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When I was a design student there didn’t seem to be an abundance of books about graphic design. There were obviously some, such as recommended canons on the discipline like Meggs’ History of Graphic Design, but they were few and far between. And none, to my eyes, seemed particularly contemporary in their approach to relating to the subject.

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Thankfully this is no longer the case. In the last ten years there has been an explosion in the amount of books published about the subject, from self-published/vanity monographs to historical re-tellings, from exhibition tie-ins to in-depth breakdowns of the process of designing. Academic/student friendly publishing houses such as AVA, (now under Bloomsbury), and Laurence King have gone a long way to help those studying graphic design today, and it is likely that the growth of undergraduate graphic design students over the last 10 years has created a captive audience.

One publishing house that is worthy of praise for its output in the last few years is Unit Editions. Set up in 2009 by Tony Brook of Spin, and Adrian Shaughnessy, previously of Intro, their first releases trickled slowly onto the market but quickly established a standard of exceptional quality in both the critical content and production values. Their output has increased dramatically since then, and in the last 18 months alone they’ve published monographs on over-looked designers; FHK Henrion, Herb Lubalin and Ken Garland. They’ve also produced a study on contemporary expressive typography: Type Only, and a collection of Shaughnessy’s writing collated from various websites and magazines that he contributes to, titled Scratching The Surface.

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The lavish production values of FHK Henrion monograph: Unit Editions—2013. (Photo: Unit Editions.)

Brook and Shaughnessy describe Unit Editions as producing books “for designers by designers”. While it is true that the latter two publications mentioned above do add to an introspective discourse about contemporary graphic design practice, and the designer/publishers have been showcased on many design blogs such as It’s Nice That, I believe that what Unit Editions are doing is much more than just ‘for designers’.

The desire to showcase designers that have become ‘lost’ in the fog of design history, such as Henrion et al, is obviously a desire to pay these people their dues. The research into their past; how they became designers; what underpinned their practice, (in terms of personal ethos); as well as the excellent archiving of their life’s work, should also be of great interest to those outside of the discipline as well as to designers. For to document their contributions to society at large is to showcase their relevence to popular culture. It is difficult to read Structure and Substance without getting the sense that Garland is dedicated to making the best work he can for the end user. The fact that these designers understood who they were creating work for underpinned an ethos of responsibility in their thinking about graphic design that fed into the aesthetic appeal of what they produced. When you then consider that their work has influenced the world we see around us today by feeding into the evolution of graphic design and how the viewer reads visual communications in their everyday, it is fair to say they also helped to fashion social history.

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Spread from Ken Garland, Structure and Substance: Unit Editions—2012. (Photo: Unit Editions.)

It is interesting to note that at the conferences Graphic Design: History In The Making, and Critical Tensions, both held at St Bride Library in 2011, several speakers discussed the standing of graphic design history and graphic design practice in the eyes of the general public. At the latter, Jonathan Barnbrook spoke of graphic designers being the lowest regarded ‘arts’ discipline after advertising, while the history themed conference debated why graphic design was not afforded the respect with which art history is bestowed. While it is fair to claim that many graphic designers have chips on their shoulders, these are still relevant debating points. To address the issue of design history’s standing, someone speaking from the floor at History In The Making stated that graphic design can only ever be judged by non-designers in relation to its original context. In other words, a designs’ reason for existence is what it should be judged against. And in my mind, Unit Editions have come closest to publishing books on what is generally an inward-looking discipline that are accessible, and attractive, to a much wider audience than just designers.

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Spread from Ken Garland, Structure and Substance: Unit Editions—2012. (Photo: Unit Editions.)

I will look forward to the publications that will come out of Unit Editions during 2014, as well as those that other publishing houses produce. Unlike when I was a student, it is fair to say that books about graphic design have never been in ruder health. The bonus that they could be seen as of great importance in documenting social history is one I think that should be championed, and could go a long way to repositioning graphic design in the mind of the general public.

For more on Unit Editions and design books in general, then check out this excellent interview with Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy on Designers & Books.

Well, I’ve been back at the day job for a week now and my summer holiday seems like a distant memory. So before it stretches back any further, I thought I should post some of the cultural highlights from our two weeks away.

First up, we stumbled across the Bubble Car Museum when in Lincolnshire, and what a find. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and all I really hoped was that they had a Bond Bug, because I had a Dinky toy version as a little boy. But it has to be said, this was a gem of a little museum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the outside the museum looked like a small shed, and I half expected to just see a few rusting, half refurbished cars. But no, the place was rammed with these amazing vehicles. There was something optimistic about these 700cc or less cars and bikes—futuristic and weirdly beautiful. And the museum curators had done an excellent job of displaying them all, trying to put them into context with mock-ups of 1950s shop fronts, front rooms and kitchens around the two exhibition rooms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis museum is highly recommended and it has a great little no nonsense cafe with adjoining campsite. I think we might be bringing the tent next time we visit Lincolnshire.

On the drive home, as mentioned here, we went via the north Norfolk coast. Having holidayed there for several summers we stopped off in Cley-Next-the-Sea hoping to catch their summer art exhibition, Cley 13, usually held in the village church. This year in a field next to the graveyard, as we approached the church, we were greeted by these wonderful bird sculptures.

Created by artist Jessica Perry and the children of Stalham High School, they certainly grabbed your attention. And while there was interesting work on display in the church, it is very much like a very well crafted and presented college foundation course end of year show. Good, but not exactly challenging.  However, these birds were just fun and unpretentious and as a result blew everything else away.

We took a couple days out in London in the second week of our holiday. We were lucky enough to have been bought membership of the Royal Academy as a present so decided to check out the Summer Show for the first time. As I’d only ever seen it on TV before, it was interesting to see it in the flesh, but ultimately, it is a difficult thing to review, what with so much on show. However, it was quite a good way to assess your tastes, as we ended up just looking at what immediately grabbed our attention. With most exhibitions we go to being themed or of a single artist/designer, just letting your instincts and knee-jerk judgements kick in was refreshing, and almost the only way to react to such an overwhelming display of work. I found several pieces that I really liked, but equally was surprised by many of the entries being allow in. An ultimate favourite for me though had to be the Greyson Perry tapestries, most of which were created in response to his TV programme on taste. Seeing them in their full glory, and being able to concentrate of their detail and the narrative they told, only went to confirm my opinion that the man is an illustrator rather than a fine artist, especially with his work deviating from pottery.

While at the RA, we also took the opportunity to see the Mexico: A Revolution in Art 1910–1940, which I loved. It hadn’t had great reviews, but the fact it was a mix of painting and photography, I thought made it a strong documentary on the the changes and difficulties that Mexico faced during this time period.

While in London, we also took in the Ibrahim El-Salahi exhibition, some of who’s drawings blew me away. This was shown alongside Meschac Gaba’s Museum of Contemporary African Art, which was sort of a museum within a gallery.

TateGaba’s show was really refreshing, not least because you were allowed to take photographs. Gaba wants to challenge the notion of what a museum/gallery should be, and over the years adds new ‘rooms’ to this travelling show, encourages audience participation, (in the first room there was a large Jenga type game for people to interact with), and showcases his life and work as part of the show, (he even had large scale photographs of his wedding and wedding gifts on display as an exhibit!). I wasn’t overly impressed with his individual pieces of work, with its over reliance on symbolism and a sense of having seen similar approaches done much better, but then the Museum has become an artwork in its own right. As a whole, it is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. And what he is trying to achieve with challenging the notion of an exhibition was a joy to behold and completely refreshing.

Gaba's wedding photographs and gifts

Gaba’s wedding photographs and gifts

Just the fact that I’m able to publish photographs here that I took in the exhibition, and couldn’t photograph anything and publish it here form the, arguable much stronger, El-Salahi show, is testament to breath of fresh air this approach filled me with. Why can’t you take (non-flash) photographs in exhibitions? I’ve always thought it was fucking rediculous.

Lastly, while in London, we met up with Claire’s daughter and they both went off to watch a show at The Globe, which was a present from Callie to her mother for her birthday. So I took myself off the Design Museum. It was a shame because the whole place felt like it was winding down, readying itself for its move across London to its new building in 2014/15. But despite there being an air of the place being unloved, the Future Is Here exhibition was genuinely interesting, once I got my head around what it was about. It basically gathers together examples of new ways of working and designing/producing goods, including crowdsourcing ideas, 3D printing, producing construction materials on a building site, and small scale robot construction. These themes and exhibits, when taken collectively, demonstrated how manufacturing processes are changing around us and how new methods of industry were being formed in the now. The Design Museum was half proposing we are in times of a new industrial revolution, and while I’m not completely convinced, it was a thought provoking experience.

As if to reinforce the feeling that the museum is ‘winding down’, it had on display items from its collection themed into six categories rather than the usual second commissioned exhibition. While it is good to see this work coming out of the closet, and promises much for the new bigger space the museum will have in Kensington, (with some of their collection being on permanent display), it did give the impression that energies and finances were being diverted elsewhere. That said, I naturally made a beeline for the graphic design section, and it was good to see Calvert and Kinneir‘s road signage templates:

Maidenheadand the Design Research Unit‘s branding guidelines for British Rail:

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Google image search results for Storm Thorgerson

It was very sad news to hear of the death of Storm Thorgerson last month. Without a shadow of a doubt, Thorgerson was one of the greatest album sleeve designers ever and there are probably few record collections that don’t boast some of his work amongst their ranks.

It was refreshing to hear the reverence with which he was held in news reports and in discussions with friends. It was interesting to consider that some of those that mourned his passing may not even have previously known know his name, (nor that of Hipgnosis), but knew the work extremely well. This is testament to his enormous talent as much as because they recognised the work in relation to their  favourite bands. It is also interesting to consider that during these pronouncements, Thorgerson has himself become a metaphor by which to mourn the ‘good old days’ of vinyl.

However,  and here is where I commit graphic design sacrilege: I don’t actually like his work.

So there is a dichotomy at work here—how can I praise someone so much, admire their output and recognise its importance, while at the same time not actually liking it? This cognitive dissonance boils down to the fact of what Thorgerson was—a brilliant graphic designer. In an interview with Adrian Shaughnessy, of which aspects were reprinted in Thorgerson’s Creative Review’s obituary, he says: “All I try to do is represent the music.” In this one statement, he hits the nail on the head. As I don’t like the music he is designing for, it is only right, that if he is trying to represent that music, that I don’t like the imagery. But I can recognise its effectiveness all the same. Thorgerson has done his job brilliantly, and not attracted me, because I’m not the desired audience.

In reading through the discography on Wikipedia of the hundreds of album sleeves that Hipgnosis designed in their career—not to mention what Thorgerson did after their demise—I think I could list about eight records I actually like. Take Pink Floyd for example, I have never liked their post-Barrett output believing it to be pompous, cryptic, arrogant, nerdy, polished, and far too serious. I’ve always felt it to be stripped of the psychedelic drug induced experimentalism that made early Floyd so great with Barrett, (who also happened to write some killer pop hooks).  And as I cut my musical teeth in the late 1970s and early 1980s during post-punk, where playful and experimental records could make it into the pop charts, where there was a broadening of musical horizons rather, such terms as pompous, cryptic, arrogant, nerdy and polished, collectively have negative associations for me.  But Thorgerson brilliantly illustrates these in his cryptic, overblown set pieces full of knowing metaphors and forced school boy humour, yet devoid of any rough edges and any sense of irony. The one sleeve that Hipgnosis produced that stands head and shoulders above anything else they did during their reign, in my opinion, is XTC’s Go2. See previous Dubdog posts over on Blogger where I’ve discussed this sleeve extensively.

When thinking about album sleeve design, there are a few designers that have become synonymous with the medium that I really admire, such as Barney Bubbles, Malcolm Garrett, Stanley Donwood, and Julian House; but there are also many un-tutored designers who remain un-credited whose work I would just as easily hang on my wall. There are also plenty of examples of bands who have created their own artwork which are equally as effective as professional designers, and record labels, such as Constellation Records, who steer an aesthetic visual tone through the label’s output. Regardless of the scenario, if an album sleeve works, then it is generally because the author shares the same rationale as Thorgerson when creating the work—to represent the music. And as in book jacket design, if a graphic designer is doing their job properly, tutored or otherwise, you absolutely should be able to judge a record by its sleeve.

I saw Storm Thorgerson interviewed by Adrian Shaughnessy at D&AD XChange in 2009, and he proved to be a likeable rogue; slightly arrogant and antagonistic but a natural raconteur with a huge wit. The fact he wasn’t overly mobile, and that he needed several helpers to aid him on and off the stage, (as well as to give out postcards of his work to the entire audience, which was a nice touch), it was obvious that this larger than life character wasn’t in the best of health. Therefore I wasn’t completely surprised to hear of his passing. But regardless of my personal tastes dictating my knee-jerk reactions to the work he did for bands I didn’t like, his graphic design and music legacy is an important one, and I have nothing but utmost respect for the man and his enormous talent. The world is a poorer place for his passing and all music lovers, regardless of taste, owe him an enormous debt. RIP Storm Thorgerson.

My first article for Eye magazine’s blog was published today. It is available to read here.

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Someday All The Adults Will Die: Punk Graphics 1971–1984, opened at the Hayward Gallery last week.

Crass stencil

To coincide with the opening private view, curator Johan Kugelberg hosted a panel discussion of some key designers involved in early punk graphics, along with cyberpunk author William Gibson. Apologising for co-curator Jon Savage’s absence—who was very punk by being on holiday with his mum—Kugelberg introduced Gee Vaucher, who created all the graphics that surrounded Crass‘ musical output, Tony Drayton of Ripped & Torn fanzine fame, and John Holmstrom, the man behind the American Punk magazine.

The discussion was pushed along admirably by Kugelberg, prompting anecdotes from Gibson about hearing both The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers, and Velvet Underground’s first LP within weeks of each other on their release in 1967. He came away thinking the Velvets the more important work because of the shock value it contained, and the fact that lots of people didn’t like it. (I have to say I agree with him.) Holmstrom also spoke about the impact of seeing the Ramones in 1974, and Vaucher about how Freddie Laker’s cheap air fairs helped punk bands play across the Atlantic divide. However, it was strange how music only entered the discussion as a separate entirety from graphic design, and I came away thinking it disappointing that the relationship between the similar creative processes involved in making punk music and punk graphics wasn’t discussed in any depth. This may be a result of Vaucher and Holmstrom’s art school background—they weren’t untutored kids working it out for themselves in the same way that many bands and artists were. While Vaucher’s work may look like photomontage, the anti-art form first championed by Dada artists, it is in fact painted in gouache. But to overlook the relationship between creative approaches to different art forms, and how similar processes arguably tied them together, is a glaring omission.

Gee Vaucher’s punk self-commentry—The Sex Pistols become figureheads of the State.

Refreshingly, Tony Drayton, while not explicitly talking about musicianship, or lack of it, did discuss making his first rough and ready Ripped & Torn fanzine, and how speaking to The Damned at the bar of one of their gigs became the interview he would include in one of the issues. Initially being inspired by Mark P’s Sniffin’ Glue, he created his own version using a photocopier at his place of work. Producing only 10 copies, he sent several out to, among others, Compendium bookshop in London, and was then shocked to get a request for 200 more for them to sell. This legitimisation and acceptance into the ‘scene’ was one of the most interesting aspects raised. And in fact, when looking around the exhibition itself, the sense of ‘anyone can do it’ shines through. The buzz of creating something, of it becoming a legitimate artefact through production, something you’d only previously seen professionals making, helped to launch many a career. Sure, there is a lot of poor artwork on display here, as you would expect. But the fact that punk allowed those who hadn’t gone, (or even dreamt of going), to art school to find an innate talent and drive, is one of the truly revolutionary things about the movement, both musically and graphically. Add to this the raw nature of much of the visuals, their aesthetic dictated by limited means of production, and ideas and content rise above concerns about production values. The immediacy, even urgency of the process, is obvious in much of the work throughout the exhibition, which further creates a kinetic energy to what is displayed.

It is good to see that Kugelberg and Savage have included early situationist texts and graphics here too. Debord and Atelier Populaire are on display, along with King Mob, who up until this point I had only read about and never actually seen any of their visual output. The politics of these movements are echoed throughout much of the punk music graphics, particularly that of Crass. These influences are obvious and this fluid idea of what punk graphics are eschews what Vaucher called the ‘BBC or Guardian filter’ of what constitutes punk in mainstream media. The exhibition is also interesting because much of the work wasn’t created with longevity in mind. Thanks to the personal collections of Kugelberg and Dial House, (Penny Rimbaud and Gee Vaucher’s communal house that was home to Crass Records for many years), this important exhibition showcases a period that touches design, music, politics and cultural history, and is available for all to see with the potential of reaching an even bigger audience than much of it did first time around.

Someday… private view

All in all, the discussion panel was thought provoking. I proudly came away with a Crass stencil that Kugelberg had made using an original Crass cut out on display in the exhibition, to raise money for Pussy Riot. The influence of punk, and punk itself, as he claimed, lives on.

Someday All The Adults Will Die: Punk Graphics 1971–1984, continues at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 4 November, and is highly recommended.

P.S Apologies for the poor quality of the private view image—blame the ridiculous ‘no photos’ policy of British galleries resulting in hasty shooting.

I read about Signal: A Journal of International Political Graphics & Culture, when Rick Poynor reviewed issue 02 for Design Observer recently, and his is a much better critique of this journal than I could give here, so I’ll keep this brief. Published in the United States, issue 01 came out in 2010, and went totally under my radar. Now, in 2012, the second edition has been released, I snapped up both as soon as I could. If you are at all interested in political/agitational graphic design, then they come highly recommended. However, I couldn’t promote one over the other as both are as packed with diverse and inspirational content as each other.

The latest issue features articles about Portuguese street murals; a painter from Mozambique called Malangatana Valente Nguenha, ; spreads of front covers of British Anarchist newspaper Freedom, from 1908 to 1917; and Gestetner Art, among other things.

Issue 01 features the adventures of Red Rat, a comic strip by Van de Weert that evolved from the Dutch punk and squatting scene in the early 1980s; Mexican protest graphics that surrounded the Mexico 68 Olympics; the Taller Tupac Amaru printmaking collective; and graffiti artist Impeach, whose work travels the United States subverting ‘wild style’ graffiti on subway trains into Wild West style graffiti on freight trains.

What I like most about this journal, edited by Alec Icky Dunn and Josh MacPhee, is the exploration of different cultures, examining work and contexts that don’t necessarily crop up in books about political graphic design. That, and the mix of historical and contemporary work. Both these things keep this small book alive and relevant, and stops it being filed under history with out any relevance to the modern day. There are some obvious ‘go to’ books for those interested in political visual communication: Liz McQuiston’s two volume set titled Graphic Agitation, Milton Glaser’s The Design of Dissent, and the recently published and excellent Beauty Is In The Street by Johan Kugelberg & Philippe Vermes. However, because Signal is published as a journal, it gives the wide range of contexts and material discussed a connection to the here and now, a relevant voice that suggests a continuation rather than a static recording.

Now that I’ve found Signal, I just hope the gap between issue 02 and 03 isn’t as great.

When Claire and I decided to rip out our old, dark wood fitted kitchen, over 10 years ago, it coincided with my Mum becoming an executor for an old family friend who had died. In being charged with clearing their bungalow in Clacton, my Mum didn’t know what to do with the stainless steel Paul kitchen units they had. As she pondered taking them to the local dump, Claire and I shouted, “we’ll have them”, and they’ve stood in our kitchen ever since. However, this post isn’t about how incredibly lucky we were to get hold of these domestic beauties, but about the brochures that came with them, for Fred, the family friend who had passed away, kept all paperwork for everything he had ever bought. As my Mum went through some of this immense amount of paperwork, she came across some wonderful brochures for the W. H. Paul kitchen units that he must have ordered before deciding to make a purchase. I found them again a couple of weeks ago, and thought I would share these relics of a time gone by. As brochures for such items become less and less common, largely due, I guess, to the Internet, and any that are still produced tend to have much less personality than these Mad Men-esque historical documents, they become a fascinating view on early 1960s domestic aspirations.

Below, the cover of one of the many brochures obtained before Fred decided on which units to go for:

The illustrations in this brochure are fantastic, and the graphic devices of blue rectangles and dotted yellow strips to break up the information on the page are evocative of early 1960s layout, pre-modernisms’ Helvetica & photography driven homogeneity, they fashionably signal that these items are desirable and contemporary statement pieces.

Celebrity endorsement isn’t just a recent phenomenon, as Vivien Leigh professes her love of a Paul kitchen.

Meet Mr W. H. Paul…

Plan your kitchen layout:


Brochure cover with metal ‘Metal Craft’ Paul logo attached.

Unfortunately the sink unit we got didn’t have this ‘secret’ Wash Wonder component.

Other Paul wonders available, the Warma and Warmette.

Looking somewhat different to the illustrations and photographs in the brochures; the sink unit in our kitchen. I wonder whether Vivien Leigh would approve?

The accompanying letters found with these brochures tell that Fred bought the units in 1961, directly from W. H. Paul Limited, in Breaston, Derby. 52 years later, the brochure claims are as good as their word, and there isn’t a trace of rust on any of them. This is lucky for us, as a quick search on Google doesn’t seem to tell whether W. H. Paul are still in business, so we may have had trouble claiming against the lifetime guarantee if there was a trace of rust on them.

Mark Stewart w/ fig rolls

It is good to see that BBC4’s Punk Britannia ended on a high note as it looked at Post Punk, after my previous comments here. I was not in the mood to be disappointed, having blown out a gig I really wanted to go to because I felt unwell earlier in the day, (sorry Rocky). Several medicinal whiskeys later, and laying on the sofa, I was braced for an anticlimax to an anticlimax. But it did the period of 1978–1981 some justice, with most of the key names present; The Fall, Magazine, PiL, Gang of Four, The Slits, Wire, etc. It strayed into anarcho-punk, electronica, and Two Tone, but still took a wide berth around industrial music. There was much else missing as well, just like in the previous programme, and again, it focussed mostly on music. Although their was a brief section that broke off to talk about how Rough Trade changed the music industry; there was still a distinct lack of discussion about other art, design and media revolutions in the wake of punk, such as fashion, publishing, broadcasting and graphic design.

The harking on about the grimness of the 1970s started to grate after a while, but the talking heads were genuinely funny, despite the austere music that came from many of them. Jah Wobble eulogised his love of bass, and clay pigeon shooting, (!); Mark E Smith slurred along with a can of Tennents ever present, (the logo was blurred, I guess, at Tennents’ request of not wanting him to be an advert for their product, rather than advertising censorship from the beeb); Colin and Graham from Wire came across like an old married couple as Graham objected to Colin stating they were grumpy old grand dads; and Mark Stewart out-quoted John Lydon, having Claire and I in stitches of laughter at various points: “Punk is about experimenting… not about some fat fart lecturing you about Punk on BBC4”, with his packet of fig rolls on the coffee table as ever present as Smith’s can of lager.

If you know nothing of any of the bands discussed in this post, go watch the programme, this one felt at least a little educational, and is certainly entertaining.

The BBC is doing Punk this month, with Punk Britannia on BBC4 on Friday nights, along with a host of associated programmes, while 6music is having a month of Punk with guest DJs and themed programming.

A month is a long time, especially when most things I’ve watched and heard so far are bereft of analysis; tending to veer between re-documentation and nostalgia. In the words of Crass, I’m left asking, ‘so what?’

Here’s a round up so far:
Firstly, the good. The Evidently…John Cooper Clarke documentary was excellent. Intelligent, honest, respectful and it held no prisoners in terms of discussing Clarke’s heroin addiction. None of the ‘stay away from drugs, kids’ patronising schtick you usually get from celebrities who come out the other side of smack. With John Cooper Clarke it is more a case of it happened, he moved on, he survives. The messages are left for the audience to deduce, and the fact he couldn’t write for almost 20 years while under the influence, with his regret written across his face, says more than any rhetoric could. Clips of him reading his poetry were mixed from different eras, with some (unusually) perceptive talking head pieces from those that have been long time fans. Well worth watching, and the best thing that has been on so far.
This Friday BBC4 screened an Arena special called Who is Poly Styrene? Made in 1979, it follows the band X-Ray Spex in the studio, sound checking, and in the back of a van on the road, with a rambling monologue from Poly Styrene herself. It had a distinctively fitting ‘distant’ feel, and Poly came across phased and remote most of the time. The overall effect was compelling, and very 1979.
The previous week I fell asleep through much of We Who Wait: TV Smith & The Adverts, which appeared interesting, but not enough to keep me awake. But then I never ‘got’ The Adverts, and have had many arguments with friends about their supposed greatness.
I have so far missed the first two month of Sunday’s guest DJ slots on 6music, where John Lydon and Siouxsie Sioux chose records to play, but I have caught some ridiculous features on different programmes, such as listeners phoning in with their most ‘punk moment’, “but nothing illegal please”, came the caveat from Nemone this morning. Hmmmm! Unfortunately, I will have to listen to this trite again as I missed the interview with Viv Albertine of The Slits.

In terms of the flagship programming for this series though, the Punk Britannia Friday night triptych, it has so far been a mixed, and disappointing bag. The first looked at Pre-Punk, and was genuinely interesting, discussing how pub rock in the mid 1970s helped to fuel the desire for live music in London for anything that wasn’t Prog Rock. However, it completely failed to mention the importance from the US music scene, in terms of what followed. I understand that this series is about British music, but the influence of The Stooges and MC5, et al, was completely overlooked. The fact that these bands created the musical aesthetic which so many of the early British Punk bands styled themselves on, is a massive oversight. And the omissions continued into the second episode—first screened this Friday—which failed to mention many bands within the UK Punk scene in 1976 and 77, focusing mostly on the scene bands. Where were Eater, Wire, X Ray Spex, Alternative TV; to name but a few? And what of band wagon jumpers like The Lurkers, Nine Nine Nine, The Vibrators etc? All these bands were just as important as the majors to the story, regardless of quality. This is especially true because their inclusion would have demonstrated record companies moving in for the kill, and an over saturation of similarly sounding bands which ultimately made the Punk Rock aesthetic boring and obvious. Further to the musical aspect of this movement, the contextual story being told was one that has oft been repeated; Pistols held back from No 1—tick. River boat antics—tick. Spitting—tick. Safety pins—tick. Swearing on television—tick. It was so obvious and a missed opportunity to go beyond this nostalgic rough ride through the facts. What about Situationism, Dada and nihilism? What about the importance of Punk in influencing other mediums outside of music; from publishing and fashion to broadcasting and film?

Of the three episodes in this series, I always suspected the middle one, focussing on 1976–78, would be the weakest. Well, until the Post-Punk episode has aired next week, I can’t be certain, but it is looking that way. I truly hope the BBC doesn’t fuck up Post-Punk, being, in my mind, much more of an important time in music than either Pre-Punk or Punk itself. And it is a story that doesn’t get much of a showcase. Most of my music tastes were formed by this period in popular music history—Public Image Ltd., Wire, Gang Of Four, Magazine, The Au Pairs, Pop Group, The Fall, Crass; and on into Two Tone and early British industrial/electronic music. These innovative and explorative bands are the truly exciting things to come out of Punk, much more so than the Pistols, Clash and Damned. However, I’m not holding my breath that the BBC will do it justice. To do that, they should just set Simon Reynold’s Rip It Up And Start Again book to film, job done.

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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