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James Souttar

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Copyright © 2008 by James Souttar
The right of James Souttar to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

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Contents

introduction 1 3 17 23 37 47 55 67 75 83 259 337 articles The myth of content The well of clarity The eye of the mind Seven pillars Atalanta Fugiens Drag me! Click me! Read me? Brand or Identity? Imagined histories conversations soapbox references

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Introduction

For some time I’ve wanted to write a book about visual communication — to express some of the ideas that have inspired me, or that have emerged out of nearly twenty years of thinking, working and conversing as a graphic designer. It was only recently, however, that I realized I had already written such a book. The ideas I wanted to share were there in the series of articles, emails and blog pieces I had composed over the last fi·een years. Moreover, the form in which these ideas were presented — a ragged patchwork of interlocking pieces, each framed by a particular context — was actually much more appropriate for the kind of book I wanted to write. But please don’t be misled by the apparently haphazard composition of this book. The book I wanted to write set itself a pretty ambitious goal: to recast graphic design as a fundamentally human, and humane, practice. In particular, I wanted to challenge the idea that it is a ‘problem solving’ activity and to suggest that it is bettter seen as an expression of our humanity, something that wells up out of the unconscious to be ‘rationalised’ only later. In that respect, this book achieves pretty much everything I envisaged. The fact that it is not set out according to some grandiose architectural plan mirrors one of its central themes — that the paradigm of human communication is conversation, not some carefully contrived and deliberately manipulative rhetorical statement. Furthermore, every one of these pieces came out of a real dialogue — either with one of many thoughtful correspondents, or as part of an ongoing and open-ended exploration with friends and colleagues.

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It seems to me that we are entering a particularly exciting and dangerous time, when many of the ideas that have held us in their grip are losing their energy and persuasiveness. The great Enlightenment project of ‘modernization’, with its relentless optimism in the march of progress and its belief in the power of ‘sovereign reason’, is unravelling fast. Its last great hope of liberation through technology, the bizarre ‘Information Revolution’, has flashed like an incandescent meteor through our lives. But in keeping with its meteoric nature, it seems to have consumed itself in the process. As I argue in the essay The Myth of Content, it makes more sense to me to see this episode as the swan-song of the ‘Age of Reason’ rather than as the harbinger of a new era. Like previous technological revolutions, its real fruits are yet more disempowerment, deskilling and depersonalization. The ‘knowledge worker’, held out as a glorious role model for us and our children, has turned out to be a call-centre operative, a data processing clerk or a check-out girl — occupations almost as miserable as nineteenth-century mill work. From my privileged position a designer, I can now confidently reassert an ancient and eternal truth: that real dignity, satisfaction and self-development in work come only from occupations that embody the idea of cra·smanship. Of course there are many new occupations that are, or could be, of this kind. But cra·smanship doesn’t arise accidentally. Only a deliberate attempt to bring to one’s work attention, presence, dedication and, most of all, Love, can turn a job into a cra·. Freed from technological blinkers, it is now possible to see (almost for the first time) that machines won’t — can’t — make work richer, more rewarding or more meaningful. Indeed, as soon as we allow ourselves to be taken over by their logic, they begin to leach the richness, reward and meaning from our work. For nearly three centuries, we’ve been paralysed by the thought that ‘you can’t stop the march of progress’ (with its consoling rider ‘but a·er the initial pain, there will be a life of ease!’). Now, however, there is a growing recognition that this ‘progress’ isn’t actually going anywhere — that new technologies confer benefits but also have costs, and

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in the end it is up to us to make choices about which of these costs are or are not acceptable to us. Technology can be a good servant, but a disastrous master. And if we’re going to make real progress, it’s not towards ever increasing automation, but towards understanding and celebrating ourselves, both as a species and as individuals. This touches on another of the main themes of this book, which is the way in which a whole ra· of disciplines are presenting us with a completely new vision of who and what we are. Hardly a week goes by without some new piece of this puzzle being announced — whether it be from neurophysiology, microbiology, palæo-archæology, cognitive psychology or any other of the so· or social sciences. Sometimes, these ideas sound a little shrill — as in some of the more deterministic pronouncements of evolutionary psychology or genetics — but the overall tendency is towards a radical and liberating view of the human being. It is becoming increasingly clear that we’re not the rational, free-willed creatures envisaged by Enlightenment philosophy. Instead, a picture is emerging of a very extraordinary if contradictory and frequently flawed creature: profoundly social, inherently playful and innately communicative. It shows how constrained we are by our evolution and our biology, as well as by social and cultural conditioning, but also how we have previously unrecognized possibilities and opportunities. All of which is contributing, I believe, to a new humanism. Putting the human being back at the centre of our world is o·en assumed to be a kind of arrogance. However this new humanism is frequently humbling: it shows us how much a part of the natural world we are, and how small a part we play in the scheme of things (at least, in an outward sense). But these new revelations about our humanity should also give us cause to rejoice — if we really were the sovereign creatures of the Age of Reason, we would be consigned to creating a world of sterile, mechanical perfection. Instead, what we now know makes a new and powerful case to place human contact and relationships above ‘e›ciency’, delight in making and using above ‘value’, sympathy for one another above exploitation of ‘others’.

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Visual communication needs to address itself to these new challenges — the challenges of talking to people, and not at them. ‘It’s me you’re communicating with! Look me in the eyes, recognize that I’m a person just like yourself…’ By and large, this means we’re going to have to reinvent large parts of what we do. The tradition of Modernism (and I’m reluctant to accept ‘post modernism’ as anything more, yet, than some self indulgent tinkering at the edges of the Modernist mindset) o‹ers no useful clues about how to do this. Visual communication needs to lose some of its certainty — a tendency that has in the past been encouraged by an over-emphasis on snobberies of ‘taste’ and ‘style’, humourlessness and self-importance, and a love a‹air with portentous rhetoric. It would be nice to see some tentativeness, some vulnerability, some good naturedness entering in. But, in any case, it seems likely that an ‘ecology of mind’ may become the driving force. There is already a widespread reaction against cynical manipulations of brand and marketing. And I would certainly like to add my voice to the growing protest against communications that attempt to influence us against our wills, mostly without us knowing about it. Having spent years studying the psychology of conditioning and manipulation, this is something I feel passionately about. But it is wrong to try and define something by what it shouldn’t be. I live in hope of a design that is intentionally life-enhancing — whose purpose is celebratory, delightful, energizing. The hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, who is frequently invoked in these pages, once defined the work of art in terms of play, symbol and festival. I don’t particularly want to take sides on the question of whether design is or isn’t, should or shouldn’t be, Art. But I do think that it should be all of those three things. Gadamer’s criteria appear and reappear in these musings — they are rarely far from my thoughts, and have proved to be rich and nutritious concepts. Why is it that we can look at a piece of twel·h century Islamic metalwork, or a picture of a Japanese garden, and be enraptured by its playfulness, its symbolism and its celebration, yet are so frequently bored by ‘award winning’ graphic or indus-

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trial design? Designers o·en bemoan their public’s lack of interest in design. But much of the work we do seems spiritless, coercive and shallow. What’s there to like? The first part of this book, articles, consists of nine essays, most of which were originally commissioned as articles for Critique or Eye magazines. The second part of this book, conversations, consists of emails responding to discussions on the graphics-l e-mail ‘list’. The archives of this list are published on the Internet, and the original messages can be read in the context of the full discussion. However I’ve not attempted to preserve that continuity here. The messages I’ve chosen — and in some cases, lightly edited — are presented as brief, concentrated reflections on a particular subject. Since I’ve always made a habit of quoting the part of someone else’s message that I wanted to reply to, the essential part of the context is preserved. And in some cases, traces of the original ‘threads’ can still be discerned. The third part of this book, soapbox, are a series of blog pieces that I have written much more recently, as part of an experimental foray into the world of ‘social media’. Finally, instead of a bibliography — which I find the most useless and self-consciously ‘worthy’ part of a book — references contains brief reviews of books that have been influential in shaping my thoughts. I hope these reviews will encourage you to explore some of these materials, and that you find them as rewarding as I did.

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When I was younger it was plain to me I must make something of myself. Older now I walk back streets admiring the houses of the very poor: roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong; the fence and outhouses built of barrel-staves and parts of boxes, all, if I am fortunate, smeared a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colours. No one will believe this of vast import to the nation.

William Carlos Williams 1883–1963

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The myth of content

Ideas make a strange progress through history. If graphic design were a more reflective profession, we might better appreciate some of the twists and ironies of this progress. But for the most part it goes unnoticed. Nowhere is this more evident than with the advent of new technologies and new media. Such is the uncritical hyperbole about the Internet, for instance, that one might be forgiven for thinking that it represents a wholly new approach to communications. We’re presented with the dizzy vista of a ‘wild frontier’ where pioneers — provided they’ve freed themselves from the burdensome legacies of outmoded thinking —can create a new world, with novel forms of commerce, entertainment, even education. It’s an exciting prospect. If only it were true. The more one looks into the ideas fueling the explosion of the Internet, one realizes that, far from being a new paradigm, it represents some very old thinking indeed. Its energy is less that of a vigourous new idea than that of an embattled philosophy which has rallied itself and made one last desperate push for victory. And I make no apologies for that simile. For reasons I intend to elucidate, it’s the same seventeenth century philosophy of Modernism, which has been behind most of the dominant ideologies of the last three hundred years, that is staging its last ferocious counter-attack on the battlefield of digital media. We have, I suppose, become used to the idea that we’re living in the ‘postmodern’ era — and to some extent this may be the case. Which makes it both hard to accept, and to understand, that what seems to be

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the biggest idea of our time is wholly ‘Modern’ (here actually meaning quite ancient) in its conception. But so it is. To really grasp this, however, requires us to understand where Modernism came from — and what it is. And to do this we need to divest ourselves of the view that Modernism is just a stylistic movement of the mid twentieth century. In an extraordinarily erudite work, Cosmopolis, philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin traces the origins of Modernism to the middle of the seventeenth century. And we need to return briefly to that time to fully appreciate the context out of which this extraordinarily influential view of the world emerged. Toulmin explains how, following the assassination in 1610 of the tolerant King Henri IV of France, Europe began a forty year long descent into religious bigotry and conflict of the most brutal kind. Against this backdrop a group of highly influential thinkers — led by Descartes — sought to establish a philosophy that would once and for all resolve the questions that had been the subject of such violent contention. But in the process, Toulmin shows how they turned their back on the Humanist tradition — characterized by a recognition that ‘circumstances alter cases’, and the belief that the validity of any kind of knowledge depends upon the context in which it is applied. The new knowledge required certainties that were universal and timeless — which in practice meant abstracted and decontextualized from the messy ambiguities of the world. I’ll return to Toulmin’s distinctions between Modernism and Humanism, since they have an uncanny echo in the (almost invisible) philosophies driving the Internet. But for the moment, I’d like to follow through with Toulmin’s history of Modernism. A·er Descartes came Newton and Locke, who defined many of the principal characteristics of the ‘Modern’ point of view — Newton with his mathematical approach to science, which showed how natural phenomena could be understood (and more importantly, manipulated) by representing them through abstract numerical relations, and Locke who asserted that the ‘qualities’ of things were secondary, subjective aspects, and only their quantitative aspect was real. These points of

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view defined, of course, what later became known as the ‘scientific method’ — but they had equally important ramifications for beliefs about culture and society. Newton’s universe was set in motion by the Creator, and ran to clockwork precision, which meant that not only the motions of the planets, but also the social orders, existed by Divine decree. A century later, Adam Smith could use a similar model to describe how the ‘invisible hand’ of the market determined economic a‹airs — a view that remains remarkably persuasive to this day. Yet within a hundred years of Newton’s death, ‘Modernism’ had begun to unravel — a process that continues well into our times. Thinkers such as Herder and Goethe were beginning to ask questions about whether ‘science’ could really be seen as independent of the social and historical context in which it took place (questions that would take two centuries to incubate, before exploding into public consciousness with Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Elsewhere, new disciplines began to spring up — such as psychology and anthropology — which recognized the impossibility of a ‘value free’ interpretation of their chosen areas of interest. So from about 1750 to about 1910, Modernism was in a slow decline. But like many declining ideologies, it became stronger in its fundamentalist heartlands — such as technology, economics and politics. Even so, Toulmin suggests that by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century there was a real possibility that it might be overcome. From the 1890s onwards the ‘new physics’ of Einstein, Planck and Thomson — with its concepts of relativity and uncertainty — challenged the very basis of a mechanical universe. Freud’s theories were opening up the possibility of a distinctly contextual exploration of the human psyche. And Darwinianism was focussing scientific attention on the question of origins. But in 1914 another assassination plunged the world back into conflagration and genocide — reinstating the search for certainty to the top of the agenda. For most of the first half of the twentieth century ideological conflict, economic depression and the breakdown of a world order mirrored the conditions of the seven-

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teenth century that had given birth to Modernity. And, predictably, these conditions produced a resurgence of Modernism — from the sterile, rationalist philosophy of Russell, (the young) Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, to the sterile, rationalist design of the Bauhaus. The social revolution that might have happened in the first quarter of the twentieth century ended up being postponed until the 1960s, when a buoyant ecomomy and the military deadlock of the Cold War could once again produce conditions in which it was possible to challenge the ideological behemoth. Kuhn’s book coincided with numerous other seminal texts pouring from the presses of Europe and America, which presented a largely bemused citizenry with the beginnings of a critique of Modernism. Which is not to say that they were in any sense really ‘postmodern’, since they still represented a point of view that had been profoundly, and unconsciously, informed by the bases of Modernism. And, in fact, it would be their avid readers, the generation of sixties ‘counterculturals’, who — in their subsequent incarnation as nineties ‘digerati’ — would unwittingly deliver the apotheosis of Modernism in the guise of the ‘Information Revolution’. But to come back, briefly, to design. One might reasonably want to distinguish between the way I’ve used ‘Modernism’ — following Toulmin — and the way it has been used to designate a dominant design movement of the twentieth century. It’s interesting, in this respect, to hear what Toulmin has to say about the influence of Modernism in its ‘global’ aspect on the more narrowly focused principles of the ‘Modern Movement’. ‘In Mies’ principles, we see the man who dominated architectural design in Europe and North America right up to the 1950s rejecting the diversity of history and geography, and the specific needs of particular activities, in favour of universal, timeless principles. This is the step that Descartes and the 17th-century rationalists took, when they ignored the varied practices and the ambiguous, uncertain opinions that were endemic to 16thcentury humanism, in favour of pursuing theories and proofs

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that could command consensus. Between the two World Wars, other fine arts went the same way, wiping the slate clean and making a fresh start, as witness the paintings of Josef Albers; and, in due course, the renewed theme of a ‘clean slate’ became a central theme of culture entre deux guerres. To that extent, the movement we now know as ‘modernism’ in the arts echoed the founding themes of 17th-century Modernity as surely as did the philosophical program for a formally structured unified science: so understood, the ‘modernism’ of architecture and fine arts in the 1920s shared more with the ‘modernity’ of rationalist philosophy and physics than we might otherwise suppose.’ Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992, p.156. Two striking points emerge from Toulmin’s analysis. First, that stylistic Modernism closely echoed the beliefs and priorities of philosophical Modernism without being aware of its intellectual debt. This observation is particularly relevant in consideration of ‘new media’, since the ideologies that are driving it are not always apparent even to its most vocal exponents. Second, the idea of ‘starting from zero’ is by no means a new development — even if the way it is framed in relationship to the brave new world of the Internet is particularly ingenious. Modernism has been ‘starting from zero’ ever since Descartes climbed inside his oven, but never more self-consciously than in the series of early and mid twentieth century experiments in design. At this point, I’d like to move from the historical background to an examination of the principles that are driving the form and function of electronic communications. Having followed the Web from its humble beginnings as a document management system for — significantly — a scientific research institution, I’ve been interested in how quickly a consensus has been reached on what makes for e‹ective communication in this medium. In less than a decade a pattern has crystallized with uncanny rapidity. This would be truly remarkable if what we were dealing with was an authentically new paradigm; but in fact many of

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the features of this emergent consensus show a recognizable provenance, traceable to the very roots of Modernism. Arguably the most extraordinary of these development is the idea of ‘content’. Content is such a specious concept that it is surprising that it has attracted so little critical attention. Nonetheless it embodies the whole philosophical basis of Modernism as new media — in all its seductiveness and flakiness. In the simplest terms, the idea of content is that the information component of a message can be distinguished from the form in which it appears, and manipulated quite apart from it. With all previous media, ‘content’ and ‘form’ could not be conceptually separated in this way — one had to commit to form as part of the very act of authoring. To write, or type, a message, one had to put one’s thoughts directly into permanent marks. Even speaking on the ’phone involved the creation of electronic signals that could neither be withdrawn nor converted into another form of communication. ‘Repurposing’, where it was possible, involved laboriously transcribing words and images from one medium to another. But computer technologies appear deceptively di‹erent — authors capture key and mouse strokes, which can then be ‘flowed’ with apparent impunity into di‹erent layouts and styles (even converted into synthesized voice). Content, therefore, becomes a way of conceiving of the abstract essence of a communication — the part that is ‘pure information’ — as something quite distinct from form. And seeing it in this way, its adherents believe, promises to liberate us from the ‘tyranny’ of formal presentation. Form, in this view, is a dead end for information— a clinging quagmire from which the vital content cannot easily be retrieved. The idea of form as the creative embodiment of an idea, the ‘word made flesh’, doesn’t figure. Taken further, this persuasive myth of content promises to decouple the ‘from’ and ‘to’ components of communication. It allows information to be collated from any source and presented to any audience — without any need for dialogue between the two. One major consequence of

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this for graphic design is that designers can now be used to create layouts into which as yet unspecified content is to be arbitrarily imported — as already happens with some web pages, which use information retrieved ‘on demand’ from databases. I urge you to pause and think about this for a moment. Imagine a world in which ‘content’ exists quite apart from any particular form in which it could appear, and in which design exists quite independently of any ‘content’ which it might ‘contain’. It’s a world in which a writer won’t be able to visualize how his or her words will appear — one could not picture them on a book spread, a newspaper layout, or as a magazine article, since they will exist only as an abstract commodity to be presented at a future date in any of a myriad of possible forms and combinations. It becomes impossible to conceive of the way they might move a particular audience, or how they’ll be interpreted in a particular context, since these factors can’t be determined at the time of writing. What kind of words would these be? Could they be words addressed by somebody to somebody, risking a point of view, or will they inevitably be slippery generalities like the ‘soundbites’ of politicians? But the prospect for the designer is worse yet, since the idea of content abstracted from form threatens the whole idea of design as an interpretation of a given text. How can there be a sympathy between writer and designer, if the design is simply a container for many possible kinds of content — a kind of all-purpose drinking vessel that is as likely to be filled with steaming co‹ee as vintage wine? This is a dangerous development, since from at least one perspective it is only as an interpreter, or translator, that the designer can be said to engage with the real nature of human communication. In his masterwork, Truth and Method, the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer argues: ‘The translation process fundamentally contains the whole secret of how human beings come to an understanding of the world and communicate with each other. Translation is an indissoluble unity of implicit acts of anticipating, of grasping meaning as a whole beforehand, and explicitly laying down

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what was thus grasped in advance. All speaking has something of this kind of laying hold in advance and laying down.’ Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, London: Sheed & Ward, 1996. p.548. The myth of content allows no room for ‘implicit acts of anticipation’, since it is impossible for the ‘translator’ to know what her or his work will interpret, let alone to grasp meaning ‘as a whole beforehand’. And while speaking may possess these qualities, ‘interaction’ with a ‘content rich’ site is more likely to participate in none of them. There are already some recognizable, and uncomfortable, parallels here with Toulmin’s distinction between Humanism and Modernism. Humanism, with its emphasis on the circumstantial, would insist that the only proper way to interpret a text is as a translator on a case by case basis — and indeed this would seem to be the approach that most affirms our humanity, in all its delightful but messy materiality. Modernism, on the other hand, would recognize in the almost Platonic abstraction of content from form an equivalence to its own (Newtonian/Lockean) view of nature, where the physical phenomenon is seen only a transient placeholder for timeless, universal principles. It is important, however, to bear in mind that there can be no real separation of content and form — just as Newton’s separation of mathematical model from optical or lunar observations was only an intellectual conceit. Mathematics gives us tremendous power over the natural world, because it allows us to predict what will happen if any of the ‘variables’ changes. But there are no numbers in nature. Likewise, although my computer may store these words as a series of magnetic orientations on a disk (conceived of as ‘bits’), they must be committed to a fixed form before anyone — myself included — can read them. Just because changing the font or the size or the colour on screen appears to be a ‘reflowing’ of imaginary content does not make it so. In fact, such changes made to type within a document window is as much a completely fresh physical interpretation as copying them out longhand. ‘Content’ is only a mental model, if a beguiling and dangerous one.

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If the myth of content only a‹ected the way we explained digital media to ourselves, it might not be such a bad thing. But, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, conceiving of content in this way inevitably diminishes the quality of our communications. Text drawn from a database can’t anticipate the context in which it will appear. It can’t, therefore, form a part of a coherent narrative or argument, since there is no guarantee that it will appear as a contiguous whole. At best, it can only appear as one of a series of ‘bite size’ encyclopædia entries, grouped together because of a similarity of subject. (This has, incidentally, led some people to eulogize the supposedly ‘simultaneous’ and ‘non-hierarchical’ nature of the electronic medium — turning an obvious limitation into an apparent strength.) One might suppose that this ‘encyclopedestrianization’ of communication is a specific, practical consequence of the use of database technology. Not so. In fact, the opposite appears to be the case — the idea of atomizing knowlege into data and categorizing the resultant particles in a database is a concrete expression of a pre-existent mode of thought. Indeed, the whole idea of the ‘encyclopædia’ — the presentation of knowledge divorced from context and grouped according to an abstract structure — is one of the deliberate legacies of the early Modernists. The first encyclopædia was produced in 1751 by Diderot, d’Alembert and Baron Holbach as a deliberate attempt to extend the Newtonian perspective to an abstract, decontextualized systematization of knowledge. Unfortunately, the encyclopædic approach to knowledge is in direct conflict with the nature of human knowledge and learning. We do not hold our knowledge in a systematic fashion, nor do we categorize our memories in a logical, alphabetic scheme. Instead, our knowledge consists of a series of stories — narratives — and stories within stories. This can be easily seen in a beautiful demonstration developed by Professor Bruce Brown of Brighton University. Brown asks us to state the number of doors in our house or apartment — something that usually nobody is able to recall. He then asks us to imagine ourselves walking through

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our home, counting the doors. Within a few moments, everybody can provide the exact number. In similar vein, we o·en struggle to recall dry factual information — sometimes relying on colourful mnemonics — yet most of us can describe the detailed plot of a feature film we’ve seen only once before, a·er only a few minutes of watching it again, despite having watched many hundreds of such films. I’d like to suggest, therefore, that the organization of information in databases does not reflect the inevitable requirements of the technology so much as the inevitable consequences of a particular, discredited approach to knowledge — the Modernist/Encyclopædist one. I say discredited advisedly, since in so many ways we have already rejected thisModernist legacy. Across the spectrum of the ‘human sciences’ — and, of course, the humanities — there is now widespread understanding of the role of narrative, as well as a growing sense of the importance of seeing things as wholes. And, as if evidence was required of the fitness of narrative form to human constitution, we have only to look at its continued, universal popularity as a form of culture, entertainment and teaching. To understand what is happening on the Web, we need to ask why Modernism so deliberately turned its back on the narrative form, and embraced the encyclopædia. Toulmin provides part of the story, showing how the Encyclopædists wanted their knowledge to exist beyond the limitations of its circumstances — giving an entry for their hero Descartes that quite ignored the circumstantial facts of his life, and concentrated instead on the supposedly ‘timeless’ truths he uncovered. The ‘Information Revolution’ of the 1990s has taken their project to its ultimate conclusion, by creating a new commodity out of ‘information’. One that is entirely independent of its context as part of a narrative or argument — indeed, must have a ‘granular’, decontextualized nature if it is to function as a commodity product. Unfortunately, although many people can imagine this kind of content, it proves to be far more elusive to create and vend. Which no doubt goes a long way to explain why the World Wide Web is failing to deliver on its promise

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of a Universal Encyclopædia — and consists, at the time of writing, of little more than marketing collateral. The fact that content is proving to be problematic shouldn’t suggest that this project will necessarily fail — or, that if it fails, it will fail gracefully and without casualties (the sheer extent of leverage of Internet based companies means that such a failure would have severe economic consequences). Modernism has provided the philosophical underpinnings of some of the most intransigent and stubborn ideologies — ideologies where ‘efficiency’ had been prioritized above ‘meaning’. And there is an interesting — if not exactly comforting — reason why this is so. Toulmin characterizes Modernism as being obsessed with certainties, of placing the universal over the particular, the timeless over the timely, the abstract over the tangible. Remarkably, in a popular book Learned Optimism, clinical psychologist Martin Seligman identifies precisely these same qualities as characterising the ‘explanatory style’ of a depressive, or pessimistic, personality. In times of rapid change and uncertainty, these characteristics are exacerbated — as they were in the early seventeenth century, the early twentieth century and again, for quite di‹erent reasons, in the period of corporate ‘restructuring’ at the beginning of the nineties. In such times people look for certainties, and the Information Revolution is busily peddling old certainties creatively re-packaged. Because stress and disillusion make us particularly impressionable, depressive people make up the majority of cult followers. And we live in a period where depressive illness is epidemic — overshadowed by what Theodore Roszak has aptly described as ‘The Cult of Information’. I have elsewhere argued that Modernism lives on in graphic design as ‘Information Design’ — a discipline that has seemingly created itself to provide just the systematized, generic approach required by the separation of form and content (and information designers — or ‘information architects’ as many like to be called — have enthusiastically taken up technologies such as sgml that are intended precisely for the ‘multi-

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purposing’ of content.) Modernist graphics, I should remind you, made use of a restricted palette of graphic elements that could be applied to every conceivable circumstance. Yet the pioneers of the 1920s and 30s of could not have known how appropriate the idea of a‹ectively neutral typographic ‘voice’, or the fitting of any kind of material into a rigorously gridded, consistent layout, would be in the age of digital communications. If this prognosis seems gloomy — of a sustained Modernist counter-reformation that reverses some of the very positive, humanistic gains of the last two centuries — there is also hope, too. Whereas Toulmin diagnoses the conditions of Modernism, Seligman o‹ers some of the clues for a recovery programme. Just as the depressed person in cognitive treatment is asked to confront the idea that ‘this always happens to me’, ‘therapy never works’ or ‘I’m no good’, so anyone confronting the permanent, pervasive and internal aspects of their ‘explanatory style’ is working to undo the bases of Modernism in themselves. Designers who do this will find themselves challenging the idea that there are ‘timeless’ and ‘universal’ principles which are fundamental to ‘my style’. Instead, they are more likely to approach each job as a unique challenge, requiring its own approaches — knowing that the validity of design principles depends on the circumstances, and that the human being can work in any number of ‘styles’ without losing her, or his, integrity. Such people are unlikely to find stimulation in creating one-size-fits-all layouts for ‘Content Providers’ — prefering to find their fulfilment in work which requires delicate interpretation of its specificity, context and uniqueness. As such, whether they know so or not, they will be drawing close to the spirit of the Humanists. New media may be in the fervent ideological grip of late Modernism, but it need not be so. There is no reason why web communications can’t display the exquisite integration of words, images and layout characteristic of, say, a William Blake. Ironically, computer technology has meant that there need be none of the traditional demarcations between writers and designers — I can frame my words directly into

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type, seeing their resonances immediately reflected in the choice of font, size and arrangement. This is the antithesis — the antidote — of the ‘myth of content’, as well as a great vista of opportunity for all who love the word made visible. Nor is narrative an inevitable victim: the Web could be a ‘Sea of Stories’ — in Salman Rushdie’s lovely image. In itself, the belief that technological imperatives are ‘inevitable’ is just another symptom of the same pessimistic ‘explanatory style’ that gave rise to — and has continued to fuel — the Modernist world view. Armed with new perspectives to understand and challenge this mindset, we are — as never before — empowered to create a di‹erent future.

This essay first appeared in a compilation edited by my long-time correspondent Gunnar Swanson. In a nice coincidence, Gunnar himself contributed a piece on Beatrice Warde’s famous ‘Crystal Goblet’ (and the whole of Warde’s original text was included elsewhere in the book). My description of templates as ‘a kind of all-purpose drinking vessel that is as likely to be filled with steaming co‹ee as vintage wine’ might be interpreted as a deliberate reference to this, but in fact was accidental — or, at least, as unintended as these kinds of synchronicities get. The piece was also written at the height of Internet hysteria — within a few months we began to see the whole dot.com phenomenon unravelling. Gunnar Swanson (ed.), Graphic Design & Reading: explorations of an uneasy relationship, New York: Allworth Press, 2000.

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The well of clarity

From the first time I saw it in a photograph, the Zen garden at Ryoanji fired my imagination. Although I’ve yet to visit it ‘in real life’, it remains a major landmark of my mental world. Of course, it has been a popular icon of Japanese culture in Europe and North America for decades, and has fuelled numerous ‘minimalist’ reinterpretations. But whereas other designers have seen it as or, perhaps, wanted to see it as — a kind of analogue to the stripped down style of late modernism, it always struck me as something quite di‹erent. Ryoanji communicates some very sophisticated ideas about design: about the uniqueness of each task, and what it requires, about the many di‹erent ways it can be experienced, about the relationship and organization of elements, and how they can make a whole. It does this in an extraordinarily simple and direct way, but in a way that only yields its meanings to a mind that is prepared to pay it su›cient attention. Ryoanji doesn’t shout: you have to be prepared to recognize what it is saying. And above all, it communicates without words — a communication that’s likely to be missed altogether in an age that equates meaning with verbiage. In considering what ‘clarity’ might mean in design, I can hardly think of a better example than that yard full of mossy stones. Its extraordinary economy of means and striking unity of conception are the very hallmark of what has traditionally been thought of as clarity. Yet this word has come to mean something quite di‹erent, particularly with the advent of new media. In the ‘information age’, clarity is about ‘letting the data speak for themselves’ — and, for many people, is seen as justification for prioritizing content over form. Ryoanji, powerful com-

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munication as it undoubtedly is, conveys no data (except in the meaningless sense that ‘everything is data’); it is pure form. And it is this kind of formgiving, as a way of communicating rather than adding decorative interest, that seems to be su‹ering most from our contemporary fixation with data. Clarity itself never started out by meaning simplicity or straightforwardness. The Latin ‘claritas’ meant ‘lustre’ or ‘splendor’ before it meant anything like what we mean by ‘clarification’. Indeed, it was the mediaeval alchemists who first used it to mean the chemical process of clarification (which we now use metaphorically, when we talk about ‘clarifying’ an issue). But even for them it was more than prosaic refinement, it was the emergence of the splendor and mystery of the ‘Lapis Philosophorum’, the philosopher’s stone, through separation from its base constituents. In its original sense, then, clarity was by no means just ‘cutting through the bullshit’. It did imply a way of honouring an idea by not compounding it with trivia, but the emphasis was on allowing the idea to shine forth — not squeezing it into a bland, homogenizing template. Compared with this, our contemporary concepts of clarity appear banal, to say the least. Ryoanji seems to exemplify this older notion of clarity as revelation and transformation. Through subtle and purposeful rearrangement, a few weathered rocks and some raked gravel are transformed from the ordinary into the extraordinary. And it’s precisely this alchemy from the commonplace into the sublime which is at the heart of all good design. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge expressed this beautifully when he said that ‘it is the prime merit of genius and its most unequivocal mode of manifestation, so to represent familiar objects as to awaken in the minds of others a kindred feeling towards then and that freshness of sensation which is the constant accompaniment of mental, no less than of bodily, convalescence.’ As graphic designers, we’re called upon to invoke freshness of sensation — and certainly to engage a kindred feeling — not as an added extra, but as the central intent of our work. If we can’t get people to see the

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products, propositions or personality of our clients, except as part of the visual wallpaper of everyday life, we’ve failed. Yet the means to li· something out of the ordinary can only come from deep engagement with and insight into it; not from ideas that are gra·ed on to it. The brilliant vision of Wordsworth’s da‹odils is the same in this respect as Doyle Dane Bernbach’s Volkswagen beetle advertsements — or Ryoanji. All make you look at something familiar as if for the first time. It’s only recently that I’ve discovered that the garden is arranged so that wherever one stands, one stone is always hidden — an idea that is at once playful and profound. But even without knowing this, it is possible to recognize that the relationship of every element to each other, and to the whole, is far from arbitrary. There is a dialogue that goes on between the stones, and between the stones and the gravel, that results from the designer’s perception. Nor does one need to be able to read in the mythological account that the three groups of five stones represent a tigress and her cubs, saved by the sacrifice of Mahasattva, to grasp the garden’s genius. Simply by virtue of what it is, Ryoanji expresses something fundamental about the way we as human beings interpret our world — things talk to us, and the way they are arranged changes in an important way what they are saying. Part of the genius of traditional Japanese garden design is that it works with the given. That is, it doesn’t try to impose alien or extraneous approaches on something, but instead tries to understand what the thing is, and how to bring out its inherent qualities. However, only a focused, uncluttered mind can really be receptive to the unique qualities of a place, a material, a medium. The busy mind is so filled with theories, ideas, approaches that it can completely miss this texture, which may be subtle and unassuming. It is obvious that the kind of practice that pays close attention to the specifics of time, place and people will produce a very di‹erent kind of design to that which implements schemes regardless of their context. In Western graphic design (which ironically now includes much contemporary Japanese design as well), it is the busy, generalizing mind that has largely prevailed.

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Over the last century, we’ve seen how modernism has tried to hijack the idea of clarity as simplicity, and make it its own. To a recent generation of designers, this association discredited the idea of clarity — spawning a genre of impenetrable graphic complexity, now mercifully drawing to a close. But a moment’s reflection will show that dogmatic modernism has always been the enemy of clarity — at least in the original and Japanese senses. The modernist designer was the architect of sameness, applying identical approaches (whether they were glass and steel ‘Yale boxes’, or grid and sans-serif typographic layouts) to every project, regardless of its context. A Mies building, or a MüllerBrockman layout, tell us nothing about the circumstances they are supposed to reflect — but everything about an inflexible and homogenizing school of design. As much as anything, it is three centuries of ‘modern’ thought, emphasizing the universal, the abstract and the generic and, that has undermined our awareness of the local, the specific and the particular. I believe, however, that the time has come when we can begin to reclaim a sense of the given, and thus begin on a truly ‘postmodern’ approach to design. Perhaps the most compelling reason for this is that the forces pushing us towards a ‘monoculture’ — the universality of various technologies, global markets and trans-national media — are, paradoxically, also helping to make us aware of the distinctive texture of our individual worlds. Even in the commercial sphere, the pressure to find ‘di‹erentiators’ is finally forcing marketeers to look at the things that really make their organizations unique: their cultures, their people, their sense of place and history. We recently suggested to a client who was contemplating an identity change that she go back and take photographs of her organization. Not glamorous marketing shots, but reportage pictures of its many di‹erent dimensions: the journeys people make to work, the co‹ee bars and sandwich shops they hang out in at lunchtimes, the elated salesperson who has just won a major piece of business, the furtive smokers outside the fire exits, the angry meetings where two sides come head to head, the o›ce party where everyone is friends for a night, the plush executive o›ces and the sub-

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verted clerical partitions. This is the texture of a company; the things that make it endearing and human and frustrating and irrational and ultimately di‹erent from any other organization anywhere else. It is this texture that defines corporate identity — the elusive quality that we designers are always trying to pin down — and which gives a sense of reality and uniqueness to communications. Our client was delighted by the idea, going o‹ to encounter her organization as if for the first time — having spent years talking about it in abstract rhetorical terms that could, quite literally, apply to anyone. We can try to imagine how the designer of Ryoanji might approach a brochure or a web-site for this client. Almost certainly, there would be a lot of careful, attentive looking — of being receptive to the messages, both intentional and unconscious, given out by the organization. In a sense, this is the correlate of trying to perceive the ‘genius loci’, the spirit of place, that our Zen gardener would need to begin with. This would be parallelled by a similar contemplation of the medium and the audience, trying to see what they demand — as well as what they are prepared to give. Out of the chaotic mass of incidentals, the broad outlines of a picture would begin to emerge. And these would be marked out with some significant details — the examples Goethe called ‘an instance in a thousand, bearing all within itself’. These are the rocks of our design; individual and distinctive, not trying to pass themselves o‹ as generic, notional boulders. But by themselves, they resolve nothing. For them to take their places in the design, there needs to be a great deal of pacing up and down trying out di‹erent configurations first glimsed in imagination, until the composition starts to sing. No doubt at this stage some of the elements are seen to be redundant, detracting from the poignancy of the others. Other elements may be needed, to complete the harmony. But rather than bring them from outside, our gardener goes back to see if there is anything else within the organization that can be used. There’s a sparingness, a parsimony, with materials — of choosing from what is there, rather than compensating for the lack

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with clever but foreign elements. We can already see a beautiful structure coming together with almost salvaged materials — words stolen from a conversation, or o‹ered up in a moment’s inspiration during a meeting, images taken from the life of the organization. Onto these are laid down type, and type treatments, that fit the communication as snugly and as naturally as the gravelly waves lap the stones of the garden. Suddenly there’s something that people within the organization begin to recognize as reflecting them — something that accepts who they are, but manages to make it beautiful, extraordinary, surprising. It’s these same qualities that will speak to their audiences, too — communicating with a voice that has a ring of authenticity, the grit of texture and the lustre of clarity. People will look at the resulting design, with its sense of gentle inevitability, and get a sense of Braque’s meaning; ‘Echo replies to echo… everything reverberates.’

This was the last of the three pieces I wrote for Critique magazine, appearing in the Spring 2000 issue (which was devoted to the theme of Clarity). Nancy Bernard, my wonderful editor at Critique, subsequently forwarded a message to me from an attentive reader. In it, he wrote ‘…I was, however, deflated near the end. Up to that point, even with the comments about his client, I felt that I was reading a contemplation/appreciation of the transcendentally ine‹able. The last three grafs, especially the sentence near the end that begins “Suddenly something crystallizes,” made me uncomfortable because it sounded like a desperate attempt to demonstrate its value. I mean it’s a great way of thinking. Why ascribe to it some sort of magical/mystical problem-solving power? You can do all of this thinking and suddenly nothing crystallizes or, more frequently, suddenly something crystallizes and the people within the organization begin to ask “What the hell is that?” I dunno. Again, I loved the piece, but the ending bothered me for some reason.’ I think he was absolutely right, so I subsequently reworked the piece to have a more satisfying ending. And this is that version.

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The eye of the mind

When we think of graphic design, we think of a conscious, selfdirected activity. The designer makes decisions, and the design reflects those decisions. And in many respects, the facts seem to bear out the rightness of this view. We choose a particular colour, or specify a certain typeface, or crop an image in specific way according to our own judgment. And as autonomous beings, we feel we are in control of the judgments we make. However, as a result of the e‹orts of more than a dozen di‹erent disciplines, a very di‹erent picture of ourselves is beginning to emerge. One that suggests that we are far less autonomous than we like to think, far more the puppet of our biological and social evolution. It is a picture that has disconcerting implications for graphic design, since it suggests that many of the things we think we do for practical, rational reasons are driven by a quite di‹erent agenda. a brain like a sieve One of the most fascinating insights of the last couple of decades concerns the nature of the human brain. For centuries, thinkers have conceived of this as an organ for thinking — the seat of a rational, analytic mind. But it turns out that evolution le· us with a very di‹erent kind of apparatus; much less like a sophisticated computer, much more like a clever kind of filter. Our brains were optimized to si· through mountains of data, bringing things that look important to the attention of consciousness — as well as carefully filing away more subtle impacts, to see if they form part of a less obvious pattern.

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This mental architecture enabled our remote ancestors to respond to changes in their environment — changes that could signal immediate dangers or scarce opportunities. Roaming the African Savannah, they needed to know what was new, what was di‹erent, what was better, and what it meant for them. Of course, as life became more settled and predictable, this cerebral infrastructure was found to lend itself to the development of more recondite talents: music, language, mathematics, abstract thought. But our minds have never become free from the quick-and-dirty caricatures for which they were primed by evolution, and our higher modes are still profoundly influenced by the cognitive machinery on which they depend. The legacy of this early hard-wiring can be seen in many aspects of our lives. For instance, we find it hard to register continuous, incremental shi·s (a principle neurophysiologist Robert Ornstein points out by reference to the way gasoline prices crept up unnoticed though the 1970s from 30 to 95 cents per gallon, but triggered a major change in consumption only when they went above the ‘trigger’ threshold of $1). This means that to signal di‹erence, we need to present it in an exaggerated, over-emphasized manner. In graphic design, this tendency can be seen in the continual tension between familiarity and novelty that is such an integral part of our day-to-day work. Brands, for instance, acquire tremendous recognition value through frequent exposure. But with repetition they also lose their ‘bite’ — ceasing to signal something new and interesting. So periodic overhauls are required, the secret (or, perhaps, curse) of which is getting the right balance of ‘same’ and ‘di‹erent’. Similarly the continual need to revamp packs, literature, even long-term fixtures such as signage schemes. Another consequence is the way we quickly become desensitized to sameness— whether it is an expanse of colour, uniformly grey text or too much stylistic consistency. The reason contrast works so well is that it tricks our brains into thinking that something noteworthy is happening — thus shuttling the contrasting element into consciousness.

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One of the most worrying of our ‘primitive’ mental tendencies is the way we unconsciously reframe comparisons, using only our most recent experiences. Ornstein illustrates this with a Henny Youngman joke. Someone asks Youngman what his wife is like. ‘Compared to what!’ comes back the answer. And indeed research shows that women and men find each other considerably less attractive a·er watching television shows or films populated with glamourous Hollywood stars. Sometimes we make the most important decisions on the basis of the most inadequate comparisons. Ornstein discusses an experiment in which people ‘found’ one dollar bills in a shopping mall. Both finders and a less fortunate control group were later asked to rate various aspects of their lives.The finders admitted to being more happily married, more successful at work — even having appliances that broke down less o·en. And all because their view of life had been temporarily distorted by the serendipitous discovery of... a measly dollar. Comparison plays an o·en unrecognized role in graphic design. Yet one of our most popular creative techniques, that of ‘bisociating’ a pair of contrasting images, depends upon this programmed response. In the famous Ridley Scott/Chiat Day advertisement for Apple, for instance, the Metropolis-like set positions the screen-smashing rebel as a hero who dares to think di‹erently. The zombie-like drones conjure up images of an Orwellian dystopia — making the act one of valiant liberation. Reframe it slightly di‹erently, however, and we’d see the hammer wielder as a destructive sociopath. Being ‘built for selectivity’ also results in an instinctive impatience to get to the point. Faced with an unfamiliar situation, our grey cells are rapidly engaged in trying to discern what the ‘meaning’ is — and how it might relate to us. So insistent is this impulse that we can easily fall into the trap of substituting a meaning for an event without having bothered to get to the bottom of it. And it is surprisingly di›cult to reverse this process once we get started. Our minds are constantly anxious to reach a state of closure. Most visual communications expedite this process by giving us pre-digested mes-

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sages. We create these, o·en without realizing, through layout and the use of emphasis. By arranging messages in order along the path taken by the eyes, as well as weighting them accordingly, we provide clues as to how they are to be interpreted. It is an approach that is most apparent in advertising and direct mail, whose exponents have taken the predigestion of messages to a fine art. But in experimental design one can still discern the need to lead the reader to the point — even if this is apparently at odds with the theories the designer is trying to apply. slow minds It might seem from the foregoing that the solution is to wrest more conscious control over the design process. And becoming aware of the forces that drive us will undoubtedly result in a more reflective approach to design. But consciousness is not necessarily the paragon we think it to be. Indeed, the brain’s selection and interpretation of sensory data may make consciousness dumber than we had supposed, but it also serves to make other parts of our mind smarter than we had ever imagined. Over the last twenty years, research from the cognitive sciences has begun to show quite how clever some of our ‘less than conscious’ talents can be. In a fascinating summary of this research, psychologist Guy Claxton points out that they will ‘learn patterns of a degree of subtlety which normal consciousness cannot even see; make sense out of situations that are too complex to analyze and get to the bottom of certain di›cult issues much more successfully than the questing intellect.’ He then goes on to say something that has quite extraordinary implications for graphic design. ‘They will detect and respond to meanings, in poetry and art, as well as in relationships, that cannot be clearly articulated.’ It may be that this kind of ‘undermind’ (as it has been called) evolved to compensate for some of the obvious deficiencies in the way the brain preselects information for consciousness. For subtle patterns can be as critical for survival as more overt impacts, but are far less perceptible.

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They may even depend on the slow buildup of apparently insignificant clues before they become recognizable at all. So it seems that much of the data not considered exciting enough for conscious attention is allowed to percolate through our slower minds. Most designers — along with many original scientists, and creative people of all kinds — are familiar with the way that ideas incubate out of awareness, springing into consciousness almost fully formed. O·en the most successful concepts are the ones that appear out of the blue, a·er an apparently fruitless period of brainstorming. But the slow minds too seem to have their own agendas. Not only is their timing capricious, to say the least, but the idea that emerges follows its own rules. In the early part of this century, Hans Silberer, a colleague of Freud’s, named this the ‘autosymbolic e‹ect’ — referring to the way that these syntheses are presented in metaphorical form. Why metaphor? One of the most interesting theories — pioneered by psychologist Joseph Gri›n — is that metaphors provide templates for action and interpretation that are independent of any particular context or behaviour. Unlike less complex organisms, Nature can’t provide us with specific behaviours for every eventuality. But she does seem to have given us a way of grasping complex patterns of relationships that can provide important clues for behaviour in unforeseen situations. Metaphors can be understood in many di‹erent ways according to the circumstances. ‘One swallow does not a summer make’ tells us in one situation that we shouldn’t generalize from details, in another that we shouldn’t be too hasty in anticipating an event. When we allow ideas, observations, problems to seep into the less than conscious parts of our mind, it may be that they are fitted against our store of such patterns, analogies, stories. Because of the nature of our work, designers o·en work with symbolic ideas in the form in which they spontaneously occur. Without recognizing the reasons, we instinctively use metaphorical and symbolic treatments — perhaps even believing that they demonstrate a logical solution to the problem. The fact that the extensive use of metaphor

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in graphic design feels so comfortable — and appears so unremarkable — may testify to its origin in the brain’s ‘language of pattern’. context and society The selection and interpretation of data isn’t one of those things where Nature and Nurture are at loggerheads. In many ways, human societies amplify the way that the brain works, through the medium of culture. And as with the mechanisms of mental selectivity, much of the way that culture determines what we ignore and what we pay attention to also operates below the threshold of awareness. Our understanding of this ‘hidden culture’ owes a tremendous debt to an extraordinary American anthropologist, Edward T. Hall. Over the last fi·y years, Hall has documented the numerous ways in which unsuspected aspects of culture a‹ect the way we think, act and communicate. Through his work, patterns of cultural di‹erence that had eluded other investigators have at last become comprehensible. Like the brain, one of the most important aspects of culture is that it protects us, collectively, from the dangers of information overload. Hall shows that the way that cultures do this depends on the extent to which they make use of the context in which communications take place. High context cultures internalize or embed significant parts of this context, making them like the old married couple for whom a few words conveys a wealth of meaning and association. Low context cultures — of which Northern Europe and North America are good examples — pay less attention to context. Instead, to avoid overload (and it is arguable how well we manage to do this) we try to simplify and order the content of our communications — which tends to be fairly explicit. The way we communicate is less like the married couple, and more like a couple of attorneys in a courtroom — working hard to be clear and concise, but struggling to get across all the minute details too. Someone from a high context culture — a Latin American or Mediterranean, for example — will typically communicate on a much wider ‘bandwidth’ than someone from a low context culture. Gesture,

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intonation, nuance are all part of the way in which the missing part of the message can be filled in — making the verbal component relatively small and compact. Northern Europeans, by contrast, are notoriously unobservant of body language — and, by the standards of their Southern counterparts, relatively pedantic. Hall points out that high context communications are o·en aesthetically very satisfying. He says: ‘High context communications are frequently used as art forms. They act as a unifying, cohesive force, are long-lived, and are slow to change. Low context communications do not unify; however they can be changed easily and rapidly. This is why evolution by extension is so incredibly fast; extensions in their initial stages of development are low context.’ High context communications require a significant investment of time and e‹ort in learning to decode them, which accounts for their longevity. Low context communications, by contrast, may be more prosaic — but they require far less decoding, and thus are more flexible. Hall was writing well before the advent of the web, but the expansion of new media can be seen as a perfect example of what he calls ‘evolution by extension’. The web initially has been very low context — its attraction being the rapid turnover of information — but we can expect that as it matures, it will start moving up the context scale. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there are huge di‹erences between the ways in which high and low context cultures use visual communications. In very simplistic terms, high context cultures produce painters, whilst low context cultures produce typographers. In graphic design, the high context approach is hierarchical, and the low context approach democratic, in its treatment of information. Compare the new Paris transport signage with its Berlin counterpart — the French use a far wider range of sizes and styles of type than the Germans, imparting a more emotional feel and lending itself to more complex announcing. But to a low context sensibility, the French approach seems cluttered — there’s a need to fill the space available, rather than to maximize the surrounding emptiness. To the travel-

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ler, however, the French approach can be very helpful — one is literally bombarded with information of all kinds, in all kinds of ways. In Germany, on the other hand, it is easy to lose one’s way — giving too much information becomes an intrusion into the all important sense of personal privacy. From the perspective, it becomes much easier to understand the phenomenon of Modernism — it is the predictable outcome of a low context approach to design. All the characteristic features are there — a desire for ‘white space’, a limited range of sizes and styles of type, even the choice of typefaces with as few a‹ective characteristics as possible. Harry Beck’s celebrated London underground map, used as the model for numerous subsequent transportation maps, epitomizes this low context approach to design. Beck’s real innovation was to dispense with the contextual detail that anchored the London underground system in the city it served. In order to simplify and abstract the pattern of interconnection between the di‹erent lines, Beck regularized the distance between individual stations and constrained the wayward routes they followed to increments of 45°. The result was a model of clarity — if all one wanted to know was the easiest way to get from one station to another. But for any other question, the map is useless — not only can’t it tell you what stop you need for Buckingham Palace or Nelson’s column, but trying to use it to determine distance or direction can be more than misleading. In the light of Hall’s findings, what might some of the ‘post modern’ approaches to design tell us about what is happening in contemporary graphic design? Certainly many characteristic high-context features are there — a richly textured use of space, the creation of numerous curious type families to reflect shades of personal predilection, the need to share the designer’s subcultural world to be able to decode the work. But there is also a sense of transience, rootlessness and a love of technological artefact that speaks of its inheritance from a more distinctly low context tradition.

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time and space If the ‘contexting system’ is Nurture’s way of extending our own inbuilt systems for selecting and prioritizing information, does culture have an equivalent of the ‘slow mind’ — building up a picture of less overt impacts? And does this too influence the way we do graphic design? Once again, Hall’s work provides indications as to what this might be. Fundamental to our reading of the world is the way we interpret time and space — and culture provides us with shared understandings of these factors, operating outside of normal awareness. The way we structure time is dependent on the rhythms of our culture — rhythms that are passed on to us in numerous ways, from music and dance to everyday matters such as the way we walk, speak and work. And these social rhythms are an embroidery on the natural rhythms that drive us. Space, in Hall’s conception, is closely related to time, and also to the body’s rhythms. All cultures have formalized a series of distances around the individual that dictate the way that we interact with others. We acquire these, as it were, with out mothers’ milk — and few of us give them much further thought. But when we encounter someone from another culture, our reactions can be powerfully influenced by their di‹erent interpretation of space. For the Arabs — and Middle Easterners in general — a polite social distance is close enough for someone to smell your breath. Europeans and North Americans who don’t understand this can feel most uncomfortable when someone they don’t know well approaches this close — this space is reserved for those who are on very familiar terms: parents, children, lovers. While the exact distances di‹er from culture to culture, we share the need to define an intimate, personal and social space — thresholds that determine how far we stand from di‹erent kinds of people. Only those closest to us are admitted into the intimate distance, friends and extend family may come within the personal space, whilst colleagues and strangers are kept beyond the inner boundaries of our social space. Interestingly, certain cultures have added a public space — a distance

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where a much larger audience can be addressed, despite the fine nuances of speech being lost. Our conceptions of space and time act as metaphors for many aspects of our lives. We talk about ‘getting our hands on someone’, or about keeping them ‘at arms’ length’. We speak about ‘reaching out’, as well as ‘cramping our space’. We’re concerned when people are ‘moving in on us’, but delighted when families are ‘close’. And the same kinds of usages are found throughout the world’s languages. Marketers and designers talk about the ‘positioning’ of communications, and this term proves quite revealing. For it turns out that we communicate in quite di‹erent ways according to the literal or metaphorical ‘proximity’ of our ‘audience’. Intimate communications are o·en incomprehensible to outsiders, the sheer familiarity of the speakers making them very high context, regardless of culture. Personal communications are informal, unguarded and comfortable. We take an interest in our friends because of who they are, not what they say. Social communications, on the other hand, become progressively more formalizes. High context cultures rely on complex systems of protocol, courtesy and manners in these situations, Low context cultures on reserve and ‘safe’ topics of conversation. And finally, public communications are rhetorical. Most traditional corporate communications were presented within the public space, addressing their audiences in a manner that is not just formal, but formulaic. New media have begun to change this, however. Just as television changed the way politicians presented themselves, sounding the death-knell for the tub-thumping public speaker and ushering in the smooth talking interviewee, so digital communications are using sophisticated technologies to speak to us as if they knew us personally. Advertising, too, plays fast and loose with our spatial definitions — addressing us as lover, friend, workmate or public according to what it is trying to sell us. Graphic design is also showing some discomfort at being kept at a formal distance. Many designers are edging their work into the social

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and personal spheres. From the time of James Dean onwards, the social sphere has become in popular culture the arena in which young men make displays to their peers — and this has become true for the corresponding kind of graphic design. Female designers seem more interested in exploring the personal space — and in creating means for others to do so. Type designs such as Zuzana Licko’s ‘Mrs Eaves’, Margo Chase’s ‘Envision’ or Kris Holmes’ ‘Lucida’ have shedded much of the sti‹ formality of traditional letterforms, and seem more at home in this paradigm of personable design. evolution of language At the beginning of his masterwork, typographie, German designer otl aicher declares: ‘Language is a medium that takes lucidity and precision, intelligibility and insight as its bearings. The ideals of functionalism, clarity,straightforwardness and transparency have been able to come into their own because language is now seen as the optimum means of conveying content, an act that requires easily comprehensible plain speaking as opposed to opacity.’ How logical, and yet how wrong. Evolutionary Psychology, one of the newest and most exciting cognitive disciplines, has charted the development of language. And it appears that, far from having emerged as a means of lucid and precise articulation, it developed originally in a highly poetic form. In his book The Origin of the Modern Mind, psychologist Merlin Donald outlines current thinking on the evolution of speech. ‘The most elevated use of language in tribal societies is in the area of mythic invention—in the construction of conceptual ‘models’ of the human universe. Even in the most primitive human societies, where technology has remained essentially unchanged for tens of thousands of years, there are always myths of creation and death and stories that serve to encapsulate tribally held ideas of origin and world structure. Stories about seminal events in history—attempts to construct a coherent image of the tribe and its relationships with the world—abound. These uses were not late developments, a·er language had proven itself in concrete practical applications; they were among the first.’

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These discoveries would have delighted philosopher Martin Heidegger, who declared more than forty years ago that ‘Poetry proper is never merely a higher mode of everyday language. It is rather the reverse: everyday language is a forgotten and therefore used-up poem, from which there hardly resounds a call any longer.’ In Hall’s terms, early language was profoundly high context—rich and resonant. By contrast, aicher’s view seems to echo a modern sensibility, demonstrated by his own severely low context approach to design: explicit, simplified, functional. This is a view that has given us ‘plain language’ as a model of clarity, and which posits ‘information design’ (or ‘information architecture’) as a kind of summum bonum in graphic design. But it’s a view that doesn’t do much justice to the precious gi· of language, or to the cognitive evolution that supports it. In connection with Hall’s work, it is interesting to note that language is now believed to have developed out of song. As Ethnomusicologist John Blacking observed, ‘There is evidence that early human species were able to dance and sing several hundred thousand years before homo sapiens sapiens emerged with the capacity for speech as we now know it.’ Thus language arose out of earlier forms of communication that employed rhythm and—in the case of dance—space too. But of course language has never lost its connection with rhythm and space. Spoken language is still the primary form, and we make it in the same ways as our remote ancestors—as a series of modulated tones, strung together rhythmically. The only significant development is written language, which is an entirely spatial form. Yet it is one that does its utmost to represent its rhythmic origins in spatial form. And looked at in this way, almost all of our conventions for representing language pick up on some aspect of its rhythmic nature. The repetition of letterforms provides the basic rhythm, but beyond that we group letterforms into words punctuated by spaces, and lines punctuated by line feeds. Lines become paragraphs, paragraphs sections, sections yet bigger entities. Even our arrangements reflect basic bodily rhythms: with each saccadic jump of the reading eye corresponding to one cycle

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of the brain’s Delta cycle. However free we think we have become with our typographic arrangements, we are still constrained by Nature’s invisible chains. communication in patterns Owen Barfield, one of the century’s most original thinkers and a keen student of language, observed: ‘To the historical student, language appears at first sight to consist of what has been well called ‘a tissue of faded metaphors’. [...] The further back you go in time, the more metaphorical you find language becoming...’ As we’ve seen, this finding concurs with recent discoveries. But why should language have evolved in metaphor? Taking a leap in the dark, it seems not too far fetched to answer that there was an evolutionary advantage in being able to communicate patterns. Patterns which, embodied in song, story, myth and epic poem, provided a blueprint for adapting to a much wider range of situations than could be hard-wired as impulses. And, maybe, which enriched our slow minds with a treasury of templates, cultivating perceptions that were subtler and more insightful than the brain’s crude mechanisms for bringing information to consciousness. But our fascination with pattern goes far beyond a (continuing) fascination with songs and stories. For millennia, patterns have been an essential part of our visual language, too. It is only in this century that they have been disparaged as ‘gratuitous ornament’, derided by the low context schools that have come to dominate design. Be this as it may, for graphic design to come to understand itself, it must take account of the origins of its prime instrument—language. Our immediate predecessors, convinced that form follows function, believed that this meant going back to a simple, straightforward form of communication which drew heavily from the mechanical models of Information Theory. But we live in a time when the evidence points in a contrary direction. And, on the basis of this evidence, it looks as if we might be using language in a far less sophisticated way than our

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remote ancestors. This alone should provide a real challenge to re-evaluate our approach to design. Conclusion Graphic Design is a very human phenomenon. But in our lifetimes, the meaning of ‘human’ has changed significantly — from a rational creature given dominion over nature by virtue of our innate superiority, to an essentially unreasonable species, molded by nature over millions of years of evolution. Knowing ourselves in this latter way is a humbling experience, but it is also a liberating one — because it provides an opportunity to understand aspects of our behaviour which never fitted the older models. And this is no less true in graphic design as elsewhere. The last great ideological movement in design, Modernism, attempted to define what designers did by reference to the supposed triumph of rational thought in twentieth century ‘hard’ science (excepting, of course, the already ‘post-modern’ ideas of quantum physics). But its explanations couldn’t reconcile the persistence of irrational tendencies in design—except as ‘backsliding’. Nor could it see itself as a cultural phenomenon. For the first time, we have the opportunity to look at what we do with reference to the developing body of knowledge about humankind as a biological and anthropological entity. And we should take it.

I wrote this piece, which appeared in the Spring 1999 ‘Depth’ edition of Critique, before I’d read either Robin Dunbar’s Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language or Tor Nørretranders The User Illusion. Dunbar’s book helped me make much more sense of the relevance of the evolution of language to graphic design, especially through the concept of ‘grooming’. Nørretranders book, on the other hand, brilliantly distinguishes between a reductive and overestimated consciousness and a much richer experience of the world that happens outside of it — a concept I was fumbling towards here.

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Seven pillars

The post-modern age has little time for principles. The idea that there could be such things in graphic design — axioms which are true for all times and all circumstances — increasingly strikes us as quaint. For some, principles are positively disreputable: a relic of ‘logocentrism’, that doubtful elitism which oppresses all diverging opinions. And for others, the need for principles has been swept away by a pragmatic approach which insists that the only thing that matters is e‹ective communication. So it is with some foolhardiness that I’m going to assert my conviction that there are timeless principles of graphic design — principles that have existed for as long as there have been graphic designers, typographers, printers, scribes, lettercutters and others who have pursued a calling to make language visual, and which will survive the multifarious innovations of the technologists. I shall try to stake out a position that contrasts with both the lazy, licentious deconstructivism that has displaced design theory and the marketing-led ‘design by numbers’ that has colonized the workplace. It is my conviction that the designer’s art exists for the purpose of amplifying meaning. Not just to make a message intelligible — at its best, good design makes it comprehensible. This distinction may seem academic, but I think it is profound. A message that is intelligible is one in which the designer has made every e‹ort to let it to speak for itself — the ‘crystal goblet’ approach, where design becomes self-e‹acing in the service of meaning. Comprehensible design, on the other hand, yields a meaning that is a composite of content and pres-

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entation — where both aspects have been carefully judged to work in concert. There is a close analogy here with poetry. The poet doesn’t just want to convey a message, but to create an experience in which cadence and sonority, metaphor and ambiguity play an equally important role to the literal meaning of the words. For the graphic designer this multidimensionality is achieved through the expressive power of images, letterforms, colour and arrangement. In graphic design, as in poetry, it is important, however, to distinguish between principle and technique. Techniques change, sometimes in response to taste and fashion, sometimes as a result of new developments. Principles, on the other hand, are not methods but frames of reference — and as such dictate the choice and use of techniques. One could program a computer to apply an unlimited range of graphic techniques, but it would do so without any sense of purpose or vision. A great designer, on the other hand, might use only a limited technical repertory, yet create with it work of extraordinary subtlety and depth. The poet Robert Graves, speaking at Oxford in 1962, said: ‘Technique ignores the factor of magic; cra·smanship presupposes it. A journeyman, a·er seven years as apprentice, will get the feel of his materials and learn what quiet miracles can be done with them. A small part of this knowledge is verbally communicable; the rest is incommunicable — except to fellow-cra·smen who already possess it. The technician’s disregard of this inexplicable element, magic, in painting, sculpture, medicine, music and poetry — on the ground that it cannot be demonstrated under laboratory conditions — accounts for the present dismal decline in all arts.’ I like Graves’s choice of the word magic, although some people may feel uncomfortable with it. ‘Principle’ might easily suggest a dry, academic approach to design, but the kinds of things I think of as principles — things as relevant to the design of a ‘shocked’ web page as a mediaeval incunabulum — defy close analysis. Principles exist, and do

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their work, largely beyond the boundaries of consciousness. And when applied they endow a communication with the capacity to transport its readers in a way that is nothing short of magical. Whatever intellectual fascination the work possesses — which might be considerable — it has other ingredients that transcend the powers of reason. Some of the recent discoveries in the cognitive sciences give new substance to the claim that there is more to the art of the designer than can be revealed by analysis or deliberation. Whereas a few years ago this proposition would have been treated with contempt, we’re now poised on the brink of a revolution, the full implications of which have yet to reach design. For it is becoming widely recognized — and backed up by burgeoning research — that the analytical, problem-solving function of the mind is only one of many modes of intelligence and by no means the best suited to all the problems of modern life. Many of us are familiar with the slow incubation of ideas beyond the thresholds of consciousness — which sporadically erupt in the form of an ‘inspiration’, usually when least expected. But in a climate which demands ‘e›ciency’, we’re made to feel guilty for moments spent idly staring out of the window, moments when our apparent blankness of mind conceals a profound — but largely unconscious — process of rumination. And in a culture of deliberation, we’ve also been made to feel like imbeciles — or, worse, charlatans — when we can’t show deductive reasoning to support an ‘inspired’ solution. However, the tables are being turned at last and — at least for the psychologists and neurophysiologists — the knowledge that dare not speak its name is now both respected and admired. One of the most interesting discoveries in this cognitive revolution is the role of the cerebral hemispheres in the processing of language. We now know that the le· hemisphere is responsible for literal meanings, selecting and comprehending words and stringing them together in proper syntax, while the right handles the ‘big picture’, constructing the overall framework into which the discrete elements produced by the le· take their place — as well as grasping the metaphorical dimen-

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sions of meaning. Robert Ornstein succinctly describes the objects of le· and right hemispheres as text and context. In the light of these findings, my assertion that great graphic design is one in which meanings are compounded of text and context begins to make sense. In a cognitive sense, it is a ‘whole brain’ approach — which may also go some way to explaining its aesthetic satisfaction. Because it’s rooted in the nature of human perception, it is a true universal. And while the techniques designers use to achieve this change — and will continue to change —the underlying principle remains the same. If the interplay of text and context characterizes what I’ve called comprehensible (as opposed to merely intelligible) design, there are three principles that determine its e‹ect. For these, we can look to the classical art of rhetoric for a useful analogy. Aristotle begins his Rhetoric with a consideration of the three kinds of ‘proofs’ a speaker can o‹er. The first is based on the character of the speaker (ethos), the second on making an emotional appeal to the audience (pathos), and the third on explanation or demonstration (logos). In graphic communication, these categories work simultaneoulsy to contribute to the e‹ectiveness of the design. 1 character/ethos The first principle is concerned with the personality that is vested in a piece. In the fine arts, this is usually the personality of the artist. In graphic design, however, it is more likely to reflect the subject — and in those branches of graphic design that are concerned with the representation of a corporate personality, it will be the character of the client. When an identity manager puts her thumb over the logo on the cover of a brochure (or even in the corner of the screen) and asks ‘is this us?’, she is making a judgment about whether the designer has really managed to capture something intrinsic to her organization. Not how good the design is, nor how e‹ective, but whether it communicates that quality — at once palpable and elusive — that constitutes the corporate ethos.

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2 emotion/pathos This principle relates to the emotional tenor or resonance of the piece. Most of us are familiar with the power of design to reposition a communication — to make it seem more approachable or more authoritative — and this exemplifies the role of emotion. However, moving an audience is not a precise science, and the principle at stake here is more concerned with creating the right tone than with any putative, conspiracy-style ‘emotional engineering’. A sweeping sense of drama heightens the emotions, but it requires much subtler cues to direct this arousal into a particular mood. 3 rationale/logos The relationship between the designer’s art and the third kind of proof is the most tangential, but perhaps also the most interesting. For Aristotle, logos meant both the explanation of a thing, and the principle determining that thing (of which only part could be expressed in words). To later philosophers, it acquired the more metaphysical sense of the creative principle by which all things are made — the ‘word’ of the opening verses of St John’s Gospel. As it applies to graphic design, logos has echoes of both these meanings — being concerned with the way the meaning of a communication is brought out by visually displaying its inner rationale. Designers naturally seek to bring out the structure of a text, whether by emphasizing its natural pauses and stresses, or rearranging it so that it becomes more comprehensible. At its height, the principle of logos can be seen at work in the exquisite visual mappings of data that Edward Tu·e shows in his books. By articulating the message through the deliberate use of ethos, pathos and logos, the designer contextualizes it — impressing upon it a sense of personality, eliciting a suitable emotional ‘set’ and visually explicating its meaning. Such framing is a natural part of all human communication, and we mostly do it without thinking; graphic design normally contains elements of all three principles. It is not necessarily better

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when it is done consciously — o·en an intuitive solution weaves the di‹erent strands together much better than a deliberate one, but the correct application of these principles should always result in a congruity between the message and its visual context. 4 memorability My next principle also derives from the ancients. Aristotle didn’t include it in his Rhetoric, but believed it so important that he wrote another work about it — now sadly lost. Quintillian, a Roman orator, includes it as one of the five pillars of Latin rhetoric — and bequeaths to us one of the most cogent expositions of its use in the classical period. It is memorability. It probably goes without saying that all great graphic design is memorable. But in an extraordinary twist of history, it turns out that our whole conception of pagecra· developed directly out of the requirements of the classical art of memory — which means that many of the features we recognize as giving a document its characteristic look and feel actually originated to make it memorable. In the classical period books were scarce, and the methods used to produce them slow and laborious. The idea of possessing a library for one’s own reference was unknown; instead collections of books were made for the purpose of creating a centre of learning. Itinerant scholars would come to one of the great libraries of the ancient world and commit the texts that interested them — in their entirety —to memory. This was not as daunting a task as it may seem, since the memory techniques they practised were highly sophisticated and extremely e‹ective. The Greeks had stumbled upon an important fact of human psychology: that while we find retaining and recalling verbal information quite di›cult, we have an extraordinary facility for remembering visual information. They discovered that by imprinting parts of a text onto images held in the mind, it could be easily remembered by recalling those images. They also discovered that the most powerful images involved the coalescence of two contrasting ideas (a technique

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that is still used extensively in advertising) — and that the more bizarre or incongruous the combination, the more memorable it would be. With the expansion of scholarship in the middle ages, the pressures on libraries became more acute. Despite developing more e›cient methods of production, the scribes of the mediaeval scriptoria could scarcely meet demand. Consequently the small number of books they were able to produce had to function as powerful cognitive artefacts, expediting the process of memorization. To make them more easily assimilated, texts were broken down into convenient ‘chunks’ — the sections and paragraphs we know today. Initial capitals, borders and other illustrative elements were introduced — not as gratuitous decoration, which could hardly have been justified — but to provided a sequence of unique and memorable images to help in remembering the accompanying text. The form of the book came about, therefore, not so much a repository for information as a means of transferring it to the mind. With our tremendous capacity for the mechanical storage and retrieval of huge quantities of information, this mnemonic aspect of graphic design may not seem to be such an issue. Ironically, however, as we are deluged in communications from all quarters, memorability has again become a vital issue again. From amongst the thousands of graphical messages that confront us each day, it is only the most memorable that have any chance of success. The principle that visual communication must engage the memory is thus as important as ever. 5 rhythm We’re used to thinking of graphic design as a static, timeless medium — although this is being increasingly challenged as new technologies bring the time-line to the designer’s palette. The way we engage with graphic communication is, however, anything but static — from the way the eye tracks around the page (or window) to the reading of text, line by line. And very o·en we’re engaging not just with a single surface, but with a sequence — as when we scan through the spreads of

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a magazine or jump through the pages of a web-site. So there is a significant time-based element to graphic design which finds itself expressed in all sorts of ways. On the one hand, there are the sequences of letterforms, words, sentences and paragraphs that make up the verbal components of a piece: on the other, our eyes are led along complex paths by the arrangement of visual components. The key to the way we interact with time is rhythm. From the rapid pulsing of neuronal activity in our brains, through the body’s incessant beat of heart and breath, to the longer cycles of days, years and generations, we appear to be thoroughly rhythmic beings. Rhythm is not just a journey through time, but a recognisable pattern of repetitions within it — and it appears that all human activities subtly synchronize themselves with these patterns. Rhythm is inherent in graphic design, appearing in many guises — from the flow of text to the use of repeating devices such as grids, borders or patterns. The rhythms of any piece will likely be the designer’s own — but hopefully they will also reflect her or his synchrony with the intended audience. Synchrony of our mental and body rhythms with the graphic materials that capture our attention may turn out to be the essential determinant in our comprehension and responses to those materials: being ‘out of sync’ with some graphic treatments may explain why we feel alienated or unable to understand them. 6 symmetry When we think of symmetry, we think of shapes that are the same on either side of an axis — and perhaps even, recalling high-school maths, those that remain the same when rotated a number of times. Its original meaning, however, is concerned with the proper relationship between the whole and the part (and thus applies equally — one might even say, especially — to what we call asymmetry). Our concept of symmetry diminished somewhat because our understanding of what constitutes a ‘whole’ has become so atrophied. It has become common to conceive of a whole as just an assemblage

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of parts — making the relationship of the parts to the whole simply a mechanical matter. Sadly, this is even the case in the life sciences, where the concept of the organism has all but disappeared — and the most sophisticated notion of wholeness is the quasi-interdependence of ‘systems’. To the thinkers and artists of the Romantic period, the ‘whole’ did not just arise from an accumulation of parts, but was considered to be immanent within them. They saw the same principle at work in both nature and human creativity: the plant present in the leaf, a poem in a single line. Blake’s phrased this idea beautifully — ‘to see the world in a grain of sand…’ cogently expresses this Romantic notion of symmetry. While we’ve le· the Romantics long behind, we do live with their legacy: there’s still a powerful sense in which the whole can be discerned from each element in a brilliant layout — even if that element is just expressing a hint of the theme that holds the design together. And it is also true that that theme can’t just be grasped by looking at the totality of the elements, but must be understood by considering the way each of the elements restates and reiterates it. 7 genius There is one more principle which, it seems to me, has consistently characterized the greatest graphic design (and indeed perhaps design of all kinds). It is also the most di›cult to pin down. In part, it involves eschewing the sensible, competent solution to pursue an inspired but elusive thought as it dances skittishly through the shadows of the less than conscious mind. Yet it is also the incandescent combination of assuredness, audacity and sweeping breadth of vision. The ancients called it ‘genius’, and attributed it to the sudden and surprising gi· of a fickle tutelary spirit. I’m not sure I can think of a better explanation. The garden designer Russell Page came closest to capturing its consequences when he said: ‘In each case there is an exaggeration of proportion, a pushing of scale beyond the limits of what might seem reasonable to enforce and enhance our comprehension. “This

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is it” — the maximum and minimum statement. And then there is a second common element — unity or, more precisely, a symbol or intimation of unity; a simple expression of grass or water or stone or sky, a definition of form and direction and space; a statement made, in each case, as economically and fully as possible.’ In conclusion It’s worth emphasizing the ‘ancientness’ of these principles — they would have all been recognizable to Aristotle’s contemporaries, even if our application of them might have been unfamiliar. We’re increasingly so beguiled by the technological aspect of design that we o·en seem to forget that we’re also part of a continuing tradition. Our computers may be running the latest programs — and help us design for new and exciting media — but the human context of our work remains as it always was. Cognition and aesthetics (the Greek word means ‘perception’) are intertwined, even if it is becoming increasingly possible to unravel some of their threads. And it is they, not the wizardry of so·ware, that still define what we do.

I certainly never intended to identify seven ‘eternal’ principles of graphic design when I was commissioned to write this piece for the Spring 1998 ‘Pagecra·’ edition of Critique. Nor, if I had been asked to do so, would I have chosen these in the first instance. But as it turned out this way — more by accident than design — I’m prepared to stick by them. Indeed, I find these seven things a reliable guide when I’m looking at graphic design and get more from them the more I consider them. That might sound arrogant for a writer, but looking back I have no idea how this piece came together. It might as well have been written by someone else.

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Atalanta Flees

Like a Renaissance version of Milton Glaser’s Dylan, the figure of Boreas — the North Wind — looms over a landscape of lakes and romantic ruins. His hair and hands dissolve into profuse whorls of smoke, whilst in his stomach the outline of a curled fetus can just be made out. Such is the first ‘emblem’ of an extraordinary book: the Atalanta Fugiens of Count Michael Maier, physician and alchemist. Writing in a preface to the reader, Maier declares: ‘Four things, I say, are contained once and for all in a single book, destined and dedicated to your usage: poetic and allegorical; fictive, pictorial and emblematic, engraved on “Venus” or copper, not without “venery” or grace; the most secret things of Chemistry, for the exploration of the intellect; and lastly musical rarities. If this usage should be more intellectual than sensual, the more useful and agreeable it will eventually be: for indeed if it is first entrusted to the sense, there is no doubt that it should be transferred from the sense to the intellect, as through a portal.’ Atalanta Fugiens certainly does seem to encompass everything from the sublime to the ridiculous — from emblems pregnant with spiritual meaning, such as the geometrician who traces out the squared circle, with its inscribed Vitruvian occupants, to the bizarre, as with

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the man who holds a ‘chilly toad’ to a woman’s breast in the midst of a city square. Many of its emblems are familiar, having been extensively reproduced in all sorts of applications — and also been widely borrowed by other artists (Blake reinterprets Maier’s final emblem of a dead woman in the grave, encircled by a serpent, in his Jerusalem.) Its author is not above humour either, as the title of one of his other works (Jocus Severus, the severe joke) shows. But the overriding impression of Atalanta is of an intricate multi-layering, which lends it an enigmatic quality. Perhaps it was this that prompted the eminent historian, Dame Frances Yates, to declare: ‘I am entirely unable to understand all this, nor how it would be possible to work out a mathematical problem in terms of this kind of alchemy. But I believe that implications of this kind are present in the Maier emblems…’ The basis of the book is the Greek myth of Atalanta and Hippomenes. For those whose Classical mythology is rusty, Atalanta is a chaste and feisty maiden who has been told that she can only marry a man who is able to beat her at some activity. Unfortunately for her suitors, she proves unbeatable — and the hapless swains are all ruthlessly despatched by an arrow from Atalanta’s bow. Hippomenes, grandson of Neptune, is determined to succeed, however, and to this end acquires three enchanted golden apples from Aphrodite. Challenged to beat the swi· footed Atalanta in a running race, he throws them at her feet — causing her to stop to pick them up. Hippomenes wins, but the goddess’ apples have already turned Atalanta’s head. Indeed, so lusty has the race made them both that they slope o‹ to a local temple to sample a foretaste of marital bliss. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a temple dedicated to the goddess, who is outraged by such sacrilege — and she promptly turns the lovers into a pair of lions. For Maier the story of Atalanta’s flight is allegorical of the processes of ‘chemistry’ — Atalanta herself represents the elusive philosophical Mercury, Hippomenes the spiritual sulphur, and the apples the third part of the hermetic trinity, salt. And it is really the alchemical processes of transformation that the book celebrates. The myth is however

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echoed in the series of haunting fugues for three voices that accompany each emblem (the choice of the ‘fugue’ form being an elegant pun characteristic of Maier). These consist of a lead soprano voice attributed to Atalanta and a tenor voice attributed to Hippomenes, sung over a ‘cantus firmus’ that represents the apples. Musically, this is an extremely demanding and mathematically precise form of composition — the crystalline nature of which only becomes apparent from studying the scores. Published in Oppenheim in 1618 by Johann Theodor de Bry, whose hand shaped the fi·y exquisite engravings that form the visual component of the book, Atalanta Fugiens immediately established itself as one of the most collectible examples of a genre that we still find hard to comprehend: the alchemical allegory. Yet it is hardly a work of naive, pre-scientific superstition — indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more consciously designed and erudite work. Not without reason is it described as the first work of multimedia, combining images and words with music for eye and ear. And Maier’s use of mixed media is arguably more sophisticated than our own, employing the qualitatively di‹erent languages of poetry, imagery and music to indicate meanings that apparently do not lend themselves to any simpler form of communication. Nor does Maier easily fit our stereotypes of the mediaeval magus. Born in 1568 in Kiel, on what is now the border between Germany and Denmark, he studied philosophy and liberal arts at the University of Rostock. Subsequently he travelled to Padua, where he was awarded the title of Poet Laureate for his prodigious abilities to versify in Latin (as well as in his native German). He completed his education with a Doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Frankfurt and a Doctorate in Medicine from the University of Basel (where the maverick genius Paracelsus had lectured half a century earlier). For several years he practised as a physician in Rostock, writing treatises on the treatment of various conditions. As a doctor, he followed the example of Paracelsus, whose conception of the ‘whole person’

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anticipates the complementary medicine of our own times. Sometime a·er the completion of his studies, Maier witnessed a remarkable cure by the use of alchemical — or ‘spagyric’ — medicines, and it was this that apparently redirected the course of his life. In 1608 Maier presented himself to the court of Rudolf II — Holy Roman Emperor — in Prague. The court of Rudolf II contained a galaxy of extraordinary people: the Emperor was fascinated by both science and occultism, as well as being an assiduous collector of curiosities (his ‘Weltzkammer’ was the prototype of the modern museum). Here came the esotericists John Dee and Giordano Bruno, the painter Arcimboldo, the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. And the great Rabbi Loew — supposed creator of the ‘Golem’ — ministered to the Jewish community in the Old Town. Rudolf appointed Maier to the role of his personal physician (simultaneously ennobling him with the title ‘Count Palatine’). But Maier entered Rudolf’s court in its twilight years. In 1611 Rudolf was forced to abdicate in favour of his brother Matthias — and died the following year. Maier headed for London, and presented himself to the court of James I. And this marked the beginning of his flair for unusual multimedia presentations — his ‘visiting card’ (preserved in the Scottish Record Office) consisted of a large parchment,and contains the first indication of themes he would return to in ‘Atalanta’. There is a great deal of speculation that Maier’s visit to England may had a covert political or diplomatic dimension. He appears to have been centrally involved in the project to get James I’s son in Law, Frederick V, elected to the throne of Bohemia as Matthias’ successor. This was part of a larger game plan to see Frederick, who had become the champion of the Protestant cause, become Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick himself, as well as his principal advocate/lieutenant, Christian of Anhalt, were both interested in alchemy — and there is evidence that Christian was a patron of Maier’s. Atalanta Fugiens was one of a series of eleven books Maier published in the three years from 1616 to 1619, while Frederick reigned in Heidelberg.

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This phenomenal productivity has led historians to believe that most of these must have already existed in manuscript form, dating perhaps from the years Maier spent in England. What caused him to burst into print at this time, however, remains a mystery. A·er the collapse of the fortunes of the Protestant cause at the White Mountain, and the initiation of the brutal Thirty Years War, Maier moved to Magdeburg. We know little of his life there, except that he continued to practice medicine and to write. His books slowed to about one year, until his death in 1622. Unfortunately Magdeburg was sacked in 1631, destroying any evidence of Maier’s final years. Although Maier wrote on alchemy, and undoubtedly practised a form of laboratory chemistry, it is wrong to think that he was seeking to transmute base metals into gold. In a work published a year before Atalanta called Examen fucorum pseudo-chymicorum (‘Examination of the pseudo-chemical drones’) he explicitly condemns those who claimed to make gold, and exposes some of their tricks and deceptions. Maier’s is a spiritual alchemy, where the substance to be transformed is nothing other than the being of the alchemist. But to the hermeticist, the world of spirit and the world of matter are not di‹erentiated — in the ‘Emerald Tablet’, Hermes himself asserts that ‘that which is above is like that which is below’, that there is a correspondence between psychic and physical matters. This is a notoriously tricky point for a contemporary sensibility to grasp, conditioned as we are by dismissive attitudes towards alchemy engendered by two or three years of highschool science. Of the modern commentators who have grasped it, few have expressed it better than Carl Jung: ‘...it remains an obscure point whether the ultimate transformation in the alchemical process are to be sought more in the material or more in the spiritual realm. Actually, however, the question is wrongly put: there was no “either-or” for that age, but there did exist an intermediate realm between mind and matter, i.e., a psychic realm of subtle bodies whose characteristic it is to manifest themselves in a mental as well as a mate-

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rial form. This is the only view that makes sense of alchemical ways of thought, which must otherwise appear nonsensical. Obviously, the existence of this intermediate realm comes to a sudden stop the moment we try to investigate matter in and for itself, apart from all projection; and it remains non-existent so long as we believe we know anything conclusive about matter or the psyche. But the moment when physics touches on the “untrodden, untreadable regions,” and when psychology has at the same time to admit there are other forms of psychic life besides the acquisitions of personal consciousness — in other words, when psychology too touches on an impenetrable darkness — then the intermediate realm of subtle bodies comes to life again, and the physical and the psychic are once more blended in an indissoluble unity. We have come very near to this turning-point today.’ C.G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (Second Edition), London: Routledge, 1968. pp.278-9. One of the most astonishing results of recent researches into the hermetic movements of the early seventeenth century — prompted by Frances Yates’ seminal The Rosicrucian Enlightenment — has been the discovery of just how much Maier and his circle were involved in the birth of the scientific revolution. We now know that the Royal Society, synonymous with orthodox scientific enquiry, was originally founded as an ‘invisible college’ by hermeticists such as Samuel Hartlib and Elias Ashmole. Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, whose names are closely associated with its illustrious beginnings, were both practising alchemists — for twenty years, Newton rarely stirred from his laboratory experiments in his rooms at Trinity College, except to deliver a statutory lecture as Lucasian professor (usually to an empty hall). Newton le· 88 pages of notes, in his tiny crabbed hand, to Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens — which he believed was a work of the utmost importance. But such enquiries run up against what is perhaps the last great taboo in our society — the suggestion that science might not be an a priori,

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empirical process, but a social and cultural construction. For many of us, the only way to appreciate Atalanta Fugiens is as a work of conceptual art — and as such, it no less remarkable. Alchemy has been used as a theme in twentieth century art, but as a vague metaphor for the processes of transformation. But to a hermeticist, however interesting a critical or semiotic analysis of Maier’s work might be, it is an exercise in futility — the work conceals a mystery that is there to be discovered, and any other approach is beside the point. And this highlights one of the most awkward questions it raises. Like many alchemical texts, Atalanta can only be properly understood a·er years of patient study — it exists as a communication at the very margins of comprehen-sibility, deliberately (or perhaps inescapably) concealing its secrets under layers of allusion and symbolism. In his study of alchemical engravings of the seventeenth century, The Golden Game, Stanislas Klossowski de Rola writes: ‘Several Hermetick Philosophers have provided a method for the diligent seeker which can be used as a kind of Ariadne’s thread to find one’s way through the labyrinth-ine obscurity of alchemical literature: select the best books, read and re-read them, carefully compare the places where they agree and how they agree, for there the truth is to be found. Also compare where they di‹er and how they di‹er, for further discoveries will still be made. Be suspicious when they appear to speak most clearly and candidly; and meditate upon the places where they are most obscure. Thus little by little the pattern of truth will emerge, like the watermark in paper held up to the light.’ Stanislas Klossowski de Rola, The Golden Game, London: Thames & Hudson, 1988. p.18. This is the true hermeneutic method — significantly, the other of the sciences of Hermes (even if this attribution is forgotten by its philosophical exponents). It is fashionable to believe that communications must wear their meanings on their sleeves, and that even then we exist

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in a universe of multiple readings. Atalanta Fugiens asserts, on the other hand, that communication can be just as e‹ective and striking when it hides its meaning (it is interesting to compare it with the examples of ‘information design’ that Edward Tu·e showcases in his books, and wonder at its similarities and di‹erences). And diligent students of Maier’s claim to have come, eventually, to the common understanding that its author intended — but to which he could only point through the use of the three media from which it is composed. Atalanta Fugiens is a true virtual world — a world that doesn’t just entertain a passive imagination, but actively engages it and exercises it to its limits. There is no sense of closure, no easy resolution for the lazy mind. On the contrary, if nothing else it is Maier’s genius to have created a work of art that challenges us on every level like an exquisite puzzle. There is food for thought here for everyone who seeks to design for the media rich environments of our own virtual worlds.

This is the longer version of the piece Maziar Raien and I wrote for the Autumn 2000 issue of Eye magazine (the published version was cut down to 750 words, to make room for the images, and thus sacrificed most of the historical background). We’re both fascinated by the alchemical engravings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Maier’s work represents the high point of this tradition. But why do we find Maier’s work so fascinating? Perhaps because it comes from a time when what we now think of as Modernism was being born, very much as a result of what Dame Frances Yates’ called ‘The Rosicrucian Englightnement’. Somehow, though, we only ended up with half of what was envisaged — a kind of lopsided empiricism without the profoundly spiritual way of ‘reading’ Nature with which it was originally balanced. Consequently, now that Modernism is more or less over, it is interesting to revisit this era to discover what we missed.

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Drag me! Click me! Read me?

In front of me is a ‘window’ with seven icons and one button ranged across the top. On the le·, there are three squares with a drop shadow — the first is empty, the second has a fuzzy scribble that looks like the initials ZH transcribed into an early version of MacPaint, in the third the words bin hex are neatly arranged one above the other like the sign for a fashionable eatery. I know what Binhex means, though, so of the three I can at least grasp its intention. The other icons, which don’t appear in squares — but instead are evenly spaced across the top of the window (in distinction to the first three?) — are, if it is possible, even more opaque. One has a tick with the initials QP. QP? Nothing comes to mind. Its neighbour depicts a miniature Mac Plus — a machine I remember with some fondness — juxtaposed on top of the familiar ‘document’ icon with the folded corner. I wonder if this is what Koestler meant by ‘bisociation’, but this doesn’t help its meaning to become any clearer. The next has another tick, this time against a document with a curving arrow that seems to suggest it should be turned back to front. Still no clue. The last has two documents, one above the other. Their pages are as delightfully empty as my mind. ‘Go on then’, I think, ‘switch on balloon help’. I’m looking at the composition window of Eudora Light — a popular mail program for Macintosh. Sometimes design seems to be more about some sort of Freudian externalizing of a dark, mysterious interior than it is about rational problem solving. Composing and sending e-mail is — like other computing operations — a straightforward, logical operation. Why then did the designer of this particular program, like so many others, choose to rep-

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resent its functions by such a bewildering array of images when a few well chosen words (like those I’m forced to summon in balloons) could make them immediately clear? I can only account for this by reference to a deep, perverse streak of human atavism. Icons are a ubiquitous feature of the computer landscape, one of the four pillars (together with windows, mice and pointers) that underpin the whole notion of the graphical user interface.The conventional — and largely unquestioned — wisdom sees them as synonymous with warm adjectives like ‘intuitive’ and ‘user friendly’. But are they really what they’re claimed to be? Or are they the flying ducks of the information age — gratuitous ornamentation that intrudes into both the usability and aesthetics of the computing environment. Certainly few applications, from operating systems to web-pages, seem complete without several shelves of this virtual bric-a-brac, like decorative china in an olde worlde tea-shop. And yet we continue to talk as if this unstoppable urge towards the twee was a breakthrough in the ergonomics of the human computer interface. An article of faith among interface designers holds that there are ‘verbal’ and ‘visual’ people — the latter something of an historically oppressed minority who, through the graphic potential of new media, are at last being given the opportunity to engage in the ‘information revolution’. This view, held with extraordinary tenacity in the interface and information design communities, is behind much of the vigorous promotion of icons for interactive applications. Yet here am I (presumably not alone), a graphic designer by trade and temperament, finding myself increasingly ‘visually challenged’ by the iconic language of the programs I use. How come? Like most unexamined assumptions, the basis for the idea that people respond to computer applications in such profoundly di‹erent ways turns out to be a concatenation of anecdotal evidence, popular misunderstanding and wishful thinking. I’ve long wondered where the hard science to substantiate this arbitrary division of humanity into visual and verbal might be, since nothing I’ve come across in the cognitive

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sciences comes anywhere close. There are echoes of Howard Gardner’s 1983 Frames of Mind — but not in any form he would recognize — as there are of the right brain/le· brain dichotomy popularized in Robert Ornstein’s 1973 Psychology of Consciousness. But even Ornstein is concerned that these ideas have been taken out of context, and totally exaggerated. In his latest book, he is at pains to point out that instead of people bifurcating into ‘le· brainers’ (verbal types) or ‘right brainers’ (visual types), many of those categorized as ‘right brainers’ simply have undeveloped or atrophied le· hemisphere skills — pointing to the failure of our education system to achieve adequate levels of literacy, rather than any enlightened encouragement of visual thinking. ‘The right-hemisphere specializations develop to their fullest when informed by a fully developed le· side. Otherwise we get form without content.’ Even if we credit the visual/verbal idea as a hypothesis — which strikes me as over generous — it raises some di›cult questions. Since most computer use is concerned with manipulating alpha-numeric information (word processing, spreadsheet calculation, database interrogation and e-mail), doesn’t this suggest that most of the users will tend to come from the ‘verbal’ camp? So shouldn’t images be the alternative, rather than the default means of calling functions? And why are icons the answer for those who see themselves as visually inclined — surely the di‹erent organization of their dominant mode of thinking needs to be catered for by something better than a skin deep sign? In the dizzy world of new media, however, such questions appear deeply heterodox. difficulties with icons There are a number of objections to an iconic approach: functional, semantic, aesthetic and philosophical. Before exploring these, however, it is worth considering what icons are. Despite the name, with its resonant overtones of the sacred and profound, icons are surprisingly prosaic.

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By and large — although this is not an exhaustive taxonomy — icons fall into three categories. There are those that represent the encapsulation and organization of data: documents, folders, disks etc. These could be called ‘nominal’ icons — icons that present di›cult to conceptualize or largely intangible things in terms of familiar items. Then there are icons that represent tools, o·en by turning the cursor into a parody of a physical tool like a scalpel or a pencil. For the sake of classification, we can call this small but significant group ‘functional icons’. Finally, there are icons that represent destinations — although this is something of a conceit, since nobody actually goes anywhere. This latter category, thanks to the explosive growth of the web, is now the largest and most diverse. The kinds of visual treatment are correspondingly simple. Icons are either symbolic, associating an abstract function with a familiar, physical equivalent, or they are heraldic, carrying the impress of proprietorship. Signposts and trash cans are examples of the former, whilst application icons (and their accompanying document icons) are examples of the latter. Interestingly, the principle that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ does not seem to apply here — icons invariably represent only one thing; ambiguity being equated with loss of clarity. functional problems with icons In a wired interview with Jimmy Guterman, information design guru Edward Tu·e describes computers as ‘just about the lowest resolution information interface known to humankind, compared to the map, the photograph, printed text, or the brain. You have to do special things in a low resolution world: not waste pixels, use anti-aliased typography, give all the space to the user, because it’s so precious.’ Tu·e goes on to say that ‘icons are pretty ine›cient’ — explaining how, in one instance (the opening screen of Norton Desktop for Windows) the repetition of a single icon wastes 4,000 pixels on the screen to present ‘…one piece of information, one single noun…’. Although the screen is not entirely kind to text, words are o·en more

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e›cient than images in terms of the amount of space they take up. Many icons, however, are also accompanied by a caption — this is invariably the case with what I’ve called nominal icons, which are the icons that inhabit our desktops and file management windows. In these cases, the image is almost completely redundant. Its only residual functions are to di‹erentiate it in kind from other similar entities (a function some computing environments achieve more e›ciently, but slightly less elegantly, with file extensions) and to give it a sense of ‘thingness’. Presenting the same information twice, visually and verbally, smacks of a profligate redundancy in an environment still constrained by coarse resolution and limited image area. It can only really be justified by the visual person/verbal person theory — where one is supposedly translating the same information for two di‹erent kinds of minds. However, the constraints mean that screen designers are constantly having to make compromises and sacrifices. Many find the wasteful but decorative icon harder to let go, and it’s more common in interface design to find rows of icons without captions than unadorned hypertext links — a clear signal of where the designer’s sympathies lie. Semantic problems with icons Edward Teller, in his celebrated critique of the downside of technology, Why Things Bite Back, describes how iconic representation has gone from being what he considers a radical and brilliant way of enhancing usability to a virtual Babel. ‘The recomplicating e‹ect is that while some commands and programs are much clearer as symbols than as words, others are resolutely and sometimes inexplicably nongraphic. (The world has at least two serviceable Stop designs, but still no decent Push and Pull symbols for doors). […] It probably doesn’t matter too much that Apple Computer has copyrighted the Macintosh icon of the garbage can as a symbol to which unwanted files can be dragged for deletion. Windows so·ware uses a wastebasket instead. But what does a shredder mean, then? Does it discard files, and/or does it do what

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paper shredders are supposed to: make the original text impossible to recognize or reassemble? And some symbols mean di‹erent things in programs written for the same operating system. A magnifying glass can call for enlarging type as it does in some Apple so·ware, but it can also begin searching for something or looking up a file in Macintosh as well as in Windows applications. A turning arrow can mean Rotate Image, but a similar arrow can denote Undo; Microso· tried a hundred icons for Undo and finally gave up.’ Donald Norman, on the other hand, can’t see what all the fuss is about. ‘Icons. Lots of people worry about the design of icons. I can’t understand them. What does that symbol mean? What does this symbol mean? Bad design they say. No, no, I don’t think it’s bad design. There’s no reason why a visual icon should be understandable when you first see it. The real trick is to make it so that when somebody explains it to you, you say ah, I got it, and you never have to have it explained again. So a good design means you explain it only once.’ Norman’s point of view is perfectly reasonable in the context of an operating system or an application, given that there is ‘somebody’ to explain it to you — and that you use it regularly. But even icons that you have had explained can become obscure if you don’t use those features every day, as my Eudora experience shows. When the same insouciance is applied to the design of a website — which for the majority of ‘visitors’ is a one-o‹, unmediated experience — the sense of frustration and disempowerment can be an order of magnitude greater. One of the most commonly heard arguments in favour of icons is that they allow for a truly cross-cultural visual language. Just as pictograms have become part of the way we communicate without words, so icons help the user navigate the computer interface regardless of her native language. Or so the theory goes. Of course, pictograms have become a very useful way of communicating certain kinds of information — although it is salutary to realize quite how many learned associations we have to make to be able to understand them. And some kinds of messages do lend themselves to literal presentation: the car falling

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o‹ the road into the water will be understood by most drivers as a vivid demonstration of a potential hazard. But others, such as the red warning circle, are entirely arbitrary conventions. Much of the richness of language comes from its vocabulary of abstractions — things that by definition don’t lend themselves to depiction. With pictograms we are forced to adopt a way of representing abstract concepts which loses all the advantages of immediate recognition, and requires prospective users to learn new graphic languages — in addition to their spoken and written languages. Nor are these languages particularly ‘intuitive’ — ask any driving instructor how many candidates fail their driving test because of faulty recognition of road signs. Another argument that is advanced in favour of icons is our greater facility for memorizing images. This was, of course, the gist of the classical art of memory — and the basis for the scintillating stage performances of ‘memory men’. The use of images as mnemonics is indeed very clever, but it requires considerable e‹ort — to say nothing of skill and patience — on the part of the practitioner. And it is hard to see how this connects with the ostensible purpose of icons, since one of the avowed intentions of the user interface is to give us immediate feedback and not to require us to remember anything. Issues of meaning and ambiguity are at the heart of the problem with icons. Our instincts naturally draw us towards the figurative potential of the image. But there is little scope for encouraging multiple readings in presenting what is, in e‹ect, a control whose narrow meaning has been fixed not in design but in the rigid logic of programming. And it’s this definite denotation that makes me wonder about the arguments about the ‘visual’ user. If there really are such people whose dominant mode of perception is the direct, imaginal mentation that the rest of us use only occasionally, do they really benefit from the picture as single noun? Or would they insist, like William Blake (verbal or visual person?) that meaning be ‘Twofold Always! May God us keep, from single vision and Newton’s sleep’.

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aesthetic problems with icons Someone once told me — I’m not sure on what authority — that one of the reasons our computers require us to do so many ‘physical’ things on screen (pushing buttons, twiddling knobs, pushing sliders) is that North America never developed a tradition of building automata. Had the personal computer come from the old world, the hardware would have had the a‹ordances to allow us to do these things manually. I don’t have much interest in the historical accuracy or veracity of this observation, but it does explain what is for me one of the most excruciating aesthetic deficiencies of the graphical user interface — the way it relies on simulations of the tactile controls of other technologies. Since icons are o·en — most o·en, in all probability — buttons, this reliance manifests itself in awkward attempts at trompe l’oeil: bevelled edges, drop shadows, ‘depress modes’, click sounds and the like. The aesthetic problems don’t end with mechanical emulation, however. There is also the issue of consistency. Interface designers devote a great deal of time to producing environments that have a visual coherence — a distinct graphic personality. But increasingly their e‹orts are undermined by the way that these environments are nested within other environments — each with their own conventions and approach. Inside the desktop, with its own distinctive iconography, may be a browser with an entirely idiosyncratic visual treatment. And inside this browser is a website, with a third type of graphic approach. Like a Russian doll, the website may turn out to be not a single entity but a frameset, containing yet further sites and styles. What each designer intended as a congruous aesthetic experience for the user has become a riot of jarring colours, images and treatments. Rather than trying to resolve these tensions within itself, however, we find the aesthetics of interface design bursting out into other media. Prompted by what I’m tempted to call ‘icon envy’, there are now televisual treatments that scream ‘click me!’ — even though there’s nothing to click with. And in a bizarre reversal of the claim that screen design is being held back by the conventions of older media, we also increas-

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ingly find this tendency in print — where rows of icons taunt the reader with the promise of an interactivity they can’t actually deliver. philosophical problems with icons Conceptually, icons fall into a kind of no-man’s land between the resolutely modernist positivism of Neurath’s Isotype and the post-modern ‘reader-centred’ semiotics that derive from Saussure and Pierce. Both schools lay claim to them, no doubt attracted by their enthusiastic take up in the new media. But in reality they are neither fish nor fowl, not ‘positive’, observation based characters nor multiply referential signs. In Neurath’s scheme, pictorial representations can bypass the ambiguities and imprecision of language, appealing to an entirely empirical, logical but wordless capacity of the mind through the mediation of the eye. Needless to say, it is di›cult to recognize our ‘visual’ person as a Vienna Circle Positivist, as Neurath would have liked to have seen her/ him. This perspective has, however, been highly influential in informing the discipline of information design, which still asserts a defiantly Positivist view of communication based on concepts of ‘clear’ communication, ‘plain’ language and diagrammatic representation. And information design is one of the most potent forces shaping the new media, a comfortable bed-fellow with the enthusiastic scientism that drives the ‘technological revolution’. From the Saussurian perspective, signs have an arbitrary (or unmotivated) connection to the things they signify. Icons, thus, are tokens or pointers, which take up their role within an intricately interwoven system of ‘di‹erences’, and whose connotations depend upon cultural and other readings. This is a beguiling theory that has been eagerly taken up by the more expressive tendency in graphic design. I have a hard time, though, imagining the genesis of language as a Positivist — or even a Saussurian — naming exercise. (One caveperson to another: ‘Here is another thing. Let us call it “tree”.’) Far more likely, language evolved first in what Martin Heidegger described as its ‘disclosive’ aspect — that is, as our remote ancestors became ever

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more self-conscious, their awareness of the world became populated with linguistic concepts and, vice versa, as they developed language, they became more aware of the ‘thingness’ of their environment. In The Way to Language, Heidegger points out that the disclosive aspect of language is both prior to, and considerably more important, than its representational aspect. Added to this, there is the metaphorical nature of language. The nineteenth century view (epitomized by such figures as Müller, Humboldt and Saussure) was that language was originally descriptive and only later (as in the Homeric period) figurative. But, as Owen Barfield points out, all the evidence is precisely to the contrary — the earliest records of language, and the most ‘primitive’ languages, are profoundly metaphorical. It is only comparatively recently that words begin to be used in a purely descriptive, representational sense (with the irony that their etymology o·en preserves their original metaphorical status). When it comes to the way we relate to our computers, the idea that our world is disclosed to us through the medium of language — and that language is itself inherently metaphorical — becomes highly significant. We understand computing through the mediation of persuasive models which supplant any conception of what we are actually doing with a profoundly anthropomorphic construction, where logical entities composed of bits become embodied in the images of things familiar to us from the world of atoms. Under the influence of this model, we can convince ourselves that we are ‘dragging’ a ‘document’ to the ‘trash’, even though the operations that are actually happening in our computer’s memory or cpu bear no resemblance to these mundane analogies. Similarly, we are induced to believe we are ‘surfing’ through ‘cyberspace’ whilst we sit dispassionately, twitching our mouse and staring hypnotically into a two-dimensional screen. It is an intimation of the hyper-real world Jean Baudrillard describes, where signs are no longer used to point to, or even conceal, reality — but to conceal the absence of anything we could recognize as reality.

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In the beginning was the word These reflections lead me to wonder whatever happened to ‘hypertext’ — the idea that words could ‘do’ as well as ‘say’, whilst remaining located contextually within a narrative. Replacing images with words does away with most of the problems with icons, returning the computing environment from the make-believe world of manipulating tokens to something that can be more closely correlated with what actually goes on under the hood. Since the bulk of teh information we access with our computers is still predominantly verbal, it seems surprising that this has not been more widely explored. The book became an extraordinary cognitive and aesthetic artefact despite its predominantly verbal content — why not the web page? Words seem to be disparaged in the new media — perhaps because the people who are involved in shaping it have so little sympathy for them. This is particularly ironic, since words can o·en have the resonances, ambiguities and figurative dimensions that icons — in the few pixels allotted to them — are incapable of. It’s also sobering to reflect that while the Internet was limited to 7-bit ascii text, it gave rise to all sorts of experimental forms — including the idea of the virtual community. Since it has been able to accommodate images, however, it has simply mutated into a giant marketing billboard. But I do agree that a liberal sprinkling of icons can make computer applications look pretty.

This piece was written for the Summer 1998 issue of Eye Magazine. Re-reading it three years later, the arguments seem of mixed quality. We hear less of ‘visual vs verbal’ these days — perhaps as a result of a generally better understanding of cognition. Less hopeful, though, is the continuing insistence on describing interfaces as ‘metaphors’. If we can’t distinguish between ‘simulations’ (or, as I’ve seen them called elsewhere, ‘simulacra’) and metaphors, we’re in trouble.

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Brand or Identity?

In the last few years, it has become increasingly common to hear the terms ‘brand’ and ‘identity’ used interchangeably. One even hears people talking about ‘brand identity’ as if the two terms naturally complemented one another. And following the lead of organizations like British Airways, the public face of an organization is now as likely to be called a ‘masterbrand’ as it is a ‘corporate identity’. But are these two things the same? Do the two terms just signify the same process, or do we signal a lack of precision — borne of a lack of understanding — when we talk about them in this way? It has certainly suited many people to confuse the two terms: identity, the designer’s term, has traditionally been the poor relation to brand, the ad-man’s term, and speaking the language of brand has helped to talk up design fees in lean times. Expeditious though this might be, however, it ignores fundamental di‹erences in the circumstances that gave rise to these terms and — crucially — misses the added dimensions that distinguish identity from brand. Different circumstances, different solutions Branding came into existence as a result of an extraordinary set of circumstances that had arisen in mid nineteenth century America. The development of techniques of mass production, the opening up of transport networks and new thinking about management (which originally came from the West Point Military Academy in Virginia) were giving birth to the modern corporation. But these sophisticated

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manufacturing processes, distribution channels and organizational structures brought with them a new problem: how to make sure that prospective customers — who might now be geographically distant, and thus not know of you or your reputation — bought your product rather than your competitors’. A problem that was solved with great ingenuity by the invention of brand. From the beginning, the development of brand was inexorably linked to the new discipline of advertising. Brand imbued a product with an arbitrary set of values. These gave a product, which was e‹ectively no di‹erent from anyone else’s, a degree of uniqueness — making an emotional appeal far beyond anything a mere commodity was capable of. And advertising was the way in which brand could not only be brought to the attention of a mass market, but also given a ‘spin’ from the complementary skills of copywriters, lettering artists and illustrators collected together under the agency roof. Identity came out of a very di‹erent context. By the late 1970s, the ‘great corporations’ — in their traditional roles — were in decline. An emerging global market was weakening the manufacturing base of the industrialized nations at the same time as far reaching social changes were radically reshaping their institutions. The conventionally hierarchical and centralized approach to management was being challenged by the far more flexible and e›cient approach of the Japanese — who favoured flatter organizational structures, a more consensual approach to making decisions, and greater decentralization. The German Mittelstand, with their tightly woven social and economic context, were also beginning to emerge as exemplars — smaller companies whose close working relationships with investors, suppliers and sta‹ allowed them to think in terms of middle- and long-term futures and focus on continual improvement of quality. Among the world’s think tanks, management consultancies and business schools, ideas were beginning to germinate that would later flower as the ‘stakeholder principle’.

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One of the problems that faced the companies who were emerging reorganized and reorientated out of this period of adjustment was that of communicating a sense of coherence and belonging across increasingly dispersed operations. In a pioneering study, two McKinsey consultants, Richard Pascale and Anthony Athos, identified characteristics of organizations that had successfully emulated the Japanese model — characteristics that included such intangibles as style, ethos and what they called superordinate goals (the ‘significant meanings’ that motivated corporate life). Were there ways in which these could be interpreted so that they could be made visible to key audiences? Graphic design, just coming into its own as a business discipline, seemed to o‹er some of the solutions: a facility with imagery and symbolism combined with a culture that was more open to subtlety and ambiguity than the overtly commercial creativity of advertising. So, from the marriage of progressive management thinking and graphic design was born the discipline of corporate identity consultancy. This dichotomy between brand and identity is not a new development. While the terms themselves may be of relatively fresh minting, the concepts behind them were known in antiquity. To the Romans, ‘identity’ and ‘personality’, anima and persona, were seen as a duality. Anima was the soul, from a root that meant breath, inspiration and the sign of life — derived from the Greek psukhe (from which we get psyche). Persona was the Greek prosopon, a mask, extended to mean the secondary, external aspects of the self — those perceived by others — as well as a character, or role, in a play. From a civilization that flourished long before the modern corporation, the concept of Anima precociously anticipates the nature of corporate identity, poetically conveying its role in both enlivening and animating organizational life as well as representing its most deeply held values. And if brand is by contrast inherently theatrical, transient, opportunistic — this could hardly be better described than by the original meanings of persona/prosopon.

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One dimension: many dimensions Lord Leverhulme’s famous gibe, that half his advertising budget was wasted — only he didn’t know which half — underlies one of the greatest weaknesses of advertising. By its very nature media is expensive, transient and of relatively short duration. The brand builder has to concentrate on projecting a succinct, cost e‹ective — and hopefully memorable — message, competing against thousands of others pitched at the same groups of consumers every day. But of course there are many other ways in which organizations are experienced — ways that are seen to be far more reliable indications of the nature of the organization. Above all they are encountered through their products and services, their premises and their communications (which latter category includes the whole range of interactions from face to face contact to formal missives). And these much more ubiquitous, permanent and persistent expressions are the media through which identity is articulated. By dressing up a product or service in theatrical garb, a brand addresses itself to an audience of prospective purchasers — but in the process can make itself dishearteningly out of sync with everyone else. Identity, on the other hand, is concerned with the whole gamut of stakeholders. Rather than addressing just one audience, it provides a means of uniting all the disparate groups of investors, employees, suppliers, customers and local communities — bringing them together in the purposes and aspirations of an organization. Conceptually, the di‹erence is huge — between showmanship and emotional resonance. But in terms of visual execution, it is no less significant —between the obvious, skin-deep and cosmetic depiction of brand and the rich, resonant and archetypal imagery of identity. The distinction between brand and identity, as di‹erent ways of interpreting a visual theme, was given a psychological twist by Carl Jung. In Man and his Symbols, Jung di‹erentiates between images that acquire their meaning through common usage or deliberate intent — as brands do — and images that have a symbolic dimension, pointing to fundamen-

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tal truths that exist partly outside the reach of human consciousness. Symbols — images that imply something more than their obvious and immediate meaning, and which have a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never defined or fully explained, as Jung defines them — have always had a central role in identity. From the emblems of the great religions through the colourful pageant of heraldry to the trade marks of artisans and cra·smen, symbols have traditionally been used to proclaim beliefs, rally flagging hopes and to indicate pride of workmanship. But whatever their overt use, they have also served to signal a depth and reality to the institutions they represent that goes beyond an obvious message, and connects with their audiences at a fundamental level. Consistency and congruity Any set of values can be used to create a brand — the more colourful and far-fetched the better. The only constraint is that it must flatter the pretensions of its targets. Like an actor on the stage, there is absolutely no requirement that anything of the real organization be reflected in the brand (except insofar as it adds value) — all that matters is that the presentation of the brand is always consistent and in character. In fact consistency is o·en valued above any other characteristic, to the extent that the execution of many historic brand insignia has deviated little from their origins in the commercial art of a bygone era. One only has to look at some of the ‘great’ marques — Rover, Heinz, Hoover — to realize how stultified, and how frumpy, they now appear. They have become visual cliches, arguably ever more valuable in financial terms — but ever less meaningful in human terms — the longer they go on. By contrast, identity seeks to bring out the essential qualities of the organization, and give them form. Identity should be a lively expression of the things that make an organization unique, and special, and important to those who are involved with it. It shouldn’t be frozen in time, but live and grow as the organization lives and grows — reflecting that which is organic and human and dynamic about it, not that which is mechanical, impersonal and fixed.

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This can only be achieved if there is some substance there to start with — a living soul and a beating heart, as it were — and it can extend only so far as credibility will allow. Indeed, identity is constrained at every step by the limits of plausibility. If the dissonance between how an organization sees itself and how others see it is too great, its identity will become something ludicrous — the focus for cynicism, disa‹ection and disillusion. Consequently, the development of a corporate identity is not an easy process of gra·ing on something extraneous — as is the development of a brand — but o·en involves deep, sometimes painful, soul searching. And it may be that identity programmes require substantial changes to be seen to be made before the task of visual identification can begin. So it is easy to see why the idea of branding an organization, which dispenses with any need for introspection or change, has been so persuasive. In a warning to anyone who would approach an identity project ignoring the discrepancy between aspirations and reality, the Australian communications expert Professor David Sless tells the cautionary tale of a company called ‘City Mutual Life’. This was known by some of its employees, somewhat disingenuously, as ‘Shitty Mutual Life’. In a bid to improve perceptions — but, allegedly, without altering the substance behind them — the company changed its name to ‘Capita’. Within moments of the announcement being made, the same employees had christened it ‘Crapita’. Into the future What does the future hold for branding and identity? On one level, it is clear that the circumstances that originally prompted the development of branding have changed — in most cases product or service o‹erings are now much more than just packaged commodities, and are already distinguished by di‹erences in design, preparation or price point. And increasing consumer awareness — occasionally to the extent of what Faith Popcorn has termed ‘consumer vigilantism’ — is redressing the balance of power between vendor and purchaser. People want

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to know where the things they buy come from, what goes into them and what they can realistically expect from them. More than anything, however, they want to know where the buck stops — if anything goes wrong, who is going to sort out the problem for them. Organizations that have, in the past, operated behind numerous brands are finding that customers — and not just customers, but interested parties of all kinds — are coming back to the parent company with their concerns. Ironically, endorsing a brand with a corporate identity is being seen as adding value to it — leading to the speculation that some kind of ‘product identity’ may ultimately supersede the brand as we know it. The innate human desire for authenticity, attested by thinkers from Handy to Heidegger, should not be underestimated — and is exploited at one’s peril. If the weakness of the branded approach is that an organization’s audiences are uncomfortable with the discrepancy between the mask and the person wearing it, the strength of identity is precisely that it does assert that there is something real behind the product or service o‹ering. And as new media arise that further remove stakeholders from face-to-face contact with an organization (including employees who may find themselves working from home, on site in client’s premises or ‘hot desking’ in a club like environment) the assertion of authenticity may become the biggest single issue facing the corporation of the twenty-first century. However, it is as a catalyst for change that identity o‹ers its most compelling business rationale to the millennial organization. Management guru Rosabeth Moss Kanter says: ‘The ultimate skill for change mastery works on… (the) larger context surrounding the innovation process. It consists of the ability to conceive, construct, and convert into behaviour a new view of organizational reality. […] Innovation and change, I am suggesting, are bound up with the meanings attached to events and the action possibilities that flow from those meanings. But that very recognition — of the symbolic, conceptual, cultural side of change — makes it more di›cult to see change as a mechanical process and extract the “formula” for producing it.’ The symbolic, conceptual, cultural side of

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change is exactly what identity seeks to communicate — and precisely what distinguishes it from branding, whether corporate or otherwise.

This piece was written in 1997 as a marketing ‘think piece’ for Precedent Communications. Since then I find myself increasingly agreeing with brand critics such as Naomi Klein, Thomas Frank and Douglas Rushko‹. I’m also less sure that the idea of identity holds — much of the business thinking that impressed me at the time (epitomized in Charles Handy’s ‘Empty Raincoat’ and Arie de Geus’ ‘Living Company’) now seems to reflect the values of a previous era. Perhaps the real distinction now is between an approach based on hype and an approach that tries to represent some kind of reality. But there needs to be a real sense of ‘identity’ to represent, and at a time when organizations are busily divesting themselves of their pasts and growing through mergers and acquisitons it can sometimes be hard to know where to find it!

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Imagined histories

What’s wrong with the way we teach history to designers? To an academic community embattled with funding and sta›ng cuts, it must seem churlish to question the precious little cultural or contextual education that it is possible to provide to design students. Perhaps if one frames this question in di‹erent terms — for instance, why we use the ‘great men’ theory of history, instead of a Marxist, Deleuzian or some other theoretical approach, one might get a warmer response. But the question I want to pose has a di‹erent slant on it than this. It is why, when we claim to prize the iconoclasm and creative energy of our new designers, we teach them to engage with the past not with the power of their imagination but by adopting critical and analytical methods that are largely alien to their principal ways of working? I’m not asking this question in anticipation of an answer — there are probably many, ranging from ‘well, this is the way we’ve always done it’ to the perceived need of art schools, newly integrated into the university system, to demonstrate some sort of academic respectability. I am asking it, however, because I’m interested in what designers do with their historical knowledge — and because I’m interested in what it might mean to engage imaginatively with the past. For I am firmly convinced that the way we currently teach history to designers, which really only di‹ers in degree from the way it is taught to historians, fails to draw on the strengths of design students, and o·en presses hard on their weaknesses. At this point, I’d like to interpose an objection which one o·en hears

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which goes something like this: ‘by teaching designers to develop skills in critical analysis, research and synthesis, we’re helping them to master an intellectual skillset that will complement their creative skills’. In a sense, this is an accompaniment to the familiar tune of ‘preparing designers for the real world’ — wherever, or however, that might be. Before going on, I’d like to answer this objection lest it seem to undermine my case. And my answer is that in at least one version of the real world, the world of commerce in which some of us work, there is actually no shortage of people with a superb command of analytical thinking. But in the consensual, team-led approach with which many organizations now approach design projects, there is a real need for people who can think in other ways. I’d like, for a moment, to look at some of the weaknesses of the ways that we teach, learn or use history — from the designer’s perspective. The first observation is that we tend to objectify history, to set ourselves apart, as observers and critics, from past generations of designers and the themes, processes and preoccupations in which they were caught up. That is, the ‘mind’ we bring to history sets up a subject-object dualism which is largely alien to the mind we bring to design (a mind that is participated in its representations, to use Owen Barfield’s very useful term). The second observation is that the fundamental, and irreconcilable, di‹erences between these approaches creates a tension in our relationship with the past and with the tradition of which we are a part. On the one hand, the view of history as a linear progression or evolution (sometimes referred to as the ‘Whig model’) highlights our predecessors’ shortcomings and shows their strengths to be merely relative. On the other hand, we are drawn — as practitioners — to a sense of respectful fellowship with them in a way that stands outside of time. One voice encourages us to become tomb robbers and slanderers, appropriating what we will of history’s ultimate clip art collection whilst slagging o‹ its authors, knowing that they aren’t able to protect their work against our mocking references and shallow criticisms. Another voice condemns this as a kind of sacrilege — or to use a more comtemporary term, piracy — knowing instinctively that the rights we

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accord to the living are due equally to the dead. In the context of teaching design history, it is the former voice: harsh, judgmental, o·en shrill, that we teach our students to listen to. And what do we do with our historical knowledge — apart from using it as a way of signalling to our peers how educated we are, spicing up our work with knowing little references? This seems to me to be trivial, and trivializing, in the extreme. Clearly, though, there are a small minority of designers who take a kind of antiquarian delight in researching recondite aspects of design: shedding new light on the authorship of an artefact, or investigating the impact of long disused technologies on long dead societies. I don’t want to disparage their enthusiasm and scholarship — on the contrary, I lament that it is not more common. It is hard, though, to see how this kind of hobbyist interest can impact significantly on the practice of design, or help to resolve the tensions I’ve mentioned. However, following the promptings of the imagination may help us to use our relationship to the past as an inspiration, rather than an impediment, to our own authentic creativity. Now this raises a question of what we actually mean by the imagination. That there is such a thing — the ability of our brains to spontaneously fire up visual, auditory and other systems without sensory stimulation — is one of the more surprising discoveries of modern neuroscience. But despite these findings, imagination is still little more than a colourful metaphor — and certainly as far as the education and practice of designers is concerned, it is not treated as a faculty to be developed and exercised. The reasons for this seem to be largely historic. Since the decline of the Romantic movement in the middle of the nineteenth century, the idea of an active and productive imagination has been marginalized. Its role in revealing and comprehending meaning has been usurped by a narrow and quantitative empiricism — so much so that few people now have a concept of what imagination is, and what it is capable of. At best, it is a kind of childish whimsy. To get a sense of what it could be, we have to go bakc to the great thinkers of the Romantic period.

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This is Blake: He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments and in stronger and better light than his perishing and mortal eye can see, does not imagine at all. And this is Coleridge: The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite i am. And Goethe: Imagination is first re-creative, repeating only the objects. Furthermore, it is productive by animating, developing, extending, transforming the objects. In addition, we can postulate a perceptive imagination which apprehends identities and similarities… Here it becomes evident how desirable analogy is which carries the mind to many related points, so that its activity can unite again the homogenous and the homologous. It is in Goethe’s conception of the imagination that we find perhaps the most sophisticated model of a complementary mind — with striking analogies to the design process, not as theorized, but as actually practised. In a recent assessment of Goethe’s imaginative ‘way of science’ — to which he devoted a much greater portion of his time than to his literary work — physicist and philosopher of science Henri Borto· says: For Goethe, on the other hand, there is another kind of seeing, which sees connections instead of separations. This is the seeing of imagination. Now this is certainly not the same as having an abstract idea, as in analytical thinking, but neither is it the same kind of seeing as that which sees physical objects. Imagination sees connections directly, so there is wholeness where for sensory seeing there is separateness. Wittgenstein emphasized that what is seen in the seeing of connections must not be thought of

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as if it were an object — because that belongs to sensory seeing. Because the connection overcomes the separateness, the connection itself cannot have the quality of separateness — which means that it cannot be like a physical object. Hence the seeing of connections cannot be like the seeing of physical objects. So when the connection is seen, nothing new is added in the sense of a new object which can be seen by the senses. In this respect, everything stays the same. What is di‹erent is the mode of togetherness, not the addition of an extra object called a ‘connection’. The way of seeing changes, and with it the mode of togetherness of the elements which are seen. Despite the fact that what Borto· and Goethe are talking about here is doing science, and what we’re talking about is doing history, there are some arresting analogies. For it is precisely the seeing of connections that designers bring to their work in the studio, and if we can take that (largely untutored) skill and apply it to seeing historical connections, we can simultaneously strengthen the use of the imagination and encourage a more profound engagement with history. What exactly might this involve? One practical exercise that could easily be set to students would be to ‘rehearse’ a designer to whom they are particularly drawn. The first stage of this would be to immerse themselves in his or her work, and to find out as much as possible about his or her life. Although this might sound no di‹erent to the research a student would do for a critical essay or dissertation, the emphasis would be more like an actor getting into role — developing a feel for the person behind the work. At the point at which they felt that they had really got ‘under the designer’s skin’, the project could move into its performance stage. This would involve tackling a design project as that person. So, supposing the student had chosen Jan Tschichold, he or she would tackle the brief in character. Again, this might sound like a typical college project of the ‘design a poster in the style of…’. But following the very important distinction Borto· makes (and the whole value of this exercise rests on an understanding of that distinction)

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this would not be designing in the style of Tschichold but designing as Tschichold. Like the novelist, or perhaps the biographer — but unlike the historian — the student would be establishing, exploring, deepening a sense of connectedness with their subject, and a sense being situated in a continuous process. But to return to Goethe. Goethe developed a disciplined and rigorous practice of imagination which he called exacte sinnliche phantasie (exact sensorial imagination). Goethe’s exercises involved investing all his attention into observation of his object and then precisely recreating it in imagination — a process he would repeat over and over again. Borto· says of this that ‘it has the e‹ect of giving thinking more the quality of perception and sensory perception more the quality of thinking’. It was an imagination delineated in ‘stronger and better lineaments’, as Blake had it. However, unlike Blake, whose eidetic gi·s were inborn and never lost their childhood fidelity, Goethe had to work persistently at cultivating his imagination. ‘Not through an extraordinary spiritual gi·, not through momentary inspiration, unexpected and unique, but through consistent work did I eventually achieve such satisfactory results’. But, perhaps as a result of the empirical, positivist trends that shaped the Modern movement — and recently exacerbated by increasing use of computers — the processes of visualization in design have become increasingly externalized. It is now unusual to find a designer capable of seeing a design concept in her or his imagination: it is more and more common to see the visualization caried out on the layout pad, or the screen. What is lost here isn’t just a kind of mental ‘virtual reality’ but the power to comprehend connectedness. Owen Barfield, whose researches in language and meaning owed a great deal to his grasp of Goethean Science, grasped how this might apply to our approach to history. He says: ‘We study, or we ought to study, history not simply for the purpose of producing more and morebooks, or dissertations, but because the only possible way of grasping in any depth both what as individuals we are, and where we are, is by grasping with imagination, where we came from and how we got

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here’. Imagined history, then, is history grasped through the imagination. It is not history as a series of subject-object interactions, swept along by unseen processes towards an ultimate consummation, with a detached observer perched conveniently on the cusp of the future. Instead, it is a history brought into the imagination as a living entity in which connections, both between the protagonists and with the ‘historian’, are linked by a kind of organic necessity. It is a history where we co-exist with the long dead, as colleagues and fellow investigators rather than as adversaries. And it is history in which the facts ‘speak for themselves’, in much the same way as one designer’s work speaks to another. As such, it follows the Romantic notion of Bildung (culture: self-development), which Borto· defines as a ‘specially human way of coming into one’s own by finding oneself in what is experienced, at first, as other than oneself. In seeking to understand something which is alien to us, we become more fully ourselves.’ I intend to be no more explicit about it, but to leave it with you to be explored imaginatively. I want to conclude with a quote from Peter Ackroyd’s English Music, which I think is an example of the best kind of imagined history. At the end of the book the narrator is reflecting on his life and his very personal engagement with history. Yes, I have inherited the past because I have acknowledged it at last. It belongs with my father, and with his books, but it also belongs with me. And now that I understand it, I no longer need to look back. Edward was wrong when he described the recurring cycles of history: they disappear as soon as you recognize them for what they are. Perhaps that is why I have written all this down, in a final act of recognition. I do not know what is le· for me now, but I feel able to rise to my feet in expectation and walk steadily forward without any burden. And that, I think, beautifully summarizes why we — and here I mean designers especially — need to engage imaginatively with history. That we might ultimately be free from its claims.

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‘Imagined histories’ was originally a paper that I gave at the 1996 Design History Conference in London. It was not well received — few of the academics who assembled to hear it seemed to understand what I was trying to say, and of those who did none were happy about it. This e‹ectively marked the end of my brief flirtation with academia, and concluded my part-time career as a design educator. In retrospect, I’m glad that the Design History Conference turned out to be such a watershed — from that point on I reverted to being a practitioner, realizing that that was where my passion lay.

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Philosophy and graphic design
26 August 1997

leif: Philosophers o‹er a number of views of truth, some of which may even be relevant to graphic design. You mention several philosophers, but they come from the more ‘mechanistic’ (positivist: empiricist) pole of philosophy (e.g. Russell, Popper, Neurath and early Wittgenstein). I’ve found philosophy extremely helpful in unravelling some of the dilemmas of graphic design in my own work, but personally I’m more inclined towards — how to describe it? — the ‘organic’ pole. Bergson, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty etc. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s ‘Retrieving the Question of Artistic Truth’ in Truth and Method sheds interesting light on this question. Now getting to graphic design… Jorge Frascara once wrote an article in which he advocated objectively measurable goals as a part of the planning process. In this way, the success of a design can be evaluated against its original intentions. Again, I discern a somewhat ‘mechanistic’ tendency. If you see people as ‘users’, and design as an activity that can be measured against the intention to ‘influence’ them in some way, then this approach is valid. But I have a real problem identifying myself as a ‘communications user’ — and in my own work, in subjecting people to an experiment in engineering compliance. For me, a more humane view of what I do as a designer is that I initiate a conversation. For in a conversation it is not so much what you say that is important — indeed, much conversation consists of things we already know and believe — but what the other person feels about themselves and, of course, about you. Indeed it strikes me that in con-

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versation the content/container relationship is actually inverted — the ostensible ‘message’ is in fact a carrier, an excuse, for the framing and reframing that goes on around it. So that the sound of one’s voice, the pattern of the words, the rhythms of speaking and listening are what makes the principal impression. If one talks in terms of ‘conversations’, I believe one has a better explanation of what is happening in graphic design — which seems to be moving rapidly away from a crude, mechanical model based on 40’s ‘Communication Theory’ towards something far more interesting.

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Thinking and the brain
27 August 1997

leif: Research indicates that we do not think in words, but in some kind of internal code. Informal evidence for this is dysphasia. Before he died, my father had this due to a stroke. While his thinking was intact, he would o·en use the wrong word. We both knew what he meant. The research I’ve come across points towards much of our ‘thinking’ being done before we become conscious of it — to that extent, I’m sure you’re right that it is pre-verbal. But to suggest that we don’t think — here, meaning consciously deliberate — in words goes against most of our experience. Your father’s dysphasia o‹ers a fascinating insight into the way the brain works, but it doesn’t contradict the assertion that much of our conscious experience is verbal. Imaging and language use di‹erent parts of the brain. As I understand it language is localized on one side of the brain. Indeed, but I’m not sure how much emphasis one should place on di‹erent activities being located in di‹erent parts of the brain. For a start, the human brain is a relatively small organ (about the size of a grapefruit), and it is criss-crossed by neural connections. Furthermore, Roger Sperry and Joseph Bogen were at great pains to emphasise that their research into people with ‘split brains’ — whilst it illuminated the lateral specialization of the brain — was research into an abnormality. For the rest of us, the two halves of our brains are connected by a massive bandwidth link, the corpus callosum, which routinely carries a huge amount of tra›c between them. The ‘split brain’ model was interesting, because it gave us an opportunity to see that there was more to human cerebration than ‘rational’ ‘intellectual’ thinking — characterised as a ‘le· brain’ activity. This was very important to those of us who had always believed that what we

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did — and the way we thought — couldn’t be explained with reference to an analytical model. Since then (the split brain concept was enthusiastically promoted in Ornstein’s 1973 The Psychology of Consciousness) our understanding of the brain — prompted by research in neurophysiology and the cognitive sciences — has become a lot more sophisticated. We now know, for instance, that whilst tasks involving language involve concentrated activity in a localized part of the le· hemisphere, they also seem to involve activity in discrete parts of the right hemisphere as well. We also know that linguistic activities that engage the ‘imagination’ — such as listening to poetry or reading stories — can cause the visual processing areas at the back of the brain to fire up. And so on. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed dyslexic students producing some of the most consistently interesting graphic design. Since my eledest son is dyslexic, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking to them about their educational experiences and the way they approach their work. One of the things that many have asserted is that they found themselves approaching ‘visible language’ as form — largely because they struggled with its role as carrier of meaning (something the rest of us o·en take for granted) — and as a result developed a completely di‹erent relationship with it. And it may be that this relationship gi·s them with such an extraordinary facility in seeing letterforms as images. I don’t know — but it is an interesting thought.

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More philosophy
27 August 1997

Steve: Could you please discuss the specific works of Heidegger you feel relate to the design process? I am very interested in the relation between design and philosophy and would like to know what parallels you draw from Heidegger’s works. Before I launch into this one, here’s a quote from Heidegger (speaking in 1955 at a commemoration of composer Conradin Kreutzer): ‘Man finds himself in a perilous position... A far greater danger threatens [than the outbreak of a third world war]: the approaching tide of technological revolution in the atomic age could so captivate, bewitch, dazzle and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practised as the only way of thinking. What great danger then might move upon us? Then there might go hand in hand with the greatest ingenuity in calculative planning and inventing, indi‹erence toward ‘meditative’ thinking, total thoughtlessness. And then? Then man would have denied and throw away his own special nature — that he is a meditative being. Therefore the issue is the saving of man’s essential nature. Therefore the issue is keeping meditative thinking alive.’ Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1966. That — in words far more eloquent than I could have framed — expresses, for me, exactly what I think I am trying to do as a designer. On the one hand, a concern about the trend that is trying to roll design into ‘calculative thinking’, on the other, a growing desire to foster in myself — and provoke in the audiences who receive my work — a state of ‘meditative’ thinking (in Heidegger’s, rather than the New Age, sense).

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Much of the appeal of Heidegger for me lies in his concepts of authenticity and inauthenticity — the state of purposive, responsible, significant living contrasted with the depersonalized, dehumanized state stripped of meaning and dignity. Whether we like it or not, we (graphic designers) are caught up in the stuggle between authenticity and inauthenticity — and, as a mouthpiece for the values and priorities of our societies, we have a small but crucial role to play. I’d also identify Heidegger’s interpretation of Dasein (‘existence’, ‘being’) as a key concept pertaining to graphic design in the 90’s. I’d suggest that there are primarily two aspects to this — the first concerning Heidegger’s insistence that being is characterised by a‹ective relationships with people and things. Since our work is primarily a‹ective, what Heidegger has to say about being in this respect has an interesting bearing on graphic design. The second is the way in which he sees being as a unity behind the (inauthentic) duality of mind and body — or translated into our own sphere — meaning and form. In terms of Leif’s reference to the analytic tradition of Russell, Wittgenstein, and others, the ‘organic thinkers’ you mention primarily situate themselves in the phenomenological tradition or its a·ermath. I o·en wonder why classical works of philosophy have not cropped up in conversation. I recall that Plato did crop up in our discussions last year. But you raise an interesting question — which I’ve touched upon before — which is why design criticism has chosen to adopt the cloudy precepts of postmodernism when the phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions provide so many insights with direct relevance to our preoccupations.

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Blake, Goethe and cognition
27 August 1997

nancy: A couple I’ve known for many years are involved with basic research in cognitive psychology. He asked me one night how I get memories. I, naturally, said ‘In full color pictures’. He asked if I get sounds, words, schematics, or anything else. I don’t. That, he said, makes mine an eidetic mind (this does not mean I have a ‘photographic memory’ in the popular sense, just that I think in realistic pictures). He questioned me for a long time, eagerly, as he gets so few subjects of this type; eidetics comprise 5% of the population. That 5% would be us. The other 95% is our audience. Cognitive Science does like to put things in neat pigeon-holes, though. When I think of an eidetic mind, I think immediately of William Blake. Through some quirk of genetics or destiny, he had an extraordinarily developed eidetic ability. No doubt some of you know Varley’s story about the ‘ghost of a flea’ — how Blake could envisage this monster before him so precisely that when he started to draw it ‘he began on another part of the paper, to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch, till he had closed it’. Yet, as a natural and complete eidetic, Blake also had extraordinary facility with words. His Tyger is the most widely known poem here in the UK — and consistently ranks either at the top or among the first three in popularity. By contrast Goethe was not a natural eidetic — but, through sheer persistence and patience, he developed the extraordinary eidetic capacities which form the basis of his unique form of scientific enquiry (to which he devoted more time than his writing). What is remarkable in his case is that it is almost a complete inversion of Blake’s — Goethe was first the man of letters, later an eidetic — whilst Blake was a natu-

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ral eidetic who became an autodidact and taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew and later Italian (to read Dante) in his forties. Personally, I consider it a tragedy that we don’t encourage the development of eidetic capacities — and that as a society we have allowed them to atrophy. But it may be that if we acquire greater fluency and literacy with images, as a result of ‘new media’ (from cinema to the Web), we will switch from being predominantly verbal to predominantly visual. I don’t know. I don’t see though that this means it is a ‘them’ and ‘us’ situation as far as the projection of these abilities through design. That, I think, is one of the mistakes of information design — which believes that the designer has to meet the ‘user’ on the latter’s terms. The result, inevitably, is prosaic in the extreme — ‘plain’ language that both Blake and Goethe would have flinched at, layout that looks like an experiment in syllogistic logic, typography where the demands of maximum legibility destroy any mystery or magic — form following function down the road to perdition. Yet information design is the logical extension of the insights of cognitive science — with its unquestioned assumptions about ‘usability’ — into graphic design. In truth, I wonder whether the goal of usability is actually achievable — or whether it is a kind of Xanadu for those with an instinctive desire to impose order onto design and channel it towards ‘rational’ ends, underpinned by their distincly verbal/intellectual respect for research and analysis. An alternative is to suggest that what the designer does is to o‹er her/his work as a mirror, in which the looker sees himself/herself reflected — each according to their own abililites, proclivities and aspirations. And here again I’d point towards Blake — who remained uncompromisingly true to his convictions and insights (even to the point of refusing a way out of the grinding poverty that characterised his life). Yet vast numbers of people find something important for them in his work (verbal and visual) — whilst remaining untouched and unmoved by the latest ‘cognitive artefact’ to emerge from Siegel & Gale’s ‘Simplification Unit’.

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Can one learn to be eidetic?
27 August 1997

Pat: So James, is this eidetic ability teachable? I never realized that I think in words, but that is surely the case. I remember being able, as a child, to visualize in my mind. But for years now, when I close my eyes I only see darkness. And I would very much like to be able to see the faces of loved ones instead. You can understand how frustrating it is to do art as I do, and be limited to life rendering exclusively. One of the only attempts at portraiture from memory resulted in a strange looking character indeed. I studied this drawing intently as it was very lifelike but resembled no one that I knew, and wondered to myself if this person’s image came from somewhere deep within. I suspect that I simply developed the portrait as I went, and that the features were a compilation of people that I had done previously. An interesting thread..this. I can only speak for myself… and to say that it appears to be learnable. That isn’t, of course, the same thing as teachable — but it may be an answer to your question. Like you, I recall having strong eidetic abilities as a child. Don’t most children? But I wonder what e‹ect our educational methods — which o·en encourage abstract intellection at the expense of sensorial imagination — have on us. By the time I was ten or eleven these eidetic abilities had e‹ectively gone. For some years, without great diligence, I have been consciously trying to cultivate my imagination. I wanted to t to develop the ability to conceive of a design concept as a fully fledged image. However, I’ve found this particularly di›cult — and elusive. (Sometimes it seemed to be possible in that narrow territory between waking and sleep). Then, a few months ago, I was describing a concept to a colleague and I realised I was visualising it, as a more-or-less finished item, as we spoke.

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Since then, this has become a fairly common occurrence. But fine detail still remains di›cult — it requires more attention that I am currently capable of giving to resolve much beyond the general outlines. And, like in a dream, text appears to be impossible to grab hold of (pity, since that would crack the copy problem!). Since this is a relatively novel thing for me, previously very much a verbal person, there’s not much more I can say about it. Except that it appears to be both a boon and something of a curse. A boon, because it is much easier to enthuse a client with a project if you can, e‹ectively, see the/an end result there before you. And a curse because getting anywhere near enough to the thing I see is beyond my modest cra· skills — any serendipity in putting a job together (which I used to see as a blessing) has become a distraction away from the object I see in my mind. Still, I wouldn’t now have it any other way.

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Reading and writing
29 August 1997

kc: I o·en read (especially but not always fiction) in full concept mode. It can be disconcerting when the ‘real world’ intrudes. Very similar to being awakened unexpectedly from a vivid dream. Actually, the same thing happens to me when I get ‘into’ a design problem/solution. I really am ‘inside’ the design. I’d always assumed that everybody similarly got carried away by some good descriptive prose, but now I’m wondering if this assumption needs to be questioned. That feeling of no longer being aware of the words — or even particularly of reading — is to me one of the great pleasures of literature. But books are not universally popular or appreciated in our societies, so it is perhaps a pleasure that has passed many people by? And does literary criticism — which shi·s the emphasis from experiencing a book to analysing its structure and style — cause people to stop seeing the wood for the trees? This is, perhaps, tied into another strand from this thread — which is, should we be creating for people who are like us, or people who are unlike us? Clearly there are ‘academic’ novelists, who place more importance on cleverly cra·ing prose than on the experience — but my suspicion is that for many novelists the experiences of writing and reading are intimately connected. Certainly this is the case with designers — we tend to seek out and ‘consume’ good design and also, as Gunnar suggested some time back, take it apart to see how it works. But should we actually be saying ‘most people don’t do this, therefore let us design something that they can understand on their own terms (whatever those are)’. I feel strongly that we should be inviting our audiences to meet us on our terms — or at least meeting us halfway. But maybe a sizable number of people can’t do that?

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Coercion
29 August 1997

leif: In our culture, the term ‘behavior modification’ has very negative connotations, but in the pure sense, that’s what we’re about. A reality of graphic design is that it intends to influence people. At times, you do want to elicit one specific behavior. With a campaign to get kids to wear bicycle helmets, the bottom line is that you want them to do it. More ideally, I view design as decision support. You want to o‹er audience a range of choices that they did not have before. Something that I’ve wondered about a great deal is: if one reads Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, one comes away with the impression that the advertising industry knew (most of this book refers to the 50s) a great deal about human motivation — and that they had a sophisticated ‘technology’ for leveraging this knowledge. Significantly, this is the same period that media attention was focussed on the ‘brain washing’ scares emerging from the Korean War — and the belief that the Chinese possessed extraordinary methods of engineering compliance. ‘Motivation Research’, if I remember correctly, is the phrase Packard gave to this powerful knowledge. But whatever happened to ‘Motivation Research’? Either it didn’t really work, or the advertising industry couldn’t make it work, or they decided (for whatever reason) they didn’t want to make it work. For one only has to spend a few hours on the inside of a contemporary agency to realize that the creatives who actually cra· the ads know surprisingly little about human motivation, rarely actually use research (except as a show to placate the ‘suits’) and rely in the most part on whim, hunch and traditional formulae. British advertising (I don’t really know much about the US kind) is amazingly sophisticated — but that sophistication comes out of an art-school, rather than a buisiness school or psy-

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chology department, background. It is notoriously self-referential — a careful observer can discern all manner of subtle references to film, popular music, literature etc. — but the perceptual engineering is comparatively crude. By the late seventies, when Judith Williamson wrote her seminal Decoding Advertisements, the argument had shi·ed significantly. Her exposé — from the point of view of a strong Marxist position on ‘consumer fetishism’ — looked at the use of semiotics by the ad-industry. Well, the intellectual climate of the time was dominated by the French Freudo-Marxists, so it is not surprising to see this coming through. But again, here was a critic predicating enormous sophistication and cleverness to an industry the vast majority of whom probably couldn’t give an adequate definition of a denotation — let alone expound the theories of Lacan or Althusser. (One only has to compare the subtlety imputed by Williamson to the seat-of-the-pants techniques espoused by David Ogilvy in the roughly contemporary ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ to get a sense of the gulf that separated them). We’re in much the same position now — only the ‘big idea’ of today is the cognitive sciences. No doubt some ambitious academic has a publication in proof, even as I write, that demonstrates that the advertising industry has a powerful methodology based on a profound understanding of the neurology of the human brain. And no doubt it will make chilling bed-time reading for those of us who are too grown up to read pulp thrillers. But, once again, I doubt there would actually be much basis to it. The conclusion that I draw from all this is that ‘behaviour modification’ has been a very convenient myth — in whatever fashionable form it has taken. Whilst advertisers always denied that they did it, they also loved people to impute it of them — suggesting that they were far cleverer than they actually were. But actually, the basic techniques (beautifully described, from a psychological perspective, in Robert Cialdini’s book Influence) are simple things that most of us do instinctively much of the time, without thinking about them. Whether you look at them

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in rhetorical, behaviourist, linguistic or neurophysiological terms they are a fundamental part of the way human beings try to get one over on each other. Since they can be described, and recognized, on an anecdotal, everyday basis they don’t really deserve to be dignified with complex conspiracy theories or subtle political analyses. Like most tricks, they work well until the other person understands what is going on — at which point the trickster ends up looking rather foolish. So, I think the time has come for a thorough debunking of the whole thing. I don’t think any serious designer really wants to involve herself/ himself in the visual equivalent of ‘find the lady’, which is what this amounts to. Nor do I think that we really want to encourage our clients to stoop to things that should, by rights, be well beneath their dignity. But unfortunately, whilst advertising has allowed itself to dri· into a state of somewhat lackadaisical self-indulgence, there is a vocal lobby in graphic design that wants to push us back into the ghetto of ‘scientific communication’. Which means, as far as I can discern, still trying to make people think and feel things that they might not otherwise want to.

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Assumptions about ‘legibility’
1 September 1997

kc: I was involved in a play that had posters so attractive that people were stealing and collecting them. We had empty seats every night and people were still trying to get tickets three weeks a·er the play closed, because the dates were so unobtrusive that no one noticed and/or remembered them. It gave a very good artistic impression of the theater and continued to do so for several years because people kept and framed them. Is that worth the fact that it failed as an advertising piece? The information was there and not di›cult to read, it just didn’t look important. But then look at the psychedelic posters that Vic Moscoso, Rick Gri›n and Wes Wilson were creating circa 1967. Not only couldn’t one read the date, but the venue and the artist were equally obscure. However, I don’t believe that it was a problem filling the auditoria — Steve Miller, Van Morrison and the Grateful Dead (minus, of course, Pig Pen and Jerry Garcia) are with us still, rather than busking in Market Street on busy Saturday a·ernoons. Might I cautiously suggest (without wanting to step on anyone’s toes) that your poster was actually more desirable than the play was appealing? It is not that unusual for a designed promo to be more interesting than the product itself… Which brings me on to Leif: A few years ago, I saw Susan Colberg — now a professor at the University of Alberta — propose an alphabet designed to teach dyslexic children to read. The aphabet was designed to incorporate phoenetic cues into the typography. Her initial results were very encouraging. Which, as the parent of a dyslexic child, I find very interesting. Dyslexics appear to find typefaces easier where there is a maximum

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of di‹erence between letterforms — especially the ambiguous b and d, p and q — easier to read. These days, typographers tend to prefer these typefaces, too. It’s only educators who insist on children’s reading books being printed in homogenous ‘futura’ style types, or in adapting classic faces so they end up having more ambiguous ‘single story’ a’s or redrawing ‘looking glass’ g’s (so that they can be confused with the single story ‘a’s). So sometimes our instincts can be undermined by our client’s briefs. I have also heard about a project in Australia to redesign signage on the most accident prone motorway in the country. Not only did design save lives, it paid for itself by saving the government something like $2,000,000 in ambulance costs yearly. Which is marvellous. But in fi·een years of graphic design (at least seven of which were spent as an information designer) I’ve never been called upon to do anything that had life saving implications. So this is not exactly a typical brief. For every piece of graphic design that has to ‘do’ something, there are at least ten that simply have to ‘say’ something (an I’d guess that this estimate errs on the conservative side). But it is also interesting to observe how information design — which sees itself as a ‘serious’ genre (in contrast to the rest of us, who are dismissed as ‘stylists’) — is unwittingly influenced by stylistic considerations. Perhaps the most famous example is the way in which the British Minsistry of Transport preferred Design Research Unit’s then fashionable lower case sans serif road signs (which use Jock Kinnear’s Akzidenz derived ‘transport’ alphabet) over David Kindersley’s organic serif, all caps version. Yet Kindersley’s prototypes were uniformly found to be more legible, in all weather conditions, than DRU’s. But then the unholy relationship between Infomation Design and sans serif typography becomes comprehensible when one recognizes that the infodesign is a really an extension of the Modernist project by other means. I’d be prepared to bet money that the Australian signage job used a solution straight out of Muller Brockman.

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Blake
1 September 1997

Steve: To bring this post back to the design arena, I will bring the poet William Blake into the fold. In addition to Symbolist poets, Blake’s poetry involves a great deal of the ‘sense-mixing’ of which Conni speaks: ‘How the chimney-sweepers cry/Every blackning Church appals,/And the hapless soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down palace walls’ (from London). I o‹er this line as an e‹ort to link the creative processes of writing and design together (not as an example of pedantry). One only needs to look as far as Blake’s own Songs of Innocence and Experience to see how his writing and design minds came together. It’s gratifying to know that you’re not alone! For me, Blake is the archetype of the graphic designer for the twenty-first century — auteur, visionary, social critic, person of principle and integrity. Now I can add ‘synaesthete’ to that list!

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Language
1 September 1997

leif: Linguists refer to the internal code we think of as ‘mentalese’, and believe there are several interdependent processes involved in translating from mentalese to spoken language. (Chomsky’s term ‘deep structure’ refers to one of these.) But (as you’d expect me to say!) only some linguists. Chomsky and Pinker — especially Pinker, since he’s made the brilliant career move of linking Chomsky with evolutionary biology — are in the ascendant at the moment. (This coincides with a period of ascendancy of the ‘nature’ lobby in the sciences generally). Chomsky’s love of formal logic also links him with those philosophers you mentioned before — and especially with the rather tedious ‘linguistic analysis’ that grew out of Logical Positivism. However, there are other positions within linguistics. Benjamin Lee Whorf — who’s now under fire from no less than four disciplines (which makes him an especially interesting figure from my somewhat maverick point of view) — asserted what I consider to be a fundamental truth when he suggested that: ‘We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. […] We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.’ Pinker, who seems to consistently misunderstand Whorf, tries to nail him in The Language Instinct. Unfortunately (and rather amusingly) he gets himself in a complete twist — giving a ridiculous example of a supposedly Apache sentence about a canoe. It says something about the

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quality of his scholarship (and his common sense) that the original is actually Nootka (a native American language of a seafaring people of the North West), the Apaches not just having no word for canoe, but having no need (in their inland, desert environment) for canoes. Whorf’s assertion — which is more or less in direct conflict with Chomsky’s ‘deep structures’ — is that our native language profoundly influences the way we see the world. My experiences as a graphic designer incline me to concur with that — I see no evidence that there is a ‘universal’ graphic language, and plenty that people’s responses to graphic design are a‹ected by the kinds of constructs they have about it. The Anthropologist Edward T. Hall extends Whorf’s thinking to other expressions of what he calls ‘primary culture’ — particularly (in The Hidden Dimension) the way di‹erent cultures relate to space and (in The Dance of Life) the way di‹erent cultures relate to time and rhythm. Both make absolutely fascinating reading from a design perspective. Whorf’s insights are also developed in Deborah Tannen’s work — particularly in her suggestion that men and women are conditioned to use language in profoundly di‹erent ways (o·en with alarming consequences). The degree to which Tannen’s examples ‘ring true’ is one of the biggest impediments, for me, to accepting the Chomsky/Pinker thesis that the way we use language is in some way universal. Philosophically, too, the Phenomenological tradition has taken a great deal of interest in language — and come, by a di‹erent route, to a similar (but more developed) position to Whorf’s. From Brentano to Husserl, Heidegger and on to Gadamer a ‘philosophy of language’ has taken shape. This moves the argument well beyond the cognitive into the realms of meaning and being — again, of not inconsiderable interest to us as graphic designers. Perhaps the central insight of this tradition is best expressed in Gadamer’s ‘Being that can be understood is language’. Incidentally, in making this pronouncement Gadamer says: ‘In all the cases we analyzed — in the language of conversation, of poetry, and also of interpretation — the speculative structure

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of language emerged, not as the reflection of something given but as the coming into language of a totality of meaning. This drew us toward the dialectic of the Greeks, because they did not conceive understanding as a methodic activity of the subject, but as something that the thing itself does and which thought ‘su‹ers’. This activity of the thing itself is the real speculative movement that takes hold of the speaker.’ This position is about-face to the ‘representational theory’ of language, which holds that words signify things — and that the thing is prior to our developing a mental construct for it. Although this seems superficially logical, the philosophy of language shows that it is impossible for us even to conceive of the thing without, first, having a linguistic concept for it. It also points beyond the idea of language as communicating the already disclosed (the level of information) toward the disclosure itself. Which leads on to what Heidegger calls the ‘experience of language’: ‘Instead of explaining language in terms of one thing or another, and thus running away from it, the way to language intends to let language be experienced as language’. and later goes on to say: ‘There is no such thing as a natural language, a language that would be the language of a human nature at hand in itself and without its own destiny. Every language is historical, also in cases where human beings know nothing of the discipline of history in the modern historical sense. Nor is language as information *the sole* language in itself. Rather, it is historical in the sense of, and written within the limits set by, the current age. Our age begins nothing new, but only brings to utter culmination something quite old, something already prescribed in modernity.’ Finally, I’ll mention in passing Owen Barfield — whose concept of the evolution of consciousness, witnessed by the changing meaning of

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words, links with the last quote. Barfield asserts that we have only comparatively recently emerged from a ‘participative’ state of consciousness, where the distinction between our individual sense of identity and that of the world around us was by no means so clear as it is now. In this state, it was therefore possible for the ancients to concieve of what we now think of as human faculties as being ‘outside’ the individual (a good example is the idea of ‘genius’). It was also natural for words to simultaneously have metaphorical and literal meanings — and for these meanings to be conjoined (an example is the Latin ‘Spiritus’ which means both ‘spirit’ and ‘breath’ — as it does, in fact, in both the Greek ‘pneuma’ and the Hebrew ‘Ruach’). Barfield shows — in contrast to conventional wisdom — that the metaphorical meaning was the prior one. Consequently, Barfield not only challenges the Chomsky/Pinker hypothesis — which is based on a utilitarian model of language — but also points towards a ‘natural’ state of language that is ‘poetic’ rather than ‘prosaic’. Barfield’s work is interesting from a graphic design point of view because he suggests that humankind has reached the limits of the ‘unparticipated’, ‘modern’ consciousness, and needs to move towards what he calls ‘conscious’ or ‘final’ participation. As a model for understanding what it happening in our field, it makes a great deal of sense — one can see graphic designers making the first, tentative steps towards a more participated approach to their work. Perhaps, indeed, this is what post-modernism is about…?

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Advertising and mothers
1 September 1997

bruce: In the case of advertising I respectfully submit that your focus is on the ‘trees’ rather than the ‘forest’. Advertising has done an excellent job of modifying consumer behavior, i.e. increasing consumption, through constant reinforcement. In the case of individual products/services, they do not have the resources (even McDonald’s sales have been down recently) for the required barrage. I was being sloppy when I said ‘The conclusion that I draw from all this is that “behaviour modification” has been a very convenient myth’. What I really should have said is that the idea of a sophisticated technology of behaviour modification has been a very convenient myth. In fact, I totally agree with your points. Repetition is the ‘blunt’ end of behaviour modification. It makes perfect sense to me — and I’m sure to most people — that if you say something enough times, and in enough places, it will have some e‹ect. But my point about how all these methods are quite comprehensible from everyday experience is definitely true here — one only needs to look at how one’s mother (or ‘primary caregiver’) nagged one as a child to see the archetype of all repetition as behaviour modification. I have no problem with repetition, which is — of course — the basis of all advertising and brand awareness campaigns. It’s a basic human trait, and it’s quite clear what’s going on. What I do have a problem with is the deliberate use of, say, cognitive dissonance or social proof. These exploit structural weaknesses in the way we think and see the world, without it being at all clear to most people that this is what is going on. If you’ve got a strong product (or in the case of your area, an important message) — and a creative interpretation — you shouldn’t need to play ju-jitsu with people’s minds.

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Gestalt
2 September 1997

tom: What about ‘Gestalt’? Since I didn’t follow the thread completely, has anybody mentioned the term ‘Gestalt’? That might connect even more disciplines… One of the most interesting (and, perhaps, important) things to come out of the original Gestalt psychology was the way in which it undermined the ‘myth of the given’ — the notion that the world that we ‘see’ is the world that our senses experience. Those ‘reversing cubes’ — the three dimensional diagrams that you can ‘see’ both ways (but not at the same time), or the rabbit that could also be a duck (depending on how you look at it) — come out of this period. They appear to demonstrate that, although the visual process remains exactly the same when one looks at these figures, what one ‘sees’ depends upon how one interprets and ‘organizes’ the image. Even though this stu‹ is now nearly a century old, it can still seem pretty mindblowing. The deeper one digs, the more one realizes that our world is built on meanings — not perceptions. We hear a noise and we see an object moving across the sky, and we think ‘helicopter’ — although there is no obvious sensory connection between the image and the sound. We walk into a room, and on the floor is the side of a cable spool balanced on a crate. Immediately we recognize it as a table — although it doesn’t fit any definition of what a ‘table’ might be. And yet for the same reason, the artificially-intelligent computer fails to ‘see’ the tank moving across the centre of its field of vision — even though it has been comprehensively programmed with clues as to what tanks ‘look’ like. This was an area that preoccupied Wittgenstein in some of his later work. He became very interested in the kind of cognition that he

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described as ‘seeing connections’ — the kind of understanding that is involved in seeing a gestalt: the ability to ‘get’ a joke, ‘hear’ music, ‘understand’ poetry. (Exactly the areas, incidentally, that defy ‘artificial intelligence’.) He approached this by focussing on what he called ‘aspect seeing’ — seeing something as something — and asked what it would be like to be ‘aspect blind’ (the condition of the computer). What was missing in this case? He concluded ‘it is not absurd to answer: the power of imagination’. Personally, I happen to find the implications of that statement extraordinary, that the imagination is the faculty of perception that sees connections — and that, for imagination, seeing and understanding are one. It seems to draw a direct line between ‘author’ and ‘reader’ that leaves those who believe communication is about encoding-transmitting-decoding wondering what happened.

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Seeing and meaning
2 September 1997

me: Although this seems superficially logical, the philosophy of language shows that it is impossible for us even to conceive of the thing without, first, having a linguistic concept for it. leif: Is it then impossible to visualize something before we have a linguistic concept for it? Must imagination (in the eidetic sense) always follow language? That’s an interesting question. Oliver Sacks, in An Anthropologist on Mars, gives an account of a man he calls Virgil who was blind from birth — but who, at the age of 50, had his sight restored. It’s a fascinating — if tragic — story. The miracle of Virgil’s newly acquired sight quickly becomes a nightmare for him, as he discovers that he doesn’t understand what he is looking at — he can’t fathom space or perspective, and he can’t corroborate what is before his eyes with his previous, tactile experience of the world. Sacks describes Virgil’s behaviour as ‘certainly not that of a sighted man, but it was not that of a blind man, either. It was, rather, the behaviour of one mentally blind, or agnosic — able to see but not to decipher what he was seeing.’ Nor does the situation improve. Ultimately, when Virgil’s blindness returns, he accepts it as a relief. In a sense, this condition is close to what vision without language would be like. William James described it as ‘a buzzing, blooming confusion’ — although this only goes to show that we can’t even conceive of a language-less condition without using words to describe it. Virgil has words, but his visual experience isn’t organized linguistically — and although he sees what we see, he can’t comprehend it.

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But of course much depends on what you understand by language. My dog recognizes me, and many of the other features of his environment, without having words for them. Presumably these things are themselves their own meaning — and are linked, like the verbal meanings that are familiar to us, with other associations: good, bad, edible, etc. But in a philosophical — phenomenological — sense, they are linguistic. The dog’s visual world is organized in a way that Virgil’s is not. It is endowed with meaning. So, in answer to the question, I think it is a pre-requisite for imagination (in the eidetic sense) that the imaginer’s visual world is organized — and that this organization is linguistic in the broadest and deepest sense of that word.

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Psychedelia
3 September 1997

leif: Key to the psychedelic posters is that the audience defined themselves in opposition to mainstream culture. john: Paralleling the ‘opposition’ of figure and ground… I have to admit to a huge amount of fondness (to say nothing of nostalgia) for the psychedelic genre. However, I was really too young to have been part of Leif’s ‘audience who defined themselves in opposition to mainstream culture’. I was just a kid with an older brother who used to ‘cook up’ posters, light shows, three-dimensional concoctions of various kinds — all of which held unending fascination for a seven year old at a loose end on the long summer holidays. My brother was no sort of graphic designer — nor would he have had much in common with the commercial graphics (still heavily modernist) of the time. But he used to spend a great deal of time in creating weird and beautiful things for strange purposes: posters for obscure bands, elaborate epsitles to friends, transparent structures that used to catch the light from an ancient projector just so. Things that incorporated an unbelievably eclectic iconography — early Disney, Victoriana, Art Nouveau, Tantric Mandalas, Op Art. He also introduced me to magical entities like rapidographs, fluorescent papers, metallic inks… things that seemed straight out of Aladdin’s cave to a kid who was used to dip-pens and Parker’s washable Quink. My brother used to hang out with a group of strange people in and around London’s Notting Hill and Portobello Road. He would describe them to me, and I used to think he was making it up. There was this one guy who had converted an old wardrobe into a meditation cham-

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ber, lined with old egg-boxes painted black. But how could anyone have a stupid name like Barney Bubbles? What little did I know… Well, fate takes a funny turn. The older brother is now a systems manager for a government department. The kid brother still loves rapidographs, fluorescent papers, metallic inks (well, maybe not rapidographs!). And the man with the crazy name and the weird wardrobe, who died tragically young, is at last beginning to get the recognition he deserves as one of the greatest innovators of British graphic design.

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If you weren’t there…
3 September 1997

rita: I don’t understand what ‘Psychedelia’ is. I wish I could explain. But I think you had to live through the sixties!

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Language and vision
4 September 1997

nancy: My point? I believe (correct me at will) that we create understanding through language; and that we also create understanding through vision. They are separate, though ideally communicating, skills. Witness how hard it can be to describe a visual idea in words, and how hard it can be to represent a verbal idea in pictures. I don’t disagree, except perhaps to suggest that if one adopts a wider definition of what ‘language’ is, then one can describe both kinds of understanding as linguistic. The person who ‘sees’ the reversing cube in three dimensions (top forward, bottom forward or even both at the same time) clearly does not just see what is there on the paper. And even though the person who doesn’t ‘get it’ will complain that they ‘only see a series of lines’, this is still di‹erent to the person who was blind and now can see — who doesn’t even recognize what is in front of him/her as ‘a series of lines’. Meaning is nested that deep in vision, that it is almost impossible for us to conceive of an image that doesn’t ‘mean’ anything — even if the meaning we adduce from it is ‘it’s just a kind of blob’. So what we see is almost all meaning — meaning that is not inherent in the things itself. Pure sensory experience would be that of the formerly blind person — meaningless. This realm of meaning that is communicated by things, but is not inherent in them, is analagous to the meaning that is communicated by words but which is not inherent in them. Which is language. So if we have to define the relationship between seeing and understanding, it seems reasonable to describe it as linguistic too. Heidegger (we’re back to him again, I’m afraid!) makes this distinction between ‘language as disclosure’ and ‘language as representation’.

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Language as disclosure is (as I understand it) the meanings that organize our world coherently — that ‘disclose’ it. Language as representation is the sign system that we use to represent those meanings. Heidegger is quite emphatic that ‘Language as representation’ derives from ‘Language as disclosure’, and is secondary to it. The paradigm case of this is the young Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf as a result of having measles shortly a·er birth. She describes beautifully describes the transforming experience of the ‘disclosive’ aspect of language, which she experienced much later in life than most of us, and was thus able to recall much more clearly. We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word ‘water’, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, joy, set it free! ... I le· the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house each object that I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange new light that had come to me.’ Helen Keller, The Story of My Life, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1959. p.23. By the time we reach adulthood, the role of language as disclosure has become invisible to us. We’re like the fishes in the fable who ask what water is. As a result, when we talk about language we usually mean language as representation. But this is one reason why I think those positions that treat language purely as a sign system — for example,

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Saussurian Semiotics — are flawed. To believe that language (whether visual or verbal) is simply a kind of game of codes, with one thing standing in for another, is to lose sight of its real power. Which is to reveal our world to us.

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Celebrating imperfection
10 September 1997

leif: People are conditioned to think they are stupid if they cannot fathom a design. In reality, the fault lies (usually) in the design. All sound Donald Norman principles, exorcising the belief that we’re inept in the face of design. But actually all we’re doing here is moving from ‘the design is perfect, we’re stupid’ to ‘the design isn’t perfect, we’re not stupid’. There’s still the implication that underlies much of this cognitive factors stu‹ that ‘the design should be perfect’. But designs are (still) human artefacts, and humans aren’t perfect. So why should the design be? Can’t we have a situation where ‘it’s not perfect, I’m not perfect, but what does it matter?’ Some of my favourite things are precious to me because they don’t work as expected — or at all. But that’s precisely — and perversely (pace Donald Norman) — why I like them. A·er all this emphasis on rigour, sometimes it’s a positive joy to come across something that is totally, irredeemably and delightfully incomprehensible. It’s like rushing to get a train for an important presentation, only to see it pull out of the station as you arrive pu›ng and wheezing on the platform — and then experiencing that extraordinary lightness of being that leaves one standing in the pouring rain thinking ‘I’m alive! Who cares about the stupid Pot Noodle account’.

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In perspective
10 September 1997

don: In cultures without a tradition of perspective drawing (in Europe it developed fairly late), the sorts of depth cues that we’re accustomed to interpretting (e.g., a smallerobject is farther away) are not recognized. See J. B. Deregowski’s ‘Pictorial Perception and Culture’ in the November 1972 Scientific American. These cues can, of course, be learned. Barfield, in Saving the Appearances, develops a fascinating hypothesis that the advent of perspective drawing was directly related to the evolution of a western, scientific consciousness. In a statement which has a connection to the gestalt/blind-and-now-can-see thread, he says: If, and with the help of some time-machine working in reverse, a man of the Middle Ages could be suddenly transported into the skin of a man of the twentieth century, seeing through our eyes and with our ‘figuration’ the objects we see, I think he would feel like a child who looks for the first time at a photograph through the ingenious magic of a stereoscope. ‘Oh!’ he would say, ‘look how they stand out!’. We must not forget that in his time perspective had not yet been discovered, nor underrate the significance of this. True, it is no more than a device for pictorially representing depth, and separateness, in space. But how comes it that the device had never been discovered before — or, if discovered, never adopted? There were plenty of skilled artists, and they would certainly have hit upon it soon enough if depth in space had characterised the collective representations they wish to reproduce, as it characterises ours. They did not need it. Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved. In such a world the convention of per-

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spective was unnecessary. To such a world other conventions of visual reproduction, such as the nimbus and the halo, were as appropriate as to ours they are not. It was as if the observers were themselves in the picture. Compared with us, they felt themselves and the objects around them and the words that expressed those objects, immersed together in something like a clear lake of — what shall we say? — of ‘meaning’ if you choose. It seems the most adequate word. Certainly, walking around the U›zi last year — with Barfield’s words ringing around my head — was an extraordinary experience. It was as if one could actually trace the stirrings of this new consciousness from the still mediaeval representations of Cimabue through the first attempts at perspective (still within a mediaeval frame) of Giotto to the extraordinary breakthroughs of Piero and later Renaissance artists. And it is worth bearing in mind that perspective-less pictorial representations still remained the norm in the Islamic world (as in Persian and Mughal miniatures) — a world still locked within the mediaeval paradigm — for centuries a·er western artists had adopted perspective as a norm.

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What it’s worth
2 October 1997

julie: I am still not sure how much I will be able to charge for a logo but I will follow the thread in the hopes that I can avoid becoming (horrors!) a dunderhead. You guys may already be saving my reputation. What should you charge for a logo? I don’t know. It does remind me of a story, though. In which, in return for a favour, a king asks a pauper what he would like as a reward. ‘A million gold pieces’, replies the pauper. ‘That’s rather a lot!’ says the king. ‘Is there anything else you would accept?’ ‘All right, a single gold piece.’ ‘Certainly. But how come there’s so much di‹erence?’ ‘Well’ says the pauper ‘the million gold pieces is what you are worth. But the single gold piece — that’s what I am worth.’. Perhaps there’s an answer there, somewhere…

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Sound advice
4 October 1997

cheryl: Yes …I think about these things too...(does it not come down to some degree at least, operating always as one personally sees fit, whatever the size of the client…? Am I dreaming perhaps…? I would rather work by my own standards than be a pawn in this kind of game and be taken for a ride. I rather not get the job as I’ve said. Why bother…? Life’s too short. Perhaps the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given as a designer came from the director of industrial design of a major British multi-national. As we returned from a lunch at which he and my then boss had consumed more alcohol than I thought was humanly possible, he turned to me and said (in that uncannily wise way that people can sometimes get in their cups) ‘the most important thing for a designer is to understand the corporate mind’. I don’t remember being that impressed with it at the time (in fact, I seem to recall having to excuse myself during lunch, plunging my face into a basin of cold water in a desperate attempt to restore some semblance of sobriety). But it has been an infallibly useful guide in the intervening years. Not all designers who do identity work have corporate clients, but noncorporate identity must be a pretty niche market. And corporates are among the most political, games-playing institutions on this earth. Designers are o·en pawns in someone’s empire building, and automatically inherit all the opponents and enemies of their sponsor. Indeed, we’re o·en so·-targets too — wet behind the ears when it comes to the dangers of institutional politics, and without the status that could protect us from being thwarted. So I’d suggest that corporate identity work appeals only to a certain kind of designer. Someone who is possessed of natural diplomacy and cunning, who can see the big picture (not just their own horizons) and

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knows a winning horse. Someone who is not frightened of a few painful knocks, and has a skin as thick as a crocodile. And, above all, someone who keeps their ears and eyes open — and their head down. Not your average idealistic art school graduate. Which is why, I suspect, you’re getting such di‹erent answers to your original question. In this respect, designers fall into two categories: ‘precious flowers’ and ‘resilient creepers’. Those of us who fall into the latter category (and I think you’ll find most of the big identity consultancies — the Landors and the Siegel & Gales — are of this kind) have learnt that one can’t go crying back to mummy when the big kids start getting rough.

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The thin blue line
4 October 1997

gary: I live in the UK. My colleague and I are both Police O›cers who have been asked by our Forces to design and construct a Website for our force. It’s a big project with a big budget. We have been asked to source and take courses on HTML authoring and graphic design. We have found the HTML course without any di›culty, but the design side is more di›cult. Basically, we are both OK on the so·ware (Photoshop, Illustrator, mainly) but need a course which will tell us what looks good, what catches the eye, things to avoid, that sort of thing. I would appreciate any ideas or, particularly from UK residents, names of companies. I don’t know how to say this without sounding high-handed. But I’m going to have a try anyway. The police are forever telling us to ‘leave it to the professionals’ — and rightly so. Supposing I say to you, ‘well, there’s a murder (‘homicide’ for our US friends) that I want to investigate. I’m pretty good on science, so I’m sure most of the forensic stu‹ won’t be too much trouble — but I really need a short course to brush up on the basic principles of detection’. You would be horrified, and with good reason. No, I’m not taking the piss or trying to score points — but trying to make a valid analogy. Your Force are obviously lucky to have such multi-talented o›cers as yourselves, but when it comes to a project like this… leave it to the professionals! I’ve spent the better part of twenty years exploring questions like ‘what looks good, what catches the eye, things to avoid, that sort of thing’. Some days I wonder whether I’m any closer to an answer than when I first started — and I’m sure you’ll find others here who feel likewise. There are no easy solutions — least of all that could be summarized in a few simple lessons. And whilst there are principles, design of all

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kinds exemplifies the observation that ‘circumstances alter cases’. Like every discipline, graphic design has its gi·ed amateurs — its Hercule Poirots and Sherlock Holmes — and there’s no reason why you and your colleague shouldn’t join their number. But I don’t think you’ll find anyone who can tell you how it’s done.

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Encouraging amateurs
9 October 1997

alec: I find no pain in letting a few amateurs into a few secrets. Why be parsimonious? Why not share with them the great secret of graphic design. Which is that it is a journey, and not a destination?

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Colours receding
14 October 1997

ed: I used to be very interested in this, Hans Ho‹mann’s push pull theories were based on warm colors coming out from the plane, and cool colors receding, making a space illusion, creating tension. But at the same time I was reading Joseph Albers, color expert at Yale, also a painter, and he didn’t believe in this at all. Itten, Munsell, and Goethe didn’t mention it, and I couldn’t get it to work in my own experiments, so I abandoned the idea. It is implicit in Goethe’s colour theory, although I’ve just flicked through my copy of Eastlake’s translation of the Farbenlehre (MIT Press, 1987) and can’t find an explicit reference. Goethe believed that the ‘warm’ colours — red and yellow — were produced by the displacement of darkness over light, and that the ‘cool’ colours — cyan and violet — were produced by the displacement of light over darkness. There’s the famous story of how Goethe borrowed a prism from the Duke of Weimar to repeat Newton’s experiments, but never got around to it. When the Duke’s agent came to recover the prism, Goethe quickly held it up to his eyes and looked at the window — leading him to his dramatic revelation about the nature of colour (that spectral phenomena only occured at the boundaries of light and dark), and to his now notorious declaration that ‘Newton was wrong!’. Be that as it may, he realised that red and yellow appeared (according to how one held the prism) at one boundary shi·ed over into the light area — and that violet and cyan appear at the other, shi·ed into the dark area. Thus giving a — in Goethe’s words — ‘delicately empirical’ basis to the idea of warm colours coming forward and cool receding. Goethe also found that Green only appeared where the two boundaries come close enough to each other, as they do in

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Newton’s ‘Experimentum crucis’, where some of the yellow from one boundary overlaps some of the cyan from the other. Because of Goethe’s denouncement of Newton, it has since been conventional to disparage his theories (despite Goethe having derived them from years of patient observation, while Newton derived his theories from alchemical and cabbalistic studies). However, it is a fascinating — and thought proking — experience to repeat his experiments with the prism. Particularly interesting for us graphic designers is his experiment with the ‘anti spectrum’. This is produced by doing precisely the opposite of what Newton did — instead of narrowing the shutter to let a thin beam of light through the prism, have a narrow opaque body stand in a wide beam of light. The result is an extraordinary spectrum, but instead of the familiar band of Red-Orange-Yellow-GreenBlue-Indigo-Violet there is a sequence of pure Yellow-Magenta-Cyan. Everyone should try it. It is guaranteed to set you scratching your head about what you learned in high school. Since those days I’ve noticed color space illusions both in print and on my computer screen which were working fine, but did not seem to go with the warm/cool idea. In other words, I noticed blue floating up from a red field, and sometimes the opposite. These e‹ects may be very subjective, and the result of environmental conditions and mental states, stress, a·erimage, all kinds of things. At the end of last year, I attended a lecture where the speaker (a designer taking about a product she had developed) showed a series of slides with a predominant cyan-ish/cool blue hue. On one, there was a word picked out in a strong, warm red. As I moved my head from le· to right, this word seemed to move vis-a-vis its neighbours — li·ing o‹ the baseline and (I think) to the le·. I was so fascinated and entranced by this phenomenon that I quite lost track what she was talking about. I’ve never before experienced anything like it — and am at pains to explain it.

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Learning from the workplace
22 November 1997

kc: As someone pointed out to me a long time ago. There ARE perfect jobs and ideal companies out there. Unfortunately, no one in their right mind quits a perfect job, so they don’t have very many openings. In employment Xanadu, perhaps. But I suspect that right underneath free lunch on the list of ‘no such things’ comes perfect job, perfect boss and perfect employee (and probably for much the same reasons). I’ve seen this from both sides. And the conclusion I’d draw is that to look towards perfection in employer/employee relationships is to miss the point. Which is that work involves necessarily abrasive relationships — abrasion that conduces both to maturity and to bitterness, o·en simultaneously. In Jungian terms, work is where many people get to meet their ‘shadow’ — and the resulting ‘projection’ can be a trial for everyone, as well as a spur for growth. I think it is important to remember that a job (at least, a ‘cra·’ job, like design) is not a commodity but a journey — literally, in fact, in the old cra· usage of ‘travail’ as ‘work’ and ‘travel’. Sadly the professions — which were originally occupations for the surplus sons of the aristocracy — preserve none of the beautiful resonances of the artisan cra· guilds. Journeys are usually uncomfortable, only intermittently exciting (between long stretches of tedium) and o·en bring out the worst in people (as well as occasionally displaying unexpected strengths). And their true significance — as well as their glamour — is only appreciated in hindsight. So I’m not sure we should expect a job to be any more than this — but, of course, if we’re missing this dimension of personal growth we’re not getting as much as we could out of the opportunities on o‹er.

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As an employer I’m pretty mean (finances are always tight) and I expect a lot from my employees. It’s certainly not uncommon for them to work late into the night, for no extra remuneration. I’m also pretty infuriating — I o·en (but not invariably) insist on things being done ‘my way’, change my mind at the last minute and fail to practise what I preach. Still, several people have said that they learned more here than they learned at College — and at least they’ve not been charged for this opportunity to improve themselves (and their prospects) at my expense! And I’m continually surprised and gratified by a level of loyalty beyond and above what I have reason to expect (although I also have a fair idea of what they say about me a·er work at the pub…). In justification of this position, I would say that it has cost me a great deal to get to this stage — of which the financial cost is only a token compared to the personal cost. I’m also still very much in the ‘journeyman’ stage of my career — so, if others want to travel with me, they have to put up with the fact that my own travail takes priority. However, (judged by the number of applications we get) this doesn’t appear to be quite as o‹-putting as it sounds!

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Styling versus usability
29 November 1997

jennifer:

1 What percentage of your job as a graphic designer is to make something ‘cool’, and what percentage is to make something clear and usable? (mention whether you do brochure, newsletters, webpage, multimedia — whatever you have in mind when answering the question). 2 If you feel that part of your task is to make something readable, what percentage of your clients hire you for you ability to make their product ‘cool’ and what percentage hire you for your ability to make the product ‘understandable’. In other words, are clients aware of your ability to do this or do they care about it? I’d like to be helpful and respond, but I don’t think the dichotomy between styling and usability is right. It’s a bit like asking ‘how much of your job involves using colour and how much involves using type?’ — the two are really di‹erent dimensions, neither polarities nor ends of a continuum. Every graphic expression is a statement — even the understated, recessive ‘information design’ approach (which actually makes a powerful statement, but that’s another matter). Every graphic expression is also a communication — something that involves some degree, or variety, of ‘usability’. There is no obvious correlation (at least to me) between these two aspects. I’m sure clients have lots of reasons for hiring us (the chemistry is right, the things we say strike a chord with them, we have the right kind of experience, etc.) but without a doubt the overriding consideration is that they believe we will help them further their objectives.

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Jack of all trades
3 December 1997

kc: I also see a disturbing trend of ‘combining’. People want designers to also be: copywriters; programmers; computer maintenance; receptionists; secretaries; sales; public relations. Because why? …design can’t possibly be a full time job? And since (as we all know) anybody can do design, they invariably end up with a programmer/coppywriter/secretary/etc. who does their own layout. I’m not sure I agree — although when you put it like this, it sounds persuasive! Not having seen the article (or being likely to), I can’t comment on it. But I do think designers who work with type will increasingly have to become far more literate, to the extent that they can write and edit well. I also think you’ll find many more writers who want to use the full expressive power of typography. Creating a visual communication concept involves the dovetailing of semantic, typographic and pictorial aspects. The ad-agency ‘Pin Factory’ approach depended on the collaboration of a witty and eloquent copywriter with a visually inspired (but usually incoherent and illiterate!) art director, with the fruits of their collaboration being passed down to a disgruntled ‘just do it!’ typographer. Apart from being very much out of kilter with the spirit of the times, this kind of division of labour reinforces ridiculous stereotypes. Writers can design, you don’t need to have flunked math and English to direct a photoshoot, there’s no reason why the typo can’t be creative director — and so on. Not only does the technology make this possible, but an integrated product seems to demand it. If you want to have copy that looks a certain way, you probably have to write it yourself — if you want copy that reads a certain way, you probably have to style it yourself.

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It’s also worth adding that those of us in business for ourselves, or working in small businesses — which is certainly the majority of designers here in the UK — have to be good at everything. Or, at least, we can’t a‹ord to be bad at anything — accounting, secretarial skills, marketing, selling, managing, purchasing, organizing, systems administration, hardware maintenance, public relations, human resources, training — you name it, we probably have to do it. Versatility is certainly high on my list of priorities as an employer. Being just a designer is a luxury, not a right.

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Virtuosity
4 December 1997

cheryl: Absolutely. It’s respect for the individual specialities which is what makes this work and work well. I would guess that one calling themselves a ‘jack of all trades’ is really a jack of nothing… and merely indication of yet another on the bandwagon in the same vein as a desktop publisher calling themselves a designer. We had a great thread on a interactive media listserv here locally; where someone was posting a position for a receptionist, that is one that knew HTML, graphics, writing, phone work, C++, java, co‹ee making… the works. Needless to say, it sparked a whole slew of responses. I think it is unduly pessimistic, though, to assume that a person can be master of one trade or another — but not both. I take a slightly di‹erent view and think that although our lives are not usually that long, there’s plenty of opportunity for continual growth and development. Nobody would expect a 23 year old, fresh from College, to be a brilliant art director, typographer, copywriter and web engineer. But what about a 33 year old? Or a 43 year old? Or a 53 year old? No shortage of opportunity there to acquire new skills and abilities. Those who really understand their own field o·en have an intimation that other forms of knowledge are in some way or another related. Designers have historically been extremely good at switching midstream to other design disciplines (virtually all the older generation of Italian industrial designers trained as architects, for instance — Sotsass, Mendini, Bellini etc.). Di‹erent design disciplines may have radically di‹erent processes, materials, markets and cultures, but once you understand what design per se is about, these di‹erences are easily overcome. Writing is designing with words, Art Direction designing with images, Typography designing with letterforms — is there any

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great impediment to moving freely across that range? I’ve met people who have successfully switched from fashion to product design, or from graphics to music, or from literature to programming. So I don’t think claiming to know ‘HTML, graphics, writing, phone work, C++, java, co‹ee making’ necessarily means that one is either a paragon or a charlatan. As a (largely) self-taught designer maybe I see this from a di‹erent perspective. I don’t have a College degree that I can use to say to dtpers ‘I’m di‹erent from you, I’m a professionally qualified graphic designer’ — and I also know that it is quite possible for others to do what I did myself. It predisposes me to a much more pragmatic way of judging what people can do — you’re a designer if you can design, a writer if you can cra· prose, etc. (notwithstanding any piece of paper that claims you are an alumnus of the University of Blah). In a world where change is a constant and the boundaries are shi·ing all the time, it can even be an advantage not to define yourself too rigidly on the basis of something you did several years before…

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But does it sell?
5 December 1997

scott: Another angle: don’t think you’re at the top of the food chain. The heavyduty marketing and advertising people say ‘Yeah, he/she is great with a tablet, and has tremendous talent, but doens’t know jack about what sells’. Don’t take o‹ense to this. I’ve been on both ends of this one. I do not want to o‹end, just educate. I’m not a know-it-all, I’m just passing on what I’ve seen. There was a piece on this morning’s radio news about the EU decision to ban tobacco advertising. A spokesperson for the tobacco industry was interviewed, and came out with the priceless ‘it won’t have any e‹ect on consumption’. If it doesn’t have any e‹ect on consumption, why bother to advertise! (Do they take us for complete idiots?) But I o·en wonder whether many marketing people actually know that much ‘about what sells’ either. The ‘principles of marketing’ are a perfect example of late c20 scientism — talked up, exaggerated, decontextualized social psychology. And that famous quote (attributed to Lord Leverhulme) that ‘half my advertising budget is wasted, only I don’t know which half’ still appears to be as true as ever.

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Typesetting
8 December 1997

dick: Unfortunately my experience has been that most designers are not good typographers -- at least, not in the sense of the cra·smanship that existed in the better ad shops before the advent of dtp. Or, maybe it’s just that I have been around this industry too long and am prone to making unfavorable comparison between a lot of what goes on today and what we used to strive for. In the quantitative sense implied by ‘most’, that’s undoubtedly true. But, unqualified, that gives the wrong twist to the development of Typography over the last fi·een years — which has undoubtedly been driven by designers who were passionate about type (and o·en had a profound grasp of its historical context). When I started working as a (typographic) designer in London in the early eighties, there was a thriving typesetting industry. However, the direction that it was moving felt very much out of step with what I wanted from it. I’d ask for non-lining (‘old style’) figures and true small caps, and the type house reps would look at me as if I was from another planet. ‘Look at this great Les Usherwood face’, they’d reply. ‘We’re the only people in London who have got it’. I’d look at it and think ‘ugh!’ Instead, I’d ask for obscure faces like Gill’s Joanna. ‘Yeah, I remember that’ some of the older guys would say, launching into reminiscences of what it was like to mump fonts of foundry type, or something of the kind. ‘We’ve just got this great Berthold Bodoni’ they’d say. ‘But it doesn’t look anything like Bodoni!’ I’d say. And get some more of those askance looks. But I clearly wasn’t on another planet. Because almost from the start of PostScript, independent type designers were producing fonts with small caps and old style figures, authentic revivals of old favourites,

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and new and exciting types that were in keeping with the spirit of the times. Indeed one of the first things that many of us did when we got our hands on the first versions of Fontographer was to try and fill some of these gaps between what we wanted and what was available. Then we met each other at type conferences and realized we were not alone. Soon the big type foundries (initially Monotype and Adobe) grasped that their designer customers were driving the market for PostScript type, and that our preferences were distinctly di‹erent to the received wisdom of the type industry. The first sixty five or so releases in the Adobe Library reflected stultified type house choices — Optima, Souvenir, ITC Garamond etc. Then, quite suddenly, there was a marked switch to designer choices, capitalizing on the distaste for sanitised versions of historical types. But these are only easily illustrated examples of what was a much wider, and more serious, di‹erence between what designers wanted — and what the type industry was prepared to give us. We increasingly wanted type with more authenticity, more ruggedness, more ‘spite’ to it — what the type houses wanted to give us was more slickness, more homogeneity, more polish. And what made it really irksome was — right up until the end — they thought they knew best. They stuck with their technophobe customers who still liked the sickly-sweet ITC reworkings of the eighties, and smirked at those of us who were using Macs. I’m sorry if some of these guys have ended up as janitors. But if they had listened, and not been so supercilious and dismissive, there might still have been a place for them.

Note: old style figures (e.g. 0123456789) include some characters that descend below the baseline and some that ascend above the ‘x’ height. In this respect they di‹er from the more common ‘lining’ figures (e.g. 0123456789) which range with the capitals. Because of this, old style figures harmonise better with lower case. To ‘mump’ a font is to borrow a case of type from another typesetter.

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Graduates
8 December 1997

bob: This is the problem we have with finding good interns and entry-level designers. It seems that most of the schools are turning out design students with such big egos that they aren’t interested in ‘producing paying work’ by starting at ground level and working their way up. They come out of school with the idea that they are ready to jump right into project management and art direction. We’ve had second-year students interviewing with us for an internship ask how much involvement they would have in meetings with clients, and said they weren’t interested if the internship would only involve ‘production’ work. There is a problem with managing expectations in the college environment, and between the college environment and work. Partly, I suspect, this comes about because graphic design courses don’t really know whether they are supposed to be humanities/liberal arts or vocational. But, in any case, much of the problem comes about because it is only possible to give students productive learning briefs by asking them to imagine themselves art directors or senior designers. In moving from student to employee, however, it is necessary to appreciate that one has been used to undertaking tasks far in advance of what one’s new employers are likely to want, or even allow, one to carry out. In college, everyone gets a chance — freshness, innovation, adventure are rewarded. In work — especially in a small company — there’s already an established pecking order of who gets to do what creative tasks. And experience counts for more than enthusiasm. I think this is one of those things that doesn’t have an answer. If we expect institutions of higher education to do our training for us, e‹ectively for free, we don’t really have any right to tell them how they should do it. But if we are going to do it ourselves, do we have the time

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or the skills to take raw recruits through the monumental syllabus required by contemporary commercial graphics? To try and turn lose lose into win win, we have to realize that the entry route into graphic design requires an alternation of learning, unlearning and relearning — and that employers should work with the colleges to help manage the ‘human resources’ issues (i.e. bewildered and disappointed graduates) that result.

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Playing by the rules
8 December 1997

irisa: In my opinion education can sometimes kill what makes art and artists, art and artists! It has taken me almost ten years to shed the damage to my creativity that was done when I got my formal education in Graphic Design. I guess I just didn’t have the ‘balls of steel’ to come out of the schooling with my creativity still in tact, like some people seemed to be able to do. What I came out of the schooling with was a group of instructors, forever sitting on my shoulder, and whispering ‘rules’ in my ear as I sat in front of a white sheet of paper, hungry to let go and create. Raw artistic emotion cannot be put to paper, or maybe into a musical form, if the artist is worried about what is ‘proper’ or ‘in style’. The rules of layout, composition and color, to create certain moods and get the audiences eye to move as the artist desires, may come in handy occasionally, when the artist stares at a work in progress and can’t figure out what just isn’t working… but I think for the most part, these rules and schooling do far more damage than good. It’s not the rules that do the damage, but the blow to self-esteem when one is made to feel ignorant. Knowledge is power: you can choose to follow the rules, or to reject them. But being made to feel as if one’s work is of no consequence, because one doesn’t understand how to play the game, is one of the biggest blocks to creativity. This is a drawback of applying a mediaeval model of academic education — firmly based on a feudal hierarchy of ‘knowers’ — to a creative field. Interestingly, rules appear to govern the otherwise apparently anarchic world of ‘BritArt’ — the trendy phenomenon of ‘fuck it!’ expressionism that has supposedly made London one of the most ‘happening’ cities on the globe. This week the Turner prize — our most prestigious award for the contemporary arts — was awarded to Gillian Wearing for

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a video of 26 policemen struggling to remain silent for an hour (it turns out that they weren’t real policemen, causing one critic to utter a truly postmodern cri de coeur). Now, regardless of the merits or demerits of the work, it is only possible to be acclaimed in the way Wearing is if you both understand and play by the rules. It is an unspoken requirement that one has passed through the art school system, that one enjoys the approbation of peers and critics, and that one is able to cultivate (albeit perhaps by sticking two fashionable fingers up to) the media. Anyone may be able create a prosaic piece like 60 Minutes Silence (The Cauldron). But only selected people — the ones who know how to successfully compete in the apparently uncompetitive milieu of the contemporary arts scene — get to be publicly rewarded for it.

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Knowledge and power
10 December 1997

cheryl: You said: ‘It’s not the rules that do the damage, but the blow to selfesteem when one is made to feel ignorant. Knowledge is power: you can choose to follow the rules, or to reject them. But being made to feel as if one’s work is of no consequence, because one doesn’t understand how to play the game, is one of the biggest blocks to creativity.’ Do you care to expand on this very interesting sentence, James? I’d be delighted… Sorry, it was late and I was less than coherent — it’s not as if I was trying to make an obscure, profound point! Education, and higher education in particular, involves a relationship between knowledge and power. The teacher’s status comes from knowledge, but from knowledge that is recognised as such by the long and elaborate rites of passage that make up academia. As a colleague once said to me ‘nobody below postgraduate level should express original opinions’ (you might argue about whether this is quite true in graphic design, but she was talking about ‘respectable’ academic disciplines). Although many academics would be eager to brush this o‹, my own experience as an outsider in higher education tends to confirm it. The higher echelons of study are not about ‘learning’ per se, but about learning to play a game with highly complex, unspoken rules. The processes involved are more important symbolically than literally. (Steven Rose, writing in The Making of Memory, says of even the doctoral thesis ‘...the real value of the thesis is quite di‹erent from all this grand theorizing; it is simply a certificate of completion of apprenticeship; it says this person can do independent research and is now fit to be launched on the world, to sink or swim.’ In my opinion all human a‹airs are invariably circumscribed with such unspoken rules — whether within universities, corporations, or

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other social groups — this is one of the great revelations of life. But it does depend on the slow germination of the ‘Aha!’ factor, which means that it’s not as common a perspective as it should be. Many perplexing setbacks and disappointments — such as when your College tutor doesn’t recognize your dissertation as the most exciting thing ever to be written about graphic design — take on a di‹erent, and far less personal, complexion if you grasp these rules (or even just have an intimation of their existence). If you understand that someone is critical of your work because they are operating within a certain framework (which they may be unaware of), you can choose to a›rm or deny their words. If you can’t, it’s likely you’ll interpret them as a personal blow to your self esteem. I’ve seen how devastating it can be to students — particularly to the first years you North Americans call ‘freshmen’ — to have their work trashed when they’ve put their heart and soul into it. We have a tradition in British Art Schools — perhaps a bloodsport is a better description — called the ‘blistering crit’. It involves tutors having a good liquid lunch, and then seeing how many students they can reduce to blubbering wrecks in the course of an a·ernoon. From the educators’ point of view (even the enlightened ones, who use encouragement rather than rebuke) the students are not expected to be able to do sound work — by definition, they haven’t paid their dues/learned the form/earned a place in the pecking order. And since one’s early twenties tends to be a time of great vulnerability and self-absorption, few undergraduates get to figure this out.

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Art as brand
11 December 1997

gunnar: James, The problem is that most people see ‘Art’ as a collection of objects that have inherent value. The Art world sees ‘Art’ as a dialog of sorts. Under the second view there is no problem with doing something that ‘anyone could have done’ any more than it would be a problem to utter a short (brilliant, pithy) statement in a conversation that ‘anyone could have said’. The phrase ‘fuck it’ could have an entirely di‹erent meaning in another context. The same sentence might be a conceptual breakthrough in reply to one statement and a bit of idiocy in another conversation. To that extent anyone else’s sixty minutes of silent cops video would not have been more than vaguely similar. I wasn’t really intending to make a value judgment on Ms Wearing’s piece — well, not principally, anyway. What I do feel about the Turner Prize episode, though, is that it beautifully shows how ‘Art’ has fully become a social construction — a clever and di›cult game, with inscrutable rules, open only to the eligible. Of course, we’ve lived with this for years now — with ‘installations’ consisting of piles of bricks or heaps of old crockery being the butt of many a tabloid joke. But even so there was always a suggestion that it was ‘Art’ because an ‘Artist’ had graced it (my previous reference to Duchamp and the fire extinguisher, for example) — a lingering feeling that there must be some quality in the artefact that made it Art, Noun. Wearing’s piece is di‹erent though (in common with many of her peers, like Tracey Emin or Mona Hatoum). The thing itself has no inherent virtues (it must be unwatchable, unless one is a complete masochist or in a state of deep catatonia, and my guess is that nobody will seriously ever watch it). It is the concept that is Art, Verb — an idea that probably doesn’t even need to exist to be the subject of critical discussion. The doing of an Artist has therefore become the art — the artefact is simply an irrelevant by-product.

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And that’s what I find fascinating. Because literally anyone could have made Wearing’s video — there are no cra· skills here that anyone is concerned with, only a modicum of organization, a little rudimentary equipment and some (presumably grant) funding. But to be Wearing — to be accepted in the heart of the throbbing, bustling London Art Scene — that is a di‹erent matter. And actually, if one looks at this — which is where the real artistry is — one sees a picture (forgive the pun) little di‹erent from the age of Michelangelo. It’s a picture of conformity, and of constrained rebellion within conformity. It’s a picture of a group of people whose world is arranged according to certain assumptions and norms that are, in all probability, invisible to them. And it is a picture of the enduring Machiavellian politics of acceptance and status. As for the ‘statement’ that the piece makes, I’m sure I could improvise some suitably adulatory twaddle about it deconstructing the role of law enforcement in mass culture and entertainment, etc. One could also say that the prize, the hype, the reactions of the critics and the public is itself some kind of installation/performance with a multitude of unfixed, reader-centred interpretations. But, in truth, one could say these sorts of things about almost anything — and I’m not sure what anyone would gain from it.

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Emotion
17 December 1997

ron: I think it’s more di›cult for artists to talk about art. What it is, what it ought to have, etc. There is this tension between technique and emotion. A good design will move me as much as a good drawing or photograph. Then I have this desire to find out why it moved me. What exactly did the artist do? In this century (and perhaps the last) the arts have come very close to the danger of believing that emotion is ‘spirituality’ — that there is something special, sublime about it. Ironically, at the same time the sciences have come pretty close to understanding that emotion is a function of some of the lowest, most primitive parts of the brain — common to all mammals, even rats and mice. Emotion is extraordinarily easy to manipulate — in a sense it is just technique. Madison Avenue understands this, as does Hollywood. Anyone who doubts this should curl up for an a·ernoon in front of the corniest, tritest ‘weepie’ — I strongly recommend the ‘Lassie’ series — and see if they are immune to the masterful engineering of their emotions. If that fails, try Billy Graham… But artists are usually a few steps behind ‘common knowledge’ (another danger of artists who don’t develop their intellectual lives). Amongst the catalogue of the ‘sad but true’ is that the ‘profound’ experiences some people have when entering, say, the Rothko room at London’s Tate Gallery, can be easily replicated without the ‘great art’ (which is not to deprecate Rothko, only some of his admirers). And such liberation of emotion can be far from good for people. There is a marvellous story of a Canadian researcher who took two groups of people, one of which had to listen to a tape of Christmas carols. He then described a crime to both groups, and asked what sentence they thought it deserved. Those who hadn’t heard the carols

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said ‘five years’. The others, who had been moved by the singing about peace and goodwill to all men, came up with an average sentence of ‘eleven years’. (Moral: don’t get brought up in front of the magistrates at Yuletide!) Having said this, I should distinguish between the almost visceral feeling of being overcome by something — that sensation of emotion ‘welling up’ — which is a dangerous pleasure (nobody has ever manipulated it better than Hitler, whom we shouldn’t forget was an artist by inclination and training) and what, for want of a better term, I’ll call aesthetic awe. This latter is what we experience when we witness something that is so superb in execution and/or conception that we appreciate the distance between ourselves and its author. Doubtless there is an emotional component to this feeling — a thrill that raises our hackles — but primarily it is not an emotional experience. More, I would say, it is an experience akin to the ‘Aha!’ type of realization — but, of course, di‹erent. It is at once both humbling and empowering. And, unlike the feeling of being moved by something, it is extremely hard to engineer — the only thing that can provoke it is the exercise of genius on someone else’s part (and it requires that we understand something of that genius from having striven in the same direction ourselves).

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Creative demagogues
18 December 1997

michael: C’mon, James. The Hitler-the-artist fillip was unnecessary. I should have been more careful. Not long ago I was speculating on why all Internet discussions (no matter what the subject) always come around to talking about Hitler. And here I am bringing him up again! But behind the fillip was an observation I find inescapable — which is that artists make truly disastrous political leaders (Nero being another prominent example, and of course Napoleon was a failed writer). Why is this? Perhaps because somewhere close to creativity is an intolerance of things that don’t conform to one’s vision, a (necessarily, given the world in which we live) inflated estimation of one’s own abilities and a desire to change the world. All laudable qualities in the artist or designer, but catastrophic qualities in a politician. Artists and designers also seem to be addicted to rhetoric — is this because we are so used to admiring stirring form without worrying about meaning? Fortunately for everyone, though, the extent of our megalomania will mostly be confined to such relatively harmless expressions as, say, helping a client impose a rigorously ‘pure’ corporate identity scheme. At some point I would like to try and collect some of the declamatory utterances of the early c20 modernists — the ones that sound like Robespierre or Trotsky, only with a designer’s vocabulary. One that comes to mind is El Lizzitsky’s ‘War has been declared on the aesthetic of chaos. An order that has entered fully into consciousness is called for’. Thank God he never got to govern anybody…

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Teaching people to see
5 January 1998

david: I was told in design class that graphic design is about seeing in certain ways, and that the designers themselves have a large responsibility in teaching the public how to see That’s usual here, too — very much an Art School view of the world. I’m not sure it’s right, though. People have always struck me as being able to see perfectly well — our brains have evolved the magnificent capacity to limit the amount of information processing they have to do, and whether you’re a bank teller or a bartender it’s not always that adaptive to be able to see like Kandinsky. The public has an appetite for our work (as and when it does) because we play with their visual world — not because we’re socially responsible pedagogues. Just as most of us love to hear musicians who can do things that are novel, clever or beautifully fitting with words and chords, so too do we love the same sorts of things with visual language, imagery and symbolism. As designers, we don’t really have to educate this appetite — just cater to it. So this seems to provide the critic with a useful role to fill. He should attempt to answer the question: what assumptions does a particular designer make about the way people see things, what changes might a particular school of design induce in the way people see things? Though if you compare the design critic to, say, the music critic, this would place a largely undeserved burden on her/him. Does anyone ask what assumptions the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or the Chemical Brothers make about the way people hear things? Does any critic even ask this about Mozart or Schumann? That’s not to say that it isn’t an interesting question — only that music criticism goes on without needing to engage with the big, existential topics. Imagine a design review along-

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side one for a restaurant — the first all angst and anxiety about context, meaning and interpretation, the second a mouth-wateringly evocative description of aroma, colour, texture, taste: sheer artistry with the bain marie and the pastry knife. Why should we designers have to draw the short straw?

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Ice skating
7 January 1998

ian: I would read, with great interest, any literature about where or how Shakespear, Rodin, (or contemporaries like Burroughs or Brody), got the inspiration to do what they did. And not vague notions of ‘the world, man’. Perhaps that would give us the didactic tools to deconstruct the real meaning behind their work. Perhaps if we became more e‹ective in communicating the reasons for our designs, others would have the tools to criticise our design. I know of few professions that remain so aloof and insular in the creation of initial processes. A couple of things… Firstly, I’m not sure knowing the ‘where’ or ‘how’ is really the clue you’re looking for. Many stories of ‘inspiration’ show it to be triggered by the most mundane things. Without getting too theoretical, I think one has to factor in some of the ways the mind works — in this case, the way that ideas can be ‘incubated’ below the level of consciousness. In my experience, being ‘inspired’ by something o·en has little to do with that thing itself, except in so much as it catalyses the coming together of an assortment of pre-conscious ideas. As in chemistry — where the catalyst only serves to initiate a process — so, I think, in ‘art’. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that ‘genius’ isn’t simply the product of what the brain is ‘programmed with’ (to use an awful mecanomorphic analogy). Shakespeare and Rodin shared a similar educational and cultural background with many of their peers, but it’s what they did with it that counts. As Wilde so aptly said: ‘two men looked our through prison bars…’ Cultivating inspiration is a skill, not a contentdriven thing. Describe to me how to ice-skate, and I’ll tell you how I design! Which is to say that like most skills, being able to do it and being able to articulate it verbally are quite di‹erent things — and that

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even when it’s possible to do the latter, the results are about as useful as trying to teach yourself to balance on the rink by learning the physics of equilibrium. Which leads on to my second point. Somehow we’ve got into a situation where, in order for something to be credible, it has to be possible to ‘explain’ it. So ubiquitous is this point of view that everybody seems to expect us to communicate what we do in terms they can understand. What this demand fails to recognize, however, is the fact — now supported by a mountain of evidence from the brain sciences — that the verbal/analytical capacity is an extremely limited one. And, perhaps more than anywhere else, it shows its limitations when it comes to ‘talking’ about certain kinds of ‘doing’. Just because something is believed, and demanded, doesn’t make it either possible or plausible. Try humming the smell of cheese… Which is not to say that there’s anything necessarily complicated or esoteric about what goes on in our heads when design ideas start to come together — just as those who can skate tell me ‘it’s simple — you just step onto the ice and o‹ you go!’. What I find very interesting about this, though, is that there is now a body of research which shows that teaching a beginner ‘theory’ about a skill like ice-skating can make it significantly more di›cult for them to learn it. It’s not just that finding a way to explain it is di›cult, but that taking the explanation and trying to use it actually impedes the activity itself. So I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion that if we could better communicate what we do others would have the tools to criticise it. The tools a critic uses are generally not those the practitioner uses — which is why we have a tradition of ‘lay’ criticism. I can watch Torville and Dean and admire their e‹ortless grace on the ice, without being able to put one foot in front of the other on the rink. And it’s precisely because it is possible for people to appreciate — and make judgments about — a whole range of activities (including Design) without the benefit of a comprehensive explanation of how they’re done, that any of us have jobs in the first place.

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Deference
9 January 1998

michael: We may be able to work our way laboriously backwards from the aesthetic properties of their style to their makers’ purpose, but I doubt that we would ever reach the point of fully understanding the tattoo, or the masks, etc. based on aesthetics alone. Whilst on one level I agree with you, I do wonder why — of all cultures and epochs — we have been saddled with having to mix our aesthetics with anthropology and political correctness. The Victorians could collect Japanese prints or African masks without ever having to ask themselves what their makers’ purpose was — and we can see how this eclecticism revitalised their art. And almost every other culture has unselfconsiously appropriated artefacts from outside itself and applied its own systems of judgment to them. We, on the other hand, have to be excruciatingly deferential and circumspect in what we say about cultures other than our own — showing that we understand and respect their world-view. So deferential and respectful, indeed, that when anyone takes them up as influences — and the paradigm case must be Paul Simon with Graceland — everyone shouts ‘exploitation!’ I think one can be overly precious about all this anthropology. Whilst the Maori tattoo undoubtedly had significances within that society, so one could argue Mickey Mouse or Ronald McDonald does in ours (look at the e‹ort that is spent preserving the integrity of those icons!). Would we want our remote descendents to put them on a pedestal — to mutter in hushed tones ‘you really have to understand the seminal role of popular culture in twentieth century American life before you can comment on the aesthetics of Duck Tales or the Big Mac’? Personally, I’d rather that they just take the bits that appeal to them, and put the rest in the recycler…

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We don’t need to know
12 January 1998

marc: While I don’t just throw elements around on my layouts, I cannot honestly say that I know why everything is where it is. I know when something is in the wrong place, or when the wrong font is used. What I need is a way to verbalize my decisions. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to know that something feels right but not to know how one knows that. Paul McCartney woke up one morning a·er a dream where he’d been hearing this sequence of chords. He didn’t know where they came from, but they nagged their way into his waking consciousness. He started to play around with them on the guitar and found he had a song. ‘Yesterday’ became his — and the Beatles — biggest selling hit. Thank God George Martin didn’t say to him ‘Well, actually Paul, I’m not going to accept this until you can describe to me the rationale behind this song — what exactly were the influences, how did you put it together, and why this is relevant to our identified target market segments?’ This isn’t a justification for touchy-feely-trust-your-feelings wooly thinking — but a recognition (supported by cognitive science) that the brain is o·en cleverer out of consciousness than it is withing it. And that the verbal-analytical function, while important, doesn’t run the show. I seem to remember Alan Watts (in The Way of Zen? — I don’t remember, it’s a long time since I read it) talking about the extraordinary aesthetic sensitivity of a Japanese Teamaster. His acuity concerning where exactly to place an object (was it a scroll?) was extraordinarily highly developed. Watts had the good manners — and the good sense — not to ask him to explain how he did it. Having said all this, I am personally a great believer in the (now very outmoded and unfashionable) notion that there are harmonic rela-

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tionships on the page as mathematically precise as the relationships of musical tones. I’ve o·en found that when I’ve checked something I’ve done that does feel ‘just right’ there is an underlying pattern of ratios and proportions. But then, in a sense, these only correspond to the chords in the McCartney example — the fourths, fi·hs, minor thirds etc. As in music, it’s what one does with them that is important — and which is, except in the silliest sense of post-rationalisation, dependent on processes that are impossible to verbalize.

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Grids
12 January 1998

rodolfo: And do this: use a grid. Make your ‘spiritually’ positioned elements ‘snap’ to it and you’ll feel safer about their location. Keep a gridded print of your layout to produce when your clients are that fussy. It will impress them as showing your ‘locational’ decisions have been consciously thought up. (And this may partially compensate for a certain lack of oral fluency many designers su‹er from.) And more, not only use the grid, but establish the main alignment lines of the design (these need not always coincide with the grid, but must be based on some regular division of it). I used to be a big fan of grids, but recently I find that I’m working more and more without them. Obviously there are certain elements of consistency that I still use — the measures of text columns, for instance (although I’ll sometimes cheat even these for aesthetic reasons), or the locations of standard hanging lines. But I’m no longer convinced that the underlying structure is that apparent (or important), especially when one uses complex grids with a number of di‹erent alignment points. And I find where there is fluidity in a document (and my documents seem to be becoming more and more fluid!), the grid constrains me to putting something somewhere where I don’t really want it to be, or sizing something to a size that doesn’t feel right. Many years ago I read Russell Page’s wonderful Education of a Gardener (Page was one of our leading garden designers, but had started out as a painter). In it, he describes the ideal garden as a series of rooms, each giving rise to new and unexpected vistas. Over the years, I suppose I’ve come around to thinking that a document (and perhaps especially a web site) should also be like this. Most printed documents unfold as a series of spreads, and what gives them pace and interest is the

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interplay between consistency and di‹erence. However, consistency needn’t mean always having the same thing at the same size in the same place (gridded consistency, as it were) but can be a playful reinterpretation — a kind of visual fugue, where the boundaries of sameness and di‹erence are explored. This isn’t the anarchy of ‘deconstruction’, but a way in which otherwise static elements can be intelligently articulated. The concept of the grid seems to suggest that the underlying structure has more inherent merit than what sits on top of it (more than a hint of modernist dogma here). I’ll spare you all a dissertation on the di‹erence between the modernist approach of ‘unity in multiplicity’ versus the romantic ‘multiplicity in unity’, but point out that there is a connection between the view that sees the page as something that has its own logic and necessity and the romantic view of ‘morphology’, where the parts are organically related to the whole.

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One’s own style
13 January 1998

john: Should a graphic designer have a style? I subscribe to Bob Gill’s statement that if any two of your pieces look like the same person did them, then you’re doing it wrong. Even though I don’t measure up to the challenge, myself, I still think it’s the right philosophy… The history of design suggests to me that one has to give the designer her/his due. Paul Rand’s work was inescapably Paul Rand, but did IBM or Westinghouse su‹er because of it? Likewise Alan Fletcher, Milton Glaser, Derek Birdsall and a host of others — pretty much every ‘name’ designer one can think of. No doubt most tried to follow a similar approach to Gill’s — but in retrospect, who were they kidding? A third year student could probably sort their work into the respective piles… Really we’re back to this thorny issue of the ‘professionalism’ of graphic design. What does it mean to give your clients value — is it a case of subduing one’s own personal style in favour of some putative personality of the client? But if it is, what exactly do they gain from it? ‘This is more you, because it is less me…’? Or is it more a case of — as I would suggest — ‘I’m good for you: you’re good for me’? A·er all, it’s accepted that chief executives can stamp their personalities on organizations. Why not designers?

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The reason why
13 January 1998

gunnar: One could then postulate a designer who does not think except ‘with her hands’ and creates designed solutions to problems. She then has to switch gears to ask herself whether the solutions do, indeed, solve the problems or whether something else might have done it better. If there is any negative answer to the former or positive answer to the latter she could then return to subconscious problem solving and continue this cycle until she thought she had it nailed. At that point her analysis becomes an important part of explaining the design to others. Thus the question is not ‘Why did I do this?’ but rather ‘Why is this this way?’ Not all the things we do are the result of mysterious processes at the back of consciousness — but a great many of them are equally futile to talk about. ‘Why have you put this text in three columns instead of two?’ ‘Why are the folios half way up the page instead of at the bottom’ ‘Why are the headings all picked out in green’ ‘Why have you made the pictures so small?’ If one gets a client who has never emerged from the three-year old’s ‘why this, why that?’ stage — and they do exist — one usually ends up with either a sore tongue (from too much biting) or, God forbid, a suitably chastened client (probably an ex- one, to boot). Being a designer involves making decisions. Like Michelangelo faced with a block of Carrara marble, something has to go. It can’t be both two columns and three, folios at the foot and the side, headings simultaneously in green, black, blue, pics duplicated big and small. Relatively few of these decisions — at least, as far as I’m concerned — have any particular rationale. Just as the answer to the small child who demands ‘why is the moon?’ usually turns out to be ‘because it is!’, so the answer to the client who wants to know why you’ve made particular design decisions can either be a brazen lie (‘because we’ve found that text in

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three columns results in 25% more customers responding to the callto-action at the bottom of the page’) or the more truthful ‘because that’s how I’ve decided to interpret it’. Mostly these things are based on a subjective decision about what works best, in turn based on an overall vision of how one thinks the thing needs to look. Do we have to be afraid of this? Do we have to pretend there’s more to it, so that clients can feel satisfied and academics can write PhD theses? I don’t see why. Is it really the client who is unsatisfied with all this (it seems to me that most accept the principle that ‘if I had a better idea, I’d do it myself’ — and seem happy to defer to someone whose judgment they trust)? Or is it just a little bit of vanity on our part, a little bit of ‘the grass is greener’ in the consultant’s patch, where there are all sorts of clever and complicated sounding reasons why decisions get made?

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Identity and iconography
16 January 1998

david: This leads me to a logo question I’d like to pose to the list: what are the strengths/weaknesses in a logo where there is a close connection between the images in the logo and the group/thing/whatever the logo represents, but this connection will not be recognized by most people? Now the image of the patronness of music looking upward in musical rapture at the initials of a choral group is full of significance, but most people will not realise this. Where to start? There is a huge strength in a logo ‘where there is a close connection between the images in the logo and the group/thing/whatever the logo represents’. Identity is rooted in the most fundamental, ancient desire to identify and to belong — and is at its best when it recognizes that. When it really works, it provides an outward, visual focus for those desires. The big question, however, is who is included and who is excluded from that identification. With many organizations, inclusion is an important issue — an identity should bring in all the stakeholders (investors, employees, customers, suppliers and partners, local communities etc.). And this is one of the key distinctions between identity and brand — brand making its appeal to customers and prospective customers without any dimension of ‘belonging’. Obviously an issue with identity is that the wider you throw the net, the more chance there is that some groups won’t ‘get’ the message — so usually what happens is that the more people it has to reach, the more dilute and anodyne the imagery is. Needless to say, such an approach really works for nobody — there’s not enough substance there for the real ‘insiders’, and still perhaps too much for the real ‘outsiders’.

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With a group such as the choral music group, I would guess that the key stakeholders are much more cohesive than with a commercial organization. Even people like backers, management and others will likely be enthusiasts for the subject — if not cognoscienti. I would also guess that audiences for this kind of music don’t just dri· in o‹ the street, either, so that at the ‘customer’ end of the equation people will actually appreciate an approach that treats them as being more ‘insider’ than perhaps they really are. So, what I’m saying probably amounts to a green light for the Saint Cecilia route — and a suggestion that you don’t worry about those who won’t ‘get’ it (it was probably never intended for them anyway). One final pointer, however — and that is that I would consider a treatment that brings out the symbolic, archetypal ‘richness’ of the subject in the treatment, rather than a straightforward depiction. Unless the group you’re working with have a particular religious focus, the image will not have the pulling power that it might for those brought up in Catholicism. Therefore, it needs to appeal at a more universal level. One thing that one frequently finds with the representation of saints is that many of them have specific attributes or accoutrements that are a legacy — or a continuation — of an older, pagan symbology. A good example here is the pecten shell, which is an emblem of Saint James of Compostella — but which is the traditional accoutrement of Aphrodite/ Venus (witness Botticelli’s and Titian’s depictions). Wol‹ Olins played on this dimension (with greater or lesser degrees of success, according to your point of view) in their famous ‘Prudential’ logo — with the figure of Prudence (as a rather nondescript eighties ‘new woman’) shown with her traditional mirror and earings made from live snakes [unfortunately nobody ever gets this, unless they are told]. So, consider the traditional iconography of Saint Cecilia and maybe see if there are particular resonances that you can bring out for the group — things that reach out from beyond the veil of sanctity into the secularity of modern life.

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Typefaces
20 January 1998

Lindsay: Stating the obvious, the choice for a detective novel may not be appropriate for a math textbook, or suit a newspaper or magazine announcement soliciting donations for a cancer hospice, or a report to the CEO analysing the accounts of a subsidiary company, a technical engineering report to a municipal utility, or scripts for the performing arts. But equally, it may. I reviewed the types I’d pro‹ered in response to Michael’s question and I could see no reason why any of them couldn’t be used for all of the above. In fact, if you turn the statement around, you end up with a series of fairly bewildering questions. What typeface is appropriate to a detective novel, but not to the magazine announcement or the report to the CEO? Have I missed a Chandler Roman or a Gumshoe Sans lurking about out there? What does a script for the performing arts need in the way of legibility, e›ciency and character that couldn’t equally benefit a technical engineering report to a municipal utility? We like to think of type having certain attributes — witness the (abortive) attempt at classification on this list a few months ago. But actually those attributes are fairly flimsy. And a good designer can overturn them fairly easily — I’ve seen work of great delicacy and beauty set in Helvetica, powerfully impactive communications in Centaur and very contemporary stu‹ done in Bell (the neo-classical type: not the ‘gothic’ or ‘centennial’ versions!). Ruari McLean states somewhere that when he started working as a typographer, he only used Caslon — and found this experience invaluable for discovering what type could do. In a sense, this relates to Phil Baines’ quote about ‘British designers doing novel things with ordinary types and American designers doing ordinary things with novel

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types’. Ignoring the (good natured) jibe at our transatlantic cousins, the point he is making is about the di‹erence between an approach to design in which use and context are more important than the typeface (characterised as ‘British’) and an approach where the choice of type takes precedence (characterised as ‘American’). The latter approach is the lazier, because it slipstreams the design behind associations created by the type. It’s also inherently the more dangerous approach — because di‹erent people may have di‹erent associations. As the South African who commented on some work we’d done for Royal Mail (set in their Stempel Garamond) said: ‘Man, I just hate that type! It’s what the military used, and says call-up to me.’

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Hopkins
20 January 1998

michael: Why do some folks think Sabon is better for a book and others Galliard? Is it really a case of acquiescing to the ‘lazier’ way that things have always been done? Or is there just a bit of the proper realization by the designer that one face evokes responses regardless of how adroitly you have use the face to go against the expectations? Would you set the display type in an ad about child abuse services in Broadway or Klingspor? I kinda doubt it, not because you probably couldn’t pull it o‹, but because you couldn’t control all those ‘lazy’ responses that the reading public would impose without regard for what you constructed. […] It reminds me of why Hopkins’s sprung rhythm is something few poets have been able to master — if they tried. Lázinéss, is it beliéving That fonts théy should be deceiving? Typés, made to impress us, true to their fair outlines always do confórm. But is your layóut not bólder Than the contents of systém fólder? Does not this block of type belie mere convéntions, that to this eye a flóck of laziér thoughts imply? Now no matter, spooled, the name: Yésterday’s fonts are all the same! Nor use made, no, nor shape distressed but that a typographic sin’s confessed. Is this the job these glyphs were drawn for? Or is it intégríty I yearn for?

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Letter to the Editor, Design Week
23 January 1998

Dear Ms Relph-Knight In his piece ‘A visit to the body shop’ (DW 23 January) Michael Evamy writes: ‘But, who knows, in 20 or 30 years’ time the term “identity consultant” might be taken over by someone who helps clients develop their personal identity: designing not new logos but new faces.’ I realize he’s being flippant, but it’s not his humour I have a problem with. Rather, it’s the way he perpetuates the misapprehension that identity consultancy is in some way a kind of ‘corporate facelift’. Visual identity is a very simple proposition, so it is surprising that it is so frequently misrepresented in this way. Baldly stated, it consists in finding ways to represent emblematically the character — the ‘ethos’, in the original sense of that word — of an organization. The result is a ‘signature’ that should both feel appropriate and — significantly — exercise a beneficial influence over those it represents. How is this similar to cosmetic surgery? The straightforward answer is that it is not. Cosmetic surgeons may do wonders for their patients’ morale, but hardly help them to discover themselves. Visual identity, on the other hand, can be literally healing — coming from a millennia old tradition of using symbols to bring people together and make them whole. If one has to make an analogy with one-on-one therapeutic practice, it would have to be with the Jungian therapist helping her client towards ‘individuation’ by grasping the significance of the archetypes as they manifest in his life. Certainly, in my work, I have always found that much more was achieved through listening to the client on the couch than by putting them under the knife.

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Paul Rand
2 February 1998

nancy: He deserves our praise for at least trying to make sense of what we do, and for trying to link design to the chain of history, but I’m not sure he fully succeeded. His logic, historicism, and prose were not quite up to the task, and why should we expect them to have been? Consider not only a designer’s typical education — noteworthy for its thinness in the liberal arts and hard sciences — but also the visual, global-perceptual, intuitive nature of design intelligence. I don’t think we will have a competent or rigorous literature of design until someone who does have a verbal, linear, logical intelligence decides to take on design as a liberal study. At the moment, no one much cares but ourselves. I agree that Rand’s books read better as poetic musings on the subject of design than as ‘a competent or rigorous literature of design’. It might have been much better had he recognized this — it would have certainly spared him some of the harsher criticism of a younger generation of designers, impatient with his pontification. But I suppose it is important for all of us to believe that we are not only in the middle of the geographical universe but the conceptual universe as well. I’ve wondered long and hard as to whether we really need a rigorous literature of design. There’s certainly no shortage of people wanting to do it for us — failed PoMo literary critics, obscure Marxist historians/ sociologists, ambitious journalists etc. But do their e‹orts tell us anything about ourselves, or do they tell us about the kind of design they would like us to practice? If one takes a subject like design history, you can study it with all the vogue academic tools — but does it reveal what it was really like to be in William Morris’ or Alexey Brodovitch’s skin? A couple of years ago I argued provocatively at the Design History Conference (taking a of

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flak in the process!) that designers need to be encouraged to make an imaginative connection to history. Analysing the history of design with that ‘verbal, linear’ logical’ intelligence might make great material for a post grad liberal arts student, but does it help anyone to be a better designer? On the other hand making a personal, intuitive connection with the past can be a powerful stimulus to creativity. I later discovered that Robert Graves used just such a technique of imaginative reconstruction — which he called analepsis — while writing his famous novels. When Malcolm Muggeridge interviewed him on British TV in the sixties, he asked how he knew about a certain event recorded in I Claudius. Graves replied ‘because I was there!’

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Problem employee
3 February 1998

webmaster: He will work fine for about 2–3 hours, producing work far exceeding the expectations of the clients. His projects are on time, and he always produces quality work. He has been told repeated times not to engage in these games during working hours or on company machines and has been wrote up at least twice involving this. Now what I find interesting is the sort of divided nature of this situation. On one side he is a superior employee who preforms far above the expected norm. But on the other side, he has engaged repeated times in an activity that both goes against company policy and his employer’s orders. Creative pursuits can’t be organized on a production-line basis. Many days I hang about, a cup of tea in hand, looking out onto the hill, listening to music. I take calls, chat to the others, pick up a magazine, fire o‹ a couple of letters, clean up my desktop, check my mail. Then at 9 p.m. I may come back into the studio and do two or three hours of sustained, productive work. Don’t think that nothing happens in the rest of that time, though — for years I thought that, and felt guilty about it. Then I discovered that the quality of the short bursts of work depended upon the steady percolation of ideas that goes on in those ‘idle’ moments. Your friend is trying to run a creative business along sound management principles, which is both noble and totally misguided. He’s happy with this guy, but he thinks he shouldn’t be because — although he delivers great work, on time (and presumably to budget and brief) — he doesn’t fit his model of how a business ought to be run. Tell him to forget this — to create a culture that encourages excellence, but also allows for the idiosyncracies that creative people have. We’re complicated people — we’ve got mutant genes (an extraordinary number of creatives have schizophrenics in their immediate family groups) or

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else we were damaged in childhood — which is how we get to see things from a di‹erent perspective to the norm. So we need to be treated carefully and di‹erently (but not necessarily as ‘precious flowers’ or primadonnas!). So my recommendation is that your friend flush the company rule book down the john, realize that circumstances alter cases, and make sure he gets in a steady supply of great games to keep his employee motivated.

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Mensch
3 February 1998

kc: …the real problem I see is an employee who apparently ignores direct instructions from his superiors. Whatever the reason, that makes for a di›cult working relationship. If it is a personality characteristic rather than his necessary work style, then giving him latitude here will only cause him to challenge you somewhere else, because what he could really want is to be at odds with authority. An employee who gets his work done and plays video games doesn’t bother me. An employee who needs to be in trouble wouldn’t be worth it no matter how talented they are. But I like a peaceful life. If his attitude is really a problem, then it is a problem — and a royal pain in the butt (but I didn’t get this from ‘Webmaster’s’ post). Still, foibles are part of the package that all human beings bring to the workplace. So it’s more of a question of how much the good work makes up for the bad attitude. We’d all like to employ perfect sta‹, but they probably wouldn’t want to work for flawed employers. There’s also the question of whether the boss wants to help this employee get over the problem, or whether he just wants it to go away. I’m reminded of A.S. Neill — the radical headmaster of the revolutionary school Summerhill — who was faced with a young boy who kept smashing windows. One day, he took the boy outside and proceeded to take him around the school smashing the windows himself. The boy never did it again… But that kind of solution requires a boss who is, in that lovely Yiddish term, a ‘Mensch’.

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Rhyme
4 February 1998

gunnar: One of the appeals of rhyme is that it makes connections that are not obvious and mundane. The real magic happens when those connections are combined with other kinds of connections and a synergy of meaning and feeling results. One of the reasons bad rhyme is so irritating is that it makes a promise of new meaning and fails to deliver on it. (Lenny Bruce delicately called the phenomenon ‘Getting it up without getting it o‹’.) Beautifully put! There’s also an aspect of rhyme that is sheer playfulness, which one shouldn’t discount either. Doggerel can be enjoyable, if not particularly meaningful — and it harps back to the pleasure children take in babbling word-play. There’s a great deal of graphic design (junk mail, for instance) that will never be poetry. Wouldn’t it be better if this stu‹ just allowed itself to be good natured visual banter, instead of harbouring higher pretensions? Why does it always have to be so dispiritingly earnest in a down-market kind of way — like the neighbour who has converted to Amway?

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Curriculum vitæ
4 February 1998

barbara: I was wondering if a few of you could give me your 2 cents worth for a question I have? I did a resume for my son who lives in the eastern states (I’m in the central) he is just out of college not too long and works in theatre design. Everyone he works with likes his resume and wants to know how much I would charge to do their resume. In May I hope to have my BFA in Graphic Design. I don’t have a clue as to prices for this and I want charge the usual and customary charges. Do you charge a one time fee or do you charge a fee with changes extra, do you set a limit on changes and corrections (spelling, additions, changing a line to another place etc.) What is the going rate? Most people who want a CV are usually looking for a new job. Very o·en, they also have an idea of how much they think they are worth — what kind of salary they are looking for. Simply, the value of the CV should be commensurate with that salary expectation. CVs are key personal marketing tools — they probably do far more for an individual than a corporate brochure does for an organization (proportionately, that is). If you are looking to be the next CEO of Boeing, or GEC or Apple, this document could clinch you a job worth literally millions (plus share options, golden handshakes/parachutes and all the other trappings of corporate life). Is it then reasonable to expect it to cost less than that flashy Rolex Oyster you flout ostentatiously at the interview? But if you’re looking to be the next washer-up at Joe’s Diner — and want to parade your unhappy succession of previous McJobs — $5 might seem on the steep side.

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Education
5 February 1998

brian: Art schools everywhere have someone who utters this warning or disclaimer and reassures everyone they have not entered a trade school. That’s the problem. If you go into engineering, medicine,or law the schools don’t say you’re making a big mistake. I know a kid who majored in European History, got a job trading German stocks and within 4 years makes over 200K a year. Some people grow up and cure cancer, send rockets to the moon, create Disneyworld or become Bill Gates. Maybe art schools should be more aggressive about defining the fundamentals that will let students grow into a life long career other than the few ‘artists’ who will become famous. Don’t forget, though, that there are other people who go to College and then go on to do something equally fulfilling, but not necessarily remunerative, like raising a family. Education isn’t there to make people financial success stories — that’s an incidental by-product. It’s there to make them bigger people — with wider intellectual horizons, more appreciation of the world around them, better understanding of their own capabilities, and possessed of a conceptual framework that can give meaning and coherence to their future professional activities. To some, that’s extremely valuable — to others it may prove invaluable. It is lamentable that some noble disciplines are now seen in a narrow return-on-investment way: medicine, for instance, or the law. To be brutally honest, it has done nothing for them — except give us aberrations like defensive medicine (protecting the physician’s revenue stream) and ambulance chasing (marketing for overpopulated lawyers). The aspect of ‘Humanity’ is fast receding. One of the strengths of design is that one still does have to be dedicated and truly love the subject — almost any other calling will earn you more money.

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Comrades
10 February 1998

gunnar: The reason that academia is not, despite the closing and illiberal books’ claims to the contrary, a monolith is that smart people poke holes in each others’ work with the intent of discovering what works and what doesn’t. Strangely, I’m in a discussion on another list where I’m arguing against language that demonizes capitalism unfairly. I also object to demonizing marxism unfairly. I’m suspicious of any argument that essentially says ‘This is all commie crap; ignore it’. I’m all in favour of a diversity of views and voices. Sadly, the ideologues who had a stranglehold on British cultural studies departments in the late seventies and eighties didn’t share this view. But they did believe that people would make judgments about ‘commie crap’ if it was not presented by stealth — a couple of friends went through three terms of such indoctrination before they realized they were actually being taught good, old-fashioned ‘dialectical materialism’. Maybe it’s hard from a North American perspective to realize quite how pervasive — and, indeed, how stifling — the influence of the le· was in European intellectual life. Long a·er 1957 — the Hungarian uprising, when many people le· the ‘o›cial’ (Stalinist) Communist Party, the Marxist mafia dominated much of British academia — in some places and disciplines more than others. Even knowing this, I was shocked reading the second volume of Doris Lessing’s autobiography, where she charts her years in the le·-wing London intelligensia. Again and again, one is hauled short by striking revelations — ‘My God, so-and-so was a party member — I had no idea!’ One missing piece in the design history jigsaw puzzle is the extent to which post-war British Modernism was constructed by people owing their allegiances — not always happily — to King Street (headquarters of the British Communist Party).

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Success
10 February 1998

gunnar: James, I’m quite mystified by your recent posts that seem to indicate that all graphic design can best be judged by profit and loss statements. If this were true the ethical thing for you to do would be to write Nancy apologizing for trying to take Critique’s money and suggesting that they hire an accounting firm to supply all of their future articles. It’s not quite as mystifying as it seems. The principle I adhere to — and which still seems valid to me — is that when an activity has an economic aspect, that aspect must be taken into account (along with the others) in judging its success or failure. And probably also weighted against the other factors, too, according to how important an aspect of that activity it is. There’s no implication that the balance sheet should be the sole criterion of success — a view I hold to be barbarous — but nor should it be ignored. Like many others here, I do graphic design for a living. No matter how much I love the subject, this is still my primary motivation — if I can’t pay my mortgage, feed and clothe the kids or keep coal in the grate, I’ll have to do something else. And my clients — some of whom are urbane, civilized people who certainly don’t believe that all there is to graphic design is ‘bang for buck’ — buy my services because they are looking for business advantage for their organizations. They might like to commission work just for the sheer pleasure of it, but their primary motivation is to carry out the requirements of the jobs they were appointed to. So in my life graphic design is closely related — in the most basic and fundamental way imaginable — to my own and my clients financial success or failure, and their consequences. But why do I feel like I’m apologising for this? Graphic design is one hell of a way to make a livelihood — it’s hard to imagine a more chal-

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lenging, satisfying, stimulating, and fascinating occupation. There’s a real buzz to producing a great piece of work. Likewise winning a great piece of business. One continuum, two ends. So if we’re going to talk about success, we must be talking about something that takes into account all the various aspects that make up graphic design. Work that pushes the envelope of the discipline — if that’s what is called for. Work that delivers a better-than-could-beexpected result for those who commissioned it. Work that has its readers — whoever they are — thinking ‘Wow! that’s really great’. But work that also has your accountant saying ‘you must be doing something right!’. All of that. Now let’s transpose these criteria to Kenneth’s assertion that David Carson is ‘the biggest success of the decade’. It seems to me that the most successful graphic designer of the decade must be a person who has made a significant contribution to graphic design, who has ecstatic clients, has reached a sizable proportion of the population, and is making substantial amounts of money. Someone whose achievements are clearly greater than the next nearest contestor. Now I don’t know why anyone would want to discover who this is — nor how exactly they would quantify some of these things (except, of course, the balance sheet). But what I do know is that, by these measures, that person is unlikely to be David Carson. Which is not to disparage his achievements, such as they are. I also believe that if we put together a list of the best paid graphic designers and/or most profitable design firms we’d spend a lot of time asking ‘Who the hell are these people?’ Don’t you think you’re being a little unfair? We live in a world where there is graphic communication wherever we turn our heads — from street signs to posters to letters and bills to packaging to books to television to computer interfaces. What would you say to someone who walked obliviously past all of these things, until he spotted the latest Emigre on the news stand and declared ‘Graphic Design at last!’

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Style
27 February 1998

colin’s quote from emigre: What once upset the staus quo have become run-of-the-mill solutions. One bankruptcy replaces the next. The number of books beign published on ‘cutting edge design’ is evidence of the complete exhaustion of what initially looked like an honest-to-goodness savior of graphic design. My initial reaction to the writer of this piece is ‘well, what did you expect?’ Perhaps this is where a modicum of design history comes in useful — knowing how the status quo always eventually integrates styles that initially existed in opposition to it. Why fight it? Looked at in another way, this is just another example of the marvellous evolutionary ‘adaptability’ of human societies. I do wonder, though, whether ‘style’ is ever really radical. Ideas can be radical — certainly — as Oscar Wilde recognized when he said that ‘an idea that isn’t dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all’. But style? How can the adoption of distressed or vernacular type as a generalized kind of statement be considered an ‘idea’ — or, for that matter, pose any real danger to anyone or anything? My own impression of this nineties movement in design is that it has been ‘intellect on idle’ — and I’d really have to be convinced otherwise. This, I think, goes to the heart of my objections to post-modernism. Take the politics — the ‘struggle of the oppressed proletariat against the hegemony of bourgeois culture’ — out of Barthes et al. and what have you got? Some ideas about ‘deconstructing the power relations in the narrative’ without any real reason for doing it. No wonder commercial culture — advertising and marketing — has latched on to this stu‹ so readily. It is the ‘chic’ part of ‘radical chic’, without having anything le· in it that is in any way radical.

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Arrogance
27 February 1998

greg: This is probably the most exciting and important time to be a designer in the 20th century. Has Emigre forgotten about the Internet and other interactive technologies? The Internet is changing the was people communicate. I really don’t think people that read this list can disagree. I suppose that depends on what really turns you on about design. Sure, there are technological challenges aplenty — and the new dimensions (time, sound, interaction) are, in their own way, exciting. I’m not sure that any of this is changing the way people communicate, though. Once one understands how people — biological entities with this magical gi· of language — do communicate, one sees that they communicate in largely similar ways whatever the medium. The thing that gets me going, however, is what they communicate. Is this an ‘exciting and important time’ in terms of the messages and ideas they are communicating? For me, that’s the real question. There is also a sense in which the designer is becoming a kind of villain, too — which worries me greatly. This is abetted by statements like Katherine McCoy’s ‘Graphic designers have become dissatisfied with the obedient delivery of the client’s message.’ and Bridget Wilkins’ (infamous) ‘Legible is easy to read. If it is easy to read it bypasses the visual potential of the message. People prefer the comfort of legibility’. This idea that the ‘designer knows best’ is fomenting considerable resentment — especially when it is patently obvious that many designers have neither the culture or erudition to really act as ‘interpreter’ for the texts they work with — and sooner or later it will no doubt result in a backlash. I’ve actually heard ‘webmasters’ saying publicly ‘we don’t want to let this medium fall into the hands of designers’ — an opinion I found sobering, to say the least.

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Pectens
6 March 1998

John: What do you consider to be the best books, etc. on principles and philosophies of logo design? In my opinion there’s only key book: Carl Jung’s compilation Man and his Symbols. I was put onto Jung by my former boss, Wally Olins, and I have to say that I don’t believe anyone should be designing logos without having read him (or at least being familiar with his distinction between symbols and signs). Per Mollerup’s book Marks of Excellence is an example of what happens when one doesn’t take this (mythological: poetic: archetypal) perspective. Mollerup uses a bizarre taxonomy which looks to be based on Pierce’s Semiology — and is to my mind the designer’s equivalent of sticking pins through cyanide-extinguished butterflies. As an example of the shallowness of his approach, Mollerup consider the Shell ‘Pecten’ to be an example of a totally arbitrary — I can’t remember his exact word, is it ‘accidental’? — mark. I did a presentation to Shell recently, where I traced the roots of the pecten from its traditional association with the goddess Aphrodite (Venus, Eurynome) through to its use by Shell today — in an unbroken chain. I think it makes an interesting case study about the persistent power of symbols. As a visual example of this continuity, I showed them Botticelli’s Birth of Venus — with the goddess rising out of the sea on the pecten — a painting which Robert Graves describes in The White Goddess as ‘an exact icon of her cult’ (a phrase I made damned sure I had word perfect before I said it!). Pectens are an intriguing motif in Renaissance painting: Raphael depicts his Galatea riding on one, pulled by porpoises, whilst

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Piero della Francesca incorporates one as part of the ceiling behind the virgin in the Montefeltro Altarpiece (an enigmatic and important association — as I was to discover). For those who don’t know the story, Aphrodite was supposedly born as a result of Cronos castrating Uranus and throwing his genitals into the sea — which then created a foam (Aphrodite means ‘foam born’), out of which the goddess was formed and delivered up in a pecten shell. Apparently the worship of Aphrodite/Venus persisted into Christian times, transferred onto a quasi-historical figure called ‘Mary Gypsy’ or ‘Mary the Egyptian’. This was repressed in Christian Eurpope but persisted under the tolerance of Islam — profoundly influencing the crusaders when they came into contact with it in the Near East. This Mary retained the traditional accoutrements of Venus: the palm, myrtle and pecten/comb — her name also echoed Aphrodite/Venus’ association with the sea. The worship of ‘Mary Gypsy’ (which is, amongst other things, intricately tied up with the Robin Hood legends) was brought to England from the Levant, via Compostella in Spain, by pilgrims who became known as Palmers (because they carried Aphrodite’s sacred palm, as well as having pectens stitched to their hats — ‘cockle hats’, as Ophelia calls them in Hamlet). The pecten thus became associated with St James the great, through his supposed shrine at Santiago de Compostella — and is still used as the visual indicator for the pilgrimage route. In the mid nineteenth century, Marcus Samuel Jr ran a business in the East End of London, importing exotic sea shells from the far east — which became extremely popular due to the Victorian vogue for shell decorated trinket boxes. He found that his business was further enhanced by exporting kerosene oil to his contacts and agents — a business that soon took o‹ a·er he visited Batum on the Black Sea in 1890, and saw how the Russians were building a large-scale oil export business. In 1897, he formed ‘The Shell Transport and Trading Company’.

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The pecten was adopted as a corporate symbol by Shell in 1904. It had been suggested to Samuel by a Mr Graham, who was one of his kerosene importers in India, and who later became a Shell director. Graham’s family had adopted the pecten as a coat of arms, a·er a distant ancestor had made the pilgrimage to Santiago (and doubtless adopted the Palmer creed). A·er Samuel’s ‘Shell Transport and Trading Company’ formalized its relationship with Henri Deterding’s ‘Royal Dutch Company for the Working of Petroleum Wells in the Dutch Indies’ in 1907, the pecten became the symbol for the resulting ‘Royal Dutch/Shell Group’. Looked at in a mechanical, Mollerupian way, this story is simply a jolly — but irrelevant — anecdote. Seen from a Jungian perspective, however, it takes on a quite di‹erent significance — and has powerful resonances for the company today (amongst other things, a modern company, presided over by the emblem of a goddess). The lesson I draw from it, however, is that symbols have a life of their own — and will reassert their power whether we’re conscious of it or not (the pecten is as ubiquitous and recognizable now as it was in classical times). That’s the basis for all my corporate identity work, anyway.

Note: Since this message was written, I have acquired a lovely book called ‘The Scallop’, published by Shell in 1957. It is a collection of essays on the subject of the pecten, beginning with its biology and ending with ways to cook and serve it. There is also an excellent investigation of the heraldic dimensions of the pecten, a dissertation on its use in Pre-Colombian art, a piece on scallops in Renaissance painting, and another on their role in early Christian iconography, as well as a brilliant contribution by Sir Mortimer Wheeler about its symbolism in the ancient world. Shell may have been an insu‹erably patronising and paternalistic company in the ‘fi·ies but, compared to the narrow and reductive way it now talks about its ‘brand’, it also had a much greater sense of respect and custodianship for the symbol it had adopted.

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Manuals
6 March 1998

john: Has anyone seen any good books on the creation of corporate i.d. standards manuals? I’ve seen quite a few books on logos, but none that discuss a comprehensive usage strategy. Without wanting to sound disrespectful, I think this is a bit like asking for a good book on paste-up. I can’t remember the last time I worked on a manual, but I think it must be at least six years ago — maybe more. For all sorts of good reasons, multimedia is now the de facto medium for communicating identity. For a while, it was Director (delivered on cd), but intranet delivery is taking over — and here Flash seems to be the way to go. We’ve handed over two Flash based identity communication systems in the last six months. Identity Manuals were appropriate to a kind of organization that is, increasingly, no longer with us. Hierarchical, centralized, prizing conformity — an institution where the identity manager could wield authority, and needed a big book to hit people over the head with. They also assumed a climate in which a small group of (knowledgeable) commissioners worked with agencies and suppliers — before the ubiquitous pc put professional publishing tools into every user’s hands, and made identity implementation a universal agenda. Manuals seem quaint now — all that Old Testament language (‘Thou shalt not…’) — belonging to the ‘other country’ that is the past. There’s also a distinct whi‹ of nostalgia about the idea that anyone ever believed it possible to finalize a corporate identity scheme, assuming that nothing significant would change within its lifespan. Identity in the nineties is about consensus and buy-in. Identity managers have to work with empowered colleagues in increasingly decentralized and autonomous business units, convincing them that the

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company-wide identity policy has both the flexibility to accommodate their needs and the ability to deliver real business benefits. And it’s a two-way thing now, too — requirements from the grass roots shaping identity policy as much as anything decided in head o›ce. This new kind of identity — for today’s organization — is communicated in profoundly di‹erent ways. You can’t be prescriptive any more: nobody buys it. And the chances are they will resent the attempt, too. Nor can you expect that the big, expensive book does more than gather dust — getting people to use identity means engaging their attention, and trying to win their ‘hearts and minds’. That means leveraging video, animation, voice over. It’s also necessary to anticipate constant change — which is one of the attractions of using intranets (even the telescoped 4–6 month publishing cycle for cd is too long to keep up with the pace of change in some organizations). Such systems have their own requirements — for modularity, for usability, for tone of voice — which are radically di‹erent from the old manual. If you find your good book, prize it. It’s a snapshot of a period in the history of our business. But apply its precepts with the same wariness you might bring to a sixteenth century book of medicine (most of them will seem antiquated to modern managers, many will be wrong for the contemporary organization — and some will even prove pernicious).

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Communicating identity
7 March 1998

john: As quaint and antiquated as it may seem, my clients do want some direction as to how they should use their logos, what colors are recommended, how much space should exist around the logo, in which cases they should use a certain version of their logo, what considerations should be taken when applying the logo to signage (I could go on, but you get the picture). Still, the approach needs to be di‹erent if you are going to get people to take notice. In the bad old days, it was enough to say ‘you must do it this way!’ Must and should don’t go down too well these days — if you want people to observe things like minimum areas, etc. you have to explain why they are a good idea (and actually, you need to make sure that they really are good ideas first). People need to come away from the explanation feeling they have gained something — not having lost some of their enthusiasm, autonomy or self-respect. Sure, talk about ‘consensus’ and ‘buy-in.’ Does that mean that everyone should do what’s right in their own eyes? True creativity is rarely fostered in an environment with no boundaries. Real freedom exists when we understand certain standards and are confident that anything we do within a proscribed framework is acceptable. It means that, in the contemporary corporation, people will do what’s right in their own eyes. These people are charged with delivering results — they also understand their markets, audiences and cultures. If they think that the identity won’t work for them, they won’t use it. period. We may not like it, but this is the reality of the climate in which identity now has to work. People can — and do — see the benefits of identitifying themselves with something bigger, however. And there are ways in which company-

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wide identity schemes can be made to seem reasonable, even attractive propositions to users. Unfortunately, the monolithic identities of the seventies and eighties stifled creativity — and there is a lot of work to be done to overcome the feeling that identity is about head o›ce ‘knowing better’, reasserting its authority in an otherwise decentralised and empowered organization. In the end, management has largely twigged that there weren’t any tangible benefits to be had from 100% visual homogeneity. Many companies have flourished despite a range of visual interpretations of their identity — whilst others (take IBM as an example) have floundered even though they had the most anally retentive identity police. My clients are smallish, I usually work directly with the ceo, and rarely charge more than $5,000 for an identity program. Still, that’s a decent chunk of change for most of my clients, and they want some advice about using what they’ve paid for. Some of the most challenging identity jobs are for smaller companies — the issues that a‹ect multi-national corporations o·en apply to sme’s in microcosm. I’ve worked for small professional firms where some of the partners resisted attempts to implement an identity. Who is there to tell them that they must comply? Entrepreneurial businesses where there is a boss whose word is scripture are a di‹erent matter — but in a sense, parallel the older, centralized corporation. The dilemma with identity always used to be that the chairman/ceo was behind it, but middle managers could drag their heels and wield ‘negative power’ to thwart it. I’ve seen one small business of about 16 people where the md was hugely excited about a new identity, and the o›ce manager saw it as a burden too far on her existing workload. Who do you think got the last word?

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Who to trust?
7 March 1998

gunnar: Graphic designers are the last people you should trust to understand and build on an identity program. Ths is very true. Sadly, corporate identity programmes bring out the worst in designers. Most su‹er from the ‘Not Invented Here’ mentality, which means that they are less than inclined to try and understand the spirit of an identity — or even play by its rules. And this destructive competitiveness is o·en exacerbated by a strong streak of ‘visual fascism’ inherent in the scheme itself — where the designers who created the identity insist their (usually limited) conceptions be applied to absolutely everything. The people to trust ‘to understand and build on an identity program’ grasp the relationship between the organization — its businesses, strategy, markets, culture, ethos — and the way it represents itself visually. They are prepared to accept and work within an existing identity structure — but also to articulate it with flair, imagination and intelligence. They need to be flexible enough in their thinking to drop ideas when changes make them obsolete, as well as to think new thoughts when tomorrow comes. And above all, they are able to communicate the principles of the identity to people who don’t have any interest in aesthetics or the finer points of design, and just want to know what it will do for them. Does this sound like any graphic designers you know?

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Squeezing out creativity
9 March 1998

gunnar: Some general suggestions for a manual -- Make sure it explains what the system is and why. Make sure it shows that a range of great things can be done within the system. Make sure that you’ve made it easier for people to do what you want them to do rather than something else. In designing an identity program it is very important to figure out how people are actually going to use it -- make sure your manual shows that you understand what they are going to do with the identity. Make sure that it’s easy to get to a general understanding of the program; many people are not going to read through a long, boring list of rules. Make sure there are resources for people to go to for answers (even if the answers are in the manual). Remember that di‹erent people get information in di‹erent ways; a good manual combined with Q&A sessions will be easier for people to understand than just a manual. Identity is one of few areas where the designer is involved in creating a metastructure within which other people will exercise their creativity. In theory, this is an exciting challenge — but in practice few of us can resist the temptation to want to do both parts (i.e. to decide the structure, and then to decide what the individual items should look like). Maybe if we understood the requirements of the creative process better, it would be easier create a system with the flexibility and scope for interpretation that the ‘other fellow’ is going to need. The danger of the manual was that it exaggerated this latter part — it was too easy to show examples of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to do things, and to give other designers a clear message that the creative aspects have been worked out in advance. Pointing them to the spirit of the thing is much more di›cult, because it means accepting that there is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way — only a greater or lesser fit with the cor-

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porate personality. But this personality is an intangible — how do you communiate it in print? With di›culty, I think… In my experience manuals were either too prescriptive — which invariably also meant convoluted and overly-complicated — or too simplistic. An instruction that tells you only that the logo might appear in the bottom right of a brochure cover, for example, tells you next to nothing about that essential ‘who-ness’ that is the key to successful identity implementation.

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Absorbing identity
9 March 1998

karel: Personality (the system) is not completely intangible. There are ways to identify an identity. That is really interesting. However — and this is a big however — I’m not sure that attempting to analyze a corporate personality is the right approach. Words are o·en inadequate in describing what is — for many people — a palpable, but non-verbal experience. The second step remains very di›cult: to visualize an identity. Even if there is an accurate description of an identity than it is possible to develop a range of visualizations. More di›cult, though, because what the designer is being asked to do is to ‘visualize’ what someone else has already ‘analyzed’. (This goes for most other kinds of design, too.) Better, by far, to cut out the verbiage in the middle. Let the designer spend time in the client organization, soaking up the culture and ethos, the dreams and aspirations, the daily realities and the politics. And then let her represent what she has experienced. Certainly there won’t necessarily be only one solution — which, in part, is why the problem-solution model of design is such a dubious one. Ideally, a corporate identity should be a patchwork of representations — lots of interpretations pointing towards the same reality — held together within a framework that provides coherence and continuity. ‘Fixing’ a symbol into a logotype: ‘the corporate mark must not be recreated, redrawn or repositioned in any way’ (I wish I had a pound for every time I’ve written those words!) can certainly constrain its power — and may even kill it as a living emblem for the organization it represents. Is it necessary? Once one begins to examine the assump-

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tions underlying our (thoroughly Modernist) obsession with consistency and conformity, the question begs more and more insistently… This is the late, great David Kindersley on this subject: Designers abound who are content to produce ‘logos’ and ‘awards to industry’ not specifically intended for any one material. Personally, I do not believe in this standardization, because it does not allow for any imaginative interpretation by the qualified inscription-maker. The whole idea of the designer treating the cra·sman who must execute the design as a ‘slave’ is abhorrent. The dichotomy that has divided the designer and the maker is very much to be regretted. We have all seen the inevitable loss of life and imagination that has resulted from the copying of heraldic designs. Copying is synonymous with devolution. Re-creation, now miscalled recreation, carries with it the chance to produce evolutionary designs. I do not forgive designers easily for their unnecessary standards. David Kindersley and Lida Lopes Cardozo, Letters Slate Cut, london: Lund Humphries, 1981. p.16.

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Real symbols
9 March 1998

kc: In fact any previous meaning can be totally erased orverwhelmed by strong associations. In a city that is busy preserving and restoring its historical elements a company has promised to spend a lot of money to totally erase what is le· of the sign/advertisement from the original business that was painted on the side of their building because it contained a swastika. The building was originally built and painted in 1910–15. Everyone agreed that it means nothing sinister, but the symbol itself has been tainted to the point where previous associations of luck, cosmology, unity or religion are unreachable. I agree that it will still be a good few years before it’s possible to use the swastika. But it will be back, I’m sure of that — it is such a potent symbol that it will not remain derelict for ever. And in some cultures (e.g. South Asia), it has never had that break in continuity. It’s an extreme example, but meant to illustrate the fact that you must tunderstand the context where you are applying your ‘meaning’. The logo you choose may have all kinds of rich history and depth behind it, but if it resembles the local gang symbol that’s painted on every flat surface in town, that is the first, and sometimes the only, association people will make. Much depends on how you do this. A company like Landor might research and develop numerous marks, and then ‘panel’ them in the markets and cultures in which they are intended to operate. This process should flush out any undesirable consequences — at least, one hopes so. But there are always stories about someone’s big cock-up. A ‘real’ symbol might — of course — come about in this way. But it’s making it pretty hard for it. Another approach — one that I would endorse, and believe is generally more fruitful — involves a di‹erent

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kind of research. This is to nose around an organization and its people until one gets a ‘whi‹’ of something interesting, and to follow it back to its source. Just as it is a truism of counselling that people wear their pain on their sleeves — and will talk about it given half a chance — so there is a symbol somewhere close to the surface of any human activity, for those with the eyes to see it. Sometimes, though, the trail will throw up an extraordinary coincidence — or a series of extraordinary coincidences — which will point the designer to what she/he is looking for. This is how, incidentally, some of the best known identities were developed — for instance, the Akzo figure was found on an ancient Greek inscription in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It’s not the kind of methodology, however, that stands up well in the flashy presentation of a global design consultancy. (For that, one needs to pretend to be McKinseys — all ‘analysis’ and ‘process’.) But, for all that, it is surprising how much identity work actually happens like this. Real symbols always fit. That’s because they have been called into being by the circumstances, and not retrofitted to them. It may even be — and these are the most interesting cases — that the designers aren’t aware of what they are bringing into being. (I’ve been collecting examples of these for some time.) Ironically, though, it’s more likely that the local gang found their symbol in this way than the large corporation whose walls they daub it on. But one of these days they’ll learn, too.

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Finding symbols
11 March 1998

stephen: In the discussions about identity manuals and logos, James mentioned something that has been bothering me (in that good way of being on the verge of understanding something in a new way) ever since. You said that many organizations have symbols that stick with them over the course of their lifetime. A trained observer, you said, could spot them for use as a starting point for an identity. A lovely idea that I have been trying to apply to my own organization, with no success. (Obviously, I probably have the worst possible perspective being the designer of the current identity.) My design school training would want me to research what the product or service is, where the company is and what its personality is, etc. but I don’t think that is what you are talking about. Can you elaborate just a little on what kinds of things to be aware of when you are thinking about an identity and looking for persistent symbols? The first thing is to understand what the identity is for. It’s my belief that identity comes out of a need to identify — to belong, and to represent the thing to which you belong. This is far from the usual viewthat identity should be a marketing thing — making people take notice of you, and perhaps expressing some aspect of what you can do for them. I’m suspicious of the idea of associating a company with what it does because companies are bigger than what they do. The world’s oldest companies, Stora in Sweden (founded in 1288) or Sumitomo in Japan (founded 1590), have changed focus many times in their lifetimes whilst having retained a distinct sense of identity. Companies are about a group of people who, by making common cause and pooling capital, skills and experience, create an entity that takes on a life of its own. So I think that identity should symbolize the vision, ethos and values that binds them together — and not the thing that they happen to be concentrating on at the time.

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Finding a symbol is a kind of twentieth century quest — I make no apologies for the deliberately romantic and quasi-mystical terminology. In more conventional management-speak, creating or re-framing an identity should involve a robust process of clarifying the things that the company is about. But it goes beyond the grasp of anything an McKinsey or Anderson consultant would understand. The mediæval knight would have knelt in vigil through the long hours of darkness, hoping for a divine ‘shewing’ — the Native American or Aboriginal Australian might have headed o‹ into the wilderness on a ‘vision quest’. And Dr. Jung would have nodded his head in approval. It’s a bit more di›cult to explain this to a board of directors — but actually, sometimes they can be more open-minded and progressive than their design consultants. To find symbols, one has to have some sympathy with them — not a thing our age is known for, but not entirely forgotten for all that. A symbol will appear through a dream, an insight or an unexpected serendipity — but in all cases, there will be one or more significant coincidences that identify it as being right for your purposes. Without an easy familiarity with the worlds of dreams, mythology and poetic expression, one might easily miss it. To say more on this subject is not easy; some people will know what I’m talking about, whilst others will think it idiocy — and there is not really any middle ground.

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Filling up
11 March 1998

gunnar: James’ objection to the cleaned up Shell and Jim’s disgust at the Mobil wordmark ignore a major emotional justification for the modern aesthetic applied to the gas station. In addition to the reasonable (and largely successful) attempt at linking the products with a notion of technical progress, remember that before the mega chains most gas stations were grimy places where people didn’t want to let people touch their cars. Going to the bathroom was, by middle class standards, a horrible experience. In this sense less - is - more. In the village where my children go to school, there is a sweet little filling station that has been le· behind by the march of time. It reminds me and the boys of Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World — which is presumably why we like to fill up there (even though they don’t take credit cards, and one has to wait interminably for the owner to get around to serving you). There are bits of cars of uncertain age scattered about the yard, sat in pools of motor oil and grease. There’s no branded canopy or forecourt, no computerised tills or digitised pumps, simply a rickety old shack, some very doubtful mathematics, and an ancient pump that I’m sure doesn’t meet modern safety standards. And I sincerely hope nobody has ever asked to ‘use the bathroom’! I’m sorry that there isn’t more of this kind of individuality le· in the (developed) world. I’m certainly glad for many of the a‹ordances of modern filling stations. But does the price of progress have to be bland brand homogeneity? Where the only human contact is a conversationless kid behind bullet-proof glass — and the standardised experience leaves one feeling that, since everywhere is anywhere, one might as well have stayed at home…

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Our ancestors did it better
12 March 1998

karel: Are graphic designers currently working on the following four issues: • • • • develop approaches to identify a corporate personality investigate creative processes and relations between ideas and visuals find out how corporate identities are interpreted find out how people could be motivated to co-operate in order to strengthen a visual identity of an organisation.

I am afraid that the answer to all four areas is no: graphic designers leave these questions to be answered by others… In fairness to ‘graphic designers’, some of us are working on these issues — admittedly in di‹erent ways. But, of course, it’s worth remembering that the contemporary discipline of corporate identity grew out of graphic design — not out of advertising, marketing, management or other consultancy. And that, actually, it’s mostly still graphic designers who are asking the interesting questions about it. Corporate identity is nothing new — it has e‹ectively been with us forever. And in very many respects, our ancestors — who were as unskilled in the Landor approach as in the McKinsey — were much better at it than we are. The focus of most corporate identity today is the identification of commercial organizations. By and large, these are actually — in evolutionary terms — not terribly successful. The average life expectancy of a publicly listed company is about 40 years — one third of Fortune 500 companies from 1970 had disappeared by 1983 (the average life expectancy of al companies is only 12.5 years). As Arie de Geus (former head of planning at Shell) points out in his luminous book The Living Company,

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there is no biological entity with such a huge discrepancy between its average and maximum lifespan. Yet despite their relatively puny life expectancy, most of these organizations will — on average — have changed their visual identity between three and four times in the course of their short lives. Other types of organization have been much more successful — and have retained their identities far more tenaciously. Universities are good examples — the earliest universities (Oxford, Bologna, Al-Azhar) are still flourishing a·er 700+ years of existence, whilst relatively few (I can’t think of any, but presumably there must be some) have ceased to exist. Religious organizations are another example. Shell, one of the world’s largest multinationals — now just over 100 years old — employs about 117,000 people worldwide. Compare this with the Roman Catholic Church — almost 2000 years old. Any guesses for how many people work for it? Several million, I would imagine. Catholic iconography — without ever having been focus or usability tested — has taken root in every corner of the globe. Few of us will see, say, a Madonna and Child, without recognizing it for what it is. Yet the Vatican has not felt the compulsion to make sure that a minimum clear space around Mary’s halo is properly observed, or that her robe is always a corporate pantone 294 Marian Blue. (Does this ‘inconsistent personality’ make the Church of Rome ripe for re-branding?) All of these types of organizations are interesting because they have very strong, successful identities that came about in very di‹erent ways from contemporary practice — and to which people relate in a much more direct, personal and emotional way. So, in a sense, if there are questions le· ‘to be answered by others’ — with which I heartily agree — it is our ancestors, and not the management consultants, to whom I would turn for advice.

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Subsidiarity and consistency
12 March 1998

gunnar: There are some general questions that should be considered when you decide how restrictive a corporate identity should be: Good points, but I still have a problem with this idea that an identity should be seen as ‘restrictive’. Identity should signal coherence — but this can be inclusive, rather than exclusive. Wally Olins used to say that identity was about ‘Unity in Multiplicitity’ — which invariable meant a reductive process, resulting in a monolithic approach. My opinion — having seen how dismal and soul-destroying this can be — is that it should in fact be about ‘Mutiplicity in Unity’. This would mean celebrating the diversity that exists within an organization, as well as the thing that makes it a coherent whole. It is interesting, in this context, that it was the Catholic Church which first introduced the idea of subsidiarity — the notion that power and responsibility should devolve to the lowest appropriate level (e.g. a parish priest having autonomy in all decisions a‹ecting his flock). Subsidiarity is now a great management buzz-word (will they really be able to go through with it, though?) — but I think it is also one of the keys to identity. Every group within an organization should be able to decide for itself how much of the overall identity it wants to reflect, and how much of its own. It would, of course, mean a very di‹erent look to organizations — but who is averse to that? Does anally-retentive top-down all-over consistency really belong in the twenty-first century, or should we have le· it behind sometime around the beginning of the last quartile of the twentieth?

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Ironically, this idea that ‘one dresses for others’ was one of the reasons we were given at school for having to wear uncomfortable and outmoded uniforms. I think we’re all pretty much agreed that it’s not a bad idea to wear clothes that you feel comfortable in, and that do something to project your own individuality and self-esteem — even if you are conscious of your public-facing role. When ‘dress codes’ were dropped by corporations, the expected sartorial disaster never happened (some of these same corporations even used — comparatively recently — to reserve the right to approve an employee’s choice of spouse!). It’s taking organizations a while to come to the same conclusion about their identities, but I believe they are getting there.

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Standardization and homogeneity
14 March 1998

leif: Having grown up in an era which had little standardization, how could my parents have valued the kind of individuality your talking about? Instead, they valued things like price or reliability, and personalities didn’t matter much, especially idiosyncratic ones. I’m not sure the issue is so much about standardization as homogeneity. Standards can be good things, but don’t necessarily imply sameness (too see this in practice, try visiting a championship cat show). And sometimes ‘standards’ drop when they are implemented mechanically, because they don’t spring from a real enthusiasm on the part of those who have to apply them (anyone who has flown with British Airways will know what I mean). Modern management is, at last, beginning to realize that identification requires empowerment — that for people to feel that they have a stake in something, they have to feel they have some influence on it. Also, the concept of ‘real’ is a generational. Is Williamsburg any more ‘real’ than Disneyland? Both are consciously planned. In Williamsburg, the idea was to simulate history, but towns in the colonial period weren’t anything like it. It may come to which kind of fantasy you prefer, with many of the younger generation saying: ‘I know it’s fake and I love it. ‘Real’ doesn’t dwell at the level of styling, or bricks-and-mortar — but in the quality of interaction that people have with one another. Disney, as a large paternalistic corporation, believes that the unpredictable, spontaneous nature of human interaction should be constrained to a homogenous ‘Disney experience’. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to live it — only bear it for a day or two for our kids’ benefit. In a sense, the move to homogeneity was the correlative to the central planning of the former Soviet Bloc. It was based on the idea that

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someone in the executive can write the script for other people to live by. The enormous flaw with this is that the human spirit is irreppressible — and, like a weed through concrete, wayward individuality breaks through even the most monolithic systems. One sees this, of course, in the multitudinous ways in which employees subvert and personalize corporate identity schemes — the nightmare that makes ‘logocops’ busy people. The lessons of the ‘Velvet Revolution’ — and its equivalents — pertain here, too. Monolithic systems can only exist where people sustain them by fear and conformity. When everybody finally begins to realize that they are bankrupt — which is what I contend is happening in many corporations — they simply fall into dust. If idiosyncrasy turns out to be an enduring value, expect it to be a designed product. Surely, though, idiosyncracy has driven ten millennia of designing and making — if you want to see ‘idiosyncratic’, look at any iron age artefact. It’s only in the last two centuries that we’ve taken personality out of manufacture, and perhaps only in the last ten years that we have begun to see the substitution of ‘market intelligence’ for the designer’s idiosyncratic vision.

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Is research possible?
16 March 1998

karel: However, tacit knowledge can/should be used as the basis for research. I rate professional knowledge on exactly the same level as ‘knowledge based on scientific research’. Sometimes decisions are based on one, sometimes on the other, and many are not taken on either basis, but for example for emotional or for diplomatic reasons. However, if motivations are needed to discuss ‘what will/won’t work’ than it seems necessary to come up with arguments. Personal experience is not su›cient and another source needs to be consulted. Research can be used as such a source. That is the reason that I am unfair to graphic designers: I want to know the motivations for their decisions. In corporate identity, though, it’s very hard — perhaps impossible — to quantify what ‘works’ means. Does a company with a memorable identity sell more products? But if it does, is it because people recall (and are influenced by) the identity, or because it sells good products (or just markets them well)? Does an identity that resonates with employees prevent labour disputes? But identity won’t make up for the absence of a just and fair labour policy. Asking people if they ‘like’ or can ‘remember’ an identity is pretty meaningless, too — I really like the ‘Irish Life’ identity (more than other financial services providers), but have no intention of moving my policies to them because of it. And I can’t get the McDonalds identity out of my head, but would walk around the block rather than go into one of their outlets. So what sort of metrics could one use to determine ‘what will/won’t work’, if one can’t even define what ‘work’ means? This leads onto another point — which is that, actually, everything in graphic design works. As the Meta Design slogan has it: ‘You can’t notcommunicate’. It just may not work in exactly the way you want it to.

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And the factors behind the way people respond to graphic design are so hugely complicated that it can’t be anywhere near a predictive science. For instance, human beings love novelty — sometimes any new thing will work just because it is new. Market research methodologies give misleading and conservative responses — which is why the ‘nextbig thing’ in graphic design never comes out of research that is supposed to indicate what people will respond to. I think it is a fallacy that, because quantitative research works for scientists, it must necessarily be good for every other discipline. Science is not a ‘creative’ pursuit (even if Kuhn and others have shown that it depends on occasional creative insights) — the methods of doing science preclude engaging imaginatively with the subject. That’s fine for scientists. For designers, research produces prosaic and uninspiring results. Why does nobody ever get excited about information design? Because it places research above creativity, and is consequently thoroughly dull. What sells product is buzz. Here, graphic designers are for once on exactly the same wavelength as their clients.

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Information design and identity
16 March 1998

karel: There is a fundamental di‹erence between Information design and Graphic design: It is ‘information design’ if readers are obliged to use visual information — there is no alternative available, and the information is immediately essential for the reader to achieve something. It is ‘graphic design’ if readers are not obliged — there are alternatives, or the information is not (immediately) essential. It is possible to make a very enjoyable living as a designer in both fields. However, it is not possible to apply graphic design criteria (Buzz, novelty, excitement) to information design. They are di‹erent. From the perspective of corporate identity, however, these can be two ends of a continuum — or di‹erent points on, say, a customer’s ‘journey’ (e.g. the ‘graphic’ end represented by promotional materials, the ‘information’ end by post-sale materials). Much of the information we all have to use is dull. Good design won’t make the information any less dull — which is where I think much information design fails. Introducing little elements of delight is a pleasant way of enlivening otherwise turgid materials — but, unfortunately, one that is anathema to the puritan Modernist sensibilities of many information designers. Consequently — and rather sadly — the logo is sometimes the only element to have any emotional or aesthetic resonance on some documents.

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Consensus
30 March 1998

nancy: Just before he died, Paul Rand said that he doesn’t believe ‘great design’ can be done in the corporate world anymore, as one has to work with committees. He said he was lucky to have been able work with single, visionary, decision-makers. If you can only convince one person that it’s ‘great design’, and not a small group sat around a table, can it really be that great? Although my ambitions are slightly more modest — I’d settle for ‘good design’ — I work on the basis that I’m ultimately going to have to convince audiences that vary from thousands to millions. Ordinary people, who make decisions as part of a team, can become visionaries — and it’s part of our job to help liberate their vision. Of course there’s always politics involved in organizations. In part, that’s what makes them human. So a designer’s cra· skills need to include ways of outwitting the person on the committee who is exercising negative power — and preventing everyone from moving on. I learned today that these people are called popos (pissed o‹ and passed over). Design doesn’t have to piss them o‹, or pass them over. It could be a means of bringing some light and enthusiasm back into their working lives. If there’s real passion, conviction and integrity in the work — and the designer — it will touch all it comes in contact with.

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Competition
30 March 1998

david: …competition is good. Especially in the creative fields. Really? Why is it then that so many ‘creative’ people in the arts and the sciences have cloistered themselves away from the clamour and competition of the world? And does a client get a more creative solution by asking three agencies to do a free pitch, or paying one to really think about the problem? Creativity depends upon the ability to play — as investigators from Carl Rogers to Arthur Koestler have observed. Sometimes, as with childsplay, this involves shutting out distractions. Some of us, preoccupied with the demands of making a living in a competitive world, find that it’s only at times when the phone stops ringing — or we can give ourselves a complete break — that our minds can become fecund again. And students, sequestered from the ‘real world’, remain one of the most creative groups. If one looks back over the fruits of human creativity, by far the greatest examples — from the Lindisfarne Gospels through the Gothic Cathedrals to the paintings of the Renaissance — have been motivated by something quite other than competition. The greatest contributions of ‘Free Enterprise’ to visual culture, on the other hand, appear to be packaging and advertising.

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Both sides of the brain
1 June 1998

randal: I have a theory that there is a much closer link between music and programming or the sciences than between visual art and these le·-brain subjects. I’m not sure why, but I have studied the natural sciences and also art and in my feeling they were very di‹erent experiences. In terms of the how the brain works, it appears to go like this: Casual listening to music is predominantly a right brain activity. For professional musicians — or listeners who have developed a critical appreciation of music — it becomes predominantly a le· brain activity. And it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of music you’re listening to. The reason seems to be quite straightforward. For the casual listener, music is a ‘complete’ experience — you enjoy it as a whole, without being able to identify or analyse the elements that comprise it. As your understanding and awareness increases, you inevitably become more analytic — observing that it is ‘clever the way she follows that minor third with a diminished seventh’, ‘lovely the way he uses counterpoint’ or ‘incredible how they achieve such syncopation’ (or whatever). The more recent work suggests that the ‘verbal/visual’ characterization was a gross distortion of the actual complementarity of the brain’s hemispheric specialization. Robert Ornstein, in his 1997 book The Right Mind (which summarizes much of this research), suggests that ‘text/ context’ is a much more accurate way of representing how the two parts of the brain work together. And ‘work together’ is the operative phrase — Ornstein derides those who suggest that there are ‘right brainers’ and ‘le· brainers’. ‘There’s a popular view that the right hemisphere is reserved for special things like artistic creativity or amazing insights. The

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research since the 1970s shows, from the lowliest of molecules to the rat to ordinary thinking, that this side of the brain contributes to everything we do, and contributes an essential component’. Robert Ornstein, The Right Mind, New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997, p.97. If you consider music, programming and graphic design in terms of this ‘text/context’ dichotomy, you can see that, although the balance may be di‹erent in each case, all involve both close focus on concrete, stepwise processes and also awareness of a big picture, o·en conceived figuratively or metaphorically. The programmer may cut code line by line — but can’t do so without the ability to represent the underlying business processes with appropriate conceptual models. Is this so di‹erent from the painter who solves numerous practical, local problems of acheiving desired e‹ects on the canvas (through a combination of learned principles, acquired cra·-skills and on-the-spot experimentation) — whilst simultaneously keeping in mind the overall shape, objective and meaning of the work?

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Design and programming
2 June 1998

randal: I’m not so sure I would agree they are as similar as you make them sound. I probably agree that they all use aspects of the same set of mental skills, but they have very di‹erent emphases. For example, I love the sciences, and seriously considered science as a career -- until I realized that in order to be a really successful scientist you really have to have a mind like an accountant (with a really active imagination). I have the imagination, but not the orientation to details. Similarly, a programmer has to be obsessively concerned with not making mistakes, whereas for a designer or artist creative ‘mistakes’ are part of what they do. Back in the early 60s, Thomas Kuhn showed that what scientists think they do, and what they actually do, are quite di‹erent things. The idea of empiricism — that science is about making observations of Nature and then forming deductions from those observations — didn’t stand up to the investigations of the new history and philosophy of science. Kuhn and others showed that most great ‘discoveries’ — like Copernicus’ heliocentric universe or Newton’s optics, began with an already formed idea (o·en from a completely di‹erent source). Copernicus’ theory came from Neo-Platonism, and he never managed to get it to yield calculations as accurate as the convoluted Ptolemaic astronomy it set out to replace. But it is taking a while for this message to get through to the scientists! To my mind, graphic design and the sciences are surprisingly similar in this respect. Designers too are supposed to make ‘objective’ judgments, based on a rigorous analysis of the client’s brief — but in practice rarely do. The brilliant ones shatter old paradigms, not because their observation or analysis is superior, but because they intuit a greater truth. But even in design (especially commercial design) intution is hardly

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respectable. So, like Newton, clever designers are not above disingenuously telling their clients that the ‘solution’ emerged from a respectable, ‘empirical’ problem solving exercise. There are other similarities, too. At a practical level both graphic design and the sciences are primarily concerned with politics. Graphic design is concerned with the politics of getting projects through to completion, Science with getting them funded. But despite these di‹erences, the skilled politician will always do well in both fields. There’s an awful lot of grunt work in both, too. And it’s detailed grunt work — I lose sleep over the thought that a job will go out with a literal, or that that there will be an error on the separations. Is picking over a job before sending it out much di‹erent from checking and doublechecking one’s findings before publishing a paper? Reputations rest on the accuracy of both. Then again, there’s another similarity — which is that just as scientists can spend years barking up the wrong tree, so can we designers. And the really original, paradigm breaking work will almost certainly be done by someone else — a sobering thought for us and our lab-coated equivalents.

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Applying for that first job
2 June 1998

nancy: Other suggestions? Come on, you hiring types. Most applications we receive are heroic, but stupid. Heroic because the applicants put a lot of time and e‹ort into mailing hundreds of design companies (usually up to six weeks a·er they leave College — a·er which point they seem to give up), stupid because they are so obviously inadequate and doomed to failure. The things I look for are: • the applicant gets my name right (if you can’t manage to transcribe a seven letter name correctly, some other career than graphic design is indicated); amazing how many fail this first test • the applicant has bothered to find out something about who we are and what we do, and targeted her/his approach appropriately (we’re not just another name in a mass mailing); • the applicant has thought about whether her/his experience will be relevant to us, and in what ways. All it takes — as I never tire of telling students — is a ‘phone call before putting something in the mail. ‘Hi, my name is… I’ve just le· College and I’m writing to various design companies. Can you tell me something about what you do? If I wrote to you with some details about myself, do you think you might be interested in seeing me? Could you please tell me to whom I should address my letter? (Can I just check the spelling: s-o-u-t-t-a-r)’.

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Daydreaming
8 June 1998

john: During the time consumed by actually having to scribble out a logo, a layout or whatever or laboriously put together a comp, the right brain is still, unconsciously, looking for creative solutions. When the computer delivers finished-looking solutions in seconds, the amount of exploratory and playful-experimentation time is diminished. I learned something the other day which I’m still chewing over, but which seems to pertain here. In 1909, a colleague of Freud’s called Silberer discovered that when he tried to master a particularly demanding intellectual task, there would come a point at which drowsiness would temporarily overcome him. He would ‘come to’ a few moments later, realizing that he had daydreamed a symbolic representation of the task — or its outcome. He called this phenomenon the ‘autosymbolic e‹ect’. Unfortunately, it seems that he spent his life in the shadow of the ‘maestro’, and consequently this discovery never became better known. I heard it from an Irish psychologist called Joseph Gri›n, who came across it when researching into the evolutionary purposes of metaphor and pattern. Joe Gri›n is also a hypnotherapist, and believes that Silberer accidentally hit upon one of the keys to understanding the relationship of trance and metaphor. It seems to me that this sheds a fascinating insight into the creative processes, which we’ve discussed here before. There seems to be a point that most of us seem to reach, when our (overtaxed) conscious minds reach an impasse and go into idle, whereupon a breakthrough occurs. And o·en — and here my own experience corroborates the theory — that breakthrough seems to initially appear in some figurative way. The example Silberer uses is of trying to resolve a particularly

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di›cult passage in an essay, and dri·ing o‹ into a reverie about planing a piece of wood. One factor that might definitely help all of us who, from time to time, depend upon this kind of inspiration for our bread and butter, is an understanding of the so called ‘ultradian’ rhythm. This is a natural cycle of about 90 to 110 minutes, where our brains peak in conscious alertness and then dip to reinvigorate themselves (it was first discovered in studies of Air Tra›c Controllers, and is now built into their schedules). During the dip phase, which lasts about 10 to 20 minutes, we have a tendency to turn inwards (and to switch from the literal le· hemisphere to the metaphorical right one) — which hypnotists have learned to exploit, as it is apparently the easiest time to put someone into a trance. (You can always tell that this is happening if you ask someone the same question three times, and they respond ‘Uh, what was that?’) According to this hypothesis, most of us hit one dip around the time we get to work, and the next about 1.5 to 2 hours later. The natural inclination is to take a break at these moments, and fix oneself up with a he·y hit of ca‹eine. But if you’re looking for a good moment to hand the screen over to A·er Dark, and swirl your pencil in mesmeric circles, this could be it.

Note: I’m led to believe that this ‘ultradian’ cycle is the same as the cycle of Rapid Eye Movements (REM) that occurs in sleep, and which is responsible for dreaming. The periods of REM sleep cycle get longer over the night (from less than 10 minutes to about half an hour), whilst the intervals between them reduce from about once every 90 minutes at the beginning of sleep to about once every 20–30 minutes before waking. I have a gut feeling, based on my experience of giving and listening to presentations, that the ultradian cycles of audiences ‘sync’. However, I raised this with one of Joe Gri›n’s colleagues who didn’t think it could be the case. It would be an interesting subject to research.

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Presentation
9 June 1998

nancy: Here’s another thought: we have been ranking on the FUSE people for giving less-than-fabulous performances. While I also found some of what went on in San Francisco tiresome or insular, I wonder that we are surprised that a group of professional designers may not be experts at performance-based presentations. It seems to me the two activities demand di‹erent sets of skills. Here I have to disagree. Whilst these days name designers can be bores — talking interminably about their own portfolios or regurgitating ideological cant — there are, and always have been, others who are personally and presentationally inspiring. Graphic design is not only about doing the work, but about selling it. I suggest that most successful designers know this, and practise it already. From my own experience, giving a presentation is as important — perhaps even more important — that creating the work you are presenting. And I contend that they are not skills to which di‹erent people are suited — non-designers rarely present designers’ work as well as (inspiring) designers do. In fact, I’d argue that they are two sides of the same coin — you have to create a communication that really speaks to people — that is really convincing — and you then have to explain it to your client — convince them that it is the right solution. Both graphic design and presentation are all about communication, and I find enormous synergies between them. And — at their best — both are pure theater, too. Part of what we see here, though, is the recent myth of the designer as shambling, tongue-tied ‘right brainer’. I was talking about this to someone the other day and I realized that most of the really great designers — and, for that matter, painters too — have been simultane-

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ously competent as visualizers/form-givers and thinkers. They have also tended to be (and this is certainly true of the designers) great communicators, explainers and evangelists for what they do. One only has to think of the late Paul Rand, for example. The idea of the designer as an inarticulate young man who goes through a presentation yawning, scratching his testicles and muttering monosyllabic obscenities has only really emerged in the last few years — and FUSE probably has a great deal to do with it.

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Gender and design
10 June 1998

nancy: And here’s an observation that ought to arouse some debate: The liberation movement has begun to allow that women can be as good as men. At things like being soldiers and CEOs and bicyclists and pilots. Nowadays, if a woman is so·, or vulnerable, or domestic, or uncomfortable with confrontation or competition, she’s derided. Rather than just be able to do the things men do, I’m looking forward to the day when it’s actually okay to be a woman. The FUSE thing sure has brought this to a head — and rightly, too, since it is downright perplexing that a supposedly ‘cutting edge’ ‘right-on’ graphic/typographic design project should end up such a den of misogyny. The first FUSE conference was criticised (very vocally, I recall) for the lack of women speakers. And so has each and every FUSE conference since. But we’re not talking about the Model Railway Congress here — women design students are a majority now, and the profession has a demographically representative gender balance. So what’s going on? Well, I think it is important to recognize that there is a di‹erence between predominantly male (status contesting) and female (relationship negotiating) styles of meeting. Like most things on the matter of gender styles, the linguist Deborah Tannen has been inspirational in helping me understand this. Men seem to be attracted by the idea of coming together in large numbers to witness largely adversarial contests — to cheer or boo as the limelit contestants jostle for status. But women don’t. So I believe Wozencro· and Brody when they say that they have tried to get more women speakers at FUSE. But I also think that they were misguided if they thought that many women would be interested in what, fundamentally, is organized as a boys’ thing.

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The sad thing about FUSE is that it is already something of an anachronism. As the gender balance has changed (for the better) in many of our institutions, feminine styles are becoming the norm. The students who flock to hear the words of the gospel fall from Wozencro·’s lips are actually much more likely find themselves working as part of small, networked teams than to find themselves in the kind of oppressively hiearachical role culture that was the corporation of yesteryear. And male designers are going to have to work much harder at the kinds of interpersonal social skills that women — whether by nature or nurture — are generally better equipped for. Ms Tannen astutely points out that the ‘strong silent’ type of man is ‘a lure as a lover but a lug as a husband’. To which I can only add that he’s also a ‘liability as a colleague’.

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Play
10 June 1998

john: The key seems to be relaxing. What amazes me is the amount of resistance I get from my students to the idea of playing. Playing is fun! Who cares how long you ‘work’ when it’s play?! Playing is relaxing, which, given how busy we all are, must be a good thing. Play seems to be important for so many di‹erent reasons. In evolutionary terms, it is found only in the mammals (and some species of birds, but that seems to be contentious). And it increases in importance as one moves along the evolutionary scale. One of the things that gives homo sapiens such an adaptive advantage is our long childhood. Which, were it not for the good intentions of the educators, would probably be filled with play. The Neanderthals, who co-existed with our Cro-Magnon ancestors for at least 50,000 years, had far shorter childhoods — and I heard a convincing theory that it was their less well developed sense of play that denied them the flexibility needed to survive. But play is important philosophically as well. At a seminar last week I boldly included a quote from Gadamer (one of the few passages in ‘Truth and Method’ that an audience of prospective clients could be expected to swallow) where he states that understanding and playing seem to have a common structure. I used to feel a tremendous sense of guilt for the amount of time where I appear to achieve next to nothing. It was only when I read about the way that the novelist Doris Lessing — who, in terms of output alone, I’d consider to be a ‘high achiever’ — works, that I realized the value of all those hours of apparent idleness, playing around and not ‘getting on’ with things. In fact, I don’t now think I could do what I do without spending a significant amount of my time playing. But the bugbear

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of ‘e›ciency’ — a narrow and hollow conception that doesn’t allow for what we now know about ourselves — is still there to haunt us. Can one relax sitting ergonomically correctly in an o›ce chair with their focus stuck on a screen 16” away? How the hell can one daydream in that posture? I’d agree that the computer, with its ever increasing clock speeds (a revealing metaphor, if ever there was one!) and its interface that seems to be making a polite but pointed statement when it is not being interacted with, is not conducive to procrastination. Its sheer physical presence dominates our workspace, literally marginalizing any activities that don’t happen on the keyboard or the mousemat. Which is one of the reasons why I think that ‘laptops’ — with their much slighter profile and unassuming presence — will revolutionalize the way we work. There’s room for a layout pad alongside a laptop, but it is elbowed out of the way by a desktop. It’s also possible to have a conversation with someone over the top of it, which is practically impossible with a desktop. And a laptop becomes just a tool among many, to be pushed aside when you are not in the mood for it. A·er a week away from the studio (with my little powerbook at my side), I begin to realize quite how oppressive — and domineering — is the influence of the giant television I’m now staring into as I type.

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Extensions
5 June 1988

jerry: As an educator, I stress the importance of beginning a piece, at least through thumbnail stage on paper, not the computer. That is where the thought processes take place. The resultant work of the students who take my advice, reflects the thought and ‘soul’ put into their design. I can tell very quickly the students who produced the thumbnails a·er the assignment was complete. The number of students who have an aversion to picking up a pencil, is maddening to me! This may sound pedantic: it’s not meant to be. But it is my understanding that ‘where the thought processes take place’ is in the brain — not on paper, nor on screen. Both pencil and computer are extensions; very useful ones, at that. However, extensions have their drawbacks — certainly when it comes to the way they impact on their users’ thought processes. The anthropologist Edward T. Hall, one of my favourite writers, described the phenomenon that happens when extensions are confused with the mental processes that are extended (he named it ‘Extension Transference’). As far back as 1976, he said: ‘Now popularly acclaimed, the ET process is at work in technology as well, with the result that technology has become an end in itself and is viewed as the arena of study and problem solving in today’s troubled world — problem solving not by social scientists but by engineers.’ There’s a rather discomfiting ring of truth about that statement, when one thinks about graphic design in the late nineties. It seems to me that we are increasingly seeing problem solving not by designers but by ‘engineers’ (or ‘engineers’ posing as designers). What’s the solution to a communication problem? Throw some technology at it.

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But the point is, I think, that that process becomes almost inevitable once one starts shi·ing the locus of creative thought away from the head and into the extensions. There’s not actually a lot of di‹erence between ‘thinking aloud’ using a layout pad, and doing the same on screen. The constraints and possibilities of each are di‹erent, but in both cases one is playing around with visual configurations until something starts to look right. The big di‹erence is between those processes and the ability to ‘envisage’ — to mentally conceive of a solution. Sadly, though, the idea that one needs to have ‘vision’ — not just in design, but in every sphere — is deeply unfashionable.

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Creativity
5 June 1988

randy: Design licensing is asserting there’s no such thing as creativity… or at least coming to the understanding that ‘true’ creativity is incredibly rare and that what we call creativity is simply a rehashing of existing material in a skilful enough fashion as to claim it original. ‘Creativity’ and ‘originality’ are two quite distinct things, at least in my book. We’re an instinctively creative species, and ‘true’ creativity is nowhere near as rare as you suggest. In fact, most of it is probably never recognized for what it is — largely because we have a tendency to confuse creativity with originality. This confusion has been a real bugbear in design, however, because it shi·s attention and interest from finding ‘creative’ solutions towards doing things that have never been done before. But actually, we work with a very limited palette and there aren’t that many new things to be discovered. So, instead of genuine originality, we see designers who are just pushing out the envelope of ‘shock’ — becoming more and more outrageous, as sensitivity to the radical becomes jaded. Writers and musicians — likewise chefs and gardeners — make endless re-interpretations using the same basic ingredients. So, ‘rehashing’ shouldn’t be looked down upon — Mozart ‘rehashed’ the same chords that Bach had used, and so on. But of course, not wanting to be le· out, some twentieth century composers have been infected by ‘originality’ — and produce bizarre discordant conceptual pieces with the same ‘envelope pushing’ intention in mind. If you see graphic design as a kind of historical evolution driven by originality, it is going to have to constantly push towards the new and the di‹erent (and may end up playing to a smaller and smaller audience of cognoscienti). But there is an alternative — and possibly more

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humane — view, which is to see it as a conversation. Conversations don’t have to go anywhere — we engage with each other in an endless dance of shi·ing meanings and re-interpreted themes. Conversation taps into the naturally creative aspect of humanity, without ever needing to be ‘original’. And it is also, by its nature, a way of including other people — not alienating them.

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Capitalism
25 June 1998

randal: Capitalism is a great force in history, and can achieved many things — even in our current, monopolistic version. But the search for profit is not the sole defining quality of human beings. Nor is it the best. The arts hopefully will always be about what is good, right, true, and real — not about what sells. People get emotionally involved in the pro- and anti- arguments about capitalism. However I think it is best seen as a powerful natural force, inherently morally neutral. Properly harnessed, it can be a tremendous power for good. Unleashed without knowledge or wisdom, it can be a potent destructive force.

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Style
28 June 1988

christy: Since everyone seems to be quoting I shall enter a quote from Ivan Chermaye‹ : ‘I never wanted to have a style, because it’s contrary to the meaning of good communications to have one’. Graphic Design In America p.73. I thought that was an interesting — and revealing — quote from Chermaye‹, one I hadn’t come across before. Why should it be ‘contrary to the meaning of good communications’ to have a personal style? Putting graphic design aside for a moment, one might consider whether this is true in other areas. And I’m not sure that it is. Successful writers, for instance, are simultaneously rated as good communicators and admired as distinctive prose stylists. And the attraction of speakers — from the television age right back to ancient Athens — was that they had well developed styles that audiences enjoyed. Supposing Jack Kennedy had addressed a public meeting and decided to adopt the stage manners and mannerisms of Richard Nixon? Once the audience had overcome their astonishment, might they not have felt cheated? If we accept that the way in which one says something can be as — sometimes even more — important than what one says, then the definition of a great communicator must be someone with a great way of saying things (along with some pretty interesting things to say). But does this have to be a chameleon type approach, like that of Meta Design who claim to be able to design ‘in all styles’? I’m not sure. This would be like suggesting that politicians should be actors, capable of putting on any part the moment requires. But within our personal styles we can achieve a dramatic range without having to sacrifice the sense of sincerity and integrity — of being ourselves. And just as the perception of

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being ‘true to oneself’ can be the deciding vote clincher for a politician, so it is also — I contend — a key factor in making visual communications convincing. Maybe Chermaye‹ is hung up on the (modernist) notion of ‘good communications’ being the e›cient transmission of information (as in Information Theory). But imagine having a conversation with an ‘e‹cient transmitter of information’. Would it be a fulfilling experience? Would it hell! The next time you spotted that person at a party, you’d swi·ly head for the other end of the room. A great conversationalist, on the other hand, would be someone who could listen and adjust to your mood, and who would accordingly appear funny, interesting, exciting, perceptive, flirtatious, etc. — but also project a unique and well-developed personality. Is there such a di‹erence between an enjoyable conversation and an engaging design?

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Deconstructed
29 June 1998

michelle: This is of course completely o‹ the subject but American rappers are saying something to and about ‘American’ culture. One of the most interesting things about rap is that it speaks about what’s happening from the prospective of the rapper. It’s all a matter of perspective as in all things. The important thing is that if you don’t understand the point of view that you take time to educate yourself about it by listening and looking. It’s interesting to me that the current genre of fragmented, decontextualized design appears to make an equally eloquent statement about American culture. It is as if the whole thing about ‘deconstructing the narrative’ is saying ‘we’ve lost the plot’ — or even ‘we’re beginning to realize that there may not be a plot’. I’ve been fairly vociferous about my dislike of Post-Structuralist French philosophers, but in the context of this discussion it is revealing that the American exponents of the ‘deconstructed’ style had to look across the Atlantic to find the philosophical underpinnings of what they were doing. I also find it fascinating that, despite having invented the philosophy of Post Modernism, the French never thought to apply it to design — and seem, thus far, to have largely resisted this particular product of the American imagination. Jean-François Lyotard wrote some pretty torturous prose, but I wonder what he thought — if he ever saw it — of P. Scott Makela chopping it up into little pieces and dropping it onto his glowing orange image of a brain. Perhaps, when you can talk late into the night about these things in the gregarious intellectual camaraderie of a le·-bank café, there is already su›cient outlet?

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Modernism and Romanticism
18 July 1998

randal: I think that it is o·en overlooked that most histories of modern graphic design really start with William Morris and his project of re-evaluating the nature and value of cra·. And the Bauhaus, though their style is radically di‹erent from Morris’s, also had a very similar philosophy of integrating the study of cra· into a complete education. I’ve always found this perplexing, since there is a world of di‹erence between Morris’ ideas and those of the Moderns. The tenuous connection seems to depend upon Behrens’ admiration for Morris and Lethaby, and his role as Gropius’ mentor. I believe there is a much more plausible way of looking at the history of (what was to become) graphic design — which is to see two traditions, Modern and Romantic, existing simultaneously. Modernism is really the child of the enlightenment, the product of a belief in the essential rationality of humanity. Robin Kinross makes a very good case for the Enlightenment origins of ‘Modern Typography’, and I have little reason to quibble with his scholarship. Romanticism was primarily a reaction against the premises of the Enlightenment — its prosaic materialism, its insipid abstract spirituality (‘Deism’) and its determination to bring Nature to heel. William Blake is perhaps the only Romantic who could be described as a graphic designer, but his influence in the development of a ‘Romantic’ tradition of graphic design is profound. Blake certainly influenced Morris and Ruskin, and one can discern a trajectory through them to Eric Gill and others in the twentieth century. But whilst the Romantic influence seemed to have had the upper hand at the end of the nineteenth century, it was eclipsed in the twentieth by the reincarnation of the Enlightenment as Modernism.

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Perhaps one of the reasons for the ascendecy of Modernism is the change of perception of industrialization and mass production between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century the reflective person could see the downsides of the industrial revolution all around them — in the deskilling of the workforce, the poverty and squalor (and the endemic alcoholism) that resulted from capitalist exploitation, and in the environmental degradation as cities spawned extensive slums, shadowed beneath dark clouds of smoke belched by factory chimneys. In the early decades of the twentieth century however (and fuelled by Marxist ideology) industry began to be seen as a redeeming force (provided it was handed over to the proletariat!) — bright, clean factories with smiling workers turning out lightbulbs (the great Modernist icon) to illumine a nation’s homes (cheery, modularized ‘workers housing’), jolly consumer goods in exciting new materials to improve standards of living, and the industrial application of ‘science’ to improve health, mobility and well being. [It is highly ironic that it was to be in capitalist America that this dream would be realized.] The anomie and sense of alienation that were to result from a society with a surfeit of material comforts, but a lack of significant meanings, were yet to be indetified as a problem. At the end of the twentieth century, we’re in a confusing situation vis-à-vis these two traditions. The sixties and seventies, with the development of a counter-culture, growing environmental awareness and single-issue politics, veered towards Romanticism. But in the eighties and nineties, we’ve seen a late Modernist comeback, driven by new technologies (and a climate of political reaction) — reaching its apotheosis in the ‘Information Revolution’. Which is one reason I don’t think it is possible to talk about ‘Post Modernism’, because what is referred to by that term includes elements of both opposition to and reevaluation of the ‘modern’ (for instance, images that pupport to comment on the fragmented, media driven society that has resulted from modernism, but which are only made possible by the new technologies that are its fruits).

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Visual culture
18 July 1998

matthew: I have been looking at the mixing messages website and I would like to know what you guys think about visual communication as a part of our modern culture? Given the enormous priority that the human brain gives to the interpretation of visual data, visual communication will inevitably form a huge part of any culture. ‘Our modern culture’ has the added benefit of technologies (architecture, print, film and television, computing) that allow us to make substantial visual statements that can be seen and thought about by considerable numbers of people. So we’ve been able to build on the advantages given us by evolution to create a set of circumstances where, in terms of sheer volume, visual communication has reached a degree of hitherto unimaginable complexity. Volume has not, however, been matched with a corresponding degree of sophistication. It is true that — compared to our ancestors — we are capable of responding in fairly clever ways to certain kinds of images, particularly those commonly presented by mass media and advertising. But this generally extends only to a passive reception of those images — the overwhelming majority of the population lack the skills and understanding to be able to communicate themselves using that same visual language. And this, I think, is one of the real challenge for modern cultures — to enable more and more people to be able to e‹ectively use visual communication to extend (and enhance) their communications repertory. Unfortunately, despite the opportunities provided by more or less universal education, an extraordinary communications infrastructure and a plethora of empowering technologies (from pencils to pixels), I believe it is a challenge we are failing. Instead, I think we’re seeing a

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widening gap between the use of visual communications by media professionals and their clients, and its use by the population at large. Just a few decades ago, lots of people were able to make a personal impact on their visual environment — even if it was only cutting pastry patterns to embelish a pie, or painting rustic designs in egg tempura on an Easter box. Now most of those same people buy packaged pies from the supermarket, rustic boxes from an ethnic store, and limit the extent of their visual communication abilities to applying cheesy clip-art to PowerPoint presentations.

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Corporate hoo-ha
18 July 1998

Donna: I too have observed in my daily business interaction (and in past experience working in-house for a mid-sized company) how corporate dysfunction can self-perpetuate without bringing down the house entirely. It’s as if the dysfunction found its balance, but the compromise is a glass ceiling for the company’s success. This has always made me wonder what some corporations could actually achieve if they really cleaned house. Maybe that’s idealistic because some problems run so deeply, it’s as if they’re wound around the company’s entrails. You know, chop it at the heart and the organism might go into shock. Interesting. I’m somewhat less idealistic, but in a curious way perhaps more optimistic. I don’t think companies can achieve more, because I don’t believe the fault is in the organization. Instead, I’d suggest that the dysfunction we see in organizations is the result of the way evolution prepared us humans to interact with the world — a marvellous adaptation for itinerant hunter-gatherers, but far too focused on other priorities to make the corporate ‘Quest for Excellence’ anything like a possibility. Still, if we’d take on board some of what the ‘brain sciences’ are telling us, I think we’d be less inclined to be so hard on ourselves — and more capable of celebrating what we do do well. Part of the real problem is the idea — which has largely come down to us from the Enlightenment — that we are fundamentally ‘rational’ creatures. When we take this view, it seems as if we and our institutions are constantly falling short of the mark. Ironically, by believing that we are essentially reasonable, logical and fair, we condemn ourselves to live in a world where we are surrounded by examples of unreasonable, illogical and unfair behaviour. The contrary view, that we are stucturally partial, prejudiced and partisan reveals a quite di‹erent world. One in

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which people do occasionally make spectacular achievements in overcoming their biological and social conditioning, and where most are engaged (at least for some of the time) in some kind of e‹ort to do so. This has repercussions for the way that we work. Many of my colleagues — both in design and other forms of consultancy — are perpetually disappointed by the outcome of projects in which they are involved, and quickly become disparaging of the client organizations with which they work. Coming from a similar background and mentality, I am however beginning to realize quite how delightful and fascinating corporations are — precisely because they are so human. To watch someone derail a project in which you have invested considerable time and energy can be a crushing and demoralizing experience. But it can also be a fascinating little drama in which one gets to be both a player and the audience. You can’t always do anything about it, but you can learn to recognize its various acts and scenes, and how they unfold with the predictable timing of a repertory performance. And — this is where the optimism comes in — knowing this, maybe one can begin to step outside the part circumstances have cast one in, and even help others do likewise. The great corporations are like the courts of mediaeval Europe. Primarily they are places where power is broked, and they are full of the tyrannies and intrigues associated with it. As a spectator, one can see the various protagonists further their cases — the ‘soldiers’ planning belligerent campaigns into competitors’ markets, the ‘diplomats’ suggesting synergies and collaborations, the ‘clerics’ urging a return to principles and values, and the ‘astrologers’ consulting their management texts for new nostrums. And we designers are particularly blessed in this environment, because we are people with no real status — thus generally managing to avoid being sucked into other people’s schemes — but we do get to witness many of the activities of the court, and occasionally (like the court jester of old) may even find ourselves with the ear of the monarch.

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History of communication
20 July 1998

Randal I don’t think we can call these ancient visual things ‘graphic design’ any more than we can call them ‘art’. The use of such terms is not free from our own cultural history and baggage, and as Gunnar points out, we have no real idea why people painted on cave walls. To call what they did ‘communication’ seems a gross oversimplification. To call language ‘communication’ is also a gross oversimplification. But sometimes oversimplifications are useful. Our brains, for instance, are e‹ectively programmed to make ‘oversimplifications’ — quick and dirty caricatures of circumstances that allow us to find rapid responses. This can cause all manner of inapposite reactions in the modern, socialized world. But without this tendency, our ancestors just wouldn’t have survived to successfully reproduce — and we wouldn’t be around to wonder about them. So the question is not one of oversimplification, but of appositeness. And I think ‘communication’ is the apposite term here. Cave paintings and other ancient visual artefacts almost certainly were communications. That is, the person or persons who produced them were engaging in a communicative relationship — a conversation, if you like — with each other and with others (and let’s not forget us in all this — almost all visual communications have unintended and unacknowedged audiences who take an interest in them). Using visual imagery in this way is unique (on this world, at least) to the human species. But it is also characteristic of us. So here is an immediate point of connection between ourselves and our neolithic imagemakers, however else we di‹er. Also, trying to get outside our own ‘cultural history and baggage’ is an impossibility. Vico pointed this out more than three centuries ago,

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and his observations are as true today as they were in seventeenth century Naples. Yet here again is another point of contact. The ancient cave painters carried their own baggage, just as we do. It was di‹erent baggage — baggage we can’t hope to comprehend. But the experience of being a ‘baggage carrier’ is the same, whether you belong to the stone or silicon ages. If one wants to create as expansive as possible a definition of graphic design, I think it might be possible to say that a graphic designer is a visual artist who is concerned with design for reproduction. This means the profession extends back only to the first Chinese use of woodblocks. It has only been in the last three or four centuries that mechanical reproduction has been a major factor in the creation of our visual environment. But this isn’t strictly accurate, even in the contemporary context. When I take up a chisel and carve an inscription in a piece of slate, I don’t stop doing that same thing — call it graphic design, or whatever — that I do when I assemble artwork for printing, or a ‘page’ for the web. In all cases, though, I’m engaged in a kind of visual ‘talking’. Communication is not my favourite term — although its etymology is so lovely that it deserves to be reinvested with some of its original meaning — but it is accurate. The letterforms we use come from the architectural masonry of the Romans, and the scribal activity of the Carolingians. Both, by your criteria, would be excluded from a definition of graphic design. To me, though, this can’t make sense — how can I work with their artefacts, doing much the same job (putting signs onto buildings, and words into pages) and yet be doing something di‹erent?

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Kung fu
21 July 1998 Randal: I would like to reiterate this point. I like the idea of expanding the definition of graphic design as much as anyone, but it becomes meaningless if you go too far. Graphic design is not all I do, and I don’t need a definition of graphic designer which includes everything I am. When I cook, I am a chef -- not a graphic designer. If my training in graphics influences my cooking (inspiring me to create stunning plate presentations), that still doesn’t make what I’m doing graphics rather than cooking. I half agree with you, but think we worry unecessarily about whether the term is meaningful in the way we want it to be. One of the reasons I like ‘graphic design’ is that it is such a bad term — one that nobody is quite sure what it includes or excludes. Because that is the reality of our business. I’ve done it for years, and still am not clear what parts of my day are or are not graphic design. But actually it doesn’t matter. Jean and Gunnar brought up the series that starred David Carradine, ‘Kung Fu’. And I think it’s worth touching on this before we let it go — because for many of us it was the first taste (albeit watered down through the filter of Hollywood) of a ‘comprehensive tradition’. What I mean by that is a tradition of being and knowing which is experienced rather than explained. The ‘Grasshopper’ bit seems overdone in retrospect, but it did strike a chord. Our experience of ‘education’ in the seventies was of a system where everything — pretty much — could be learned, taught and conceived in terms of the transfer of information. What the milky eyed Shaolin monk showed us was that some things — things to do with what we are, rather than simply what we have retained — need to be ‘caught’. And that this process is very uncertain, sometimes failing despite the best attempts of teacher, student and circumstances. I think it is a testament to the quality of that tradition that enought truth was le· in the program despite the best attempts of media moguls to convert it into entertainment.

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Graphic design is not unlike Kung Fu in that it doesn’t really matter what we call it, because it has a reality beyond the name. Grasping it is di›cult and uncertain — and made no easier by the fact that one can come away from a centre of education with a piece of paper that insists one knows it. It’s a lifelong pursuit, revealing fresh insights about old truths at every twist and turn — as much an endless journey as Carradine’s fictional odyssey in search of his family. And it informs almost everything we do, which is why it is di›cult to be clear about when it begins and ends — I for one lack your certainty that it gets le· behind at the kitchen door. We want to be seen to make graphic design a ‘subject’, because that is what our societies do with all ‘respectable’ bodies of knowledge. But lurking under the surface, I suspect that most practising designers also feel that it is more inscrutable and elusive than that. Now, where’s that damn pebble…

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Narcissism
28 July 1998

Mike: Every precolombian ritual burial can be viewed as an ‘installation’; certainly the use and presence of non-gallery-based works of ritual expression outside of the western world can be seen as a precursor to and inspiration for the very art that you dismiss as low-context. Indeed, one possible context for these (both precolumbian and pomo) works is the observer’s lack of grounding in the producing culture. Since Duchamp, every fire-extinguisher and urinal can be interpereted as a work of art. Taking that view, however, probably says more about the interpreter’s state of mind than her/his aesthetic sensibilities. Edward Hall talks about the reaction of the Native American peoples of the South West — particularly the Hopi — to the intrusion of Anglo’s into Pueblo life. What he says, I believe, explains just why Native American rituals can’t be likened to contemporary (urban, white, middle class, art school educated) concepts, like the ‘installation’. ‘Whenever a white man is put down in the middle of a pueblo, the Indians must cope with his narcissism as expressed by his almost total preoccupation with how he is doing (provided he is well motivated) or how he is being treated (if he is less idealistic). Regardless of motives, behaviour of this sort is threatening and disruptive to Pueblo life, because the Indians are just the opposite. Their concern is not with themselves but the group and how the group is faring. The Indians see what we call narcissism in all whites — a trait that goes far beyond and is much more inclusive than self-love and individual di‹erence. Since the Pueblo Indians themselves are not this way, how can they describe what they themselves do not include in their experience? And what does the well-motivated, concerned white man

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do when he has devoted much of his life to ‘helping’ the Indians only to discover that cultural insight reveals him as a disruptive force in Pueblo life, even though he considers himself an ally. Why hadn’t any of his Pueblo friends told him this? If the narcissism and egocentricity of much contemporary conceptual art is quite obvious to us, how excruciating it must seem to the Hopi. And how insulted would they feel to have aspects of their culture (or that of their neighbours or ancestors) explained in terms of such a fallible construct of the late twentieth century ‘Western’ mind? The huge di‹erence in perspectives, added to the waywardness and idiosyncracity of our own point of view, make this kind of equation an unreasonable proposition. However, Hall does illustrate just how it is possible tocome to an understanding of another culture — by deliberately detaching from preconceptions and concentating one’s attention on observation (rather than analysis). Comprehensive understanding of another culture may never be possible, but insight into it most certainly is — provided we can put aside some of our own intellectual and cultural baggage long enough to look.

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Suspensions
29 July 1998

michael:

True; but the putting aside you mention is only a superficial suspension (if you’re not sure about that assertion, consider how much of our language supposedly contains deeply embedded racial, class, wealth, or sexist biases) and the insight is Western insight. What we must put aside is the ‘baggage’ that judges this or that practice as unmodern, undesirable, dirty, wrongheaded, senseless, whatever — and also the practices and customs that seem sensitive, open, receptive, generous, graceful, etc., because our judgments of those ‘good’ customs are just as susceptible to our foreign biases as judgments of ‘bad’ customs, at least until a later time when their purposes are revealed to us in the context of the society that supports them. I don’t believe that ‘putting aside’ need only be a superficial suspension. Many people can and do adapt to alien cultures, becoming fluent in languages initially foreign to them. And of course there is the paradoxical issue that some ‘aliens’ become better observers of a culture than the ‘natives’ — witness de Tocqueville in c18 America. It is clearly impossible for us to have the world disclosed to us through the medium of Japanese language and culture in the way that a Japanese child has — if we were born into a white Anglo Saxon family in Britain or America. But there is actually nothing to stop a person of western origin becoming su›ciently ‘Japanized’ to be made the ceo of Matsushita, achieve celebrity as a writer of Haiku or even become a Zen master. When we were in San Francisco in the spring, we found ourselves in the middle of the ‘Cherry Blossom Festival’ — and I was intrigued by a stall that sported Japanese swords collected by a local group studying traditional swordmaking under a traditional Japanese

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swordsmith. Such was the dedication of of this group that some could undoubtedly become rated experts by cognoscienti on the other side of the Pacific. It is possible to make that bridge. But by no means everybody can make this kind of adjustment. Culture, as Hall points out, is like an iceberg — the bigger, and more dangerous (for the unwary), part of it is below the waterline of consciousness. Whether someone succeeds or fails to make a cultural adaptation depends in large part on how familiar they are with the less-than-conscious parts of their own culture — how observant they are of non-verbal communications, and how well they come to know themselves. Even so, all cultures are concerned with the same kinds of things, and we start our encounter with another culture with the tremendous boon of having already acquired such a system ourselves — if we choose to see it as a boon, and not as a curse.

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Scarcity
14 August 1998

nancy: It seems that we do most of our thinking with our preconscious minds -- to wit, our emotions or instincts. This means that most human activites are governed by non-linear, non-logical processes. And most human activities should be so governed. Here’s where I talk about global/perceptual skills again, such as sorting the laundry or playing the violin. These kinds of daily activities requires us to simultaneously coordinate thousands of choices for physical actions with perceptual cues and predetermined goals. Linear/logical thinking interferes. Ever tried to follow the techniques you learned in a book while you were out on the golf course or juggling bean bags? So, yeah, a lot of what we do isn’t ‘smart’. And that’s exactly why advertisers and designers seek to tap into audience emotions. Most of the ‘smartness’ of the human brain consists in its ability to filter out information. But, of course, this involves decisions being made about which information is relevant, and which isn’t. It also involves making quick and dirty caricatures based on that information. Looming shadow, loud thundering noise, strong whi¤ — hairy mammoth coming up behind, get out of the way! Unfortunately, it is exactly these kinds of templates — essential to our ancestors’ survival — that make us susceptible to manipulation. A simple one is the scarcity proposition — if we believe something is going to be in short supply, if becomes much more desirable. No doubt this is a legacy of realizing that opportunities had to be seized, or lost forever. If one saw a bush laden with fruit, one picked and ate it, because tomorrow it might all be rotting on the ground. The advertiser who announces ‘Discount sale — all prices slashed to 50%, for one day only!’ plays on this susceptibility. And although we didn’t really want a

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new garage door, the thought that we might miss such a unique opportunity makes the o‹er irresistible. The mechanism is crass — yes — but the template is crude (and undiscriminating). The various factors that make us susceptible to manipulation are brilliantly described by Dr Robert Cialdini in his book Influence — which is, in my mind, a ‘must read’ (also a very enjoyable, funny and insightful book). Cialdini devotes a chapter to scarcity, for instance, which he illustrates in a number of ways — including a hillarious account of how he nearly got sucked in to going to a ‘for one day only, ever’ visit to inner sanctum of the Mormon Temple in Phoenix. Cialdini is a social psychologist, and his interest in these things is from a psychological and evolutionary standpoint. This subject are also discussed in various marketing textbooks, but from a totally distorted perspective — marketeers would have you believe that ‘cognitive dissonance’, for example, was invented to help them shi· product.

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Governance
14 August 1998

daniel:

Nancy — at the risk of being nit picky — you don’t mean this as purist as appears in your statement do you? It sounds as if these activities are at some point free of governance. What I mean is that the process you are describing is by nature self-referential and the flow of information is both directions. From the other levels of unconscious thought toward conscious thought and back the other way. I can’t imagine any activity that isn’t so governed. I think it is the amount of governance that is in question — excessive linear thinking can get in the way but when assimilating new experience it is very important to ‘focus’ on those most recently learned adjustments until they become ‘internalized’, ‘automatic’ and ‘unconscious’ and even a·er that there is some degree of oversight taking place. It is interesting that you equate conscious with governance. Most of the evidence seems to show that we are governed by factors that rarely enter into consciousness, and that our conscious mind distorts or censors what is really happening to suit a constructed self image. An example is the instinctive tendency to try cover our mouths when we are lying, or when we think that someone else is lying — which manifests in all sorts of hand to face behaviour (like nose scratching). Ask the freelancer who has just showed you the big project he did for Landor why he scratched his nose at that point in the interview, and he’ll tell you it was because it was itchy. And he’ll probably believe this explanation. But this also works the other way around. Ask the interviewer why she didn’t believe the freelancer’s story about having designed the FedEx logo (or whatever) and she’ll say that she had a hunch he wasn’t being straight. In fact, she will have noticed — beneath the threshold of con-

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sciousness — a cluster of gestures, intonation, and other subtle signals that signal dishonesty. The ‘governing’ factor was a smart, but unconscious part of her mind, which messaged the consciousness — but the consciousness, unable to explain how she arrived at that knowledge, comes up with an unsatisfactory answer. Most of our behaviour seems to be of this kind. We’re driven by things we don’t see, and — as Nancy suggests, these are o·en e‹ectively handled (chanelled, defused, redirected) — by talents we don’t know we have. But consciousness,which has a conceit that it is in control and driving things (whereas, like senior management in any organization, it largely ignored and usually the last to know) — paints a distorted picture of what’s going on (again, just like the ceo claiming that he was responsible for the company’s success).

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Graphic design books
24 August 1998

Michael: As for graphic design books, there are many out there, and I will defer to other subscribers to recommend good ones. In the end, though, graphic design books would seem to be about as much use as trying to learn kissing by watching the couple at the next table. That is, none of the really important bits are visible, you’re probably never going to be smooching with either of them, and your observations quickly become clouded by the desire to do it for yourself. If you’re a novice, it’s unlikely you will come away any the wiser. And if you’re beyond that, you’ll just end up as a voyeur.

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Teach yourself
28 August 1998

randy: Ok… where can I take a crash course in the basis principles of design? I don’t beleive these distinctions are something folks can just dabble in or self-teach themselves. Sure they are — the same way we teach ourselves to hold conversations, to express our feelings, to make love. Graphic design is learned through doing, doing, doing. There are no rules that are worth anything, save those that you discover for yourself. All that a course will do — whether it is a one day crash introduction or a seven year PhD — is to provide an environment where you are constantly brought back, confronted with the task in hand. But it will also mislead you that there are authorities, experts, conoisseurs, masters. All of which will have to be subsequently unlearned. In graphic design, there are really only travellers. Some of us have been on the road a long time, travelled to strange places, experienced wondrous (and not so wondrous) things, worn out more bootleather. But we’re all either en-route, or fallen by the wayside. Looking back at other people’s solutions is counterproductive, unless you’ve reached the point of being able to see in them living responses to specific circumstances, and not as a pallette of dead styles to be imitated, elaborated or otherwise appropriated. And the only way one can reach this point is, again, by doing, doing, doing. Mentors, too, can be unhelpful, unless you’ve grasped that the value of someone else’s opinion is to help you sharpen your own discrimination and judgment — and not as a substitute for it. Real learning comes from taking risks and making mistakes — betting on your instincts, and finding (for yourself) their failings. Fortunately, fate has ordained that there are ‘starter clients’ for ‘starter designers’ to make their mistakes with.

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Fighting fires
28 August 1998

randal: The majority of demand for design in the ‘real’ world is really demand for bad design. It is only by setting up ideal job requirements, putting in completely uneconomical amounts of time on a job, and holding alo· perhaps unrealistic ideas of what design can be that one really learns quickly what one can achieve. A person driven to be a designer will eventually learn to create exercises for themselves which meet those unrealistic goals (and put in the required months and years of unrecompensed work). It is sometimes easier to let a teacher help you and make you do them. ‘Unrealistic’ ideas of design will remain just that — unrealistic. Design is — and always should be — about a real process, a process of communication between real people. If I suggested that to be any good as a fire-fighter, you should avoid the mediocrity of ‘real fires’ and only apply your talents to exercises that meet unrealistic goals, you’d be right to think I was completely o¤ my head. So what’s di‹erent about design? Just as with fires, no two circumstances that designers have to meet are likely to be the same — and any apparent similarity should be treated with more caution than confidence. In Fire School, they can create controlled blazes that allow you to test all the skills — and let’s not forget the teamwork — that you’ve been taught. But faced with your first real fire, the outcome is likely to be scary and unpredictable. It’s up to you show your mettle, to demonstrate your knowledge and discipline in the face of uncertainty. Then, the person you look to isn’t the theory teacher, but the firefighter who has already got a good few blazes under his belt.

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Learning to be a student
31 August 1998

gunnar: I’ve taught at a few places where most of the faculty (including me) were working designers. There is a tendency for each teacher to try to supply the ‘real world’ assignments that they are sure that the students aren’t otherwise getting. The result is o·en that students get a mishmash of their teachers’ last problems without anyone really asking what students need to know and how can that be taught in a reasonable order. One of the roots of this problem is a misunderstanding ‘real world’ educators have about their role. Succinctly put, academia exists to teach people how to be students — not to teach them to be designers (or anything else). A thousand years of history has gone into all the structures, methods and trappings to do this — and it’s not going to be overturned by someone going in and setting a ‘real world’ project. I’ve ‘taught’ both in and out of Colleges, and the di‹erences are significant. It has always been easier to teach in the workplace, because the ‘student’s’ motivation (and desire to please) is greater. Workplace learning is underlined by the bottom line, and consequently the gloves are o¤. ‘Here we do things like this’ — Eric Gill’s famous line — is a tremendously potent instrument. I’ve also found, both in my own experience and from watching those who have worked with me, that more is ‘caught’ rather than ‘taught’ in the workplace. It’s awfully di›cult to factor ‘caught’ into an examined curriculum. Having said that, there are exciting things that one can do within the structured — but unpressurized — College environment. It’s not easy for a creative director to suggest to a junior that she look at Picasso, read Plato or go to Paris — but a College Tutor can do a great deal to help a student open her or his mind to possibilities that will greatly help his or her development as a designer.

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Beginner’s mind
3 September 1998

‘reader’: When ‘Mr. Cheapo’ meets ‘Mr. Mean, gets the job, delivers fancylooking PrintShop-files to a PostScript based service bureau, and there are six spot colors, lowres images, bitmaps with rgb, mixed up with cmyk out of print range, and the service bureau encounters problems, and who is to pay the bill? This is not inevitably the case, and it is more than a little unfair on the unqualified designer. There are lots of cowboys, in design as well as outside it, and they have to answer for their own actions. But any responsible person will want to make sure they are doing things properly. If they carefully read the documentation that came with the programs they use, they won’t make these mistakes. Also, most printers and output bureaux are o·en incredibly helpful to the newcomer, qualified or otherwise — and enjoy working with someone who is keen to learn. Rarely does anything in real life happen the way the textbook suggests, and dealing with real life print jobs is the only way to acquire a working knowledge of repro. Nor is the colour issue a true caricature of the di‹erence between the trained and the untrained. When I started, the only thing my clients could a‹ord was one (or, at most two) colour printing (process colour was then considerably more expensive). So I learned to do inventive things with black and white, which discipline has proved indispensible. I later discovered this to be typical of others who came into design in a similar way. Subsequently, when I was working at ‘name’ consultancies, I found there were graduates from prestigious Colleges who insisted on four colour plus specials plus varnishes as the indispensible requirement of being able to demonstrate their skills. It didn’t impress the clients — nor, for that matter, did it impress me.

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Sometimes, also, the unschooled approach is — through its naivety — capable of delivering the simple solution that has that degree of ‘inevitability’ that characterises the greatest design. The College environment tends to encourage designers to look for quirkier, more individualistic and more complex solutions — o·en these are too clever to work e‹ectively. As in Zen, it’s the ‘beginners mind’ that we should all be looking for.

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Older but wiser
24 September 1998

Neeleesh: I’ve just graduated from a course that ‘trained’ me to be a design consultant. Design was seen as a wholistic (no not a religious thing but as one subject) practice and not separated by disciplines and we were taught the ins and outs of product, graphics, nmedia and eco design with a focus (practical) on one discipline. All good and well but a consultant needs experience and it can take a lifetime to get experience in just one of those fields. But I can see the advantages the course has in relation to consultancy as now I have an overall view of design and can impliment strategies in di‹erent fields rather than stick to the one discipline I know, well once the experiences start piling up. It does take ‘a lifetime’ to acquire experience in any and every field. Perhaps one of the most poignant lessons of growing older is to show us just how little we knew ten (or even five) years ago, how much we fool ourselves about what we know now, and how little we appreciate what there still is to know. If designers grow somewhat less ‘creative’ as they get older, there is at least a chance they may grow wiser. And I like to hope that one day we may have an approach to design that reverses the blend of ‘hi creativity’ and correspondingly little wisdom that is currently fashionable. But I doubt if this is the same thing as ‘Design Consultancy’!

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Assimilation
27 September 1998

I was reading something the other day about the relentless way commerce appropriates ‘style’ — so much so that what is featured in a radical magazine one month appears on a billboard selling some consumer product the next. It was one of those pessimistic ‘what can we do about it?’ pieces. Needless to say, I didn’t have much sympathy for its whiney tone — or its rather crude characterisation of late capitalism as a kind of rapacious monster exploiting the innocent designer. But it did set me thinking. Not least because I wondered what will happen to people like Emigre. Here in the UK there’s currently a massive poster campaign for toothpaste that uses the typeface Keedy Sans — so well, in fact, that for many people it may well become an icon of the dentrifice industry, rather than a subversive statement of the early nineties. Likewise, another campaign is using Rudy Vanderlans’ ‘Suburban’ — which has been tamed by the might of advertising into quite a sweet little scripty face. Presumably, though, as the orders flood in from Madison Avenue, Rudy Vanderlans and Zuzanna Licko don’t feel too much of an ethical dilemma. Of course this is one of those issues where some design history helps. Anyone who knew how 50s corporate America embraced modernism, and turned it from the rhetorical device of a few European reds into the voice of the establishment, would see that the scattered seeds of postmodern design could scarcely avoid the same fate. But I’m intrigued by the paradox that avant-garde graphic designers are constantly trying to stay one step ahead of acceptability, and yet in so doing focus on the one thing that poses no real threat to the appropriators — style. However it struck me that this stu¤, which now looks so tame, did once seem disturbing, shocking, alternative. What happened to that edge, exactly? Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that it had to do with the

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framing, the context in which the work was seen — and not much to do with the work itself. If this is true, it would be a bitter pill for graphic designers to swallow — that it is the climate of ideas that filters the way we receive design rather than any quality of that design itself. And that as the context changes, the meaning of the work mutates in ways over which the designer has no control. But how else can we explain the historical facts? For instance the way that modernism, which was once seen as so subversive, is now the face of every trendy metropolitan eaterie. Or the way that Carson’s The End of Print has become a style manual for marketeers selling to bored kids?

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Backwards into the future
29 September 1998

peter: I have seen clothes go full circle in approx 20 years. When you consider that there are style changes every year or two, and the number of variations possible, to have gone through all the permutations and back again in around twenty years is indicative of the high rate of change. That was before the mass popularity of the internet that has propelled the rate of exposure to new things to what must be an all-time high. I think, however, that it must be a pretty small circle. Twenty years ago, many people were dressed in a similar fashion to the way they are today — and have been through most of the last two decades. 1978 was two years a·er punk — I seem to remember worn denim, white tee shirts and black leather jackets being generally popular (pretty much what James Dean wore in the fi·ies, and what I’m wearing today). Compare this similarity between 1978 and 1998 with the di‹erence between 1908 and 1928, when there really was a radical change. Even more than television I think the web has overloaded ‘nextbigthing’ meter. Look at the way we went from single font text on grey background to all-singing and dancing multimedia with interactivity in around five years. Nobody knows what’s going on anymore. Well, the web is just about catching up with the cinema and television. Perhaps the only significant di‹erence is that you can ‘push’ a button on screen to make something happen (but this is much overestimated, since what one can actually achieve through this kind of ‘interactivity’ remains sorely constrained). It’s now even possible to have web pages that look like graphic design. Almost. But it’s a big jump from this to suggest that nobody knows what’s going on. The nineties has actually been a fairly conservative decade — most of the big ideas are just extrapolations of things that were conceived

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decades ago (the Internet iteself, for instance). Likewise graphic design has spent most of its energies reacting to the legacy of the past (it’s no coincidence that words beginning with ‘post-’ dominate the theorists’ vocabulary). Even the future is still conceived in ways that derive from Ridley Scott’s and William Gibson’s 1980s technological dystopias.

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What happens when we communicate?
11 September 2006

At first glance, this looks like an obvious question. So influenced are we now by communications technologies that most of us would probably answer: ‘we transfer information, of course!’ The problem is, however, that when we look at what goes on in our everyday interaction, information exchange doesn’t appear to be all that significant. Much of what we say, for instance, is o·en already known to the person we’re talking to. This is the ‘Hi Honey, I’m home!’ syndrome. And for some time linguists have been telling us that ‘information’ comes a poor third to ‘involvement’ and ‘persuasion’ in the purposes for which we use language. As feminist linguist Deborah Tannen writes in her That’s not what I meant!: ‘Very little of what is said is important for the information contained in the words. But that doesn’t mean that the talk isn’t important. It is crucially important, as a way of showing that we’re involved with each other, and how we feel about being involved. Our talk is saying something about our relationship.’ Even if we look at communication from an evolutionary perspective, as Merlin Donald did in Origins of the Modern Mind, it’s apparent that there was no driving need to exchange information behind the evolution of language. The things our early hominid ancestors needed to do didn’t require words to communicate. And this has hardly changed today. Many complex activities can still be picked up simply by watching someone doing them. It’s not necessary to be told how to change a tyre, swim backstroke, ride a bicycle or bind a book. And, actually, explanation can o·en get in the way. Robin Dunbar proposes an interesting theory about the origins of human communication in his Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. He suggests that language came about as a substitute for grooming. Primates comb through each others’ fur, picking out insects and bits of twig, as a way of managing relationships in their groups.

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Who grooms who is important, and it establishes a pecking order that helps keep the group together. However when our remote ancestors started living in bigger groups, the amount of time that needed to be invested in grooming – which is a one-to-one activity – became unmanageable. Language, Dunbar suggests, was a means of achieving the same ends, but allowed for more e›cient one-to-many exchanges. His theory certainly makes sense of much of the kind of day to day communicating we all do: talking not because we have something important to say, but because the engagement with each other is important. I’d like to go a step further than this, and make a suggestion that ties information back in with this idea of communicating as a form of interaction. This is that we should see communication as an exchange of energy. Energy meaning here something that e‹ects a change of state. And interacting with each other is clearly a way of changing each other’s state. We only have to look at everyday conversation, where one person can delight, thrill, horrify, intimidate or seduce another simply through the process of talking. But the same thing can also happen in impersonal communications, too: something written or recorded by someone we don’t know can move us just as much as a conversation with a loved one. Plato or Homer, for instance, can reach us across cultures – and across the centuries – to bring about a significant change, not only in what and how we think, but in how we feel and act, too. In the same way that physicist David Bohm described matter as ‘frozen light’, we could describe information as ‘frozen interaction’ – potential for transforming our thinking, feeling and behaviour, locked up in the content of the communication. Looked at in this way, ‘information’ and ‘presentation’ – content and form – aren’t separate, but are part and parcel of the same process. Primates communicate energy, maintaining and changing the politics of the group, by running their hands over each other. Early hominids learned they could achieve the same thing with several others at the same time by articulating meaningful sounds. Later humans found that energy could be transferred to a far bigger group through visual

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marks – with the advantage that the ‘speaker’ didn’t need to be physically present with the ‘listeners’. Today, we do the same thing on an even vaster scale, using new technologies. But what really matters is the process that takes place in the individual – the change in their state, as a result of this energetic encounter. In the case of ‘Hi Honey, I’m home!’, this is the day-to-day maintenance of a loving relationship. In the case of Plato or Homer, it can be a complete revitalisation of our intellect, emotions and behaviour.

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Not paying enough attention
12 September 2006

In advertising and journalism, at least, there is some awareness of the importance of attention. A snappy headline or a particularly arresting image is o·en described as ‘attention grabbing’. And there is a recognition that, in a crowded marketplace, attracting and holding attention is not just desirable, but essential. Otherwise the ‘attention factor’ can seem something of a Cinderella in communications. We take it for granted, make use of it every day, yet rarely we pause to think about it. Attention is a key component of all human communication, from the non-verbal to the abstrusely intellectual. Indeed, it could be described as the key component. If we don’t have someone’s attention we are not communicating. There is almost nothing else we can say that about. If we don’t share a common language, we can still communicate. If the medium is not functioning properly – a breaking-up telephone line, for instance – we can still communicate. If the message isn’t fully understood, we can still communicate. But once the other person isn’t listening any more, it doesn’t matter how well everything else is working. There is no communication. When we start to investigate attention, this totally unremarkable everyday faculty becomes extremely interesting. Attention is involved in everything human beings do, by no means just communication. It is tied up, in a fundamental way, with who we are – with our most basic sense of self. It is also something most of us have very little control over. Try to focus your attention on to a particular object, it doesn’t matter what, and maintain it without distraction. I’ll bet that a·er only a few seconds your mind is already wandering o¤, taking it’s own course. We can’t even direct our own concentration, let alone the trail of associations that lead us away from it. It’s this, in fact, that makes the relationship between attention and

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communication all the more extraordinary. Because when we are paying attention to somebody (or, for that matter, to a communication they have created) we are able to maintain the focus of our attention, o·en for quite long periods at a time. OK, there are situations – and people – that switch us o¤. But unless we su‹er from some sort of attention deficit, these are not the norm. Most of the time communication engages us: it attracts and holds our attention. You’re with me so far, right? Attention has many di‹erent facets, all of which are fascinating. The one that concerns me most here is the phenomenon of ‘paying attention’. Something strange happens when someone pays attention to us, that has the ability to make us feel much better. We take pleasure in receiving attention (assuming, that is, that it is not ‘unwelcome’ attention!). It has the ability to enhance our moods, boost our confidence and self-esteem, a‹ect the way we think and feel about things. Even negative attention can be preferable to none at all, as anyone who has small children will testify. Attention has an e‹ect apparently regardless of the content or context. It’s being attended to that is important. One of the least recognised e‹ects of paying attention to someone, but one that can be easily demonstrated, is its ability to moderate their beliefs, feelings, positions. The simple act of listening to a person who holds extreme, even distorted, beliefs can help them begin to so·en their position. But by listening I don’t mean agreeing with them – just accepting them as a worthwhile human being and giving them the attention they need. Indeed, engaging too much with a person’s beliefs – debating and challenging and arguing with them – can have exactly the opposite e‹ect of entrenching them even more strongly. How this works is still something of a mystery, but it is clear that it has nothing to do with the beliefs per se. More likely is that attending works on the sense of social isolation that goes with extreme positions, on the sensation of being marginalised that allows paranoia and hostility to flourish. We’ve all had the feeling of being ignored and neglected by someone, believing all sorts of negative things about

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our relationship with them, and then a surprise meeting or telephone call suddenly makes us feel much better. Psychological research suggests that even unrelated experiences can improve perceptions in this way: subjects who ‘found’ a planted five dollar bill on the floor of an American shopping mall responded more positively to questions about the happiness of their marriages, their satisfaction with their jobs, their general state of health and happiness than a control group who didn’t. They even claimed their washing machines broke down less o·en! Their attention needs had been unexpectedly met, in this case by a trivial inanimate object. However, there are many marginalised people in our societies who are not receiving enough attention. When a child isn’t attended to, he starts playing up. But when an adult doesn’t receive enough attention, the consequences can be far more serious – from mental (and even physical) illness through to outbursts of anger and violence. We’ve all seen elderly people given short shri· in a shop, for example, because they wanted more attention with their transaction – to pause and talk, rather than just to pay and walk away. Isolated and lonely, their attention demands aren’t being met. Most of us probably don’t feel we have any responsibility for providing for them, either, but the consequences of not doing so are potentially so serious that we have to ask ourselves whether we can really a‹ord not to. We now have plenty of evidence of what can happen when groups of people feel alienated and ignored. I would suggest that giving attention should be part of the ‘licence to operate’ of every organisation, a fundamental of the contract that it has with the society it serves. A·er all, organisations also make attention demands, believing they have a right to ‘grab’ our attention for their own ends. And helping employees to understand the value of paying attention – which in skilled hands can be qualitative, rather than timewasting – can be good for business, too. Even though we may not always recognise this in ourselves, there is no doubt that we like attention along with our change. Sometimes we even buy things just for the attention – a point that is well worth considering.

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Engineering trust
13 September 2006

It’s not hard to imagine a time, not very far hence, when it will be possible to do a ‘Yellow Pages’ type search on the Internet and get an ‘eBay’ type response. Want a plumber? 297 people gave positive feedback on this chap and only one negative. Looking for a Lawyer? “Lapwing, Roebuck and Whelp were wonderfully helpful with my divorce, but when I eventually got the bill it was more than three times what I had been led to believe!” There is a kind of inevitability behind what people are calling ‘The Social So·ware Revolution’ that makes this kind of thing not just possible, but very very likely indeed. eBay hasn’t solved the problem with trust, but it has given us a remarkable mechanism with which to address it. If you think about it, the kind of endorsement that is provided by a number of happy customers through a trusted intermediary is about as good as we can get. It has the benefit of saving us the background research we know we ought to do, but never get around to, while giving us some genuine peace of mind. And in areas where we are taking a real risk, with someone we don’t know at all, it makes a huge di‹erence. What interests me most about this phenomenon is the way that it threatens to make the concept of the ‘brand’ obsolete, at least in the form that we know it. Brands came into existence as a guarantee of quality and consistency, at the beginning of the age of mass production and national distribution. A brand is a ‘promise’, as marketeers like to describe it. Unfortunately, however, in an era where the consumer hasn’t had much opportunity to answer back, these promises have frequently been overstated – and under-substantiated. The experience rarely turns out to match the expectations. The eBay model turns this concept of the brand inside-out. Instead of relying on the vendor’s claims, it puts their reputation firmly in the

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hands of their customers. If the experience was good, one can hope that they will recognise it. If it was bad, on the other hand, one can almost guarantee that they will say so. Instead of rhetoric about ‘putting customers first’ or ‘being committed to quality of service’, it’s possible to see the real, unvarnished, performance. Of course we’ve had something similar in the form of professional reviews for many years. Restaurant and entertainment columns appear daily in newspapers and can be highly influential – a damning remark from a theatre critic can still close a play. There have also been periodicals like Which conducting comprehensive tests of similar products to see which is the best buy. In some areas, like computers, hi-fi or cars, there are competing monthly magazines devoted to making comparisons and reviewing products. Enthusiasts wouldn’t dream of choosing without first hearing what they have to say. But there is something di‹erent about what is happening in ‘Web 2.0’ that moves the whole idea of the empowered consumer up a notch. It has to do with the creation of communities of interest, and the way they are taking over the role of the expert. In The Wisdom of Crowds Business Columnist James Surowiecki shows how, under the right circumstances, groups are o·en much smarter in making decisions than individuals. We can listen to Jeremy Clarkson telling us that the people carrier we were thinking of buying is a dog. But much as we might enjoy his opinions, we also know that they are influenced by the fact that he frequently gets to drive Porsches and Ferraris as well. What’s he making a comparison with? The fact that several hundred people like us had good experiences with this particular car, and only a few had bad, says a whole lot more. One of the implications of this revolution is that we will have to reconcile ourselves to the end of hyperbole: we’re entering an age of grumbling realism. Human beings are slow to praise, but quick to blame. Ask anyone who has ever given out feedback forms to an audience. You will hear how people who seemed all smiles and excitement ended up giving just an ‘average’ score, while others who surely benefitted

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a great deal wrote lengthy complaints about the co‹ee or the air conditioning. Marketeers might pretend that such and such a product is the answer to our dreams, but even the most satisfied customers are unlikely to give it more than a “yeah, it’s OK!” The challenge for marketing in this new era is going to be one of engagement. Communities of customers tend to be feisty, critical and realistic. Perhaps the most interesting example of this in recent years have been Macintosh users. Apple Computer has benefited enormously from having a group of people who believed in their products and who evangelised for them on an informal basis. But Macintosh users, who were the only community based around an individual product brand to be represented in mass circulation magazines, have by no means towed the company line. They frequently disputed Apple’s corporate strategy, debunked its CEOs, trashed its marketing and deprecated various product lines. Instead of passive consumers, they became active, articulate stakeholders. Web 2.0, with its emphasis on social so·ware and networking, promises to accelerate and spread this kind of active consumerism across pretty much all sectors, from government to b2b. Thinking of voting in a local election? 495 people said that Cllr Perkins dealt with their problems in four to six weeks. But, hang on, what’s this about him here? Want to give some money to charity? 56% of funds raised by ‘Flowering Deserts’ went for work in the field – putting them amongst the top ten performers. And so on. By putting our institutions into a virtual goldfish bowl where all can see and comment, the technology is bringing about real transparency.

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Lines and boxes
28 September 2006

Over the last few days, I’ve been playing with a fascinating program called ‘Omnigra‡e’. Although I don’t consider myself a particularly analytical person, I o·en have to create ‘box and line’ diagrams and this is a very elegant tool for doing so. Indeed, it’s the kind of so·ware I have always loved – the kind that with just one click can take a typical hierarchical tree structure and turn it into a ‘bubble’ diagram, with all the elements radiating from a single hub. And everything is beautifully spaced, too. None of the lines cross over, nothing gets garbled as a result of the conversion. Needless to say, it’s a Mac only program. But the point of this piece isn’t to sell someone else’s so·ware (or to get you using a di‹erent kind of computer). Because, despite the pleasure I’ve got from this beautiful and clever little application, it has also helped me to see some of the real limitations of the whole lines and boxes paradigm. The Mulla Nasruddin – the butt of a thousand Sufi jokes, who is either a fool or a wise man (depending on how you interpret his antics) – once observed: ‘There are two kinds of people: those who divide everything into two kinds, and those who don’t...’ And I have to admit I have problems with the whole idea of ‘analysis’, of breaking things down into labelled parts as a way of understanding them. Not that it doesn’t work: clearly, it does. Nearly all of our technologies have come from someone looking at a phenomenon, a process, a system, and turning it into a lines and boxes diagram. Treating things in this way makes them controllable. It doesn’t matter whether you’re designing a chemical plant, building a website or running a department. In every case the analysis is helping you to identify the necessary components and determine what sort of sequence they need to be arranged in. Nothing wrong with that, except what gets le· out. Putting things into boxes emphasises entities rather than relation-

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ships, yet it’s o·en the relationships that are the most important part: the lines that connect the boxes. Consider a simple example. We have three people: Peter, Brian and Sammy. Peter is Brian’s father, so let’s put them in separate boxes and join them with a line. Brian is Sammy’s father, so ditto. That probably seems quite straightforward, and it is if we are considering the three individuals, and the fact of their being connected. But suppose that instead we are interested in the experience of having, and being, a father. Then everything is reversed – suddenly it’s the lines that we’re interested in, and the people in the boxes much less so. What’s more the lines become much more complex than we’ve represented because they mean di‹erent things depending on which direction you follow them. Brian’s relationship with Peter – son to father – is not the same as Peter’s relationship with Brian. It’s a quite di‹erent experience being someone’s son to being their father. Something that Peter will understand, because his relationship to Sammy, whilst obviously being unique and personal and not reducible to a generality, is of a similar kind to Peter’s relationship to him (and of a quite di‹erent kind to his relationship to Peter). Our diagram fails to represent both the two way nature of these links, and the connections between what are shown as separate relationships. Let’s push this a little further. Brian, who I’m going to put at the centre of my diagram, is also connected to Francesca, Sammy’s mother, Rose his sister, Qasim his boss, Winston his friend. He’s got six boxes around him, with six lines. But each of those lines means something completely di‹erent. Having a brother is totally di‹erent to having a husband. Friendship can be said (at least, in a very general way) to mean the same in both directions, while the employer-employee relationship clearly cannot. So at best, our diagram can show how individuals are connected (emphasis on individuals). And Brian being surrounded by six separated people doesn’t really tell us anything: it’s a ‘so what?’ kind of diagram. However, if Rose is Qasim’s neighbour, and Francesca turns out to be having an a‹air with Winston, and Sammy is teaching Peter how to download free music onto his iPod, we’ve got some more links in there and the diagram is beginning to model a pattern of con-

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nectedness that might otherwise be complicated to explain. Supposing, though, we turn it around and model how individuals are connected (emphasis on connected). Brian, in the middle, has these six links around him. And who is Brian? He is the person who lives up to the expectations, assumptions and roles these links demand: he’s ‘Dad’ ‘Son’ ‘Darling’ (and, of course, ‘Brian who must never find out’), ‘Bruv’, ‘Deputy Assistant Marketing Manager’ and ‘Bry, are you free for a drink?’. The only person who’s missing from this constellation of di‹erent Brians is the one that comes from the link between Brian and Brian: ‘Me!’. Should the seven Brians really all be in the same box? Is the Brian whose dogged loyalty so endears him to Qasim the same as the Brian Francesca finds so unexciting? No, because Qasim can’t a‹ord to lose him and Francesca is wondering whether she should. Okay, what’s this soap opera got to do with the kinds of diagrams we all need to produce? Lots, in fact. Because although our day to day models may be less colourful, we face exactly the same problems of exaggerating the boxes and downplaying the lines. What goes in the boxes isn’t as stable, consistent or united as the diagram suggests. And the relationships that we represent with the lines lose most of the information they can give us through such a simplistic depiction. In fact, in almost any situtation we choose to model, it’s the relationships that define the entities. Circumstances alter cases: context is everything. If we look at ourselves, this should be obvious: I may be chief executive of Bloggo enterprises, but when I’m changing my daughter’s nappy I’m a poor substitute for Mummy. “Do you know who I am?” “Yes, Mr Prescott, but you’re still getting a ticket because your Jaguar is parked on a double yellow line!” Emphasising boxes give us control, but few opportunities for understanding. Emphasising lines, on the other hand, facilitates understanding. Particularly if we don’t feel the need to control. One day, I like to fantasise, I might get to play with a program that doesn’t just turn one style of diagram into another, but can at the click of a button foreground the relationships and diminish the entities, or vice versa. Now that would be something!

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The end of Leadership
29 September 2006

In recent years ‘leadership’ has become a boom industry in management circles, resulting in a deluge of programmes, books, seminars and gurus. Everybody aspires to be a leader these days, it seems. Do a google search on ‘leadership’ and it will return 270,000,000 entries. Yes, that’s right, a mind-boggling two hundred and seventy million web pages that cater to this demand! By my reckoning, that is one entry per twenty four people on the earth. (Based on a global population of 6,530,000,000 in August 2006). But what about the followers? Searching ‘followership’ on google gives a mere 210,000 entries. If we use the respective numbers of pages as an indication of the appetite to lead or follow, that results in an equally astonishing one follower for every 1,286 would-be leaders! Surely something’s got to be wrong here? If everybody wants to be a chief, who’s going to be the indians? And that, to my mind, is the really noteworthy thing about this. Not the desire to be in control, respected, directing things. But the collapse of any interest in being led. We can see this in the whole phenomenon of celebrity. Vast amounts of attention is given by the world’s media to various kinds of ‘celebrities’, most of whom, frankly, are non-entities. People are interested in them not because they believe in them, admire them, are prepared to take their stand behind them, but because they want what the celebrities have got. We don’t want our celebrities put on a pedestal, like the heroes of yesteryear (Scott of the Antarctic, Lawrence of Arabia, Florence Nightingale), out of reach of our prosaic aspirations. We wan’t them pulled down to our level, or below. Revealed to be rude, lying, coke-snorting love-rats. It’s the same, albeit in a blander grey-suited kind of way, with the leadership circus. So what’s happening with human beings? Actually, something very

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interesting and extremely positive. We are coming quite rapidly to a point in our cultural evolution where the influence of external sources of authority is collapsing. The idea that who we are is what other people tell us – our ‘elders and betters’ – is running out of steam. Increasingly who we are is who we define ourselves to be. It’s a gesture that comes from the inside out, rather than from the outside in (as has been the case through most of human history). In fact this process started many centuries ago and has merely been accelerating in recent decades. We can easily trace it as far back as the Protestand Reformation in Europe, where the central issue was the right to define one’s beliefs for oneself, privately and – most importantly – according to one’s own conscience. That word conscience, although it seems a little quaint and old-fashioned today, is the key here. Because what it really means is not a narrowly conditioned moral sense, a feeling of ‘must’ and ‘ought’ and ‘should’ (which are always the internalised voices of external parental figures) but the expression of something beyond this, of who we really are as unique individuals. The Reformation was only one of the first stirrings of this, though. When we look back, we see the early Protestants as still fixated on authority and conformity – although this is clearly not how they saw themselves. But religious reform quickly led into political reform, witnessed by the three great revolutions of the Western world (where most of these developments have first taken place): the English, the American and the French. These first mooted the ideas of political self-determination, that people were equal and that they had the right to shape their own a‹airs. Again, though, it has taken years to shake o¤ the hedges and assumptions that originally accompanied these changes: to recognise, for instance, that women had as much right to a place in the national polity as men or that the franchise belonged as much to uneducated labourers as to the property owning classes. The revolutions of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries extended this idea of the ‘freedom of conscience’ first into the workplace (with the organisation of labour) and eventually into the home

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(with the women’s movement). But this has o·en been seen, frequently in Marxist terms, as a purely political development (as the famous feminist slogan ‘the personal is the political’ indicates). The two big changes at the end of the twentieth century, the empowerment of consumers and the freedom of information (particularly through the Internet), are thus not usually recognised as being part of the same evolutionary process. All of these developments, however, have had the e‹ect of increasingly transferring the locus of power and authority from others to ourselves. Even within the family, we’ve witnessed a huge shi· in the relationship between parents and children: within living memory parents have gone from being patriarchs and matriarchs, whose word was law, to a kind of big sister/big brother armed at best with the ability to persuade. Looking ahead, it’s not di›cult to forsee a time when the kinds of radical educational experiments carried out by A.S. Neill and Homer Lane, where children take control of the running of their school, become mainstream thinking. We’re not quite ready for that yet, but it may only be a couple of decades away. It can be hard to recognise quite how much, or how fast, we have changed. But look back to the 1950s and it is clear that then most people’s beliefs, attitudes and expectations depended crucially on those around them: their parents, their teachers, their peers and the society at large. To challenge the environment one grew up in was still a rare – and hugely consequential – act. The forces that kept behaviour in check: disapproval and shame, were still potent. Compare that with the situation now, where we routinely reinvent ourselves and where few people feel any obligation to follow the tastes or beliefs even of their friends, let alone of their parents. These days we challenge our doctors, break the law when we feel it shouldn’t apply to us and laugh at those who assume they can tell us what to do. ‘Do you know who I am!’ ‘Am I bothered?’ And this is the bald fact about ‘Leadership’: there are no followers any more, nobody who wants to be led. Only those of us who, through iner-

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tia or low self esteem, don’t feel able to take control of our own lives, of our own destinies. Leadership sells because we all feel able to be in the driving seat, but the only people we are going to be driving are ourselves. And this is where the Leadership industry needs to recognise what is happening and change direction – from teaching some kind of updated Public School vision of the ‘Jolly Good Chap’ to showing people how to lead themselves. Of course, this requires an understanding of which part of us should be leading (which is another subject altogether). In the world we are rapidly entering, working with others will be a quite di‹erent proposition from what it used to be. Some of us have already tasted this and can share our experiences with those who haven’t. Basically, it means understanding how to work together: the lively harmony of jazz musicians jamming, not the formal ‘command and control’ of conductor and orchestra. It means learning to recognise how others’ strengths complement ours, and how we complement them. And how to o‹set our weaknesses against each other. Professor Arthur Deikman called this new paradigm ‘the eye level world’ (in his book The Wrong Way Home). At the end of the book he gives this particularly beautiful and poignant description: ‘The eye-level world is the perspective that arises when the parents in the sky disappear and their images superimposed on other people dissolve and vanish. As you look around, no one towers above you, everyone looks back at the same human height. Although the parents are gone, the landscape is not threatening, it spreads out in all directions, inviting exploration. It is open and calm, in contrast to the world of childhood fears. ‘The child fears that the disappearance of parents would release anarchy, hatred, and destruction because in the parents’ world the child knows no power, no control that is not imposed. In the eye-level world freedom is of a di‹erent kind, more responsible than ever before because the choices are your own, they are

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uncoerced and unbribed. “Free will is the experience of being the author of the law you obey.” This world is di‹erent from that shaped by the dependency dream. ‘Although we have no parents in the eye-level world, when we face each other we find companions. We share the same need for meaning, the same intimations of transcendence, the certainty of death, the saving joy of love. We can sense a new connection, a linking of equals that makes all of us one family, yet individuals. Only in the eye-level world do we emerge as ourselves, true to our own perceptions and strengths, able to respond realistically to the world that surrounds us.’

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Diagnosed with Consumption
30 September 2006

For a long time I’ve believed that our choice of words conditions the way we see things (in linguistics this is referred to as the ‘Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis’). For example, I dislike the use of the word ‘patient’ in the health service. It implies that someone has no role in understanding and resolving their health issues, which contradicts everything we now know about the importance of a positive, active attitude towards our own healing. It’s a dependency word. And, indeed, this is how people have o·en been treated – I remember once waiting on a surgical ward to see the consultant and his group of acolytes, ordered by the Sister to keep quiet and not say anything! Needless to say, I saw this as a provocation rather than an instruction. One of the words I’m struggling with at the moment is ‘consumer’. Not only has it become a pejorative, thanks to the Marxist critique of ‘consumer fetishism’ (which has somehow found its way into contemporary media theories), but it is also, frankly, inaccurate. I might ‘consume’ a cappucino – hardly the most fetishistic act, I have to say – but I certainly don’t consume a microwave oven, a holiday or an insurance policy. And whilst I’m in ranting mood, I ought to add that I’m tired of the sneering way it is used by theorists who are just as likely to be down at John Lewis on a Saturday morning as I am. In Freudian terms ‘consumption’ is an oral word and I’m not going to deny that there aren’t oral aspects of our behaviour as ‘consumers’. The desire to surround oneself with lots of stu¤ is o·en, like compulsive eating, driven by the need to fill some kind of hole inside ourselves. And the kind of anxiety that some people try to assuage with compulsive spending can be similar to the feeling of hunger. But this is pathological, and it doesn’t help that the term we use to describe a universal and unavoidable feature of modern life has these kinds of pathological overtones. Most of us are not driven to ‘consume’. We do so because

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that’s the way the world works. So I think the time has come to ditch consumer, consumption, consumerism and find something altogether more appropriate. Another word that includes all of the activities in which we spend our money, as well as others that don’t involve financial transactions at all. In fact the transactional aspect is a bit of a red-herring here, because we are as much ‘consumers’ of intangibles like ideas, emotions and experiences as we are of stu¤ that we have to pay for. In most significant aspects, for instance, the marketing of politics is the same as the marketing of soap powder. The di‹erence is that nobody swipes our plastic and we don’t walk away with something in a carrier bag. A·er considering this matter for a while, the word I would like to suggest in place of consumer is respondent. It’s not o‹ered as an exact equivalent, because I’m more concerned with drawing attention to the phenomenon of o‹er and take up, which is fundamentally about communications. This o‹er could be as straightforward as a retailer promoting a product, or as abstract as an author presenting an idea. And I like the word respondent to describe someone having an interested reaction because it implies an active stance. We respond to something because it moves us, and our response may be in any number of di‹erent ways. It suggests involvement as well as choice, dignifying rather than belittling the person so described.

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And statistics...
4 October 2006

There’s something that fascinates and perplexes me, in equal measure. Over the last ten years I’ve spoken at seminars for the company with which I do most of my work. Every few weeks 30 people from prospective client organisations are invited to come to listen to our ideas and enjoy a nice breakfast. It’s an e‹ective form of marketing. But the thing I find so intriguing is that, almost without exception, there is a consistent percentage who drop out. They’ve responded to a letter to say they would like to come. They’ve been phoned up the day before and confirmed they’ll be there. And then they don’t show up. The extraordinary thing – to my mind, anyway – is that if you speak to any of them a·erwards, each has a perfectly plausible and quite unique excuse: “my assistant called in sick”, “I was summoned to an urgent meeting”, “the dog ran o¤”. But the percentage of ‘no shows’ rarely varies. Four or five people simply will not be there on the day. This seems to be a fairly universal problem, and businesses that are constantly juggling their capacity – like airlines or hotels – make allowances for it. Most of us have had the experience of checking-in for a flight, only to find it was over-booked. It doesn’t o·en happen but every now and then something surprising occurs and everybody shows up. (The day it happened to us at the seminar I remember well because I didn’t get anything to eat!) Because we are operating on a small enough scale I have had an opportunity to see this from two quite di‹erent perspectives. One of them is the individual: “the alarm clock didn’t go o¤”. The other is, for want of a better word, the statistical: about fi·een percent won’t be there. And the thing is that the two perspectives aren’t congruent. It’s not as if people are lying and really they have been moved by some impersonal force that dictates human behaviour at a group level. But equally it is

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such a consistent phenomenon that we can generally rely on it for filling the room and ordering meals. It strikes me that this is one of the big issues that faces marketing. There are patterns of behaviour that can be discerned from looking at human behaviour en masse and it is very tempting to do so. Predictions can be made on this basis, strategies developed, decisions implemented. But looking only at the statistical picture blinds us to what is really going on. These meta-patterns are made up of many individual events, each of which are quite di‹erent. Statistics give us an overview of the ‘what’ of human behaviour but they cannot give any insight into the ‘why’. The forces that are driving trends are not impersonal and collective, but personal and individual. On the other hand, looking at particular cases, which some of the newer marketing practices like ethnography try to explore, can give us the individual ‘whys’ but conceal the bigger picture. Many years ago a friend’s dad, who understood more about physics than we did, explained that in a boiling kettle there are tiny particles of ice. What appears to be a homogenous mass of water at 100°C is in fact made up of molecules with all sorts of di‹erent energy states. It only seems like the whole is boiling because the average of those billions of individual micro-states is at boiling point. It might even be that not a single molecule is at exactly 100°C. Looking at the aggregated picture enables us to use this phenomenon – and make a cup of co‹ee. But focusing on the detail enables us to understand how this is actually happening. And to realise that just because the whole appears to be boiling it doesn’t mean that each molecule must be boiling too. Thus far I haven’t really said anything that isn’t already widely understood. But what I would like to add is that we need to find e‹ective ways of looking at phenomena that allow us to integrate the two perspectives better. So, for instance, when we look at the statistical level to remember that we are looking at a diverse community of events, challenging the temptation to think that everybody is doing the same thing for the same reason. And when we drop down to look at the indi-

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vidual events, to remember that they combine to reveal a greater pattern. Bearing in mind that any sense we have of individual behaviour is equally an aggregate of shi·ing desires, moods, priorities – of di‹erent people inhabiting the same body. The American Linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf used a metaphor about language that I’ve always loved, likening it to a pattern that – as one steps back from it – reveals further patterns that emerge at di‹erent scales. We have individual letters that combine to form words, words to sentences that are semantically more than the meaning of the individual words, sentences to paragraphs, paragraphs to chapters, chapters to books and so on. Everything is really of this kind. What’s important is not to get stuck at any one level but to be able to move backwards and forwards between them, appreciating what each can show us.

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A dark place
17 October 2006

The recent controversy over ‘size zero’ models raises some fascinating and disturbing questions. How has the fashion industry got itself into such an unhappy situation? Why is it that it can’t seem to get out of it? And how come this is so far removed from everyone’s possible ‘best interests’, from shareholders to consumers? Size zero is not about business, even of the most cynical kind. Indeed the average British woman’s dress size has gone up over the last few years to 14, while these skeletal waifs are only 4s in our measurements. Nobody wears size 4. Customers aren’t queueing up to buy such tiny clothes, they are starving themselves to fit into them. Nor is there anything alluring about what has been called ‘heroin chic’. Many years ago the novelist Anthony Burgess described a relationship he had with a model as ‘like making love to a bicycle’. And this girl was positively ample by today’s standards! For every reason one can imagine, from the evolutionary to the aesthetic, men are not attracted to emaciated women. Sex with bones is no fun. But it is not the models who are responsible. These girls are the victims. Victims of what, though? Some kind of collectively traumatic misogynistic fixation that seems to have infected the whole industry, but most especially the designers, stylists and photographers who are responsible for the look. There are some deeply disturbed people at the top of the fashion industry, too — I know, because a friend works for one of them. His trail of smashed up hotel rooms and drug-frenzied rages makes even Keith Moon look like Father Christmas. And the key point about size zero is that it is about abuse. Most girls are already bigger than this by the time they turn ten, so there is nothing ‘natural’ about someone in their twenties or thirties having these measurements. The only zeros we might otherwise see are women

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su‹ering from acute, anorexic malnutrition or in the advanced stages of opiate addiction. This is a really bleak, distressing reference group. What appeal could it have for anyone? The same morbid fascination, I would like to suggest, that we see with self-harmers and cutting (and how much longer will it be, I wonder, before razor scarred arms become the next catwalk accoutrement?) It is the lure of the dark side: demonic, dangerous, destructive. A frisson from the malevolent forces of chaos and disorder. What does the fashion industry say in support of size zero? Opposition to the proposed bans focuses around the argument of ‘creative freedom’, which in itself raises interesting questions. How free are the designers? Given that this look has obsessed fashionistas since the late 1980s, it appears more likely that they are in the grip of something that is controlling them — not the other way around. And some comments from the industry even suggest a sigh of relief that someone else is taking charge of this situation. Fashion is in a thrash. It has not been able to pull itself out of this downward spiral, and the consequences have become more and more destructive. We should remember that what made the debate recently hit the headlines again was the death of 22 year old Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos, e‹ectively of starvation. Style has become a killer. I see analogies here with tendencies in other ‘creative’ disciplines. Rap music, for instance, has equally been unable to shake o¤ its dark side — its fascination with violence and criminality. Some commentators celebrate this as the authentic voice of the ghetto, but the problem is that it reinforces exactly those tendencies that make the world’s ghettoes such bleak and despairing places: gang culture, gun fetishism, the promotion of excessive drug funded lifestyles, prostitution. Even graphic design hasn’t been innocent. Its flirtation with chaos, fragmentation, disorder — ‘grunge’ — that began in earnest at the end of the 1980s is still with us. Darkness doesn’t release its victims easily. I remember being shown some student work at a Design History conference in the early 1990s. This had come out of the newly integrated

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South Africa and was characterised by the most surprising positivity and optimism: mandala like forms, images of holism and unity, vitality and ‘lightness’. It made an extraordinary contrast with the work we were used to seeing from colleges in Britain and the United States. The teacher whose students had produced this work commented that, a·er so many years of apartheid, none of them could bear to contemplate the failure of the country’s multi-racial experiment. The more I’ve gone on in this business, the more convinced I become that design doesn’t just reflect the unease of a society — it amplifies and broadcasts it too. The analogy I would draw is with trauma. We don’t just su‹er traumas, perhaps as children, living quietly and patiently with them ever a·er. Instead, as time goes by, they begin to influence more and more of our behaviour. In the worst cases, they take control of this behaviour totally, driving us to traumatise others. Investigate an abuser and you will find someone who was abused. The hurt, which throbs away in the backround, is reactivated at times of vulnerability. Only heightened awareness and conscious restraint stops it. There is also a background pattern of trauma, where individual traumas become aggregated into collective forces, creating a climate of violence and abuse. This can be seen very clearly in some of the communities of the Near East whose identities and memories have become contaminated by hatred and persecution. There can be a kind of exultation in this, too — a twisted enjoyment which stops people from standing up to it. This is what I believe has happened in the fashion industry. Creative people have a responsibility. Whatever ‘wavelength’ we tune into, we also transmit. It may not be cool to transmit positivity and optimism and awareness and integrity, but it is necessary. More necessary than ever before, in fact. As I have said many times before: something that is created with love and delight communicates love and delight, while something that is created with other qualities communicates those qualities. Designing an artefact to shock or o‹end others is no di‹erent from telling them to fuck o¤. It adds, pointlessly, to the

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weight of insult and hurt in the world. And rips through the fabric of our aesthetic faculties in the same way as a knife through body tissue. We need to stop it. Now. Would fashion really be so terrible if it stopped sexualising infants and celebrating abuse and designed gorgeous, flattering, comfortable clothes for healthy women — those whose body measurements and statistics reflect the ideals of wellbeing as well as the make-up of the population at large?

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Design for the New Age
24 October 2006

Whether we like it or not, the ‘New Age’ is now an unavoidable part of our lives. From the proliferation of alternative and complementary medical practitioners through to the incorporation of Eastern terms into our languages, and from the prevalence of beliefs like reincarnation and angels to the popularity of practices like meditation and martial arts, it has brought about significant changes in the ways we look at the world. Few of us haven‘t been touched by it in some way, or don‘t subscribe to some New Age idea or other. Underlying the many di‹erent New Age philosophies and practices are some general themes. First, that humanity is going through some kind of evolutionary development, of which the adoption of these new ideas and practices is both a symptom and a driver. Second, that there is a growing convergence between the concepts of theoretical Physics and the observations of great mystics of the past. These include such foundational ideas as everything is connected, there is only energy and we create our own reality. Third, that the diversity of the world’s religious expressions masks a fundamental unity. And that the time has come to go beyond the conventional aspects of religious practice to the spontaneous spiritual experience where this unity resides. These themes have proved to have extraordinary attraction, dynamism and resilience. But curiously one of the areas that has so far been most resistant to their penetration is design. Curious, because designers frequently define themselves in terms of a radical, questioning and playful creativity that both challenges the status quo and is open to a wide, eclectic range of influences. And designers of the early ‘modern’ period were o·en very interested in the precursors of today’s New Age ideas — the original Bauhaus pioneers in Theosophy, for example, or architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the Russian mystic George Gurdjie¤. However, as the twentieth century progressed, design disciplines from archi-

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tecture to graphics increasingly began to identify themselves with a skeptical secularism. Looking at design at the beginning of the twentyfirst century, it seems primarily concerned with ‘outward show’, ‘nice things’ and ‘material culture’. Contemporary designers still o·en see themselves as being at the cutting edge of society, inaugurating fashions and surfing the zeitgeist. In reality, however, they have been largely blind to the role the New Age has played in shaping this zeitgeist. So while recent films like What the Bleep..., as well as authors like James Redfield and Paolo Coelho, have stimulated an unprecedented explosion of popular interest in New Age ideas, writings by and about designers give no hint that these have had any influence on design whatsoever. Indeed, in contrast to what has been happening in the rest of the world, the theoretical bases of design have tended in recent years to look backwards rather than forwards for their inspiration. While the rest of the population were discovering how to balance their chakras and live in the now, design students were taught obscure Marxist and post-Marxist French philosophers. And on both the theoretical and the practical sides, there has been little on o‹er for designers drawn to New Age ideas. But what would design be like if it did embrace the New Age? Many of the central themes of New Age philosophies and practices have considerable relevance — and resonance — for design. And there may be answers here for how designers can find a positive and productive role for themselves in the emerging era.

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Identity crisis
8 November 2006

A few months ago I was seated on a crowded commuter train opposite a group of Muslim girls who were all wearing ‘hijabs’. It turned out that they were medical students from a local teaching hospital, and they were chatting about their experiences. At a certain point the conversation turned to another girl, not present, who was only known to one of them. “Is she a Hijabi, like us?”, one of the others asked. It was at this point that I understood something I hadn’t grasped before. A hijab is no longer a garment, a way of dressing that some Muslims have traditionally adopted to meet the Qur’anic injunction that believing women should dress modestly. It is a badge of identity. Indeed, I was struck that the girl didn’t ask: “Is she a Muslim?”, which would have been a more reasonable question. But no. The issue was whether she demonstrated her commitment to ‘the group’ by what she wore. From my teens onwards, I have been fortunate to have associated with some rather remarkable people who also happened to be Muslims. From them I learned that one didn’t wear one’s religion on one’s sleeve (or, given the penchant for religious people of all faiths to adopt ‘silly hats’ and other facial adorments, on one’s head). This didn’t just resonate with my very English distaste for ‘displays’. It also points to the real factor behind the need to be seen to be something: compensation. And certainly I’ve always felt that those who have the greatest urge to preach the ‘Word of the Lord’ are o·en the ones who privately have the greatest doubts and insecurities about it. However, we live in an age of ‘Cultural Identity’ where faith very o·en is reduced to these kinds of trivial externals. Only this week, for instance, I saw a girl no older than seven or eight wearing a hijab. In traditional Muslim cultures pre-pubescent girls have not been expected to be veiled

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(and it is now widely understood that the Qur’an does not require this of any woman — it is a cultural practice, not a religious one). Why were her parents dressing her in this way? To my eye this practice is just as distasteful as sending a seven year old out dressed like a streetwalker (which, of course, also happens these days). In di‹erent ways both types of apparel sexualise children. The hijab also politicises them. My Muslim friends held to a very sensible, ancient Sufi dictum: ‘Eat whatever food you like, but wear the normal clothes of the place in which you live’. While this might seem to be a simple, straightforward statement it is actually a surprisingly subtle and powerful principle for life. It holds that we have a free choice about what we ‘feed’ ourselves with (and to the Sufi ‘food’ is by no means confined to the products of the kitchen but includes all that nourishes us, including ‘impressions‘). But when it comes to the way we present ourselves to others (and, again, ‘clothes’ stand for all the ways we express ourselves) we should be considerate of their sensibilities. “Speak to everyone in accordance with their understanding”, as the Prophet Muhammad said. One friend, herself a lineal descendant of the Prophet, managed (it seemed to me) to successfully meet the requirements of modesty and dignity by wearing jeans and a tee-shirt. So what is served by extreme statements? If it sounds like I am being intolerant of others’ ‘cultural identity’, I am. Personally, I don’t have any time for it: in the era in which we live, it seems an entirely unnecessary and burdensome concept. Each of us already has a unique ‘identity’ which is, quite simply, the sheer fact of our individuality. We don’t need any more identity than this, let alone a group of cultural conservatives telling us what we should think, feel, believe and do. And there are no absolute standards for what makes a Muslim, a Briton or anything else: these labels have meant di‹erent things to di‹erent people, at di‹erent times. In fact societies have always been in a constant, continuous process of change, exchange and diversification. ‘Cultural identity’ is really just an expedient myth, of recent orgin, designed to control and organize people — and to high-

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light their supposed ‘di‹erences’ from others. The concept is divisive, in its very core. The demand for Cultural Identity, I believe, is driven by a craving to belong. I use the word craving because it looks much more like a pathological condition than a real requirement for human beings. We are social creatures, and as such have reasonable needs to get along with each other. But ‘belonging’ appears to be something else — a substitute and an avoidance of the kind of deep self-encounter that alone can provide a real experience of who we are. Once more, each of us already has a unique identity which is, quite simply, the sheer fact of our individuality. And this individuality can only be experienced in the present — in the Now — not in the illusory ‘collective memory’ beloved of identity theorists. However, we are o·en reluctant to let go of our baggage: to relinquish the secure feeling of being on the back seat of the car, with ‘parents’ taking charge of us. Some of this reluctance even goes so far as active denial, creating monstrous constructs of belonging to act as barriers to change. Witness our ‘Hijabis’. Allah wants pure hearts, girls – not wrapped faces.

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The primacy of feeling
13 November 2006

I was listening the other day to a philosophical discussion in which somebody raised the old objection that the claims of religion cannot be verified. I’m not very interested in this kind of discussion, so my attention wandered elsewhere. And I was struck by the thought that, actually, we live in a time where almost nothing lends itself to verification. Forget religion. Will any of us ever know for sure who killed John Kennedy or Princess Diana? Or if Saddam Hussein really had weapons of mass destruction? Or whether Neil Armstrong genuinely stepped onto the Moon? It’s not that I want to dwell on conspiracy theories — far from it. Because it occurred to me that almost any news story is unverifiable for us. Did Sven really have that a‹air? Jade that punch-out? Tony and Gordon that famous falling out? Everything we are told about these events is hearsay, from people who have a vested interest in elaborating, embroidering and sometimes plain distorting. Most are contested. And there is precious little concrete evidence in the public domain. When we come to Science, this is no less true. We are told, for instance, that if you bring together a critical mass of fissile Uranium, a nuclear reaction will take place. Advocates of Scientific Rationalism — die-hard materialists like Richard Dawkins — assure us that this is ‘an established fact’. But I have no more possibility of testing its supposed replicability than I have of establishing the veracity of the virgin birth of Christ (or, for that matter, of finding out who has been in Robbie Williams’ bed). Sure, I can learn the theory. I might even be allowed to witness the detonation of a nuclear device (although this lies in much the same realm of unlikelihood as becoming, at 46, an astronaut or a brain surgeon). However there is no possibility that I will ever be allowed to play with masses of Uranium. Indeed, just as with the religious dogma, I am really being asked to take this ’on authority’. And at a time when many

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‘authorities’ reveal themselves to be far more partial, and have far less credibility, than most of us would like. But fortunately it’s not entirely a matter of faith. In investigating the claims of modern science, there are some tools that I can use — although these aren’t quite what one expects. For instance, if I want to satisfy myself that the Copernican theory of the Earth revolving around the Sun makes more sense than the Ptolemaic theory of the Sun revolving around the Earth (and neither can be ‘proved’ — all we really know for sure is that the planets and Sun are in movement relative to each other), I can apply the principle of Occam’s Razor. This principle, which many of us will remember from dreary schooldays, holds that one should always look for the simplest explanation. Ptolemaic astronomy, with its numerous ‘epicyles’ (adjustments to the cycles of the planets to account for their observed movements), is a much more complicated system than Copernical astronomy, with its simple rotations around the Sun. Using the razor, Copernicus’ explanation seems like the correct one. (However I should point out that until Kepler suggested that the planets have elliptical orbits, more than half a century a·er Copernicus’ death, the Ptolemaic version still gave the more accurate predictions). Now the interesting thing about Occam’s razor (and, like many of these things, no such principle appears in the writings of William of Occam) is that there isn’t a logical or rational justification for it. It is no more reasonable that a natural phenomenon should have a ‘simple’ explanation rather than a complicated one. It is, instead, based on a feeling for evidence. And, indeed, the fundamental principles that underpin the whole edifice of modern science are all, similarly, rooted in feelings. For instance, the ‘Scientific Method’ is based on the feeling that all natural phenomena must be repeatable and predictable. There is no reason to believe this, even if it appears to be true for some aspects of our experience. However, because the method that hangs o¤ of this feeling gives us the power to predict and replicate complex phenomena, we rarely look at where it comes from.

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At this point, let me return for a moment to William of Occam again. Because his work, most of which was concerned with logic, leads to the conclusion that the human mind can actually prove nothing. As a Franciscan, he was most concerned with how it might be possible to prove the existence of God or the immortaility of the soul. And in the end, he held, such knowledge can only come through revelation. What did he mean by ‘revelation’? An experience that produces the feeling of certainty. In the twenty-first century, our interests may be somewhat di¤erent from those of Occam, but the same conclusions are almost inescapable. Why do we think it ulikely that people are being abducted by aliens? Or that AIDS is God’s wrath on an immoral world? Only because we feel that there are simpler explanations, and that these explanations are more likely to be true. But we are so concerned with the supposed rationality of our beliefs we don’t see the primacy of feeling — how behind our whole modern way of looking at the world is a felt perception of how things must be. Ironically, even the ’rationality’ of our beliefs is itself based on a feeling — a feeling for reason. When we can verify almost nothing of what we are told, either because we will never have access to the true facts or because we will never have access to the apparatus to put them to the test, it has become vital that we can access these feelings (and recognise them for what they are). The only rigour that can exist in an unverifiable world is the degree to which we can be true to these feelings — which are not only to do with evidence, but also with things like justice, integrity, health and purpose. And I should point out that I’m not talking about a feeling that a particular belief is ‘right’, which sensation is most o·en simply a conditioned response, but something much deeper and more fundamental. The feeling that there is such a thing as ‘rightness’, for instance. Unlike beliefs, which vary enormously, these feelings are broadly consensual. And evolving. Before the Scientific Revolution, for instance, the feeling for evidence I have mentioned wasn’t widespread. Before the Middle Ages, the same was true of the feeling for logic. These feel-

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ings emerged in an avant-garde, sometimes over hundreds of years, before being disseminated through humanity at large. And there are new feelings emerging in contemporary humanity, o·en brought into prominence through works of imagination: film, story, music. The New Spirituality, which I’ve alluded to in a previous post, is a case in point — underpinned by a feeling for the nature of human beings which challenges some of the assumptions of the former ‘scientific’ paradigm. If we recognise the primacy of feelings, it becomes possible to see the way that they are giving rise to new ways of thinking, acting and being. O·en, now, within a very short timescale.

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Makeover madness?
22 November 2006

As you can see, Transforming Communication has had its first makeover! This is a response to my beloved Maria insisting that my grey website was saying something about me! And there is more than a grain of truth to this. When I first thought about what I wanted to do with the site, it was to open doors to all kinds of new ideas, approaches, energies – to bring exuberance and vitality into the o·en stale and staid way we communicate. And arguably there is still nothing like enough exuberance and vitality in the site design. But it is a start! Anyway, introducing the new look gives me an opportunity to say something about a subject that particularly fascinates me: makeovers. And hardly anyone can have failed to notice that the last few years have been makeover crazy. Popular TV shows, books, magazines, almost every kind of media you can imagine have been given over to makeovers. Celebrity makeovers. Home makeovers. Business makeovers. Fashion makeovers. Even social skills makeovers. What is happening here? For my part, I think the makeover phenomenon is connected with a development that I described in The end of Leadership. For millennia we have been locked into patterns of liking and disliking, of tastes and preferences, that have reflected the societies around us. We adopted these because they were the price of approval. And for most of this time the idea of dissent was unthinkable. The number of people who questioned whether they should worship a certain god, obey a certain ruler, conform to certain mores, dress a particular way, eat this or that food, was tiny. ‘Freethinker’ was synonymous with ‘threatening, suspect, dangerous‘. In fact, we can chart the rise of freethinking from its first emergence in the Classical era (witness Socrates’ rejection of the gods) through

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its e‹ective disappearance in the Dark Ages to its re-emergence in the Mediaeval stirrings of conscience that gave rise to such things as the Protestant Reformation, the demand for political representation and the emergence of various sub-cultures. And it is the relationship of freethinking to sub-cultures that I am most interested in discussing here. Subcultures emerge when there is a shi· in the power balance of a society. The ‘host’ culture must first loosen its grip: it must become less prescriptive, more tolerant, unobtrusive. What usually produces this is a diminution of the general sense of threat, for instance when peace and prosperity and abundance relax the brooding anxiety that simmers under the surface of most people, most of the time. Smaller groups of people thus find that they can establish their own norms and modes, free from the surveillance and interference of the people around them. Indeed, some sub-cultures come into existence just to put the anxiety and intrusion back into people’s lives, appealing most to those who feel uncomfortable without the ‘structure’ they were used to. Other sub-cultures arise, however, because greater freedom allows for the open expression of ideas and practices that had previously been supressed. Then there are subcultures of style and fashion that reflect the desire of (usually younger) people to define themselves in contrast to others – to create a sense of identity without necessarily challenging fundamental beliefs and assumptions. And, of course, there are many other kinds of sub-cultures as well. Some commentators saw the nineties, which were really the beginning of the makeover era, as bringing a new ‘tribalism’, discerning new sub-cultures in all sorts of di‹erent areas from surfing to streetgangs. What seemed to be di‹erent about these ‘tribes’, compared with the youth cultures that had been with us for the last forty years or so, was their fluidity, spontaneity and multiplicity. Unlike, for instance, more established groups of Mods, Hippies or Goths, these sub-cultures tended to emerge, mutate, and disappear, quickly. Marketeers who saw them as an opportunity were frustrated by how elusive, and how resistant, they could be towards traditional techniques of promotion.

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And so we saw the development of such things as ‘viral marketing’ in the attempt to reach them, provoking further transformations as the members sought to avoid assimilation into the mainstream. At the same time as this was happening, the makeover phenomenon was beginning. I believe that the two are closely linked, too – although perhaps not in an obvious way. The new tribalism represented an evolution of youth culture where the desire to be part of a big group had already become associated with an undesirable degree of conformity. The need for the approval of peers was still there, but the groups were becoming smaller, more fragmented, looser in their requirements. New technologies, such as the Internet, were also making it possible for them to be virtual. It no longer mattered if nobody in your neighbourhood dressed like you, thought like you, behaved like you. You could now sit up all night connecting with like-minded people in other parts of the globe. The natural consequence of this fragmentation (and the reason I believe the tribal phenomenon was only a transitional stage) is that, at a certain point, one realizes one can be in a ‘tribe of one’. At this point even peer approval changes, because what we have in common with others is not our similarity but our di‹erence. And as conformity ceases to be an issue, newer and far more radical possibilites emerge. One of these is that the process of reinvention which, in the past, was a rite of passage for joining a subculture (and a highly consequential act), becomes a triviality. Without fear of disapproval, and with a myriad of options and role models available to us, we at last feel free to transform aspects of our life with impunity. Fancy trying Mongolian food? A tattoo? Painting your front room purple? Why not? Tomorrow you might change your mind, and then you can try something else. And it’s possible to see now that this first generation of makeovers was itself only tentative, concerned with relatively superficial aspects of life. We are already pushing the envelope of reinvention much further – into work, sexuality, spirituality even. It’s wrong, I think, to see the makeover phenomenon merely as enter-

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tainment. In fact a huge revolution is sweeping through our societies, challenging mores that have long been obsolete. Like the Berlin Wall (which seems to be a potent symbol for what is happening) we are realizing that the disapproval we were previously afraid to take on hasn’t had any real authority for a long time. And is o‹ering little or no resistance to us as we tear down conventional morality. Having tasted this freedom, having enjoyed the many possibilities that are now available and, above all, having experienced what it means to become ‘the author of the law you follow’, humanity may never be the same again.

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Communication as giving
5 December 2006

Over the last few months Mark Walter has written an extraordinary series of posts for his blog eternal awareness on the subject of The Art of Giving. These posts o‹er deep and unexpected insights into the nature of a process that a‹ects almost everything we do. They have certainly helped me to understand why some activities become a virtuous circle of increasing returns while others (which may not appear all that di‹erent) peter out into oblivion. I would strongly urge anyone who isn’t familiar with Mark’s writing to take a look. The Art of Giving series has also prompted me to think about how the process of communication might be similar to giving, and about how we might usefully apply these insights to make it more e‹ective. But before I go on, I should first summarise one of Mark’s key points, which is about the relationship between the four principles of giving: respect, appreciation, gratitude and value. As I understand these, respect is having a correct attitude towards the source of the thing one is giving. If we were talking about giving money, respect might be directed towards one’s livelihood or towards those from whom one is raising funds. The next principle, appreciation, is concerned with the value one adds to what one has to give. In this case, it might be as simple as deciding where the funds could be most e‹ectively used. On a much bigger scale, for instance in a charitable organisation, it might be the management of the process of giving: having representatives on the ground, mechanisms in place to facilitate distribution, checks and balances to avoid wastage and loss. The third principle, gratitude, is less familiar to us. Yet this is the one that makes the crucial di‹erence between whether the giving prospers or goes to ground. This is about returning a tithe of what is given to the

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source. If we go back to the example of a charitable organisation, this might be about investing in the donors – making them feel involved and valued, providing feedback, etc. (However, this is where the example also shows its limitations, because the circle of fundraising, distribution and involvement I’ve described confines the process to flow of finance – while The Art of Giving challenges us to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of ‘source’). The fourth principle, value is not another stage but describes the intention of the process, the increase and sharing of value. Perhaps another example will allow us to look at how giving can work with intangible value. Imagine a counsellor with a client. The first thing the counsellor does is to listen, and this is respect. The more the counsellor can attend to the client, to give him full attention rather than allowing herself to be distracted by interpretation and judgment, the more value comes through. She then appreciates what she has heard, by using her knowledge, experience and skill to frame a question that can help the client to resolve the issues he has been describing. There is a circularity here that many people would think achieves what counselling sets out to do: you talk about your problems, I help you to understand them, you can then resolve them. But the third principle of giving, gratitude, requires us to do more than this. The counsellor also needs to help the client become a more aware person. To understand this, we need to see that the ‘source’ of what the counsellor is able to give is her greater awareness (which may have been stimulated by her training and experience, but now stands before it). The client is caught up in his own problems. He doesn’t understand them, can’t see past them. The ‘problems’ may be the pressing issue, but his inability to understand them is symptomatic of the level of his awareness. By ‘tithing’ a percentage of what she gives to the client to the task of increasing his awareness, the counsellor is li·ing what is happening outside the merely transactional into what could be described as ‘service’. The client leaves counselling not just able to deal with the issues in hand, but as a more aware human being.

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How is communication giving? To find an answer, we need to look beyond the usual parameters of ‘I have a message, I select an appropriate medium for it, I communicate my message’ and, instead, look at communication as a process of engagement. As an illustration, let’s take the example of an everyday marketing communication. I want to tell you about my product. First, though, I need to ‘listen’ carefully both to the product and to you. I need to understand what makes the product good and also what might interest you about it (which means understanding something about you, your needs and your interests). I then appreciate this understanding in the usual kinds of ways: with good writing, nice imagery, well cra·ed type, good printing (or coding, if it is communicated through the web) etc. Where is the gratitude? This is a good question, and I believe that this is where many communications fail. Or, indeed, where some unexpectedly succeed – without anyone really understanding what their success is based on. What could it mean for a communication to ‘tithe to source’? At the most basic level, something like good writing or design, if it li·s the communication beyond being just a product promotion into something that is also beautiful, appealing, interesting in its own right, is making a tithe back to the place where the skills and experience of the communicator(s) come from. At the same time, it’s giving something back to the audience: if one is making demands on their attention, it is not enough to give them your marketing message in return. There needs to be an element of ‘something in it for me’. If the communication is funny, joyful, life-enhancing, it is increasing the amount of positive energy in the world, regardless of whether anyone is interested in what it has to say. But this isn’t going that far back ‘upstream’ (even though many marketeers are resistant to giving away even this much). The ‘source’ of communication is much deeper. It comes from the place that mystics describe as the Logos, the coming into being of our world as language, as ‘words’, as meanings that are comprehensible and distinct. To mouth a sentiment which might seem a bit rich for some readers, communi-

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cation has a Divine source. ‘In the beginning was The Word...’, and all that. How do we return a part of the communication to that Source? Not necessarily by smothering our promotional materials with hymns and prayers (although it is interesting to note that this is exactly what happens in some cultures, for instance in the almost obligatory ‘786’ that sits above the signs of many Indian Restaurants, which refers to the Islamic invocation ‘In the Name of God, the most Compassionate, the most Merciful’). Tithing to Source in this sense doesn’t have to be so explicit, or so overwhelming. When a communication is conceived and executed in a state of ‘presence’ – if the designer has made a conscious intention to create it in a state of heightened awareness and ‘rememberance’ of her or his own Higher Self – it will convey some of this quality. How? Through the way that the elements are composed, which will result in a harmony in their relationships and proportions. And through the intangible ‘energy’ that inheres, mysteriously, in words and images. In this case only the intention needs to be conscious: the way in which these things are achieved will flow, e‹ortlessly, from the supra-conscious being of the designer. The Art of Giving can enable our communications to bridge between the essence of what human beings are and the mundane, everyday activities we involve ourselves in, without becoming portentous and obscure. All work has this potential. The ‘tithing’ that gratitude requires doesn’t demand total devotion, only a hint, a ‘whi¤’ of something else. And, as I’ve said so many times before, ‘something that is created with love and delight communicates that love and delight, but something that is created with other qualities communicates those qualities’. The engravings that William Blake made for Joseph Flaxman’s ceramics catalogues came, unmistakably, from the hand that penned ‘To see a world in a grain of Sand. And a heaven in a wild flower...’ But they sold pots.

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Promoting ethics
7 February 2007

I saw this on the ‘Design Observer’ site today and was intrigued by it. Like others I had no idea that the Vatican had a code on advertising. Nor, indeed, that I would be so inclined to agree with it. Here, anyway, are their ‘ten commandments’ of ethical advertising from a report by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, 1997. 1. Advertisers are morally responsible for what they seek to move people to do. 2. It is morally wrong to use mainpulative. exploitative, corrupt and corrupting methods of persuasion and motivation. 3. The content of communication should be communicated honestly and properly. 4. Advertising may not deliberately seek to deceive, by what it says, what it implies or what it fails to say. 5. Abuse of advertising can violate the dignity of the human person, appealing to lust, vanity, envy and greed. 6. Advertising to children by exploiting their credulity and suggestibility o‹ends against the dignity and rights of both children and parents. 7. Advertising that reduces human progress to acquiring material goods and cultivating a lavish lifestyle is harmful to individuals and society alike. 8. Clients who commission work can create powerful inducements to unethical behaviour. 9. Political advertising is an appropriate area for regulation: how much money mat be spent, how and from whom money may be raised. 10. Advertisers should undertake to repair harm done by advertising.

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These principles raise some important questions for me, though. For instance, if advertisers are to be held ‘morally responsible for what they seek to move people to do’, where exactly does that responsibility lie? With the client, for sanctioning the advertising? With the directors of the advertising agency, as the people legally responsible? With the creatives, who made that advert? Or shared (equally, or in varying amounts) between everybody involved, from the commissioners who paid for it through to the shopkeepers who stocked the product on their shelves? If anything is to change in the way advertising is done, somebody needs to have ‘the buck stops here’ on their desk - to actively take that responsibility. Otherwise this moral responsibility is simply going to disintegrate in ‘kitchen fitter’ syndrome: “No, mate, it’s the electrician’s job” “That’s plumbing, that is!” “Blame the cabinet maker, it’s the doors what won’t fit” “I’m only the plasterer, me...” “This is John Doe Design. Currently nobody is available. If you want to leave a message, please speak a·er the tone...” And I like the way the Vatican puts the emphasis on ‘moral’ responsibility in these protocols – rather than arguing in favour of regulation or legislation (except in the case of political advertising, which most people would prefer to see banned in any case!) But there are lots of words here with ambiguous, if not totally slippery, meanings. What constitutes ‘manipulative’, ‘exploitative’, ‘corrupt’ and ‘corrupting’ methods – and how do these di‹er from more innocent sounding ‘persuasion’? I have my own ideas, but these words will need a much tighter kind of definition if anybody is actually going to be able to make this distinction. In fact, I think it will call for a totally di‹erent attitude to communicating, if we are to really get away from the kind of mental ju-jitsu that uses the ‘weight’ of the consumer against them. Whether this is what is meant here by communicating ‘honestly and properly’ isn’t clear. Finally, I’m curious to know how the authors see advertisers ‘repairing the harm done by advertising’ (and this prompts the mischievous thought that perhaps the Vatican ought to be asked to repair the harm

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done by religion). Indeed this is by no means a straightforward issue. What exaclty is the harm done by advertising? Should advertising be held responsible for the rise of consumerism in our societies, with all the ills associated with it? Again, my earlier question applies. Which ‘advertisers’ should have to do this? Those who make the adverts, or those who pay for them? And how ‘repair’ the damage? By footing the bill, like the tobacco companies have been made to do in the US, or through some kind of ‘community service’ where they are obliged to produce a certain number, or proportion, of pro bono advertisements for good causes (to be selected by who? The Catholic Church?) I’m in no doubt that advertising can do, and does, quite a lot of harm. If we look at a whole ra· of social concerns, from climate change through to childhood obesity, we can see how irresponsible advertising has made the situation much worse than it might otherwise have been. But consumers should equally share this responsibility. Advertising asks, but it cannot demand. By accepting and acting on the message – which we do because it appeals to what we already want to do – we make the choices that cause the harm. Maybe ‘the buck stops here’ should be stamped on every banknote and credit card?

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Musammem
23 February 2007

I recently attended the wedding of a friend to her Egyptian fiancee. I had not met Muhammad before, although I had heard a great deal about him. Inevitably, then, when we met for the first time he asked me what I did for a living. Since this is a more complicated question to answer than it is to ask, I replied that I was ‘a designer’. He didn’t know the word ‘designer’. Nor could his best man, another Egyptian who had lived for some time in the UK, explain it. So I reached for Melanie’s Arabic dictionary and, a·er a bit of searching, found what seemed to be the right word. “Ah! Musammem, musammmem...” It did the trick. “What kinds of things do you design?” Hmmm. Like most ‘foreign language’ dictionaries, Melanie’s was a simple word substitution one. What I mean by this is that it had an Arabic word on one side and its nearest English equivalent on the other. But as I have been learning Arabic, on and o¤, since I was nineteen (originally with another wonderful Egyptian, Ahmed Tewfik Ayyad) I know that there is a great deal more to a word like musammem than this. Arabic, like the other Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac etc.), is based on a series of three letter - or, more accurately, three consonant - roots. So, for instance, the word musammem comes from the root s-m-m (the ‘mu-’ at the beginning signals that we are dealing with what is called the ‘de-verbal’ noun form, or the noun that best expresses the concept of the verb that comes from the root). And each root has a whole range of meanings. What is most interesting about the Arabic roots (and Arabic preserves the range of meanings better than, for instance, Hebrew, which was actually ‘reconstructed’ by the Arabized Jews of Spain, in the middle ages, having become more or less a ‘dead’ language) is that there is a distinct sense of connection between the words that make up this range of meaning. However this is more of a poetical rather than a logical connection.

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Usually each root expresses a concrete meaning as well as abstract meanings which relate to it in a metaphorical way. This is true of many other languages as well, of course. In English, for instance, we can take a word like ‘grasp’ which means, in a concrete sense, to take with the hand, and use it in an abstract sense in an expression like ‘I grasped the concept’. But Arabic has a far wider range of related meanings than English (and has them for every root). There is o·en an ‘emblematic’ noun for the root, too. With the root s-l-m, which should be familiar to most readers from the words Islam (submission to God), Muslim (someone who is submitted to God) and Salaam (peace, or perfection), the word salam means an Acacia Tree. And this acts as an emblem for the whole root, as in the custom of people who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca adorning their homes with acacia branches, or as a symbolic image in art or poetry. Anyway, this has been a long-winded introduction to what I wanted to talk about, which is the range of meaning behind the Arabic word musammem, designer. Back at home, I looked the word up in my ‘rooted’ Arabic-English dictionary, ‘Wehr-Cowan’ as it is o·en called (a·er the original compiler and more recent editor). This gave the meanings for the s-m-m (really a rare two consonant root, with a doubled m) as: samma (verb) to be or become deaf, to close, plug, cork, stopper (something, e.g. a bottle); (in the II verb form) to deafen, to make up one’s mind, determine, resolve, be determined, decide, persist, to design, to plan. samim (noun and adjective) innermost, heart; core, essence, marrow, pith; true, sincere, genuine (hence samim al qalb, from the bottom of the heart, wholeheartedly, most sincerely) samimi (adjective) cordial, hearty. asamm (adjective) deaf, hard and solid, massive (rock). tasmeem (abstract noun) determination, resolution, decision; resolute action, tenacious pursuit (of a plan); planning, projecting, design, designing, plan, design, sketch. musammem (adjective and noun) determined; fashion creator, designer.

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What emerges from this root is a fascinating word picture. ‘Design’, in the Arab conception, is an activity that wells up from the heart, core or essence of a person. The designer needs to be ‘true’, ‘sincere’ and ‘genuine’ with respect to this inspiration, which means being deaf to the voices of others that would try to deviate it from its intention and having a determination or resolution that is as unmovable as a rock. But for those who are in harmony with the design, it is a cordial activity - it is ‘a path with heart’. What else is there to say about design that this ancient language hasn’t already beautifully expressed?

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No man from Porlock
18 May 2007

Over Easter, I had a fascinating dream. I was at a conference organised by the Institute for Cultural Research at which there were a number of speakers including, I recall, management guru Peter Senge, (the late) maverick biologist and cybernetician Francisco Varela, and an esteemed mentor of mine (who I find it di›cult to categorize) Henri Borto·. Yes, it was one of those highly realistic and intricately detailed dreams that, in that drowsy moment of being still half asleep and half awake, can be hard to distinguish from something that actually happened. In the dream, I was looking through the conference programme. And on the second page was an illustrated feature that caught my attention. It was a synopsis of one of the presentations where the speaker suggested that the phenomenon of branding could be perfectly understood using the ‘calculus of indications’ developed by British mathematician (and also maverick) George Spencer-Brown. (Well, I did warn you that it was a very detailed dream!) Now I should admit that when I had the dream I was, to some extent, already familiar with Spencer-Brown’s work, through Henri Borto·’s magnificent book The Wholeness of Nature (although to be honest SpencerBrown is confined, here, merely to a long end-note). I also enjoyed reading Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana’s The Tree of Knowledge a few years ago, although I didn’t know that Varela had also done a great deal of work extending and applying Spencer-Brown’s mathematics to the life sciences. Peter Senge I’d heard of, but I had never read any of his books. For those who aren’t familiar with him, he is the man credited with coining the phrase ‘the learning organisation’. Returning from Italy a·er Easter, I thought about what I knew of SpencerBrown’s work — which, to be honest, wasn’t much — and realised that it could be applied to branding. This was something that had never previ-

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ously occured to me. Not only that, but looking at it in this way revealed the whole idea of branding in a much more interesting light. But before going on to that I think we may first need a math lesson. Spencer-Brown’s calculus, as outlined in his 1969 book The Laws of Form, is interesting for a whole range of reasons. But perhaps the most unusual thing about it is that it sets out a non numerical arithmetic. What does this actually mean? Well, it allows us to make calculations of things that don’t involve numbers or quantities — it is a calculus of qualities. However, it is easier to understand this from the actual doing. Let us imagine a distinction. A distinction about what? Doesn’t matter, just a distinction. If it helps, think of your school algebra. We were taught to think about x and y. ‘Excuse me, Sir, but what is x?’ ‘Any number, boy!’ ‘But what number, sir?’ ‘Any number at all!’. As with x, Spencer-Brown introduces us to a symbol which he calls the mark or cross, that represents any kind of distinction. Remember Genesis I? 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. 2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. 3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. That’s a distinction. First there was formlessness — an undi‹erentiated state. And then, by introducing light, there was the distinction of ‘light’ and ‘darkness’. Actually, in Spencer-Brown’s terminology, this is more than a distinction. It is an indication, because there is a value attached to the distinction: light. The symbol Spencer-Brown uses to show a distinction is like the device we used to use to separate the dividend from the divisor in long division (didn’t know that’s what they were called? Neither did I, actually!) In other words the shape made up of two sides of a rectangle. And there

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are only two axioms in Spencer-Brown’s arithmetic. The law of calling follows one distinction with another. It holds that no matter how many distinctions are made in this way, it is the same as making a single distinction. How so? Imagine the Genesis example. You go from darkness to light and back to darkness, then to light again. This must be the same as just going from darkness to light. The second axiom is called the Law of crossing and holds that when one distinction is nested inside another, it is equal to no distinction at all. This is a bit more di›cult to explain (or perhaps it’s just that a proper explanation is beyond my powers!). I guess it is the same as saying that one makes a distinction, then undistinguishes it again. Anyway, Spencer-Brown shows, in proper mathematical fashion, that it is a necessary proposition of this calculus. But that’s enough math! (And there are some excellent sites on SpencerBrown on the web, if anyone is interested). On to branding. How is this similar? The simplest answer is that branding is all about making value laden distinctions — indications. I’m going to talk about the area I know best, which is corporate branding. But in principle this applies to product and service branding too. When we brand an organisation, what are we doing? We are distinguishing, not physically but conceptually, between what is inside that organisation’s ‘domain’ and what is outside. What is governed by that organisation’s distinctive ethos, culture and values, and what isn’t. In this way, we are defining boundaries. But this is not a ‘valueless’ distinction — it’s not just an arbitrary distinction between ‘this’ and ‘that’. It is the distinction of something that is associated with a value. However it is important here not to confuse this value with so-called ‘brand’ or ‘corporate’ values — the value I am talking about is simply the sense in which an organisation or o‹er is a coherent, integral entity. And Spencer-Brown’s axioms tell us something very interesting about branding. First, that it is enough to signal only once that someone is entering the boundaries of the branded domain. Bringing this down

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to a perhaps trivial example, it is enough only to stamp a logo at the point of entry into this world — on the homepage of a website, at the entrance of a building or on the cover of a brochure. All subsequent repetitions are redundant — they follow the law of calling. It also follows that any organisation that brands itself twice — and some do — e‹ectively unbrands itself. This is dictated by the law of law of crossing. Two di‹erent logos, both representing the same thing, undo each other. Francisco Varela introduces a third axiom, which actually follows from Spencer-Brown’s mathematics, which shows how distinctions can become self-referential. He uses this to illustrate the function of biological entities, and the way they preserve a sense of their own identity. According to Varela, all autonomous systems are structurally open and functionally closed, which leads to paradoxical qualities particularly evident in higher order cybernetics... Varela’s concept of biological identity contains paradoxical elements, implying that a system is open precisely because it is closed and closed because it is open. That is, biological systems retain cohesive identity because, as Prigogine and Stengers (1992) might say: they exist in far from equilibrium conditions with an exchange of matter, energy and information across open boundaries. At the same time, this identity can evolve dynamically precisely because of the system’s autonomous functioning. Needless to say, this applies equally to organisations. But it is much too big a subject to do more than mention here. I’d also like to humbly suggest a fourth axiom, which comes not from mathematics but from my experience of branding organisations. This is that when several di‹erent indications (i.e. value laden distinctions) are nested one inside the other, they can be collapsed to two — the greatest and the smallest. This is di‹erent from the law of crossing in that each distinction indicates a subset of the one that is greater than it, rather than the same distinction. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, think of the hierarchy of any organisation. Since I work a lot with universities, I’ll use a university as an example. At the top level,

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you have the indication that distinguishes the institution itself. Inside this, you may have a faculty. Inside the faculty, a school. Inside the school, a department. But when you take these together, the ‘middlemen’ can be e‹ectively dismissed. One is dealing with a general sense of ethos, culture and values that are defined by the university brand and a specific attitude that is defined by the department. The ethos, culture and values as well as specific attitudes of faculties and schools are subsumed within these. And I’d like to propose that this axiom be called the law of subsidiarity because it demonstrates exactly that principle. How it might be mathematically proven, I leave to the mathematicians.

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Being ourselves
25 September 2007

Who am I? How do you answer this question? And what’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you try? Is it your name? “I’m James!” Is it a feeling? “I’m me, of course!” Is it your body? Your abilities? Your memories and experiences? Identity is a fascinating subject which seems to become increasingly elusive the more we try to pin it down. We’re used, for instance, to this immediate association between our name and our sense of ourselves. But can a name ever be more than some kind of indicator, some kind of sign, for who we feel ourselves to be? We clearly are not our names. In a similar way, the other possible ‘answers’ to this question begin to unravel the more we examine them. Who is me? The best we can say about this response is that it points us towards a feeling rather than a concept: I am who I feel myself to be. But what is this ‘me feeling’? To explore that further, we need to leave behind the familiar, intellectual approach of questions and answers and delve into the realm of feelings. Something most of us are not comfortable, or confident, doing. Then there is the physical identification. Am ‘I’ my body? The odd phrasing with which we have to frame this question, with its implied separation of ‘I’ and ‘mine’ raises doubts already. And which bit of my body? If I am unfortunate enough to lose my limbs, is my I-ness diminished? Of course not! So am I only a part of my body? A brain? A part of the brain? But then this in turn seems to contradict the sense of ourselves as a whole, integrated physical entity. As well as contradicting the lingering sense that our bodies, our genes, our experiences are perhaps not us at all. This is not just an entertaining, ultimately futile parlour game. Identity is a critical issue in all areas of our lives, from the personal to the political, from the sexual to the spiritual, from the cultural to

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the commercial. Perhaps it is the issue. As individuals and as groups of people, we’re not confident in our identity. We try all sorts of ways to claim, to assert a sense of identity. And, increasingly, we get caught up in conflicts over identity. Like Nasruddin looking for his housekey on the sidewalk — an image I find myself using more and more o·en — ‘because there’s more light there’, rather than in the darkness of the house where he actually lost it, I think we’re looking for our identities in completely the wrong places. The feeling point is a big clue here, that the question may be in words but the answer is in feelings, but it’s not the whole story. The problem seems to be that we’re always looking for a qualifier. “Who am I?” “I am this”, where this is a personal, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious, political, professional or social ‘identity’. Which, actually, is no more than saying: “I identify myself with this: ergo, this is who I am”. Of course it is an ‘identity’ because we have already ‘identified’ with it. But it tells us nothing about the I who identifies, except perhaps that it is drawn to make that identification. The wisest observers of human identity, I have found, have stopped short of associating the I-feeling with anything. When they inquire: “Who am I?”, the answer they come back with is: “i am”. A bold, simple, complete statement of being. What is this feeling of “me”? Nothing short of the awareness of pure existence. And if I can be this, I can equally be that. In philosophical terms, this and that are accidents: outward attributes that can be swapped without prejudice to the being that presents them. Existence is the only ‘necessary’ quality we have. I am not of the East nor the West, no boundaries exist in my breast. My place is placeless, my trace is traceless. Wrote Rumi nearly eight hundred years ago. This is not to suggest that we don’t need to make defining choices. Or, indeed, that they aren’t imposed upon us. My choice to work as a communications consultant shapes the way I see the world, unconsciously as well as consciously. Had I chosen to be a lawyer, or a miner, or a

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bank-robber, I might see the world very di‹erently. Likewise the accidents I didn’t have any choice about: my nationality, my ethnicity, my family and my education, for instance. The fact that we would find the same feeling answering to “Who am I?”, whether we had been born into this family or another, whether we are brought up a Muslim or a Catholic, doesn’t wipe away the enormous impact these factors have on the things we identify with. We’re like a troupe of actors who have taken on roles. But then, from years of playing those roles have come to believe we are those roles. (Interestingly, the word ‘personality’, which very nicely describes this kind of outwardly conditioned sense of ourselves, derives from the Latin persona, a mask.) Not only does “I AM” express our most fundamental sense of identity — the true identity conferred by the simple act of being — but it is also the ultimate source of all our energy, our passion. Everything we do receives its vitality from who we are. And another way of looking at this being is as pure possibilitity: it is our potential to be. Essentially, it stands apart and before (‘ontologically prior’, a philosopher might say) our particular identifications. It is that part of ourselves that could be anything, the fluidity to take on any role (even those that are inconceivable to us). It is also morally neutral: it includes as much our potential to be a serial killer as a philanthropist, a genius as much as an ‘ordinary Joe’. And even though we may live a dozen demanding roles, it remains detached from all of them. Conversely, the more identified we become with the particular circumstances of our lives — the more we confuse i am with “I’m a...” — the more we lock up this potential energy into petrified, sclerotic forms. To see this, we only have to compare the young with the old: to compare those who have fewer defining identifications behind them, and feel more unconditioned possibilities open to them, with the opposite. Of course reclaiming that frozen energy is possible to us at any time. All it takes is for us to realize “I am not this!”. Look, for instance, at how much energy women reclaimed when the women’s movement opened the possibility to challenge accepted gender roles.

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Much of my work is concerned with helping groups of people to represent their sense of identity (in the low-energy terminology of marketing what is o·en described as ‘corporate branding’). And there is a simple moral to be drawn for this kind of work from the observations above. The more that a group of people try to represent themselves in terms of the roles or activities they identify with (or are identified with), the more lifeless and unengaging the results will be. It’s equivalent, I would suggest, to calling someone Johnny Hairdresser or Sally Lawyer: it draws our attention immediately to the outwardness of the person, to a narrow definition of human potential in specific, limiting roles. We don’t do this with individuals any more, although our surnames still contain the residues of these kinds of designations. We do do this with organisations, however, because we fear that if we don’t present ourselves in terms of these specifics, we won’t project any identity. Nothing could be further from the truth, though: these kinds of identifications don’t project any real sense of identity at all, any sense of “we are”. Better to hint at the unconditioned potential of a group of people with an imaginative, colourful, can-be-whatever-you-want-it-tobe kind of name. And imagery to match.

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Exquisite tact
9 October 2007

Tonight, Tuesday 9th October 2007, is the 27th night of the Islamic month of Ramadan*. Which, by tradition, is the night celebrated by Muslims as The Night of Power. ‘And what will explain to thee what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. Therein come down the angels and the spirit by God’s permission, on every errand: Peace! This until the rise of morn.’ (Qur’an 97:1-5) The Night of Power comemorates the night on which the Qur’an was first transmitted to the Prophet Muhammad. Although there is actually some question about when this occurred, as the Prophet is reported to have forgotten which day it was, and to have said: ‘seek it on the twenty first, twenty-third, twenty-fi·h, twenty-seventh or on the last night’. Why do I mention this? Because I want to talk about a prayer that Muhammad gave to his young wife Ayesha, when she asked him for something to say on this night. And why do I want to talk about this recondite (and apparently o¤-topic) subject? Because, for me, it exemplifies a quality that we rarely see in communications these days: exquisite tact. Indeed, although I wouldn’t describe myself as a Muslim, I have long admired the prayers of the Prophet for this very quality. They show the cra· of communication at its apogee: simple, succinct, but revealing vast depths. And putting things in the right order, which is how his tact most clearly manifests itself. The Prophet had beautiful manners. (Having known some of his descendants, it seems to me that these were also passed on to his family). What do I mean by manners? Not the kind of cringeing, stultified ‘Please?‘ and ‘Thank You!’ and ‘More tea, Vicar?’ that I was brought up on (although I’m sure he remembered his Ps and Qs — or, at least, his Bas and Qafs — as well as anyone else). Instead, what comes across from the accounts of his life and diction is a truly lovely consideration

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and a›rmation of others — and, most especially, of God. He clearly was a person who listened carefully, without judgment. And, particularly, without that curse of our times, of wanting to say something without hearing someone out. When he spoke, he said something that appreciated what the other person had said (in the true meaning of appreciation: to add to, to build upon, to give more than was there to start with). He also had, by all accounts, a great sense of humour. And although this doesn’t concern us here, I mention it to counter the image of him as some kind of glowering grey-beard, like many who claim to follow in his footsteps today. This prayer was narrated by Ayesha, who long outlived her husband to become the grand old lady of early Islam, recounting many stories of his life to subsequent generations. And for those who are interested in such things, it was transmitted by the compilers of tradtions Ahmad, Ibn Majah and Tirmidhi. In English it translates something like this (with an rough transliteration of the Arabic as well):

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Before I go on, though, some explanation of the original is necessary. ‘Afuw does mean ‘forgive’ but there are other Arabic words which are closer to the English meaning of forgiveness. Al ’Afuw is one of the Names of God given in the Qur’an, and it means the One who obliterates without trace, who e‹aces or wipes away. This is therefore not about saying ‘Sorry!’ (and hoping that one’s apology will be acceptable). It is an invocation for one’s wrongdoing — by which I understand one’s heedlessness and forgetfulness of who or what one really is — to be completely eliminated. What is the di‹erence? Well, saying Sorry! leaves one forever under the shadow of that apology — ‘conscious of one’s own sinfulness’ — as an old-fashioned Christian upbringing would have it. What is being asked for here, on the other hand, is for the trace or legacy of that heedlessness to be removed. It is like asking for a trauma to be healed, rather than asking fogiveness for actions carried out under its influence. If you look at the transliteration, you will see that a word from the root ’a—f—w (from which Al ‘Afuw comes) occurs three times, in each of the first three lines. First as ’afuwun, forgiving, then as al ’afwa, forgiveness, and finally as ’afuw ’aniyy, forgive me. The prayer can thus be seen as a play on this root (and spoken in the original the repetition gives it a rather unearthly cadence). But to return to the main thrust of this piece. The four short lines of this prayer establish an extraordinarily tactful relationship between the invoker and the Invoked. First God is called in the most personal way: ’Allahumma, My God. Since I am less religiously and more mystically and psychologically minded, I see this not so much as a call to the ‘God out there’ as to one’s own indwelling divinity, to the ‘God in here’ (or what Jung referred to, in a more secular sounding way, as the Self). Divinity is then recognised with the quality of forgiveness, or wiping away: ‘You are forgiving’. Like many of the Prophet’s prayers, this begins with an a›rmation of the qualities of Godhead — the request, the asking for oneself, comes a·er establishing the Divine nature of the quality that is to be asked for. You are forgiving.

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Then comes something extraordinary. Forgiveness is linked with love. And not just with any love, but with passion: hubb, from which we get the word used here, tuhibb. Thousands of Arab love songs designate the object of deeply erotic passion using another word from this root, habibi, ‘my beloved’. However, it probably sounds faintly heretical, if not ridiculous, to suggest that an erotic feeling could be implied here. If so, it is because we forget that Eros was originally Divine. The urge to bring the cosmos into being, which is described in another tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (where the first person refers to God), also uses this word: ‘I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creation that I might be known’. The desire to create is thus expressed as the release of an erotic charge. But why might ‘forgiveness’ or ‘obliteration’ be the object of Divine eroticism? Again, though, there is a curious echo of our own sexual feelings, which combine a love to be known, an urge to procreate and a desire to lose ourselves. We could say that God loves obliteration, wiping away, because it is the erasure of the marks or imprints of separation, of our assertion of a separate existence, which is (at least, in a mystical sense) ‘sin’. Just as we long to e‹ace our sense of separate existence in the petit mort of orgasm. Having thus established the Divine nature of forgiveness, and having linked it with the energetic charge of love, only then does Muhammad petition God – through the immanent ‘God in here’, who is ‘closer to you than your Jugular vein’ (as the Qur’an has it) – for the obliteration of his ‘missing the mark’ (if I can transpose the Christian Greek hamartia into an Islamic context). The tact of this is beautifully expressed, layered and developed through the prayer. But we can also, perhaps, see how this tact is related to a profound understanding of the ‘magical’ nature of the universe; how it is necessary to invoke Divinity through a specific quality or outward expression and to energize this invocation by feeling inside onself a resonance with the Divine passion that brings the universe into being. Only then does the framing of a petition make sense.

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Finally the prayer ends with the invocation of another quality, Divine Generosity or Nobility. It is worth observing here that karamat, from the same root as Al Kareem, also means ‘miracles’ in Arabic. A miracle is asked for, from the Divine generosity: the miracle of wiping away, of obliteration. But whether this petition receives an immediate or a deferred, a direct or an indirect, response, the Generosity and Nobility of the Divine (which also inheres within ourselves) is explicitly recognised and remembered. Communications can be sublime: I think this prayer is a beautiful reminder of quite what tact and power human expressions are capable of.

* The Islamic year is based on a lunar calendar, so the dates of Ramadan vary.

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Misplaced belonging
29 October 2007

In his book We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson propounds a fundamental insight into modern, Western societies. Since the middle ages, Johnson argues, we have increasingly directed our religious impulses into romantic involvements. The need for fulfilment, the longing for transcendence, the hope of salvation that we once sought in spiritual experience are now projected onto the relationship with a ‘significant other’. Today we might consider ourselves resolutely secular, but the ‘rationality’ of our position is undermined by our susceptibility to the madness of love. It is the most powerful energy system in Western societies today, Johnson points out. And we continue to allow it to hijack our lives, overturn our careers, sabotage our relationships. The worst of it all, though, is that it doesn’t — can’t — deliver what we hope from it. As Johnson goes on to explain, it is as if we try to pass a million volts of intensity through a system designed, at most, to work with a few hundred. The problem with romantic love, if we may put it in these terms, is that ordinary human relationships are not able to sustain its expectations. However wonderful he or she may be, another person cannot continue to meet our constant demand for meaningfulness. At a certain point, the ‘magic’ vanishes and we are le· looking at our partner in their unvarnished ordinariness. Instead of seizing this opportunity to build a truly human relationship, one based on an appreciation of the other as they are, strengths and weaknesses, faults and virtues, we tend then to start looking for the ‘magic’ elsewhere. Johnson’s explanation for this phenomenon is that what we look for in our romantic loves is, in fact, ourselves. Specifically, that part of us that Jung described as the anima/animus: the oppositely gendered arche-

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type that is our model of masculinity or femininity. And the more someone can be a blank screen — onto which we can ‘project’ our template or archetype — the more likely we are to ‘fall in love’ with them. (This explains, amongst other things, why lovers tend to give up their strong opinions and preferences to satisfy the other, and why women o·en complain that men are turned o¤ by intelligence and a point of view). But the anima (the female archetype in the male psyche) or the animus (the male archetype in the female psyche) is not just a model of what we look for in someone else. Indeed it is not really this at all, which is where all the problems start. In the Jungian conception the animus/anima is the go-between mediating our little island of consciousness, our ego, with the vast ocean of unconsciousness that makes up the remainder of our psyche. This unconsciousness includes both a superconscious identity (what we might call a ‘Higher Self’) and a dark ‘shadow’ made up of the things that we have consciously or unconsciously rejected as well as our unlived desires and aspirations. The animus/anima manifests in all its archetypal splendour as an ideal man or woman in dreams, fantasy and artistic expression (where it may even, if we have formed a negative relationship with it, take a malevolent form). But as a transparent part of our everyday makeup it is responsible for our moods, our attitudes and our self-esteem. In the sphere of corporate identity, the animus/anima frequently crops up as a symbol or logo. Britannia, the goddess who used to appear on the old British penny, is one familiar example of an anima figure. The intricately carved figureheads that used to grace the bows of sailing ships are another. And anima figures are characteristic expressions of patriarchal societies, of societies dominated by a kind of collective male psyche. A more contemporary example is the image of Prudence, the face of the Prudential corporation, re-envisaged in by my former employer Wol¤ Olins in the 1980s as a throughly modern, assertive and confident goddess. But as patriarchy releases its grip on our society, anima images as emblems of corporate endeavour have become less

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common. In the social and cultural sphere, however, there is no corresponding diminution of the desire to project animus/anima images outwardly: this remains the basis of every Hollywood blockbuster, of every ‘popular’ novel, of every ‘serious’ love. The remedy for our romanticism, Johnson tells us, is to realise that we are mixing levels. Our romantic longings properly belong to our inner world. Expressed in that world, they lead to psychic health and integration. Turned outwardly, they create a kind of hell for us as we try to live up to — or, rather, expect others to live up to — their impossible expectations. And for as long as we are under the spell of romantic love, we are incapable of human love: the everyday appreciation of each other that makes for enduring, realistic relationships. This extraversion, this turning outwards, is at the root of many of our contemporary di›culties. Modern humanity is in denial of its inner world. Everything is sought outwardly. Yet the urges that drive us towards inner completion and fulfilment will not go away. Unrecognised for what they are, they are attributed — and directed — towards things that cannot satisfy them. A similarly misplaced impulse, it seems to me, is that of belonging. Like romantic love, which appeared in the West only recently in human history (around the twel·h century, with the troubadors and their message of courtly love), belonging is also a comparatively late phenomenon. Our remote ancestors belonged, it is true, to some kind of tribe or grouping. But their belonging wasn’t driven by the kind of compulsive need we see in contemporary societies. And, interestingly, their words for themselves (some of which remain in modern languages) generally meant ‘people’ or ‘folk’ — they belonged to humanity, as they knew of it, rather than to a self-consciously di‹erentiated part of it. They had no desire to belong because, simply by virtue of being born into the group, everybody already belonged. The same remained true as we entered the mediaeval period. Here everybody belonged to someone else: the peasant to the feudal lord, the lord to the king, the king to God... No choice was involved with any of this belonging, nor was there

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any thinkable alternative, so nobody hungered a·er it. In recent history, however, these structures of ‘natural’ belonging and ownership have disappeared. In their place, we have seen the emergence of wholly new, arbitrary kinds of belonging, such as nationalism. And alienated from traditional patterns of connection, we now project our sense of belonging onto elective constructs: things that we choose to identify with, like political parties, subcultures, brands. There is a hunger to belong. But as with romantic love, structures of belonging seem impotent to satisfy it. We want too much intensity from our belonging: more than our organisations are capable of providing. It’s this demand for intensity — and its impossibility of fulfilment — that provides the clue to what is going on here. The only thing that can meet our desire for belonging is OurSelf, the totality of who we are. But we are not in touch with this Self, are only conscious of being outwardlooking egos. And like romantic love, outward ‘belonging’ is a disaster zone, a recipe for tension and dissatisfaction in all of the situations in which we join with others. The outer world requires something calmer, more allowing, more grounded: a means of associating together without unrealistic expectations, and without the blame and dissatisfaction that comes from their inevitable disappointment. Our inner world, on the other hand — the place where such intensity is not only appropriate, but necessary — languishes for want of any attention at all. The next time you hear the story of a suicide bomber, consider this. The problem may not be that he devoted himself to a toxic cause, but that rather the cause itself became toxic because — like so many causes in the modern world — it couldn’t support the intensity of belonging demanded of it. Without an understanding of what our urge to belong relates to, we will attach it to institutions that buckle under its weight. We belong truly only to OurSelves. And unlike outward causes, that realisation alone can give us the fulfilment we seek; will never fail us.

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Design for the New Age (part 2)
31 December 2007

My previous post, Design for the New Age, ended with this question: ‘But what would design be like if it did embrace the New Age? Many of the central themes of New Age philosophies and practices have considerable relevance — and resonance — for design. And there may be answers here for how designers can find a positive and productive role for themselves in the emerging era.’ A·er a few months for reflection, this is my attempt at an answer. One of the central themes linking many New Age philosophies is the concept of harmony. Harmony is usually conceived on the model of musical harmony: two or more notes sounding together to give a pleasing concord. And the interesting thing about musical harmony is that although it can be described in mathematical terms, as the ratio of pitches, it depends on human aesthetic sensibilities to distinguish between what is, and what is not, harmonious. By extension, then, the concept of harmony can be applied — if only metaphorically — to other situations in which two or more similar entities appear together. In visual communication, for instance, it can be used to describe a satisfying relationship between shapes, colours, types, images etc. But it can also be applied to the relationship between people. A group can be said to be in harmony if there is a fundamental concordance between them. The nature of this concordance may be explained in di‹erent ways (sometimes in quite outlandish terms) but nonetheless what is being described depends on the same perception of harmony that occurs to in music. What’s more, harmony appears to be an objective (or at least consensual) factor. Someone with a poorly trained ear may not be able to accurately discern what is harmonious or not, but a trained musician will. And although di‹erent cultures have di‹erent musical preferences, the ability to perceive harmony is not cultural but biological.

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You might argue that designers have always applied such acuity of perception in their work. For instance, even the Modernists —not otherwise known for their considerations of harmony — talked about the ‘balance of unequal masses’. What was lacking before, however, was an understanding of the harmonious as the basic principle of well-being throughout the whole of existence: a principle to be strived for as a primary consideration in all enterprise. This understanding of harmony, and the harmonious, has’t been a part of Western thinking since the Renaissance. The concept of harmony has a number of aspects, each of which has a slightly di‹erent bearing on the understanding of design. The aspect of congruence, for instance, which musically is experienced in the phenomenon of a beautiful, ‘warm’ note with a strong, clear fundamental reinforced by successive, harmonious overtones, has considerable relevance for how we see the designer’s skill. A composition, which in the terms of visual communication might consist of messages, words, type, decoration, imagery, colour, materials etc., works most e‹ectively when all the elements support a clearly expressed intention. Intensification takes congruence a stage further and shows us that when a number of elements are related in a harmonious way, they reinforce each other’s strengths (and, correspondingly, diminish each other’s weaknesses). As we all know, a group of people harmonised around a shared intention can achieve much more than a single individual. But although we think we know this, we rarely put it into practice – either in human or design terms. The organisation is, a·er all, the padigm case of what a group of people can achieve when they are able to diversify their functions and individuals can employ their specialisations in concert with others. However, much of what we call management consists of imposing a single point of view rather than leveraging this ‘whole is more than the sum of its parts’. And in design, how o·en have you seen an image asked to do a job that images can do better than words, without the painfully anxious need to repeat the message in words as well?

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The aspect of resonance holds that, just as a tuning fork can spontaneously begin to resonate when the same note is played near to it, so communication might work by a similar resonation of the ‘tuning forks’ within the human being. This analogy also goes some way towards explaining the phenomenon, mentioned earlier, of how suitably sensitised people have the same perception of what is harmonic and what is not. The really interesting things about resonance is the way that it shows us that harmony involves the communication, or transference, of energy. The tuning fork doesn’t just start to ‘sing in tune’ because of some process of sympathy, but because its state is actively energised by the instrument played near to it. This point, I believe, is of the greatest possible significance to our understanding of design — and particularly to our experience of designed communication. What is communicated is energy. Not as a secondary or incidental part of the process of communication, but as the principal activity. Communication doesn’t transfer ‘information’: information is, instead, the outward and visible aspect of the transmission of energy. It’s this recognition that I believe will signal a truly ‘New Age’ design. By which I don’t mean an approach to design that is all incense, crystals, tinkly music and half-understood eclectic spiritual jargon, but a genuinely new kind of designing that echoes the central themes commonly associated with ‘New Age’ ideas. A design that reflects a new humanism: design as if people mattered, design that respects the integrity and — above all — the possibilities of the individual, design that heals. And that’s the last, and perhaps most controversial, point about harmony that I’d like to make. New Age thinking sees harmony not just as a reflection of wholeness but also as healing. Disharmony is dis-ease but that which is itself harmonious exerts an influence that predisposes towards harmony and thus to healing. This was well understood to the ancients, whose ‘sacred art’ was considered not merely symbolic and representational but also therapeutic. For the communication

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designer, however, this is perhaps the biggest challenge because the intent of so many designed communications is not to represent wholeness but instead to present ideas, goods and services as if they could provide the wholeness for which a population, out of harmony with itself, craves. Real change in this area will only be possible when organisations reconceive their own purposes, putting ideas like harmony above the pursuit of profits. In fact, this is already happening. An indication is the way the idea of profit achieved at others’ expense is shi·ing to a more harmonious notion of abundance under the influence a new genre of New Age ‘motivational’ bestsellers such as The Secret.

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The Narcissistic Brand
20 May 2008

Over the last few months I’ve become fascinated by the psychology of narcissism. Since this was first identified as a pathological condition by Freud, it has stimulated a great deal of investigation with some very interesting findings. What I find so striking about it, however, is the way that it seems to describe a fundamental condition of our whole society. Like the ancient Greek myth of Narcissus, who was doomed to fall in love with his own reflection until — unable to consummate this impossible love — he pined away, a narcissist is someone who is heavily invested in an image of himself or herself but, behind the image, may be living a much impoverished reality. So, for instance, a narcissist may give a great deal of attention to other people’s problems, because he wants to present an image of a ‘concerned’ person, but may fail to attend to his own needs. Indeed, he may berate himself because he doesn’t live up to the image he has created. This description might sound strange to those who imagine that narcissism is related to vanity, but a moment’s reflection shows that the ardent supporter of causes may be just as vain as the fashionista or dandy. The standard work on psychological diagnosis, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV-R) describes narcissism as a ‘a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy’. Again, it may be surprising to suggest that a ‘concerned’ person might be su‹ering from lack of empathy. But in fact one can see this frequently in the behaviour of celebrities or politicians who seek to highlight others’ plight to win admiration but who, beyond the cameras, are merely exploiting those they purport to help. The DSM also gives a list of indicators of narcissism, with the display of more than five of these suggesting that a person is su‹ering from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It states that such a person:

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has a grandiose sense of self-importance is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique requires excessive admiration has a sense of entitlement is interpersonally exploitative lacks empathy is o·en envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
[source: wikipedia]

For a moment, let’s consider these characteristics not in relation to a person but to an organization. Can you think of any organizations that project a grandiose sense of self-importance? Are preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love? Would like to get you to believe that they are special and unique? More to the point, can you think of any organizations that don’t manifest at least five of these qualities? Of course these characteristics don’t all relate to the organization’s image. The exploitation, lack of empathy and arrogance may be hidden away in the impoverished reality of the organization — the unpublicised day-to-day experience of its sta¤, and perhaps some of its other stakeholders as well. So, for instance, behind the lovable, cosy supermarket brand there may be an unhappy history of nailing down farmers and other suppliers to unrealistic prices. And behind the self-important bank brand there may be a pattern of intimidating, overworking and bullying sta¤. This is the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde nature of narcissism: the outward need for admiration and approval but the inward reality of exploitation and unconcern.

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Interestingly, there is a connection between these two sides that is not always obvious. The narcissist may, for instance, be seen as someone who cares inordinately about his or her appearance: someone who spends hours each day in the gym, undergoes expensive cosmetic surgery, constantly worries about her diet. But none of these behaviours reflect a concern about the body: indeed the body is made to su‹er for the image. And it is the same with organizations: there may be great concern, for instance, with ‘corporate social responsibility’ but the narcissistic organization will su‹er for its looks, make great sacrifices to be newsworthy, but its motives will always be to cultivate an image. (This is one reason, incidentally, why the world’s great spiritual traditions all censure public displays of charity — Jesus’ ‘when you give, do not let your right hand know what your le· hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret’ can be seen as a protective against worsening one’s narcissism.) The phenomenon of the brand can be seen as one of the most potent expressions of a widespread corporate narcissism in our societies. Behind the managed image that is a brand a very di‹erent reality may be in place: as with the narcissistic individual, the more investment there is in the image, the more ‘impoverished’ this reality is likely to be. Meaning, here, that the ‘body’ of the organization, the wellbeing of its sta¤ and the integrity of its social fabric, is made to su¤er the dissonance of an image so far out of kilter with the reality — a dissonance that will ultimately produce irreparable damage to that fabric, just as the body obsessed narcissist ultimately does irreparable damage to their body. But it is the impoverishment of the real self that is even greater in narcissism: the authentic feelings, perceptions and values of the individual are ignored in favour of those that look good and a callousness su›cient to put the cultivation of image above all else. ‘An enduring truth, a wise friend once explained to me, is that important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy. First, the powerful are persuaded to say the appropriate words, that is, to sign a commitment to higher values and decent behavior.

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Then social activists must spend the next ten years pounding on them, trying to make them live up to their promises or persuading governments to enact laws that will compel them to do so.’ So the feisty American journalist William Greider perceptively observed. And it may be that through the hypocrisy of narcissism, its splitting of image from reality, real change becomes possible to both people and organizations. To do so, however, there has to be a point at which the cause celébre transfers from image to reality: where ‘greenwash’ becomes real environmental stewardship. My sense, however, is that corporate narcissism is not so much a route for change to take root in our society as a disastrous pathology that will, as it does in the case of the individual narcissist, result in a crisis of very significant proportions. It is the point at which the image becomes unsustainable — where its facade begins to crumble, where its demands can no longer be met, where it is seen to be hollow and empty inside — that the narcissist comes to the point of breakdown. It’s at this point, too, that its real poverty is revealed: the total lack of authenticity, the neglect of the real self, the ravages on the body. a good film.’

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Further reading

Barfield, Owen
Saving The Appearences isbn 0 8195 6205 x The Rediscovery of Meaning isbn 0 8195 6124 x Owen Barfield was one of the most interesting, and neglected, thinkers of the twentieth century. Saving the Appearances influenced Marsall McLuhan and quantum physicist David Bohm, but its author remained relatively unknown. Its basic thesis of a recent evolution of consciousness, witnessed through our changing use ot language, is a central theme in Barfield’s work. The Rediscovery of Meaning is a collection of essays that shows the range and vitality of Barfield’s though — and its relevance to many of our concerns.

Bortoft, Henri
The Wholeness of Nature isbn 0 86315 238 4 At first sight this book, ostensibly about the unique method of science developed by the great German writer Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, wouldn’t appear to have much interest for designers. Let it su›ce to say that it has extraordinary implications for the practice of design — not least in the parts that deal with Goethe’s systematic cultivation of a rigorous faculty of imagination, and its role in understanding holistically. Towards the end of the book, Borto· examines the nature of language from a phenomenological perspective and his revelations are so astounding that this in itself justifies reading The Wholeness of Nature.

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Cialdini, Robert
Influence isbn 0 673 56751 1 Influence is an enormously entertaining and very insightful survey, by a prominent social psychologist, of the six principal techniques we use to manipulate one another. Using real examples, Cialdini shows how our evolutionary development makes us particularly susceptible to these tricks. This is a book of such importance for anyone involved in communication that it should be required reading on every graphic design course. It’s only when we understand how these things work that they lose their power, allowing us to develop less exploitative forms of interaction.

Claxton, Guy
Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind isbn 1 85702 451 6 Wise Up isbn 0 7475 4069 1 In Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind Guy Claxton gathers together a substantial body of research to show that our non-conscious ‘slow minds’ provide us with most of our practical intelligence, reliable judgment and wisdom. It is a seminal book that challenges the myth that it is the conscious, deliberative and analytical part of our brain that is the most valuable. Wise Up presents us with a new model of education for lifelong learning, based on Claxton’s three Rs: Resilience, Resourcefulness and Reflection. His observations make such good sense, and are so well researched, that it almost makes you want to go back to school and demand to know why your teachers couldn’t teach like this.

Deikman, Arthur
The Wrong Way Home isbn 0 8070 2915 7 In The Wrong Way Home, psychologist Arthur Deikman explores the phenomenon of cults — and draws a disturbing conclusion, that the bases of cult behaviour are prevalent throughout or professional,

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commercial and governmental institutions. Deikman finds four main ingredients of cultishness: deference to authority, compliance with the group, avoidance of dissent and antipathy to outsiders. More recently, these same factors have been identified in hte breakdown of civil society and the intolerant polarizations of societies such as the former Yugoslavia. But The Wrong Way Home doesn’t just show us some of our darker side. It’s also a book that holds out considerable hope. Deikman paints an appealing picture of an ‘eye level’ world where interactions take place between equals, without the coercive trappings of authority — and where we can let go of harmful dependency fantasies that fuel cultist responses.

Dunbar, Robin
Grooming , Gossip and the Evolution of Language isbn 0 571 17397 7 Robin Dunbar proposes that we developed language as a substitute for the grooming activities of other primates. Grooming plays a very important role in the lives of of apes and monkeys: it is the way groups bond together, alliances are made, conflicts resolved, politics negotiated. Based on his and others’ observations, Dunbar noticed a correlation between the size of the group and the amount of time spent on grooming. Because each animal can only groom with one other at a time, as the size of the group increases the proportion of time spent on grooming increases. At a certain point, it becomes unsustainable — either the group must split or it must find some other activity to take the place of grooming. Dunbar’s hypothesis, which is supported by many palæolinguists, is that as early human groups were forced out of the forest by over-population, it became necessary to form much larger groups for mutual protection against predators. Developing language, which allowed speakers to ‘groom’ with more than one other at a time, enabled our ancestors to resolve this problem of size. Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language is a fascinating intellectual detective story, as well as a powerful case for communication on a human scale.

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Gadamer, Hans Georg
Truth and Method isbn 0 7220 9281 4 Philosophical Hermeneutics isbn 0 520 03475 9 The Relevance of the Beautiful isbn 0 521 33953 7 Gadamer’s Truth and Method is a monumental work which investigates questions of interpretation and understanding from the standpoint of a humanist tradition of philosophy. Gadamer is o·en scholarly, but rarely as impenetrable as his mentor Martin Heidegger (he has the ability to make the most profound statements in such a modest way that one can sometimes miss their significance). Philosophical Hermeneutics contains a selection of essays that acts as an excellent intoduction to Gadamer’s work. The title essay of The Relevance of the Beautiful explores the work of art from the point of view of the liberating and celebratory concepts of play, symbol and festival. It is as relevant to the creation of life-enhancing design as it is to art.

Hall, Edward
Beyond Culture isbn 0 385 12474 0 The Dance of Life isbn 0 385 12448 7 The Hidden Dimension isbn 0 385 08476 5 The great American anthropologist Edward Hall has spent a lifetime exploring what he calls ‘primary culture’ — the ways in which human beings use fundamental things like time and space. But unlike other anthropologists, who have researched the rituals and practices of obscure cultures, Hall’s principal interest has been in the way these hidden patterns influence everyday activities (like commerce or the use of technology) in our societies. Beyond Culture covers many of the ideas for which Hall is famous — particularly the ‘contexting system’ which has been very influential on my thinking. The Dance of Life is about our use of time, and rhythm, and the way we unconsciously synchronize our rhythms with each other. The Hidden Dimension looks at the subtle e‹ects of space.
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Heidegger, Martin
Basic Writings isbn 0 415 10161 1 Martin Heidegger is by no means the easiest of philosophers, even if the poetic quality of his writings is a powerful antidote to the dry logic of Anglo-American philosophy. To my mind, there are a handful of really important essays in this collection, which explore Heidegger’s basic insight that truth, aletheia, simultaneously reveals and conceals. The Way to Language reflects on how this happens in human communications, and introduces the concept of propriation — ownership — as central to speaking. The Question Concerning Technology, prophetically ahead of its time, shows how the problem with technology isn’t anything technological — but the way it frames our thinking, making us look at everything as a potential raw material for a mechanistic process (the end product of which simply becomes a resource for yet further processes).

Jung, Carl Gustav
Man and his Symbols isbn 0 330 25321 2 Whilst there has been considerable recent interest in semiotics, which describes itself as the ‘science of signs’, our understanding of symbolism has waned. The consequence of this are not di›cult to see: the shallow surface referentiality of signs has given us many of the characteristics of modern marketing, such as the idea of the brand. But if we wonder why our corporate and other heraldry has so little real resonance, it is probably because we can’t distinguish between the sign and the symbol. This is the point where Jung starts his own contribution to Man and his Symbols.

Maturana, Humberto & Varela, Francisco
The Tree of Knowledge isbn 0 87773 642 1 Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela have caused something of a stir in the life sciences by developing a view of cognition that

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extends from the cellular level right up to embrace human culture and language. This view challenges the traditional ‘conduit’ model of communication as the transmission of information with a new view that sees it as a ‘behavioural coupling’. The Tree of Knowledge is a fast paced, well laid out and profusely illustrated book that does full justice to the authors radical and exciting views. Unfortunately, their thoughts can be hard to follow at times, and require perseverance. It could be that they don’t translate well from the original Spanish — but my suspicion is that they challenge our assumptions at such a fundamental level that their implications can at times be di›cult to grasp.

Milgram, Stanley
Obedience to Authority isbn 0 06 131983 x Most people know about Milgram’s experiment, even if they don’t recognize his name. It’s the one where a volunteer ‘teacher’ is asked to test a ‘learner’ on memory tasks, administering a series of increasing electric shocks when the learner (actually the experimenter’s collaborator) makes a mistake. What it shows about human nature is disturbing in the extreme — that we’ll obey flimsy authority in an unquestioning manner even when it contradicts our common sense or humanity. Communicators of all kinds play the authority game. We all ought to know what this means.

Nørretranders, Tor
The User Illusion isbn 0 14 023012 2 Nørretranders builds up a case that consciousness is not all it’s cracked up to be. Indeed, it seems to be capable of ‘processing’ a mere 40 bits per second of information — compared to something in the region of 11 million bits per second that reaches our brains from our senses. Mechanical analogies generally make me uncomfortable, but Nørretranders argues his case convincingly. In a sense, this book is a perfect companion to Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise

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Mind — making a case for the less-than-conscious ‘slow mind’ from the very di‹erent perspectoive of information theory. This book contains some fascinating insights, not least Benjamin Libet’s discovery that we consciously will an action half a second a·er our brains have actually decided to carry it out. It becomes obvious that we’re not the sovereing, self-determining creatures we imagine ourselves to be — that consciousness is more like a monarch who is made to believe he is in charge, by signing proclamations while his executive is already putting them into action. Nørretranders final chapter on the ‘sublime’ shows how accepting the limitations of consciousness can actually enrich our lives — a theme that I’m sure will run and run in the decades to come.

Ornstein, Robert
The Psychology of Consciousness isbn 0 14 022621 4 Multimind isbn 0 333 43803 5 The Evolution of Consciousness isbn 0 13 587569 2 The Roots of the Self isbn 0 06 250789 3 The Right Mind isbn 0 15 100324 6 Back in the early seventies, Robert Ornstein was responsible for bringing the new disoveries about the specializations of the brain hemispheres to the attention of a general public in first edition of The Psychology of Consciousness. A quarter of a century later, he revisits this subject in The Right Mind, showing how in the intervening period we’ve trivialized the idea of the ‘right brain/le· brain’ dichotomy, ignoring more recent research that shows how important the co-operation of both hemispheres is in many tasks (including language). Ornstein is a phenomena in the brain sciences, and his many books have proved amongst the most reliable — as well as accessible — guides to really important discoveries coming from this field. Of all Ornstein’s books, Multimind is the one I’ve found most illuminating. It presents a view of the mind as a collection of competing, sometimes contradictory priorities.

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Page, Russell
The Education of a Gardener isbn 0 14 007254 3 Significantly, this is the only book on design I’ve included in this list, and it is concerned with a very di‹erent discipline from graphic design. Nonetheless, Russell Page expounds an approach to design that I’ve found more inspiring than anything I’ve read by graphic designers. Tucked away in technical descriptions of soil, planting or climate are real gems of perception into the design process — not as most of us practice it, but as it could be (and clearly was for Page). It’s a view of design that is based on a real insight into ‘the language of things’: the way our world speaks to us, and how this can be intensified by the designer. Page works with the local, the particular and the timely, giving a unique insight into a humanist approach to design that is almost unknown elsewhere.

Shah, Idries
The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin isbn 0 86304 023 3 The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin isbn 0 86304 022 5 The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin isbn 0 86304 021 7 Learning How To Learn isbn 0 14 019513 0 Knowing How To Know isbn 0 86304 072 1 Surely everyone knows the Mulla? Asked to identify himself, Nasrudin pulls out a small mirror. ‘Yes, it’s me alright!’ What’s less well known is that Shah’s collection of Nasrudin jokes forms a kind of grammar that allows one to understand everyday experiences in a new and illuminating fashion. It’s not really possible to explain this, you have to experience it for yourself. Otherwise, Learning How To Learn provides an excellent and accessible entry point into the work of one of the most exciting and important thinkers of our times. Knowing How To Know probes into many areas of interest to communicators, and suggests how di‹erent many aspects of our lives will be in the twenty-first century.

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Seligman, Martin
Learned Optimism isbn 0 671 01911 2 What You Can Change… And What You Can’t isbn 0449 90971 9 Learned Optimism was a watershed book in the understanding of how inappropriate explanatory styles produce depressive states of mind. As such, it has helped hundreds of thousands of people confront a lifetime of pessimism — and the rigid framework of ‘absolutes’ (life is always like this, bad things always happen to me, there’s nothing I can do) that stop us realizing our potential and getting on with our lives. What is even more striking from a designe’s point of view, however, is that these ‘universal, pervasive and personal’ explanations are exactly the bases of Modernism, and the reasons why twentieth century design was so anal. The project of creating a life-a›rming approach to design must therefore confront the same issues as the depressive, pessimistic person. By contrast, What You Can Change… confronts the myth that we can ‘change’ our way out of any predicament — an unwarranted assumption that similarly condemns us to dissatisfaction, rather than learning to accept and live with the things we can’t change. This, of course, was the other side of Modernism: the idea that we should rebuild the whole world from zero, a project whose inevitable failure turnedmany Modernists into bitter and unhappy old men.

Tannen, Deborah
That’s Not What I Meant! isbn 1 85381 512 8 You Just Don’t Understand isbn 1 85381 471 7 Talking from 9 to 5 isbn 1 85381 546 2 Deborah Tannen is fascinated with conversational styles, and the problems that can occur when they clash. You Just Don’t Understand became a bestseller because of the way that it exposed the di‹erent ways that women and men use language, and why so many misunderstandings develop in relationships. Tannnen has also developed a unique style of exposition, including examples from literature
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and everyday life, which makes her books very enjoyable to read but infuriatingly di›cult to quote. Reflecting on her points makes one realize quite how ‘masculine’ our tradition of visual communications — explaining why graphic design awards, conferences and publications are still dominated by the status displays of young men (and why today’s ‘Young Turks’ become tomorrow’s stifling establishment). Tannen infuriated many feminists by daring to suggest that men and women are di‹erent. But her books are a powerful argument for more inclusive approaches to communication.

Winn, Denise
The Manipulated Mind isbn 086304 025 x Denise Winn’s book is an admirable survey of what’s known about the use of conditioning and manipulation. Together with Cialdini’s Influence and Milgram’s Obedience to Authority, it provides a sound basis for understanding how these things work — and, more importantly, what we can do to disarm them. Why is it so essential for communicators to know this? Because the recent history of the communications business has been primarily concerned with the increasing use of sophisticated forms of manipulation. In their own areas of application, these have seemed harmless enough. But in a broader context we’ve become a society obsessed with pushing each other’s buttons, rather than developing more authentic ways of interacting. Reading The Manipulated Mind, it’s a miracle that there haven’t been more abuses — something we owe to the relative stability of Western societies since the second world war. However, like other dangerous technologies in less-than-responsible hands, we shouldn’t let recent history lull us into a false sense of security.

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