us doubled over with laughter last week.

This was the delightful moment when a loaded-down and battered little car, piloted by a couple of appropriately shabby-chic designer-makers, puttered falteringly onto the Parliamentary estate to install an exhibition.

The content of said exhibition is examples of work by researchers from the Royal College of Art, all of whom are pursuing and developing new ways of recycling to generate useful materials. Their raw products include orange peel, pineapple fibre, fish scales, expanded polystyrene, and plastics of varying sorts. This work represents an important lesson about where innovation happens: these are artists as much as they are scientists and inventors. We need art schools as much as we do science labs. (Actually we need both, working together.) Coca-Cola, our obliging sponsor who also featured in the show, seemed as excited about getting to meet some new ideas courtesy of these students as they did about showing off their sustainable coke bottle in Parliament. And at a time when certain protesters not too far afield are generating publicity for disrupting church and city, this lot are making their political point about the excesses of capitalism by coming up with some genuinely useful suggestions and presenting them beautifully.

The exhibition design, owing to the provenance of its curators (congratulations to the lovely Naomi Turner for playing an absolute blinder), has the feel of a student crit, considerably more eye-catching than the usual dry fare of corporate pull-up banners and flat-screen TVs. In fact the acres of chipboard, far from looking out of place, complement the yellow stonework backdrop nicely.

Installed on Friday, launched last night, the opening was an unmitigated success, admittedly partly because of the plentiful flow of cheap white (and Coca-Cola of course), but also because it brought a group of people other than the usual be-suited suspects into Parliament. The mix of MPs, students, designers, start-up manufacturers, curators, sustainability experts and academics made for some unusual conversations. For an institution where the very act of saying something in a particular place is endowed with weighty significance, the act of these conversations happening between these people in this place, was a lovely and positive disruption of the norm. The design lot, as I affectionately term them, with their bright ideas and boundless energy, don’t get invited in nearly often enough. Not surprising since the place is dominated by economists, lawyers and historians who understandably have little to no idea they exist. They should pay more attention though – these people are inventing the future. The point of the APDIG is to facilitate more of the same of this kind of thing.

So whilst you might think the above looks like a picture of a red car in front of an old building, what it represents to me is a rather lovely sort of coup. Bloody cheers.

Credit to Oscar Wanless for the priceless photo and Thomas in the Park for most of the intellectual content herein, which I suspect I have stolen from his Masters thesis.

There are some proper pictures of the actual exhibition here.

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‘Slutwalkers’: a lesson from Beyoncé

Slutwalk is rearing its unfortunately-named head again, with more protests planned in the coming weeks. Whilst I would like to preface everything I am about to say by wholeheartedly agreeing with the statement that no-one ‘invites’ rape – it’s actually an oxymoron if you think about it – I have nevertheless been following this ‘movement’ with a deep sense of unease. I can’t help but feel this is a massive own goal for the girls.

To recap briefly, the theory the protest walks are meant to embody is that women should not have to accept as a given that dressing in a certain way (‘sluttily’) means some people will draw certain conclusions (they are ‘sluts’) and be more inclined to sexually assault them. The praxis is to dress sluttily, en masse, to prove that they can do it with no reference to the male gaze – to ‘reclaim’ the style for themselves.

First of all, I would question the honesty of the assertion that dressing sluttily makes any sense without reference to those for whose benefit it was ultimately invented. The adornment of the body has always been about sending out signals as to the identity of the wearer. To deny that is – as a now very unpopular Canadian Police Officer pointed out – naïve.

Secondly, I don’t understand why any woman would seriously want to ‘own’ that mode of dress – uncomfortable, chilly, and designed-by-men as it is.

Thirdly, how is this a wise strategy? What argument are they going to win? Will this actually deliver reduced instances of sexual assault? Somehow I just can’t see any rapist-in-waiting watching a slutwalk and thinking, ‘on the other hand, maybe I won’t.’ It all has the distinct feeling of having metamorphosed into an excuse for millions of women to revel in a slightly risqué activity, and assert their right – never really in question in the western world – to parade around wearing whatever they want.

But leaps-of-logic and poor strategising aside, ultimately, the most damage Slutwalk will do is to reduce feminism in popular/ media discourse to a discussion about the right to dress provocatively and not be raped. And once again, and which is only ever to the detriment of the feminist stance (shouting slogans is a crap way to win an argument) the tone is angry, defiant, and a bit whiny. How many men are on board with this, for the right reason? Tone is so important, and slutwalk is such an ugly word, and concept. No matter what the manifesto says, the shorthand is neither aspirational nor inspirational, and an unhelpful hyphen to feminism.

For a perhaps surprising moment of a woman beautifully expressing herself, witness Beyonce’s recent Glastonbury triumph. Leonine and athletic, she was pitch perfect and absolutely charmed the 180,000-strong crowd. Not because she was wearing what would quite accurately be described as a highly provocative outfit, but because she was a consummate professional, really mind-blowingly good, clearly happy in herself and delighted to be there, and genuinely doing it for the girls (rare in the male-dominated medium of pop). Although jumping around in tiny pants, the word slut didn’t come to mind: she was amazonian and golden. Watching her dance provokes the same kind of dumbfounded reaction as Jacko or Timberlake at their best. And transcending all of that hard-won skill was buckets of personality and talent. It was heartening to see and a refreshing moment for feminism. It’s not about what you look like, it’s about what you say and do.

Although the seeming popularity of Slutwalk should tell us that something – and perhaps not what is ostensibly being protested about – is amiss; by drawing our attention back to the clothes and the body, the movement does feminism a disservice. For the sake of progress, less stomping around in bras please, and more just carrying on with what most of us hopefully do anyway in our daily lives: set some kind of meaningful and helpful example to remind the world that female bodies have minds too.

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What Jonathan Ive hasn’t done

It is curious how a man who basically just makes phones and computers has risen to god-like status amongst a certain group of people.

This was the heretical content of the thought that popped into my head during the morning session of last week’s ‘Design Summit’ whilst listening to Apple’s (design guru) Jonathan Ive.

The guy turned up with more security than the PM, the interview wasn’t allowed to be broadcast, he deflected more questions than he answered and gave few secrets away. And yet – or perhaps therefore – an audience of hundreds of really-quite-successful-in-their-own-right designers and chief execs were rapt. He has achieved such cult status he can even get away with spelling his name (‘Jony’) a silly way.

Of course, to summarise Apple’s achievement as ‘making slightly prettier phones and computers than the next company’ is to trivialise it. Hundreds of business analysts must have spent countless hours trying to dissect Apple’s alchemy. Making sleek white computers is the tip of the iceberg. As this Economist article suggests, Apple’s hitherto successful business model is based on the consummate execution of an idea rather than a particular technological platform – that of repackaging the technology of the moment in an altogether more desirable form and selling it at a premium price; of understanding exactly how people want to get their information and communicate with each other; and of making the whole process intuitive. Technology for all us people who really don’t care that much about technology. By doing so they have created entirely new markets, new paradigms of how we interact with the technology that facilitates our lives.

For all these reasons the design community loves Ive, but also because he has incontrovertibly demonstrated the value that design can add to a business’s bottom line. In a world where few people really understand how design works, it’s an example they can all point to and justify their contribution. (One does wonder though why there aren’t more Apples, if it’s such a foolproof recipe.)

Hence his wheeling out in front of Government Ministers at the Design Council’s summit. The design community is on a mission to prove its economic importance to government. And by the evidence of last week, they are getting there.

But this is all a bit sad. Rather than representing some kind of coup for the design industry, what it demonstrates is that the management or our physical and constructed world (‘Design’) has – like everything else – become a slave to the rule of the economic imperative. And, weirdly, at a time when we’re just beginning to recognise that being beholden to commercial motives might not a happy world make.

No matter how much we love our Macbook, having it doesn’t make red wine taste any better or change the way we fall in love. It hasn’t fixed the NHS or gender equality. It doesn’t teach us to appreciate our grandparents before its too late, or help us spend five minutes actually listening to our friends. It can’t replace the delight of sitting in an english garden on a sunny day. So congratulations to ‘Jony’, who has, admittedly, changed the world, but it would be nice to occasionally see a bit of perspective about the value of that change.

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Yes John Hayes! Now go tell the Department for Education.

The Crafts Council’s parliamentary reception yesterday afternoon featured a late but inspired appearance from Skills Minister John Hayes.

The Tory MP (declared personal hero William Morris) seems to have an impressive grasp of the complex argument that craft, creativity and making is fundamental to the human condition, that few other politicians share. He said that ‘the work of the hands, and the body’, was just as, if not more, ‘likely to lead to the sublime as the pursuit of academia’.

His references – Ruskin, Morris, Keats, Lord Shaftesbury – suggest a depth of reading only undertaken by the genuinely interested. He acknowledged the errors of governing with a policy system that only recognises as valid evidence economic arguments, rather than such abstract but important concepts as the pursuit of truth and beauty. (Yes, he actually said this.)

In policy terms, this conviction has led to his championing of an unprecedented commitment to increasing apprenticeships, to reinstating the guild system – to reinforcing the dignity of the non-academic.

So far so good, what a great champion for skills. But when the Department for Business are making such progressive statements, the question on everyone’s lips, the elephant in the room, is what on earth is the Department for Education up to? The two Whitehall departments say they are talking to each other, but in actual fact their policies or, dare one say it, ideologies, appear to be widely divergent. A casualty of Cameron’s hands-off approach when headstrong Ministers develop policies in line with personal convictions, perhaps?

The renewed focus at the Department for Education on numeracy and literacy is clearly important, but also a classic politicians’ answer: if British children are crap at English and maths (as OECD stats suggest), it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s because they are not being taught for enough hours or tested rigorously and frequently enough. This is a rumination for another day, but the relevance here is that the worrying over numeracy and literacy will make a casualty of some other skills, squeezed out of the compartmentalised timetable.

Why, if craft, designing, making, inventing, manufacturing, is so important to the country and the economy (as the closing lines of Chancellor Osborne’s budget speech declared) is the Department for Education instituting a mainstream educational system that sidelines craft, design & technology, and art?

These activities shouldn’t only be available to those with a ‘practical’ tendency, as Hayes seemed to be suggesting (and in fact they are probably just as important for pushing the bookishly clever out of their comfort zone.)

They are not niche subjects. And they are not non-academic.

If we want to build a creative knowledge economy full of entrepreneurs, high-tech manufacturers, agents of innovation and ambitious start-ups, we need individuals well-versed in the literary greats who can manage the financial side of a business – but who also manifest exemplary creative thinking skills.

Finally: beyond the cold hard implications for UK GDP, denying children the opportunity to learn how to express themselves creatively is basically inhumane – and won’t drive up educational outcomes in other areas.

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Weekend TV and Sarkozy’s ‘Burqa Ban’

Also known as ‘The Bill Prohibiting Facial Dissimulation in a Public Place’, when I first heard that France was toying with the idea of ‘banning burqas’, my immediate reaction was unqualified alarm: surely the last thing the world needs at this moment is for supposedly civilised, liberal countries to start making inflammatory laws that criminalise Muslims.

There are so many things to say about this occurrence it is difficult to know where to start. Yes, it’s politically motivated and fundamentally stupid: a simplistic response to a highly complex situation. It is a single incident which is the crysallisation of a number of trends and forces, interesting for what it reveals about ‘the French’ and their national identity: in crisis perhaps? This Economist article suggests a deep level of national malaise and malcontent – albeit somewhat unwarranted.

I have discussed it with many people and have so far resisted commenting in writing, but I am afraid I have been provoked, by none other than Tim Lovejoy of Something For The Weekend fame, and a horrendous exchange with co-presenter Louise Redknapp, in which he implied (and was sadly proven more or less correct) that she was mainly only capable of wearing high heeled shoes and discussing her haircut.

This sort of run-of-the-mill, casually sexist commentary sits very ill with the holier-than-thou attitude that seems to be adopted over here when discussing the concept of women being required by their faith to cover their faces.

Firstly – particularly as this is a debate that happens in pubs and workplaces as well as newspaper columns – whatever people say about their motivations for ‘not liking it’, however far the enlightened men of Britain claim it’s concern for the oppressed women underneath, I find it hard to believe anti-niqab/ burqa sentiment is ever totally free of good old ‘fear of the alien culture’.

Secondly, on the question of practices that suppress women, we needn’t be so superior. Yes, I am eternally grateful for the advances that have been made in gender equality, and from which I can only have benefited, but those advances shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we are still guilty in ‘the west’ of constructing barriers around women’s identities. They are just socio-psychological rather than big black pieces of material, and therefore much harder to pin down and challenge.

If you want examples: How often do you see a man in an advert for fabric detergent or air freshener? Why does the word ‘beauty’ have a feminine connotation? What is the ratio of men to women on the R4 Today programme? Why is it ‘boy meets girl’ and not the other way around?

It is unfortunate for the niqab that it is such a clear visual sign, and therefore targetable in the gender debate. Indeed the whole matter of visuality is interesting here: if the niqab hampers women by rendering them invisible, without identity, Western women have been equally constrained by the fact that they have been treated as such explicitly visual objects. What does it do to your personality if, at heart, you suspect that what you look like is more important than what you think or say?

In 1905, an Austrian intellectual, Rosa Mayreder, who was writing very much against the prevailing opinions of her time, suggested that ‘the highest triumph of civilisation’ is the ‘unhampered self-predestination of the individual’.  Over 100 years later I’m not sure, even in Britain, if we are there yet. ‘Self-determination’, in one’s life and opinions, is available and deemed appropriate for men far more often than for women. And both sexes are complicit in perpetuating this status quo.

If there are any lessons to be learned from Something For The Weekend (beyond the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow, published cookery book notwithstanding, doesn’t apparently know her way around a kitchen), it is that we are just as blind to the limiting effects of some of our embedded cultural assumptions about gender, as women who wear the niqab might be to theirs.

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