Consume with care


An image from the new calorie-visualising app, Calorific

There is something peculiarly modern about the obesity crisis, which, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, has reached new proportions. The consultancy recently released a report stating nearly 30% of the world’s population is technically obese. Leaving aside the inequality issue (one in eight are chronically undernourished), this is a problem for society because of the costs associated with the health implications of being overweight, and the impact on the general wellbeing of the individuals concerned. It seems a bizarre and ridiculous state to be in: when the cause of the problem is seemingly so clear – people eating more than they need – why is it so difficult to find a solution?

Part of the reason this crisis of consumption is so hard to solve is systemic – it’s all bound up in the dominant economic model, where production and consumption is the organising principle of almost everything in modern life. Obesity is one unfortunate result of urging corporations and people to produce and consume more and more in order to drive the economy – and now it’s gotten out of control.

The McKinsey report lists a number of tested interventions and their efficacy. Only a couple of these, and they are not the most successful, are based on education. Mostly governments are now considering measures which involve controlling supply in some way – limiting portion sizes, changing the makeup of food, restricting access to bad things. It seems that simply trying to help people make informed decisions, and have an appropriate relationship to food, is something we have given up on in favour of a more paternalistic approach. However none of these interventions have particularly staggering success rates.

It’s interesting to see though, that the problems associated with production and consumption are becoming an increasingly popular subject among designers.

Designers are clearly implicated in the production/ consumption merri-go-round. In fact they are the grease that keeps the whole thing spinning, and have been richly rewarded for doing so. The tide does seem to be turning, however. I suspect that those once lauded as great visionaries, talented manipulators of desire, will soon be viewed less favourably – for complying with business demands for planned obsolescence, and persuading us all to keeping buying lovely new things. There has long been an element in the design community protesting against this kind of work (Papanek, Fry et al), but it’s interesting to see it becoming increasingly an mainstream concern – as noted in a previous blog on the socially-motivated projects emerging from the RCA’s new Service Design MA, and as has been manifested through much of the RSA’s design work in recent years (such as The Great Recovery and Student Design Awards).

Here are a few more interesting design responses to the problem of rampant consumption:

Disclosed helps you understand the values that are embedded in the things you buy, and tailor your consumption according to things you care about.
Calorific helps visualise the energy content of what we eat.
Silo is a reimagining of the restaurant on zero-waste grounds – without compromising the quality of the food. Founder Douglas McMaster makes an excellent point in this article about the inverse relationship between choice and quality when it comes to restaurant menus.
Emotionally Durable Design is the brainchild of Brighton University’s Jonathan Chapman, who explores ways design can persuade us to hang on to our stuff rather than discard it.
– And The Ocean Cleanup works at the other end of the chain, trying to mitigate the environmental impacts of disposability and reckless and prolific consumption.

These projects are little moments of resistance, and attempts to politicise and problematise consumption – which is ultimately what needs to happen. Because the truth is, as much as governments are now trying to find ways to counter the disastrous externalities of consumer culture, it also suits governments and private enterprise to keep populations consuming. Not only to create an impression of a thriving economy, but to keep the peace: expressing our agency and individuality through buying and consuming is altogether less troublesome for those in charge than demanding more political or democratic power.

There’s a great piece of graffiti on the back of a Stoke Newington pub toilet door that says something to the effect of, ‘teach us to think, not to consume’. A nice sentiment, if a bit self-righteous. But in reality we are asked to do both at the same time. Mindlessly consume for the sake of the economy – but stop mindlessly consuming for the sake of… everything else. Which is probably why the symptoms – such as obesity – will continue to resist treatment.

Wedgwood and LDF: yet more shiny baubles?


Last weekend, while the 12th annual London Design Festival was gearing up across the city, I went off on an odd sort of design pilgrimage of my own, to Stoke on Trent. Specifically, I wanted to see the Wedgwood Collection, just in case it all gets broken up and sold off in the near future. However the trip prompted some unexpected reflections.

The story of the peril facing the Wedgwood Collection, for anyone who hasn’t been following it, is that the Waterford Wedgwood manufacturing company, having gone into administration in 2010, has been drawn into a lengthy legal battle over its pension liability, and it turns out its most valuable asset is its 250 year old collection of ceramics. So, unless the money can be raised to buy this collection for the nation, and fill the hole in the pension fund (which the Art Fund and V&A are trying to do right now), this rather unusual and historically significant archive will go down with the ship.

This would be sad. Whether you’re into Wedgwood or not, its collection is an amazingly comprehensive range of pieces – from chamber pots to a Russian Empress’s dinner service – of breathtaking skill and creativity. As a whole, it maps out a story of changing tastes and technological innovation in Britain since the 18th century. To walk round the museum is to receive a potted history of design. Many of the things we now take for granted in our kitchens and on our tables wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for Wedgwood’s constant experimentation.

And the significance of the company goes beyond the world of design and manufacturing – its founder Josiah Wedgwood was not only a restless inventor, but implicated in the intellectual life and society of the day in multiple ways. He was a member of the Lunar Society, he intervened in debates on slavery, and the building of infrastructure across Britain, he was a patron of George Stubbs, who painted his family’s portrait, his family friends included Mary Wollstonecraft, he was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. An interesting chap. I can’t think of many contemporary manufacturers with the same polymathic profile.

Social history aside, factories are fascinating places anyway – or they are to me. My love of watching things being made started in childhood – my favourite bit of the local zoo was the room with the man forging tiny animals out of glass. And for some reason I’ve never lost this ability to become completely absorbed in watching skilled craftsmanship. In the case of ceramics, I’m always astounded at how something so pristine can emerge, magically, from such a mess of raw materials. Equally astonishing is the skill and precision of the men and women whose hands know how to make such things. I would much rather watch this slow metamorphosis of formless to formed, than marvel at the finished object.

So with all these various reasons why I should have loved it, I was surprised to find I felt curiously ambivalent about the whole day. But it’s because, in spite of all the richness of design heritage on show, there is a salutary and uncomfortable lesson to be taken from Wedgwood.

There was something horribly sobering about leaving the Museum, with its predominantly well-dressed, middle-aged, middle-class clientele, and where one can purchase an exquisite bone china tea cup and saucer for a staggering £50 (although they are lovely), and then wandering round Stoke on Trent where, to judge by the number of boarded up shops and lack of any life at all in the town centre, most people are struggling to afford a basic cup of tea. Stoke on Trent on a Saturday afternoon sadly typifies what recession has meant for many British communities. And it is slightly ironic, although no less tragic, that the global flows of trade whose early years made Wedgwood, and the Potteries towns generally, a great deal of wealth, have also been the author of their current downfall and deprivation. The great God capitalism giveth and taketh away.

Which brings me back to what’s been happening in London this last week. Clearly, shiny baubles create commercial bubbles, and are not a long term solution to any kind of problem. And yet the Design Festival – as a recipe for economically reinvigorating the city – thrives. I’m wary of the hubris of the London Design Festival. Every year it becomes more and more aggressively commercial – and no doubt more financially secure – with ever greater numbers of swankier sponsors, funding more shows, where more visitors flock and more champagne is drunk, all in admiration of yet more stuff. It’s quite fun, and for a while at least, nice to drink the champagne and look at all the pretty things. But where does it all lead? How bizarre would it be if this glittering display every year were set against the grimness of a post-industrial midlands town? It’s only because it’s set in the relative affluence of London that we can’t see how perverse – and horribly connected – it all is.

To me, there is something truly amazing in the human ability to create – whether that’s eliciting poetic forms from mud, or whatever else – what an incredible capacity. But I can’t believe, 250 years on, we’re still so caught up in the idea of plying our creativity in the same old way, to make and sell baubles for rich people. Haven’t we learnt that lesson? Aren’t there bigger problems to solve?

The V&A gets a bit political with Rapid Response Collecting


Tucked away in a poorly-signposted corner of the V&A, an interesting little experiment in curating is afoot. Most people will know the Museum for being brimful of old treasures in vitrines. However alongside the temporary exhibitions programme, which upholds a more active conversation about design, old and new, there is now a team responsible for the Museum’s dealings with the contemporary world of design, architecture, and digital artefacts: and they have developed a new practice that they’re calling ‘rapid response collecting’.

What this means is, instead of hopping over to Milan and acquiring the most interesting new chair, they are fishing around in current affairs, global politics and supply chains – identifying and collecting items that are particularly telling about the world as we know it. Or rather, more interestingly, that reveal the inequalities, injustices and awkward facts about the made world that we often choose to ignore.

So in this first round they have a digitally printed gun, some Katy Perry fake eyelashes handmade by low-paid third world workers, an IKEA toy that became an unlikely mascot of protest, the App that proved so addictive its maker removed it from circulation – and eight other objects of similar potency.

This all feels, of course, highly political (even though the text accompanying the objects is nicely neutral). Consequently – better than just positive coverage for the V&A – it has already sparked quite a bit of commentary and debate – including in the New York Times. It’s absolutely appropriate that the Museum should be instigating a public conversation in this way, but how often does it really happen? This step towards repositioning the public role of the museum is no small achievement by Kieran Long, Corinna Gardner, and their colleagues. I look forward to seeing what they do next: especially in an election year.

The other thing to say is that for those who know very little about design history – and even those who do – this collection is a perfect entry point to the rest of the museum. Context, after all, is what makes design interesting – and we are all immediately familiar with the context of these objects, in a way that most of us aren’t with the historical and political milieu of a pair of medieval church doors, or Italian renaissance ceramics. I wonder if these 12 objects – and whatever else comes next to the Rapid Response team – might make the rest of the vast collection seem somehow more approachable? Perhaps eventually it could be moved to somewhere a little more easily in the path of the casual visitor.

For now, if you’re intrigued, go up the stairs by the Exhibition Road entrance, along to the end of the 20th century gallery, and just beyond the 1940s, there it is.

Dirty Rotten Socials: making the Good City


Photo courtesy of Alison Haigh/Wolff Olins

Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in the inaugural event of the House of St Barnabas’s ‘Dirty Rotten Socials’. The House of St Barnabas is a curious institution in the very heart of Soho: housed in a lovely Georgian building on Soho square, it is both a homeless charity, and a private members club. The Dirty Rotten Socials are an attempt (in partnership with Pioneers Post) to bring some discussion of the social issues with which the charity is preoccupied to the creative community that makes up its membership.

This first event, ‘Design Like You Give A Damn’, curated by Wolff Olins, invited five speakers from the world of design to present the audience with a provocation or question that they themselves ‘give a damn about’. The audience was then asked to tackle each question in small groups, proposing a ‘magic wand’ solution, an ‘ideal’ solution, and a realistic, actionable solution.

So, what do I give a damn about? I wondered. Having never been one for causes, I can certainly say I’m interested in lots of things, but I’m not sure that’s the same. And then, as is so often the case, a silly answer provided the kernel of honesty that set me on the right track: ‘Well obviously I just want things to be lovely all the time’, I sighed to myself. And in London, where I live, and where this debate was taking place, it is increasingly true that things can only really be lovely all the time if one is very wealthy. Except even then you’d be occasionally faced with the unlovely side of the city the rest of us have to contend with, which might take the shine off your otherwise perfectly composed day.

One thing I have always been caught up by is the nature of cities, and what makes places the way they are. What makes Rome so convivial, Copenhagen so civilised, London so dynamic? Far too much to tackle in one blog – or a five minute provocation. But through conversation with colleagues at BOP, who know far more about this than I do though their work on the World Cities Culture Forum, we boiled it down to a central challenge. That is, right now there is a force physically and socially reshaping London with astonishing rapidity: the influx of global capital.

It is de rigueur these days for cities to orient their policies toward attracting inward investment, and in London it is the oil that greases the machine of the city for which we should all be thankful. But unchecked it will run away with us: as in the 250 skyscrapers in the offing, an onslaught of urban surgery the scale of which the public, and apparently even Boris, was blissfully unaware. It’s also fuelling the (utterly bizarre) inflation in property prices, which means that no one with even a decent salary – and certainly not students or key workers – can afford to live anywhere near where they work. This commodification of the basic human need for shelter has negative consequences for so many people – something I’m sure the team at House of St Barnabas are acutely aware of. Ironically, the creative and cultural industries (who form the majority of HOSB members) are partly to blame. They are the frontier explorers leading the cycle of gentrification that ultimately often threatens their own place in the city.

So this was my question to the audience, and the poor souls in my group who had to try and come up with an answer: how do we protect our cities from the ravages of global capital, and make them decent places for everyone?

Needless to say, in the allotted time we didn’t solve this one, and in fact we spent quite a while debating what the Good City looks like anyway, and for who. In the end, our ‘magic wand’ solutions included putting something in the water that tempers greed, or at least detaching money-making from property. Our ‘ideal’ solutions included an obligation on those who make money out of money, without demonstrably creating jobs, to contribute to the public life of the city in some other way (funding free child care places for example). We also want to enforce a three day work week. And our realistic solution was an empty homes tax: making it more financially punitive for the global class of uber-rich to own property in London without either living in it or at least renting it out.

For my own part, I think crucially we need the complicity and leadership of politicians, planners and civil servants with vision, prepared to say no to development for private gain in favour of promoting more democratic solutions: Amanda Burden, the New York planner who fought for years for the high line to be turned into a park, is a good example. I wonder if ‘wishing for better politicians’ is in the magic wand category though?

But to end on a more positive note, one of our group (who wasn’t British) pointed out that – cost of living aside – in fact London is already more ‘for everyone’ than almost any other city in the world. ‘You can be whoever you want to be here, whatever that means, and thrive.’ So clearly it’s not all bad. The question is, how do we keep it that way?

Forward into the past: Italian glamour and sustainable fashion


The Glamour of Italian Fashion – the current V&A blockbuster – charts the rise of Italy as a fashion producing nation from the post-war years to the present day: a story not just of designers, but of the people who produced the raw materials and constructed the clothes, and of those who wore them. In fact its title is rather too narrow. Beyond simply celebrating ‘glamour’, it lays out the ecosystem of Italian fashion, and reflects on the way it is changing: production, supply chains, and taste itself are increasingly globalised as international markets for elite fashion converge.

In many respects this is a very thoughtful exhibition; however I came away harbouring one particularly strong impression which the show itself said remarkably little about. That is: the striking way in which the relationship between designer and customer (wearer) has changed over the 70 or so years compressed by the exhibition.

The first rooms, featuring clothes from the 50s and 60s, are a quite surprising lesson in the timelessness of good tailoring. The pieces on show – although 70 years old – seem strangely modern in their classic styling, whilst invoking serious nostalgia for a time when people used to take much greater care over their dress. Of course just as persuasive as the clothes themselves, are the black and white stills of beautiful people wearing them: Loren, Hepburn, Taylor, and countless nameless Italian catwalk models, all accentuated, nipped in, and let loose in just the right places.

As the exhibition continues however, through the 70s and 80s to the present day – something changes. Fashion frees itself from tradition and becomes more exploratory. But with this comes a sense of the clothes becoming more awkward, less inviting-looking, neurotic even. A reflection perhaps of wider cultural changes, but also, critically, of a transformation in how fashion relates to the body.

The earlier pieces were quite clearly designed with real women’s bodies in mind, and the objective was to flatter them: patterns were cut to accentuate people’s natural shapes. I was surprised, but then again not that surprised, to note that many of these early Italian fashion houses were led by aristocratic women, presumably designing things they themselves would want to wear.

By contrast, in the later rooms there is a distinct and increasing marginalisation of the wearer. The clothes pay less heed to the body, and rather more to the artistic expression of the designer. Success is not measured by the ability of the clothes to look well on full-figured women. In fact, they begin to look best on bodies that almost aren’t there, tall, coat-hanger figures with no bumps or curves to interrupt the fall of fabric.

Given that this transformation is so striking, it would be nice if the exhibition could have unpacked it a bit more.

Partly, I suppose it has to be acknowledged that the very purpose of the catwalk, and the point of haute couture, has changed: those early shows in Florence’s Pitti Palace were an exercise in selling clothes to (admittedly wealthy) people who might really wear them. Today’s global fashion weeks are more about trendsetting, and defining an artistic identity for a brand.

And, clearly, the economics of the two situations are very different. The exhibition details nicely the centuries-old ecologies of making in Italy’s regions, the network of small tailoring businesses clothing their local population, and the long term view people took in buying and caring for their clothes: in this set-up haute couture and everyday clothes are not very far apart. Today this ecology is being gradually superseded by outsourced manufacture, mass production, and cheaply bought things that don’t last very long: in this system haute couture and everyday clothes are entirely different things.

The contemporary situation is a shame in respect of the quality that’s accessible to the general public. Very few of us can buy made-to-measure or bespoke any more. Rather we are locked into a perverse situation where we live clothed in a second skin that has been designed – not specifically for us – but for a generic body shape, and made by people far away that we will never meet.

But more importantly: the current situation is surely not sustainable or in any way environmentally friendly. The lesson of this exhibition, for me, was that in thinking our way to sustainable fashion – a new ecosystem of making and wearing that provides individuals with high quality clothes that fit well, supports local economies and maintains specialist skills – we don’t have to look much further than Italian history for a role model.

The Politics in Social Design

This is a re-post from

Recent years have seen something of a proliferation of social design work (see here for our working definition of social design). Some of this has been about making objects that ‘solve’ social problems: for example the One Laptop per Child project. But there has also been an expansion of non-object-centric projects, of design methods being applied to social challenges that would normally be tackled in other ways. Much of this kind of social design practice has involved either:

  • designers working with, or within, governments, or
  • governments themselves explicitly adopting design methodologies as part of their own toolkit, or
  • designers working with social groups to develop new offerings that replace eroded public services (the space formerly known as Big Society).

This new context for design has not gone unnoticed. In fact, the idea of design stepping into an overtly political space tends to cause a fair bit of consternation: is it fully equipped for the challenge?

Under New Labour (when it all began in earnest in the UK), designers were liable to be written off as complicit in – and significantly benefitting from – the marketisation of public services, and the move to turn ‘citizens’ into ‘consumers’ (a new identity that not all ‘citizens’ readily recognised).  Under the Coalition, there is a tendency for the (predominantly left-leaning) majority of the design community to be suspicious of any designer willing to fraternise with a Conservative agenda, and to read a malevolent undertone into attempts by a right-of-centre government to make use of design.

For example, see this comment from Jeremy Till on (the new single platform government website) winning the Designs of the Year Award 2013. Till suggests that’s design principle of ‘do less’ (in their own account, a response to previous government websites that handed out unnecessary pieces of advice like ‘put a jumper on if cold’, and ‘how to recognise a wave’) is in fact the embodiment of the Coalition government’s determination to ‘do less’ for everyone. Justin McGuirk says a similar thing in a piece entitled ‘Design and the Right’, and, following Morozov, points to the use of utopian design terminology to support a ‘hard core right wing agenda’ (participation becomes DIY public services, open source becomes open government, customisation becomes localism).*

The problem here is design’s slightly chameleonic ability to slot itself into any system as a catalytic element – and indeed to actively seek opportunities to do so for commercial reasons. This means that it’s liable to find itself with a range of bedfellows. However in government there is a difference between politics and administration. Most designers working with or alongside the current government, and particularly those working with local authorities – a level removed from national politics – would clearly distinguish between aligning themselves with the wider political agenda, and helping administrations work better for the benefit of the communities they govern. Often that means helping organisations adapt to changes instigated by political decisions (such as funding cuts). Most designers would say they have little power over the political decisions, but can make a big positive difference to the front line, so why shouldn’t they help where they can? They would favour pragmatic action over conscientious objection.

But should they be ‘pushing back’ on some of this, in the case where they don’t agree with the politics? Perhaps a better understanding of systems and theories of power would allow them to tackle problems at that level, rather than just focusing on helping people deal with the systems. At the very least, perhaps they do need a better framework for understanding whatever political context they are launching themselves into.

A similar criticism might be levelled at those designers working with communities on social innovation-type projects, facilitating the development of some kind of new service or system in the absence of state-funded services. Even though many might see such work as ethically and socially motivated, and apolitical, in fact this too can be read as compliance with a neoliberal agenda to dismantle the state – a way of making sustainable a particular political project. Cameron Tonkinwise discussed this very question in an article for Core 77 a couple of years ago, and commented:

‘being ethical, in order to avoid politics, is a political position, most definitely if you are trying to design (or redesign existing innovations in) non-government-based social services… it does put you on the ‘make-government-smaller’ side of the neoliberal-liberal spectrum’.

In the UK this is further complicated by the toxicity of the ‘Big Society’ brand. This has now been fully written off by the left as ‘Cameron’s sleight of hand for scaling down of government in accord with neo-liberal and libertarian ideologies’. And it’s been written off by everyone else as a lot of hot air that didn’t really deliver.

But whilst ‘Big Society’ was undoubtedly a Tory project, actually there is more than one way, in terms of ideologies, to read attempts to rekindle the strata of civil society that has been undermined by globalisation and the natural break-up of closely-knit communities. It’s not necessarily an evil neoliberal plot – and designers choosing to work in this space might be doing something different – even inventing new kinds of ideologies and politics.

The question underlying all of these things is whether we expect designers, as a professional group, to take political and ethical stances on things? Historically – with the exception of activist designers – they have mostly taken the money and done the work. It hasn’t been their job to consider the wider context. If they’re now engaging in big public issues, and social contexts, ought there to be a rethinking of the professional framework? Should there be a Hippocratic oath for designers? In all of the design community it’s only the architects who have institutional structures guaranteeing a certain level of professional ethics. (In theory. Certain people obviously missed that memo.)

So: how do we know, essentially, that whenever designers are peddling their wares to governments and communities-in-need, they aren’t just following the money? And how could those designers who are motivated by a social change agenda do their work whilst taking a stance on the political context?


*What’s being elided in both these examples is administration and politics: the Civil Service’s attempts to improve its own systems of working (and thereby spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently), and the wider agenda of a section of the political class. Of course those two things aren’t entirely separate – but neither are they, as any Minister would affirm, seamlessly joined up. and the move to ‘open policymaking’ are not, in themselves, especially political projects, neither of them are about shrinking or expanding the state, and it’s important to distinguish between what they’re actually about, and what politicians happen to say about them to align with their own messaging.

Social design under the microscope

ADF Papers Series 4: architecture and drawing, social design, fashion as installation. Image © OBJECTIF, courtesy of the British Council.

For the next few months I’m working on a research project for the Arts & Humanities Research Council. We’ll be mapping the academic work that’s been done on social design, as well as looking at the practice of it in the real world. The aim is to identify the gaps in thinking about this emergent area of design: what questions haven’t been asked? What might stand a bit more evaluation/ critique? Where are the new frontiers?

Social design isn’t a particularly established term. To some it means designers doing their work with a heightened awareness of the social and sustainability impact. But in the context of this project, we are talking about the increasing tendency of people with a design background to apply their methods/ approach to social challenges. The focus of analysis is more on the process than an end ‘product’ (although often there is a product or service that results). So while there isn’t yet an agreed name for this kind of activity, it’s getting to the point where it could bear being put under the spotlight.

Not least because this seems to be a critical moment for design. Governments around the world are starting to consider incorporating design approaches into their toolkits for policymaking and public services. But it’s still a relatively immature field, and there is plenty of scope for it to underperform: in which case it risks being consigned to the scrap heap of failed government experiments.

If this all sounds overly negative it’s because it’s a field in need of critical friends. In theory, it has a lot to offer at a moment when the relationships between state, civil society, publics and corporations need reconfiguring. It’s a promising field, but not an untroubled one. My fellow researchers (Guy Julier, Lucy Kimbell, Leah Armstrong) and I definitely come at it with a critical eye, wary of grandiose claims as to its effectiveness, and conscious of the additional complexities of intervening in social contexts, which a design training doesn’t necessarily prepare for.

For some potted examples of social design working well, see a paper I wrote recently for the British Council’s  ADF series here, and also the ‘social design talks’ blog, which documents two years’ worth of presentations about social design. For some slightly more reflective writing – and to follow the progress of our project – see our blog here: mapping social design research and practice.

A lesson in drawing from Lord Nelson

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One of the things that is always cited as a cornerstone of the designerly approach is an ability to visualise: to make ideas tangible by putting marks on paper. I always think this is a bit of a stitch-up on the part of the design community. You don’t have to be a designer to be able to do this, they just find themselves nowadays in a unique position. Most of the rest of us have had the habit stamped out by schooling, which teaches that the only way to express ourselves in a sophisticated and convincing manner is to write reams of words.

However it is such a useful communication tool. Making abstract ideas concrete and immediately digestible is rarely possible through words. And it is also a useful strategic tool: being forced to draw something trips the brain into thinking differently, imposing order on what might otherwise be a random set of loosely connected ideas.

Unfortunately the idea of drawing as a means of expression is usually an uncomfortable one for most people, who will have stopped drawing as they left childhood. It seems an innately childish thing to do. So here is an excellent example of the power of drawing your ideas rather than writing or speaking them.

I’m not a great connoisseur of military history. The standard telling of history as a story unfolding via battles and wars leaves me cold. But recently a bit of Nelson memorabilia – a scrap of paper at the national maritime museum – caught my eye. Alongside a very clever bit of interactive display that showed, in plan view on a huge touchscreen, the progress of the Battle of Trafalgar, was Nelson’s original battle plan sketch. I have no idea how this was used. Possibly he made it purely for himself as a bit of working through thought on paper. But it instantly conjured an image of him sketching, black fountain pen in hand, at a table surrounded by the captains of his fleet. ‘Our lines will advance like so… The enemy line will be split like so… Then: we win!’

He would have had to be pretty convincing in his explanation of the plan, as it was a strategy that went directly against received military wisdom. And indeed he must have been, as the battle unfolded almost exactly as predicted in his sketch plan. This hastily scribbled little drawing could have been the argument that not only secured the agreement of his men, but seared into their brains a very clear plan of what they were all meant to be doing, enabling them to pull off a difficult manoeuvre. And influencing the course of British history.

So, the next time you’re trying to be persuasive, try drawing what you’re thinking.

Spotting the propaganda: a missed opportunity

Picture 1

At the start of the British Library’s Propaganda exhibition, the visitor is introduced to the subject by means of a short public information film from 1949, where a learned older man is explaining to young Jimmy the different means by which propaganda works, and why he ought to think carefully about what he reads. The film ends with an exhortation to the viewer to do the same: to undertake their own research into the propaganda that surrounds them. I felt it was a bit of a shame, then, that the exhibition didn’t quite follow through on this advice.

The popularisation (if not the invention) of propaganda was done in the early part of this century in the service of war, and nation-building, and accordingly the exhibition had amassed a great deal of material around this, ranging from a ‘how to spot a Jew’ film produced by the Nazis, to posters exhorting Brits to buy the products of Empire, and of course the famous ‘Uncle Sam’ image. In the last room the exhibition moved on to other uses of propaganda by the state, in looking at propaganda aimed at improving the health of populations.

Now I understand that any exhibition has a limited amount of space to work with, and also that in this case the topic could be interpreted as to encompass almost any form of delivered information, which would make it impractical to shape into a coherent exhibition narrative. The entire history of painting could be seen as propaganda for the illiterate masses, for example. But the delineation of propaganda chosen seemed to be too tightly defined to really drive visitors to think about its role in their own lives. Namely, it was largely limited to propaganda produced by the state (which is not inherent to the definition of the term), in the service of nation-building/ defense, and it presented propaganda as a rather crude form of persuasion – exhortations in big bold fonts that beat the reader over the head with their message – that mainly happened before the 1980s.

I think it could have condensed all the war stuff – the genesis of propaganda – into one or two rooms, and then proceeded to take a much wider view.

Because propaganda has developed and been used for all sorts of interesting things throughout the 20th century, which didn’t really get a look-in here. Something I personally know a bit about is the battles that have been waged over how our towns and cities should look. I love/ hate the patronising and patriarchal Local Authority public information films made in the 50s explaining why ‘slum clearance’ was necessary (all those ugly Victorian terraces, all jumbled up). I think this debate – why towns and cities have come to look the way they do – is something worth telling people about.

I was also disappointed that there wasn’t very much about civil rights. There were a few shots of Black Panthers, and one interview with a feminist author who had decided not to get married. But overall I felt the stories that were being told – the wars of words waged between groups through messaging to the masses – were the ones we already know a great deal about. Everyone – I hope – is very aware of Nazi persecution of the Jews. (And I’m not arguing this shouldn’t have been a feature of the exhibition, as it’s probably the defining case.) But, by contrast, the anti-womens’ rights movement, for example, is not something that has ever been much publicised – nor was it here. And there are many other groups that are regularly demonised in today’s Britain (the poor? immigrants? travellers?) without question. A more powerful visitor experience would surely have shone a light on those issues.

This would have been useful because the fact is, in Britain at least, propaganda techniques have moved on, are much more subtle, and therefore harder to spot (apart from, perhaps, in The Sun). As a parallel case, think about the complexity of techniques used in advertising today, compared to those of 50 years ago. Nowadays, brands have to work harder to make people buy their stuff than just flashing up a sign saying ‘Buy x!’

In one of the talking heads films recorded with various experts, the journalist John Pilger remarks that from very early on, given the negative connotations that the word propaganda had attracted, an alternative term was coined: Public Relations. Actually, I thought he could have mentioned any other number of media through which the powerful seek to persuade: advertising, consumer magazines, journalism or – the worst culprit – Hollywood films. Numerous films have recently been deployed with some not-very-hidden messaging about the supremacy of the West/ Christian world over the evil Arab – I’m thinking 300, Batman, Iron Man 3, Blade Trinity (where the resurrected Dracula is located in modern day Iraq). But actually this isn’t a new thing: there used to be loads of films demonising the Commies.

So, in summary, perhaps the British Library needs to stage a Part 2. But I did wonder if a more powerful finish to this exhibition might have been to confront the visitor with an array of contemporary media, and, given everything they’d just learnt, apply it to the variety of hidden messaging coming at them in their own lives.

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.