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Graphic Design

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In my teens in the 1980s, as I was becoming politically aware and active, (going on CND demonstrations and reading radical publications), it is difficult for me not to be very familiar with the work of Peter Kennard. I think I must have held several of his images in my hands as placards and certainly stuck some of his photomontages on my bedroom wall torn from pages in lefty rags. When I heard he was having a retrospective at the Imperial War Museum, titled Unofficial War Artist, I debated whether I should go or not, thinking that I knew what I would get and worried about it being an exercise in personal nostalgia. It wasn’t until I read Art-e-facts’ review of her several visits to the show that I decided to go, and without a shadow of a doubt it blew me away, (no pun intended).

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From the outset it was refreshing to see an exhibition with both process and application on show, as you can see below in the anti-apartheid image for The Guardian.

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It was equally good to see some sketchbook work that wasn’t ever applied.

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The skilfulness of Kennard’s photomontage is without question. There is an assured confidence and directness in his visual metaphors that makes them work with little-to-no text. His use of imagery isn’t subtle, but then neither are the effects of war. In that respect Kennard’s work creates a powerful message that hits its target again and again. Regardless of this skilfulness of technique, it is amazing that one man can find so many ways to keep attacking power-mongers’ lust for weaponry. For all of Kennard’s sheer determination we should have seen the back of nuclear weapons years ago, and it seems unfathomable to me that Jeremy Corbyn is criticised in 2015 for coming out saying he would not press the nuclear button, but I digress.

Up until I saw the show, what I knew of Kennard’s output was largely confined to his ‘Thatcher’ period. Before attending I considered what it is to be so defined by an era, just as John Heartfield was to the 1930s and Jamie Ried was to the mid-late 1970s. As the 80s moved to the 90s it isn’t surprising that Kennard became somewhat dejected, stating: “a mixture of personal experience, disillusion with organised politics and the use of the media of innumerable digital photomontages,” caused him to, “question the effectiveness of photomontage as a critical, social probe”, (exhibition panel.) Imagine coming to the realisation that such dedication of energy doesn’t appear to have actually won any battles and that the ‘opposition’ then adopt your mechanisms of protest for their own ends. While you could call any faith in art being able to change the world naive, with Kennard you need to remember that he cut his political teeth on the student protests of the late 1960s, when a different world really did seem possible.

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Not knowing much of his work past the 1980s, (save for the infamous Blair Photo-op), it was what Kennard did following this period that really blew me away as he started making work that was even more powerful, direct, and particularly brutal.

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From the large eyes staring out at you from the Reading Room exhibit, and the hands clawing at newspaper columns, you sense humanity grasping and pleading for some sanity in a world full of marginalised desperate people. Then a corridor of paintings suduces you in with ghostly portraits that stop you in your tracks as their mouthless, thus voiceless, apparitions stare back at you. I was stunned into silence also by their power.

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And all this before you enter the room with his most recent work, The Boardroom, an ongoing project of Kennard’s that revisits photomontage but in a 3D space. This room is not for the faint-hearted—the imagery is particularly brutal while equations and statistics about war, hunger and poverty adorn the handrails you just might need to cling to in order to steady yourself against the visual onslaught.

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No photograph can do justice to this room—it is truly powerful stuff. If you do not feel emotionally affected by its overload of the injustices of war then you either do not have a soul, or you are a government minister.

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The statistics displayed are as equally an important element of the work as the visuals are. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Kennard states: “I realise the seed for the idea…was actually planted a quarter of a century ago, … I made a speech at the UN to open my exhibition that began with a series of numbers I heard from Dr Hiroshi Nakajima, Director General of the World Health Organisation. I recounted in the speech how these numbers had been haunting me. For one billion dollars, he had said, or the cost of 20 modern military planes, the world could control illnesses that kill 11 million children every year in the developing world. At that moment, I saw that the connection between children needlessly dying from illness and bloated military spending was concealed in our society; the numbers that are the foundation of our modern world”. (2015, Kennard, IWM.) That phrase is worth repeating as you look at the image below: the numbers are the foundation of the modern world.

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On leaving the exhibition and reflecting on the necessary brutality of The Boardroom, I thought of the bravery of the Imperial War Museum to commission this exhibition. It continues until May 2016, and I hope that when it is taken down, the museum consider making this last room a permanent exhibition in their collection.

Peter Kennard: Unofficial War Artist is free: go see.

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I am embarking on a new venture as of this week; that of starting a Masters. As a result it is unlikely that I will have the time to blog here as much as I have in the past. Dubdog blog is not closing, merely shifting emphasis and directing its attention elsewhere for the time being.

I anticipate I will still add to this blog over the next 2 years that I’m doing the MA course part time, but what with my day job and other commitments, I will have to prioritise rigorously and blogging here will be a much lower priority.

I am hugely looking forward to doing my MA. It is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time but have had to put it on the back burner over the last 5 years due to work commitments. The irony is that as an academic I am expected to be conducting scholarly activity and researching but the lecturing and administration side of being an academic is the thing that has held me back from doing this in anything but a piecemeal fashion. In the last five years I’ve maintained a regular (ish) activity here; peer-reviewed and written reviews for books for art and design publishers; attended conferences; contributed to other blogs, including that of Eye magazine; and I’ve been actively researching historic typographic and print related publications. I’ve even managed to create the odd piece of graphic design, self-published a book and followed my growing passion for photography with a number of personal projects. However, none of this has had a continued focus or the structure that is needed to truly give any of it real academic merit. The framework of an MA will give me that structure and allow that focus.

Do keep checking back from time to time, there will be the odd new post every once in a while. Thanks for reading thus far.

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Scribble cover. Image courtesy of Three&Me.

When you work with someone on a regular basis you tend to get to know them well. You tell each other stories, you share aspects of your life and you get to know their working nuances intimately. But just recently I’ve been spending time with my work colleague, friend and ex-tutor Russell Walker a lot more than I would normally outside of typical ‘office’ working hours. This is because Russell Walker, designer, illustrator and educator of some 30+ years has just published a book of his creative and educational life called Scribble, and I’ve been immersing myself in it.

Starting from his earliest memories of childhood in his father’s tailor shop, Russell’s close friend Mike Doherty narrates his move through school and on to art school, into the world of being a professional illustrator and times spent teaching generations of design students as a lecturer, course leader and senior lecturer. From the outset the pair proclaim that the intention is to share these memories and experiences in order that others can dip in and benefit from them in some small way.

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Fetchaset spread. Image courtesy of Three&Me.

From his days at Hornsey College to describing leaving student life as looking over a bottomless cliff, there is much here for the novice designer stepping out into the world of work to learn from, and all illustrated with the sumptuous and colourful portfolio that Russell has built up over the years. From initial excursions in the world of going freelance, tales abound of interviews, knock-backs, successes, international agents and working for some big name corporate clients. Those that know Russell as well as I do will know that his determination generally wins out in the end and this book is ample proof of a will to not so much stay ahead of the game, but to shape it. The phrase I’ve often heard Russell say to students: ‘if you are hungry for it you will get it’, couldn’t be more true of the man himself.

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Chairman Meow. Image courtesy of Three&Me.

While knowing much of this work already, albeit seeing it in singular sittings, the collection that Scribble presents brings a personal awe at the vastness of Russell’s output—witnessing this work again but in collected form only reinforces my understanding of his creative talent. From early drawings through to skilful air-brushing; onto digitally rendered outcomes before coming back to collage and the hand-drawn in more recent pieces; Scribble showcases the visual journey of someone who doesn’t like to sit on their laurels.

The fact that Russell has dedicated much of his career to the education of others, and in doing so has potentially sacrificed the fame other illustrators of equal standing may have afforded themselves, I would argue has kept him more creatively relevant. He has avoided pitfalls of stylistic cul-de-sacs and the development of his technical and stylistic approaches in visual attitude is on show here for all to see. To say someone is ‘of their time’ often suggests they are stuck in some distant past glory, but such a phrase used to describe Russell I propose suggests that each stage in his creative journey has been ‘of its time’; a continuous line of constant updating. Russell treads a fine line in remaining alive to nuances in contemporary illustration while keeping a firm grip on his personal visual language—this is in no way an easy task and is in part driven by the requirements of educating others.

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Run’m Up, Run’m Out. Image courtesy of Three&Me.

The importance of line, colour and composition in Russell’s work is present from the start of the book to the closing pages. The inclusion of original sketches, work-in-progress and quotes from others, (typographer and designer Jonathan Barnbrook tells of his time as one of his students, and this rubs shoulders with a portrait of Russell by illustrator Brian Grimwood), alongside his perspectives on design education make this a book that works on many levels for many audiences. The fact that this book has been produced in collaboration with alumni from the Graphic Design course at UCS who now run their own successful design studio, Three&Me—described in the closing pages as ‘design partners’—is testament itself to Russell’s dedication to encouraging and supporting the next generation of creative talent.

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Le Kit Adagio, Viande. Image courtesy of Three&Me.

The one thing that I can’t quite get my head around with Scribble is that to publish a book such as this suggests some sort of end point has been reached. But knowing Russell as I do, this will certainly not be the case. Ever a person to develop and push forward, there are many more chapters yet to be written for Scribble.

To purchase a copy of Scribble, contact Russell Walker via Fetchaset

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I’ve recently written a guest post for EngLangBlog, a blog for A’ Level English Language students. The post is titled Graphic Language and it’s available to read here.

Thanks to Dan for asking in the first instance, and for the proof reading.

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Wall by the stairwell entrance to Hestercombe Gallery © Nigel Ball

Galleries that deal in driftwood ‘art’ and knick-knack souvenirs might be the predominating cultural experience you’d expect from a holiday to the beautiful Dorset coast. With this in mind, Claire and I were careful to make sure we investigated what cultural attractions were available to visit before travelling last week to a small hamlet just outside Bridport for our 2015 summer holiday. If washed-up sea craft ticks your art box then you won’t be disappointed from West Bay, Lime Regis and Charmouth et al, but if they don’t, we can highly recommend a couple of exhibitions.

We discovered before leaving that a colleague of mine, UCS senior lecturer and photographer Mark Edwards, was part of an exhibition at Hestercombe House & Gardens in Somerset. Being only about an hour’s drive from where we were staying we decided to pay it a visit. The show is titled Double Take: Photography and the Garden, and features two other contemporary artist photographers alongside Edwards; Sarah Jones and Helen Sear. It also showcases photographs by landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll’s, who alongside Edwin Lutyens, designed the Formal Garden and Victorian Terrace at Hestercombe. It is an interesting exhibition in that each artist takes a very different approach in responding to the theme of the garden. Jekyll’s beautiful black and white shots from the early 1900s record garden vistas, plants, and most interesting to me, the gardeners working either horticulturally or on hard landscaping. Although none of these were of Hestercombe, they all come from a collection of photos Jekyll took of her own garden at Munster House near Godalming.

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Hestercombe Gardens by Jekyll and Lutyens © Nigel Ball

Edwards photography is a much longer process than the ‘shots’ by Jekyll, as he finds locations and returns to them repeatedly before photographing them. He often captures gardens that are about to revert back to nature, on the cusp of becoming overgrown or are overlooked and as a result, despite the fact they can appear as everyday scenes that in the flesh you may not take a second glance at, but as large scale prints they have an underlying sense of tension between nature and nurture. Sear’s work is much more manipulated which can lead the viewer to question whether they are actually looking at photographs—some appear as if ceramic tiles and others potentially paintings or tapestry. Jones’ work has a more menacing tonality to it with very dark backgrounds that focus the viewer in on, for example, a woman lying on a large tree branch, or to pick out the detail of a rose bush and thus forcing you to pay equal attention to the thorns and branches as you do to the flowers.

The show is part of Hestercombe’s programme of showcasing art in reclaimed spaces, and much of the gallery attached to the house is in a poor state of repair, clearly having been reclaimed from going into ruin just in time. This adds a temporal air to the whole show which creates an atmosphere that contrasts appropriately to the very orderly gardens outside. It also helps to echo the fact that gardens that aren’t continually tended, much like buildings left unmaintained, soon destroy themselves, a feature that is not lost as you look at some of Edwards work in particular.

Apologies for not showing any images of the exhibition to accompany this post, but I was so engrossed in the work that I neglected to take any of the work on the walls, (and I didn’t want to scan in images from the catalogue for copyright reasons). The show runs until 18 October 2015, and the £10 admission price includes access to the exhibition, gardens and house.

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Claire and I had also planned to take a look at Bournemouth at sometime during the holiday, as I believed, (wrongly), that I had never been there. (As we drove part the Pavillion, I was reminded that I went to a conference there some 30 years ago!) Unfortunately we left this visit until our return journey back to Ipswich, so didn’t have time to mooch around the town as we wanted to take in the Alphonse Mucha exhibition at the Russell Coates House and Gallery before continuing our drive back to Suffolk.

The house itself is a visual overload—a clash of Victoriana and Art Nouveau—rammed as it is with paintings, furniture, garish carpets and ornate internal architectural mouldings. A feast for the eyes and a fascinating insight into the lives and tastes of yuppie hipsters of the day. As the Russell Coates websites states: “In 1901 Merton Russell-Cotes gave his wife Annie a dream house on a cliff-top, overlooking the sea. It was an extraordinary, extravagant birthday present – lavish, splendid, and with a touch of fantasy. They filled this exotic seaside villa with beautiful objects from their travels across the world, and lined the walls with a remarkable collection of British art, creating a unique atmosphere in a most dramatic setting.”

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In many ways it is the perfect location for a Mucha exhibition outside of Paris, and the museum has done a good job of framing the entrance to the Mucha show with paintings that were contemporary to his work, thus informing the visitor of just what Mucha may have been influenced by. Once in the actual exhibition, (which you have to walk through the entire house to get to), there is a sense of calm after the visual overload you are subjected to beforehand.

I know Mucha’s work well, but what is impressive about this exhibition is actually seeing the life-size posters rather than reproductions in design books. Getting to see the work at this scale bought home to me once again just how important he was to the development of not just poster art but to Graphic Design, (poster art being the precursor trade before the concept of the ‘graphic designer’ emerged). His typographic excellence is something to be truly admired, and both his use of graphic architecture within an artwork to frame the subject/steer the viewer as well as his incorporation of type into the actual image must have appeared revolutionary in its day.

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One thing that did strike me for the first time, seeing the work up close, was that in much of the early work he wasn’t particularly good at drawing facial features. In many pieces I felt there was a tentative hand at work when working in these areas whereas he displayed sheer confidence in figures, illustration, graphic patterns and typography. His execution improved as his techniques developed, but this difference was noticeable to me for the first time on looking at this early work at their intended size.

The exhibition isn’t large, it only occupies two rooms, but it does also include a video of his life, photography of some of his models which he would later draw from, and examples of packaging alongside preliminary sketches. All in all it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area and is on until 27 September 2015. The entrance fee is £5, (inclusive of house).

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I was tempted to write about this a few weeks ago when it first hit the news that Virgin were going to adorn their credit cards with Sex Pistols’ artwork. On top of my initial revulsion I then saw this advert and considering it so wrong on so many levels, I didn’t quite know where to start.

However, the original Sex Pistols’ designer, Jamie Reid, probably says it best in this letter which is a response to an article in The Guardian about the cards by Johnny Sharp.

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“Dear Johnny,
In response to your G2 piece FILTY LUCRE, I can only express my complete disgust at the use of my art work for the VIRGIN credit cards. It seems typical of the times we live in. Especially with the Tory (bankers) victory in the last election. It seems so removed from the original 1977 spirit of the Pistols but to be sure these times of questioning and change and alternatives will come again.
As the original artists I have no rights over its usage. Virgin have the rights to use it as they like.
If it was up to me I would never agree to such usage.
Yours Jamie Reid”

Reid has also responded with some new artwork on his website titled The Death of Money: Anarchy and Revolution 1977—Abhorrence and Revulsion 2015 

I couldn’t put it better myself. That said, it did amuse me to see that Reid doesn’t seem to have the same ‘disgust’ for collaborating with Fred Perry and adorning their shirts with some of his work. Fred Perry say of the collaboration: “Some 40 years on his work continues to inspire individuality and free-thinking…Jamie Reid’s three designs speak of both his wit and sense of rebellion”. ‘Sense of rebellion’ rather than actual rebellion would be about right, but then I suppose as Fred Perry aren’t bankers, turning rebellion into money, to quote Strummer, isn’t such a problem for Reid.

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I too look forward to seeing ‘times of questioning and change and alternatives’ come again Jamie.

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It’s that time of year again when Graphic Design and Graphic Illustration students at UCS start preparing for their End of Year Show. This year’s cohort have titled their show Blink, and are showcasing their work and advertising the show with the launch of a website and Twitter feed.

The UCS Arts and Humanities End of Year Show also features work from Photography, Film, Fine Art, Interior Architecture and Design, Computer Games Design, Dance, History and English degree courses, as well as some collaborative work between second year Graphic Design and English students. The Private View is on 4 June, 18:00–21:00, with the Graphic Design course taking pride of place for the first time in the Waterfront Gallery alongside Photography in the Waterfront Building lobby. The rest of the course shows are housed in the Arts Building. The public view runs from 5–14 June, including weekends.

Below is a piece I wrote for the UCS website:
The Graphic Design show at UCS has developed a reputation for showcasing exciting and professionally realised work, demonstrating students’ ability to progress into employment straight from their degree. This year will be no different and students are proud to be displaying their work in the Waterfront Gallery for the first time.

Exhibited work will include final projects alongside their professional portfolios which demonstrate the skills and creativity students have been honing over the duration of their course. As well as this, there will be a showcase of work created for placement projects with BBC Worldwide and Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Creative Directors from both organisations will be visiting UCS on the day of the Private View to look through the work and interview students before awarding placements. 

Course Leader Nigel Ball says: “On behalf of the course team, I can honestly say it has been a pleasure to work with this group of students over their time on the course. Every year it is highly rewarding to reflect on the individual and collective journeys of our students who are about to go out into the world and become the next wave of designers and illustrators shaping our visual environment. Year on year we see more of our graduates gaining employment within a very short period of time after finishing their degrees—the professionalism and creativity this year group have displayed throughout their time at UCS leads us to believe they will be no different. It was only 2 years ago as first year students that they designed the graphics for the End Of Year Show 2013, a very public arena for first year students to be working in. Now it is time for them to shine in their own exhibition. We wish them the greatest success for their futures.”

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A large corner of my loft is stacked with vinyl records, mostly 12″ LPs, but there is a smaller pile of 7″ singles. They are going to stay there, save for the odd time I want to change the artwork in my three album-art frames that deck our landing. It is fair to say I haven’t jumped on the supposed vinyl revival—there’s already enough nostalgia in the world, I don’t need any more.

What I do miss about vinyl is the sleeves, hence my love of my album-art frames. Unfortunately 7″ single sleeves were never quite as explorative and there are few I can recall that deserve being displayed; a couple by The Clash, Sex Pistols or The Smiths maybe, but generally the design of 7″ single sleeves wasn’t anywhere as near as engaging as their LP counterparts, being more of a disposable commodity. But that’s certainly not the case with the recent Secret 7″ exhibition at Somerset House that I accidentally stumbled on last week when visiting Pick Me Up 2015. Secret 7″ is a project in its third year that chooses 7 tracks and presses each to 7″ vinyl. The organisers then invite designers and artists to interpret the tracks as they see fit and submit a cover, displayed anonymously, which the public can then buy for £50 apiece. All money goes to charity, and this year the chosen beneficiary is Nordoff Robbins, who are dedicated to transforming lives of vulnerable children and adults through music therapy. Like similar secret postcard projects, you don’t know whether you are buying a future collectors’ piece by a famous creative, or something whipped up by someone’s 5 year old daughter, (which could equally be a future collectors’ piece, of course).

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It is interesting to browse the racks not knowing who produced what and trying to guess the track. Many are clearly ‘just’ artworks that make no attempt to represent or link to their musical content. The fact that no title or band name is displayed obviously separates these sleeves from a standard 7″ sleeve—while some designers of commercial records have previously and deliberately not listed a band or track title on a cover, it is still the case that the vast majority of record sleeves do have this information adorning them, as obviously the reason d’être of the 7″ single from a record company’s point of view is to sell as many units as possible. But seeing so many sleeves displayed in one place with no typographic indication of band or title, I felt does reduce this exercise, in some cases, to appealing to an artist’s vanity and results in purely aesthetic outcomes rather than embracing communication—much like Pick Me Up, I felt there was a fair amount of style over substance. Regardless, taking a standard form and asking a plethora of people to work within its confines does lead to some interesting and innovative outcomes.

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I was personally taken with those creatives that had worked with photography, especially as the vast majority of the sleeves were illustrative. As a result, the photography pieces did tend to jump out to my eyes.

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Alongside the rows and rows of sleeves, seven designers were asked to create a bespoke poster for one of the 7′ tracks chosen. These posters were also available to buy for £50 but limited to a 100 print run and included submissions from Erik Spiekermann, Craig Ward, Spin, The Counter Press, Peter Bankov, Felix Pfäffli and Bread Collective.

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Unfortunately I’m writing this post on the last day the exhibition is open. However, the sale of the sleeves doesn’t start until tomorrow, 4 May 2015, so there’s still a chance to grab a 7″ single sleeve and give money to a good cause. Go to the Secret 7″ website for more details.

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The selected tracks for 2015 are:
The Chemical Brothers—Let Forever Be
Diana Ross and the Supremes—Reflections
The Maccabees—Go
Peter Gabriel—Sledgehammer
The Rolling Stones—Dead Flowers
St. Vincent—Digital Witness
Underworld—Born Slippy (Nuxx)

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And while on the subject of singles:

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I’m pleased to have had work added to the ‘Agit-Prop Army’ of images on Occupy Design’s Time To Act webpage. Submit your posters and memes for the Climate Movement to help their campaign on the streets of Paris in December and on social media throughout 2015.

As Occupy Design say:

Time is running out. Climate Change is happening and without a serious global plan to replace our profit driven, fossil fuelled economy our very existence as a species is threatened this century.

But the Climate Crisis is not just a threat but an opportunity to chart a different course, one that shifts the Economy away from Capitalism to one that is more just, democratic and resilient that we all can share.

2015 is a crucial year for the climate. In December, governments will come together in Paris at the COP21 UN Climate Summit to strike a new deal for the climate—we must make our voices heard, we know that they will not act unless we make them and we can no longer accept more of the same.

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