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—Binoculars

Claire and I have recently returned from a week on the North Norfolk coast. We were staying in a restored fisherman’s shack halfway up a hill that overlooked the Salthouse marshes and beach. Like many people who go on holiday nowadays, we took many electrical gadgets with their associated chargers.

Despite the digital devices that shackle us to power supplies that we insist on taking with us everywhere, one of the greatest joys of the holiday was watching ships and the Sheringham Shoal wind farm through our binoculars. We bought these on the recommendation of a twitcher colleague. We wanted something reliable, comfortable, and good value for money—we didn’t want to spend mega money on a pair that were more than what we needed. We bought them several years ago, somewhere in the region of £60–70, from Cley Spy on one of our many trips up the Norfolk coast. To some this may seem like a lot of money, but they were some of the cheapest in the shop. Having only used cheap binoculars previously, I can assure you that it is worth spending that little bit more. When not holidaying, they generally live in our car, only coming out on odd occasions. But as Claire and I usually insist on holidays that involve views, they are usually a permanent fixture when away from home.

One of the things that these binoculars made me contemplate while we were away, was how I have got so used to looking at things on screens, and rapidly accepted that I need to charge my daily digital accoutrements to the extent that I have to take plugs and leads with me where ever I go. Yet while the images that appear projected onto the double ‘screens’ through these Helios Field Binoculars are crystal clear, they don’t need plugging in; no power is involved, there are no batteries to recharge, and I don’t need to turn them on. Strangely, and momentarily, I found myself surprised by this, as if I had made an observation, (no pun intended), that I hadn’t considered before.

That these thoughts should strike me is an indication of how my mind has subconsciously linked the phenomena of seeing imagery on a screen with my use of electronic media. Obviously binoculars aren’t a screen—you look through a lens—but never the less, there is a double illusion going on here. Firstly, the trick on the eye/mind in bringing things closer to view. Secondly, that my mind is reading these images as being immediately in front of my eyes on the glass discs encased in metal, rubber, and plastic. Through recent lifestyle decisions of always having screens with me on the go, be that a digital camera or iPhone, my brain has, without questioning, accepted this as a way of seeing imagery. To some extent, it could be argued, that I am no longer seeing this imagery on the screen, I am now merely looking at it.

To add an irony to this tale, I have just considered that these thoughts struck me while watching the gentle beauty of an offshore wind farm, built because of our insatiable demand for electricity due to our growing habit for digital/electronic gadgetry. And in light of all this far distance navel gazing, I have a renewed wonder for my pair of humble binoculars.

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It has been a bit of John Peel fortnight. Firstly, I got a call from a Shelia Ravenscroft regarding some tickets I had inquired about weeks ago. As the gig I wanted to go to had sold out in a matter of days, I had forgotten that I had left my number with the box office. On snapping up the tickets that had suddenly been found, and putting the phone down, Claire informed me that Shelia was in fact The Pig, as John Peel affectionately referred to his wife when broadcasting.

The tickets were to see Billy Bragg play Woody Guthrie songs at the newly formed John Peel Centre for Creative Arts in Stowmarket. It was a great evening, and as much a lecture about the life and times of Woody Guthrie as it was a concert. Bragg was in fine voice, and having seen him perform three time in the last 3 years, twice within a year, I can definitely state he is a better performer under a Tory government than he was under Gordon Brown’s administration. John Peel would have loved it.

The Centre itself holds a lot of promise. Still in development, the old Corn Exchange has only recently had accessible toilets plumbed in. As the Centre’s committee raise more money, they plan to put in a mezzanine floor for a cafe and rehearsal space for local bands, which will also help to improve the acoustics, as the roof is somewhat cavernous, albeit beautifully so.

My second brush with the man came when the archiving of John Peel’s record collection was announced. Initially focussing on vinyl LPs, this excited me no end, (despite meaning that the 7″ single I feature on that he played on his evening show in 1992 won’t be included). The mammoth task of alphabetically uploading 100 albums a week is a daunting one and I’m amazed they did all the ‘A’s in one go, expecting there to be more in his collection. However, it looks like the ‘B’s may take a little longer.

Disappointingly, the only tracks you can listen to are linked to Spotify, meaning that if you were hoping to hear again some obscure German techno artist you first heard on a Tuesday evening in 2001, you will probably be sorely disappointed. More exciting though, from the perspective of graphic design, is that all album artwork has been scanned, including inner sleeves. Unfortunately there isn’t a zoom function, which is frustrating, and the site works better on a desktop computer than on an iPad, but I feel churlish to complain too much considering that this historic document wouldn’t otherwise be accessible in any format.

My one big grumble though, is that the release dates of each disc aren’t featured.

For anyone who listened to John Peel’s late night shows, (or for a period in the 90s, his Saturday afternoon show), this will prove to be an enticing trip down memory lane. And as if to prove the point, David Stubbs’ trawl through the first 100 records in the collection, along with YouTube clips, is well worth a read over on Quietus.

And lastly, my final brush with Peel this week was on visiting some friends last night who were listening to Tom Ravencroft’s 6music show, on iPlayer, meaning it was one week old. It is kind of odd hearing old news repeated as if it were just breaking, especially the announcement of Adam Yauch’s death at regular intervals. I didn’t find out about Yauch’s death when it was announced last Friday evening, because that was when I was at the John Peel Centre listening to Billy Bragg. So last night I witnessed John Peel’s son, who’s voice and intonation spookily sound like that of his father’s, announcing the death of someone from a week ago, when I had actually been at his Dad’s legacy with his mother in the audience!

Strange, talk about augmented reality.

In reading Fiona MacCarthy’s overview of Bauhaus—the German design school, not the 1980s goth band—in yesterday’s Guardian, several thoughts came to mind, but none more so than that of the blinkered nature of design history. The premise of the article, written prior to the opening of the Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition coming to the Barbican in May, is best summed up by its closing paragraph where MacCarthy states: “The Bauhaus revival could not be more timely. In a world in which idealism in design and architecture is in short supply, it is good to be reminded of this bold and beautiful experiment in bringing creativity alive.”

Well, it could be (wrongly) argued there is a lack of idealism in society in general, and on the surface of it, I agree, there doesn’t appear to be much idealism in design at the moment. However, that is on the surface. If you dig a little deeper, there are plenty of critical design thinkers and practitioners out there, just as there always have been. Unfortunately, they don’t get given enough media coverage outside of Eye magazine and design blogs for their thoughts and work to be taken note of.

Leaving talk of radicals such as Occupy Design to one side for the purposes of this post, one group of designers that I’ve been following recently that I believe do show an idealistic streak has been Government Digital Services (GDS). I first took notice while following Ben Terrett’s Noisy Decent Graphics blog. Terrett recently left Wieden+Kennedy, an advertising agency, to become head of design for GDS, a Government department looking at how digital services are delivered, and in no small way has announced that the GDS remit is as big as that of Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinnear, the designers that transformed the road signage system in the UK in 1950s. Terrett says: “Before they [Kinnear and Calvert] came along Britain was littered with different signage systems all using different symbols, colours and typefaces which was at best confusing and at worst dangerous. With an exponential increase in vehicle traffic the government knew something had to be done. Kinnear and Calvert proposed one consistent system. One designed with the clarity of information as it’s goal. From then on Britain had a solution that became the definitive standard and was copied around the world.” Bringing us back to 2012, Terrett goes on the state: “Sound familiar? Swap signage systems for websites. Swap vehicle traffic for online traffic.” Anyone who has used the navigation nightmare that is Directgov should be able to sympathise with this analogy.

So, what are GDS doing? Well, firstly, they have set up a blog that details what they are up to. You can sign up for regular email updates that informs you of key developments, discussions and advances in their work. This, in itself, is fascinating, regardless of what they are doing, as you can witness the design process in action, which is extremely rare. One recent post discussed how the homeless access, and can make use of, digital services. This is an important consideration as more and more content is becoming embedded in online delivery, with fewer chances to access services through traditional methods. Therefore, how do those that are marginalised in our society get at what they need when they have limited means to be able to do so? These are important and interesting contemporary debates. But further to just being passive observers of this process of research and development, you, the person receiving the updates, are encouraged to give GDS feedback and get involved in the discussion, and therefore the process.

GDS have also put their thoughts and design beliefs centre stage of what they are doing by publishing a set of Design Principles. This manifesto has ideals at its core, ideals for making Government delivered digital services work for the end user; efficiently, transparently, functionally. Practicing Form Follows Function, the Bauhaus masters would be pleased.

Other than a blog, the big plan for GDS is to replace Directgov with Gov.uk. To advance this, GDS have set up a beta site for anyone to tryout and feedback to them. It puts cookies and a search engine at the heart of its operation, to make it as efficient as possible. The wider the demographic, and people with differing digital competencies, that trail this, the better. Only skewed results will come from design and Internet savvy audiences—so if your granny doesn’t go online much, get her to use it and give some feedback. And even if you can’t be bothered to give feedback, just by using the site, you will automatically be feeding back by your actions, as one of the GDS design principles is to design with data.

This is an exciting design led project, especially one that could be considered for such potentailly dry subject matter. So, while I’m on the verge of booking my tickets for the Bauhaus exhibition, I don’t believe we can afford to write off idealism in design because we only relate it to a specific timeframe seen through the blinkers of design history teaching. Today, tomorrow, yesterday; all are equally important if we want to engage people with design and further any discussion about its importance to society. However, the trouble with design history and its attempts to engage non-designers is that it is far too often stuck in the past.

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