The Price of Freedom


The Harley-Davidson product home page currently celebrates “110 years of freedom”.

Its page on tailored finance products, courtesy of Harley-Davidson finance (a trading name of Black Horse Limited) tells us how we can pay for our freedom.


Freedom subject to status. Indemnities may be required. To obtain a quotation please contact your local authorised dealer.

Branding the Absence of a Brand

You make a product.


You brand that product.


You develop a superior product and create a sub brand to distinguish it from the original product.


You develop an even more superior product and create another sub brand to distinguish it from both the original product and the previously released superior product.


Then you create a sub brand for your original product to distinguish it from both superior products.


Now you have a sub brand based on the fact that it isn’t either of the other two sub brands. You’ve branded the absence of a brand.

When you have a successful name people trust, your standard brand image, the one adorning your most basic of products, can actually become too good. People trust your name so much that they’ll always buy your cheapest option, making you less money than you otherwise could. So you find a way to make the basic product seem a little less desirable and the premium one somehow less superfluous, and the consumer is nudged to spend a little more.

With “Ultra” we get a jogging bunny. With “Plus” we get a friendly wave. With “Simply” we get penny pinching.

We might well be in the position of buying a premium brand, so things can’t be going that badly. But to go “Simply” is to admit to ourselves that life hasn’t turned out quite as well as we’d hoped.


Designing for Social Causes: The ‘Healthy Sausage Sizzles Less’ Paradox

That famous advertising mantra “sell the sizzle, not the sausage” brings attention to the fact that so much consumer spending is governed by our hearts rather than our heads. The art of skilful advertising, branding and marketing (different disciplines of the same game in my view) is to locate and exploit that very specific point where the inherent qualities of a product or service intersect a basic irrational human desire.

Red Bull is my favourite example of sausage playing distant second fiddle to sizzle. Their logo doesn’t represent a beverage. It represents the highest, the strongest, the fastest, the most daring. It’s base jumping, rock climbing, snowboarding. Formula 1, number one, win win win. Look at their homepage and see how long it takes to locate a reference to the actual drink on what appears to be primarily a sports news website. Yes, drowsy shift workers may well justify that fizzy caffeine hit as a rational purchase, but it’s on the shelves because Red Bull is in the business of selling action, and business is good.

Even tediously rational products are sold in the same way. The brochures for gas combi boilers come stuffed with images of healthy family lifestyles in designer houses we all aspire to inhabit. That ubiquitous mundanity the headache tablet isn’t a mix of chemicals designed to reduce fever or inflammation in humans; it’s targeted pain relief that heads straight to the heart of the problem with knowing, pinpoint precision. Toilet roll isn’t absorbent paper designed for the removal of post defecation faecal matter; it’s quilted decadent luxury or the soft fur of a faithful, playful puppy. Throughout my entire youth I assumed sanitary towels were something to do with rollerblading.

The task is simple. Find the easy sell. Turn the inherent qualities of your client into a sizzle that’ll be an easy sell. Forget the mashed eyeballs, minced testicles and artery clogging cholesterol of a sausage the head knows it should avoid. Make the heart aware of the sizzle instead and watch the world chow down on the pig giblet.

It’s all so easy. Appealing to the heart is easy. Do you know why? Because the heart is an idiot. Listening to our hearts is why people stay in abusive relationships. Why we continue to piss away the resources we rely on as a species. It’s why our homes were transformed from necessities to commodities and now have monetary values far in excess of what they’re actually worth. It’s why we continue to spend money on goods we don’t need despite facing ever increasing levels of forced austerity.

Yes, the heart is an idiot easily swayed. Deeply ingrained human desires are easy to exploit, they’re the easy pickings on which the capitalist system is hinged. But the head is something altogether different. The head is sensible. The head is cynical, logical, analytical, and this is where the paradox lies. It can be much, much harder to convince people of the worth of something genuinely, measurably, quantifiably worthwhile than it is to convince them there’s worth in something genuinely, measurably, quantifiably worthless.

The fact that heart rules head is why designing for the social sector is so much harder than it is for the commercial sector, despite seeming on the surface to be a far simpler task.

We tend to buy irrationally yet give rationally*. When we give, we want assurances that our money or our support will be used wisely. We’re cynical about where our charitable donations go and we like to hold the recipients to account, while the private corporations to which we give far more get to behave how they like. The corporate world has half the battle won before it starts because we all want to believe our selfish, frivolous spending has some value, so we disregard evidence to the contrary and convince ourselves it does. But we need to know our philanthropic endeavour has some value, and feel wronged if the evidence shows that it doesn’t.

Which is where I get to the key point of this post. It can be very easy to market your way out of a sales problem, but it’s impossible to market your way out of a social problem.

Over the past year or so in my efforts to spend more time designing for social cause clients than for purely commercial ones, I’ve ended up talking myself out of what should have been straightforward design jobs and into more complex ones well beyond my comfort zone. I’ve found myself frequently offering input that perhaps moves beyond the traditionally recognised realm of the designer. People approach me when they want design, that’s the service they expect. But providing a mere service is pointless without the promise of a result, and for the money they pay me a client deserves a result.

A brand is the clothing an organisation wears. Our favourite high street brands look great in their fancy clothes, but stripped naked they’re typically grotesque cynical monsters of ugly exploitation and devious dealings. The capitalist system rewards such behaviour, but the social and charitable sector isn’t so lucky. It also needs to look good naked.

What all designers working in this area should bear in mind is that the traditional smoke and mirrors approach has no place. There has to be real substance behind the work we do for such clients, otherwise we might as well not do anything. We need to dig deeper in order to do our jobs because the clothes we provide simply can not cover up unsightly things like they so often can in the corporate world.

The corporate world is built on polishing turds. The social and charitable sector is built on shitting gold. That is a key difference designers must recognise. Those who don’t, those happy to do the beautification work, go through the motions, take the money and run aren’t doing their job properly. Design is creative problem solving, and beautification alone can’t solve many problems in this sector.

The client may already look fantastic naked, they may well just need the clothes. If that’s the case then great, we designers can do what we’re most comfortable doing. But the onus is on us to first ensure that is the case; to make sure that we have that starting point. Otherwise we’re just taking money from a social cause and offering nothing in return, which is parasitic and immoral. I see it often and it really boils my piss.

*Last week I had to think about the merits of donating a fiver to a museum’s voluntary donation bin, then just an hour later I blew a tenner on a Chinese restaurant’s lunch menu without a second thought. Though I recall enjoying it I can’t remember now what that meal tasted like, yet I can remember all kinds of stuff I saw at the museums, from the posturing of rival crabs to the hollow bones of the pterosaur skeleton, to the beautifully engineered directional thrusters of space craft to the regimented discipline of ants collecting leaves for their nest. I learnt about global shipping, the exploitation of cotton pickers in Uzbekistan, took a virtual ride on a long dismantled railway, saw actual contents raised from the actual wreck of the actual Titanic. Many hours perusing incomprehensibly ancient artefacts, learning about the wonders of nature and the bafflingly complex technology of man was worth half as much to my logical head as a hastily prepared and consumed set meal was to my stupid heart. Indulgent, momentary and fleeting pleasure won out over countless hours of mind expansion. Idiot.

Sharing 08: Method Designing

This recent client is a user led charity set up to champion, promote and assist disabled people taking control of their own care provision through the adoption of a personal budget.

Prior to personal budgets being made an available option, those requiring care or assistance in the course of their daily lives were at the mercy of the local authority who dictated exactly what care would be provided, and how and when it would be administered. Typically, this arms length approach to care management, based on only a rudimentary assessment of need, leads to a compromised and often infuriatingly impractical solution for the service user.

The introduction of personal budgets were recognition by the state that it can’t apply a one-solution-fits-all approach to care. Individuals are just that, individual, and their care needs differ on a person by person basis. Considered a victory of common sense by many, in effect personal budgets take the money the state would have paid for an individual’s care, and instead hand it directly to the individual. Putting that budget in the control of the end user is a simple way of ensuring the right sort of care is provided, as the decisions are made by the very person who needs it, and they’re free to make whatever decisions they wish by spending the money any way they see fit.

One member of the group I met during the consultation process, a wheelchair user with experience of both the old system and the new system, was very keen to inform me of the life changing effect this switch had brought him.

Prior to the changeover, he had been at the mercy of a twice daily visit from whichever rushed nurse was in the vicinity, who had to hurriedly fit in assisting him bathe and get in and out of bed around a hectic schedule racing around providing similar care to people all over town. His situation highlighted how difficult it is to live any sort of meaningful life when your daily routine has to fit around the inconsistent timetable of a badly overstretched nurse. Having only been able to get out of bed at 11am and put back there again at 4pm, and allowed only the occasional shower, it was clear the system really wasn’t working.

Upon taking control of his own affairs, he was able to employ a regular personal assistant of his choice to be there when his timetable dictated, to provide the exact and consistent assistance he needed. Be it child care, transport, assistance getting to work, assistance with domestic responsibilities, whatever, now he had started calling the shots, his care provision could finally start living up to its name.

For the same cost to the state, personal budgets allow a meaningful and productive life to be lived where before, all too often only mere existence was permitted. A victory for common sense it certainly is. However it’s far from plain sailing.

With all control handed over to you, you have all the responsibility. You’re on your own. The task of employing your own personal assistant might not initially sound that tricky, but when you realise how little you know about advertising for and interviewing staff, employment law, disciplinary procedure and all the things companies employ full time HR departments to deal with, you start to realise how complicated it’s going to be.

Compounding the already terrifying nature of that prospect, typically those choosing to take on a personal budget are those coming from the old regime of day centres and health visitors, entangled in a lowest common denominator, state sanctioned bureaucracy where a culture of reliance and placidity is almost positively encouraged. So overnight, people are propelled from a world where their bedtimes are decided for them by people they’ve never met into one where they’re suddenly faced with such baffling and very serious subjects as the intricacies of employment law.

It’s a massive eye opener, a huge step to take that is both wonderful and terrifying in equal measure. But of course it’s a step very much worth taking, and should you chose to take it, my client is there to provide any help and advice you may need. And being a user led organisation, they can do this because they’ve been through it themselves, so they know the ropes better than anyone.

With that information and more gathered over a number of meetings and conversations, it was time to start working on a new identity for this group before their impending relaunch.

From the information gleaned, it was clear the most vital message this logo had to convey was that of change, of ‘before and after’. We wanted a device that could clearly communicate the confines of the old system and the benefits of the new, whilst addressing the fact that taking such a step can also be a terribly scary prospect.

With those three messages to communicate in one device, the open box was the eventual solution. Not just open though, our box had to be burst wide apart. It needed to show that the walls can come down, and what that means. It had to show that the rules can change, that you can be the master of your own destiny and that you can do whatever you see fit to do.

Funnily, this idea informed not just the actual concept behind my design, but also its delivery. This logo has actually caused me some inner turmoil as it breaks just about every rule I have. Nothing follows a grid, nothing sits level and the type sits at an angle across the box below, with everything existing in pseudo 3D space.

As a result of this haphazard structure, it’s a nightmare to align with anything on a page, it needs a huge exclusion zone and it really doesn’t scale well. It relies on halftoning to properly reproduce in single colour and it uses shading and subtle detail easily lost. It’s more illustration than logo, an aesthetically complicated solution of the kind I generally try to avoid. I was happy that it makes its point with satisfactory concision, it just does so in a slightly untidy way.

But it’s not the result of laziness or lack of care, of me settling for the first composition that came along. Really, that untidiness is the design, informed directly by the message it had to convey.

The game has changed, the walls have come down, the rules have gone; if I couldn’t allow myself to work like this, how could I do justice to the message? If I was to let my preconceived graphic designer idea of what makes a good logo dictate the outcome, then I wasn’t waving goodbye to the rules at all. I was still trapped in the system myself.

So I alone (or rather the brief, using me as its agent) had to be entirely in charge of proceedings. I had to do what felt right. I needed to leave the confines behind; to hell with the so called rules dictated by the design industry, the old regime. We now live in a high-def, digitally printed world so forget self imposed, antiquated one colour plus black limitations, forget convention and classical tradition – if I want to use a full colour illustration as a logo I can, and if it works, then I will.

The very fact that it’s a bit eccentric, informal and ignores the plane of the page it’s on, the very fact that it doesn’t easily slot into a layout like some modular, conformist A-size proportioned, swiss minimalist corporate icon is why and how it feels like it does its job. That’s why it stands out from the other logos it will frequently sit amongst. Every time I tried to tidy it up so it would better pander to my designer’s OCD (and trust me I tried), it felt wrong, it lost something and it stopped communicating its point.

It’s funny. Looking back now the project is over, I’m actually surprised by the extent to which the brief informed the design process. The sentiment of the message became my attitude to its delivery. My commitment to the design process felt like it actually led to me ignoring all the design rules I usually love. I absolutely was not designing to appease myself nor any other designer; not even those specific ones I knew would be judging me when reading the eventual and inevitable blog post. The client’s considerations were the only ones I had, I was designing totally for them. And they were very happy with the result.

There was an extra requirement of the brief that I actually chose not to discuss with the client; a key part of the design process that I decided to keep to myself for fear that my thoughts could have seemed a little grandiose. It felt very important to keep in mind that this organisation is user-led. The story of the individual I shared above, the story told to me during our first briefing session represents not just the experiences of the people this organisation is trying to appeal to, but also those of the people who run it. So I felt that this logo had to be a little more than a simple symbol of identification. It had to face inward as well as outward and perhaps act, however subtly, as a bit of a manifesto. Whether it does this or not I might never know, but hopefully I designed in the potential.

I must apologise if I sound a little self impressed – I really don’t mean to. I’m well aware it’s not the Olympic Rings we’re dealing with here, nor is the end result necessarily a particular favourite of even my own recent output. In fact as is always the case with any completed project, hindsight makes me wonder how far I could have taken it had I the benefits of more time, more bottle and, fundamentally, more talent.

So please don’t assume the apparent enthusiasm you’ve just read has been hubris, and that I’m holding aloft my recent work as the shining proof of an epic new dawn in graphic design. Yes, I’m sufficiently happy with my work done here, but mainly I share this project with such enthusiasm and in such tiresome length because it provides a great example of why I find the creative process such a deeply fascinating journey.

Sharing 04: Conversation

Recent client request:

“We want something classy, long lasting. Do you know the Olympic Rings logo? We’re after something like that. We don’t want something rubbish, like the London 2012 logo.”

No pressure then? I love requests like that. They’re perfectly understandable of course – the Olympic Rings are timeless, instantly recognisable, elegant and beautifully simple. I get why a client would make such a request. It’s just clear that they haven’t considered the true weight of what they’re asking.

Basically they’re a small regional charity with next to no money, expecting a quite cheap graphic designer working out of an attic in Sheffield to design for them a logo that can compete with that of the Olympic Games.

It’s setting me up to fail really, isn’t it. Of course I’ll try my hardest, I’ll pour everything I have into the project, but if the client is hoping my work is going to outdo one of the world’s best known and well loved logos, I’m guessing my proposal is going to be a source of disappointment.

To avoid such disappointment you’ve got to explain fairly early on to the client why they’re asking the impossible. But it needs to be done tactfully, the point needs to be delivered in such a way that it doesn’t simply look like you’re trying to cover up a lack of skill.

The following was my emailed reply to the above request; my attempt at nipping the issue in the bud. It seemed to work.

“Logo design grows harder with every passing minute. With so many out there in the world already, with no two allowed to be the same and with hundreds being born every day, hitting on that perfect, iconic solution is far more difficult today than it was when some of the world’s most admired logos were designed. It’s worth noting that the iconic and timeless Olympic Rings motif was designed in 1894, a full 28 years before the term ‘graphic design’ was actually coined.

 In 2011 then, the designer is required not to simply focus on a general overview of the client (which will no doubt be little more than a loose set of details applicable to many others) but instead hone in on the finer details which make the client unique. Any organisation that can justify its position in the world will have at its core a unique and valuable quality, and it is the job of the graphic designer to identify it and bring it out, to make it stand off the page. To communicate the idea to the right audience, to turn that unique quality into a strong identity.

The logos typically seen throughout the community, voluntary and social sector tend to follow a formula, as just a quick scan of the web will highlight. Even if you limit your search to local organisations you’ll see many logos featuring overlapping colours, circular motifs, multiple figures standing in circles, interlinking circles, joined hands in circles and so on. There are only so many ways one can design logos for a sector so frequently focussed on collaboration, support, diversity and social causes, if all one does is focus on those blanket qualities. Unfortunately, in 2011, most of them have been done a thousand times over.

So when handling this project, I’ll try to look beyond those qualities pretty consistent to the sector, and instead target those qualities unique to your organisation. These are the qualities that I identified during our meeting, from listening to the group and studying and dissecting the fundamentals of your constitution. By focussing on those qualities unique to the group, we will find a solution that is unique to the group.”

Sharing 03: Railways

Recently I designed the new identity for this organisation, a charity and not for profit with the aim of reinstating a regular service to currently disused railway lines running through the city. The group formed in 2003 but after a bit of restructuring they’re planning on a relaunch later this year in a bid to attract more support and increase membership.

I’ve talked about trains on this blog before. We love our railways in the UK, but we seem to be confused about what a train is. It seems the ones we like are those funny old round ones powered by steam. The ones we decommissioned decades ago in favour of more efficient, faster and more relevant ones powered by diesel or electricity, the kind that don’t require a grubby man with a shovel to feed coal into a boiler.

It’s 2011, and these guys wanted to show that they were a modern group with modern aims. This isn’t a heritage railway project set up to satiate the desires of steam buffs. This is a practical, forward looking transport initiative working hard to bring a useful and relevant service to normal, everyday people who are at the minute reliant on cars or a patchy and infrequent bus service.

In search of modernity, naturally I headed straight to the 1960s. During the initial briefing it was agreed that the British Rail identity from that decade was something to aim for, so I got to work trying to capture that, but without using arrows of any description. Arrows are a hackneyed device at the best of times, but they’re all over the railways.

It’s been a funny job, this one. The organisation at the minute exists as a community campaign group, but in the future they may, or may not, be involved in the actual running of a railway. The best course of action for them to move forward is still unclear, so any identity has to be as open ended as the group is. It’s a strange client to have really – one that can’t say for sure what sort of client it might be in a years’ time.

Right now they don’t have much money kicking around, so bar a few higher budget bits of literature to get the word out, there’s probably going to be a lot of photocopies being handed around at various events the group attends. Any graphic design used in this way needs to be clear enough to survive such treatment, but at the same time it could well be seen in the future in all its full colour glory from a moving train window. So it has to stand up to that, it can’t look cheap.

Simplicity was key really. I had to focus specifically on those aspects of the group that are permanent. We know what the end result wants to be, we know the goal, so we’ll focus on that. That way, the content of the logo is also something to aim for.

Of course, as with all logos, it needed to be versatile and easily recognisable. And it needed to be of a style that distanced itself from the stuffy vintage image so frequently the distraction of the sector. This is a group that is serious about reinstating the rail service and goes about its business with an eye on the future, not on the past.

The stationery is similarly simple, with a bit more colour used on the batch of leaflets they’ve so far had printed up. I thought it was quite important that any literature they put out made their new, refreshed aims perfectly clear, so I pushed for the bold use of the mission statement on the front cover.

They only had 50 of these done. It was a bit of a last minute rush job for an event the group was attending, so they’re nothing special. To keep costs down they were printed on quite a flimsy stock and the layout is rather uninspiring because of the time constraints, the large amount of copy and a lack of inspiring imagery. Cheap and cheerful, they did their job fine but I’m working on something a bit more substantial at the moment which will involve a bit of photography and some nifty folding. I’ll share when I get the green light.

In an earlier blog, completely without context at that time, I posted a Harry Beck homage route map I produced for the group, designed to illustrate how their plan integrates with the city’s current and proposed public transport network. Apparently it’s proved quite a useful tool in convincing people how valuable the project is, which shows how a picture can say a thousand words. I also designed and built their website which can be seen here.

Sharing 02: Old People

This organisation was a pleasure to work with. They’re a forum consisting of older people who represent other community groups and organisations in the area, coming together to discuss and take action on the issues that face older and elderly people. They engage with the relevant powers that be, from health authorities to local councils, in order that their concerns don’t get overlooked, they make noise where it’s needed and make sure attention is paid to the right things.

They approached me with the request for a logo that was, above all else, calm and mature. They wanted to avoid ‘trendy’, yet were keen to shake the image of stuffy old people. Any solution had to be relevant in today’s world, but at the same time it needed to reflect the subject matter which is, essentially, about old age.

I thought about the brief. It seemed like a bit of a paradox I had to communicate really. We’re modern, but we’re old too. How do you deal with that?

My attention turned to reassessing what age actually is. The forum exists to combat that common assumption that with age comes irrelevance. It’s there to ensure the needs and concerns of older people aren’t dismissed, by those in power, as the irrelevant bleatings of blue rinse biddies (their words). This is what my design had to communicate.

I had to think about what older people offer that’s unique. What can the group say that other people won’t have considered? What do they bring to the table? The overwhelming answer seemed to be perspective. Wisdom based on experience. They’ve been around a long time. Older people are relevant, they’re here getting on with it like everybody else. They’ve just been here a bit longer.

That’s where the logo came from. The bold, modern sans serif typeface states the relevance of the organisation in the modern world, sitting off the page at a dynamic angle. Beneath is the classical serif shadow it casts, a subtle indication of the years of experience that lie behind their words and actions.

At first glance it’s a device not immediately noticeable, but I like it that way. It highlights the mistake commonly made by those the forum exists to engage with. It’s a logo that shows it pays to pay attention. It’s a message delivered in a calm and considered way, in much the way the group goes about its business.

Sharing 01: Engineers

These guys are a new start up engineering consultancy specialising in the design of building services. No, I didn’t know what that was either until they told me. Basically it’s pipes, cables, ducts and the like – the sort of stuff mostly hidden away in engine rooms or concealed behind suspended ceilings. Yet, as they were keen to point out, without such services even the most architecturally magnificent building is nothing but a large box. A building is made by such things, they are fundamental to any architectural project and the larger the project, the more complex they become.

Where the expertise lies with this consultancy is at the design stage of such a project. They use bafflingly complicated CAD software to plan and design the complicated networks of facilities that keep a building’s inhabitants supplied with that which they take for granted. They ensure that water will flow from taps, that thermostats will adjust temperatures, that switches will make bulbs glow, and they ensure it happens as efficiently and reliably as possible.

These are the qualities I used to direct the design of the logo. I let logic drive the project in much the way they themselves do with their work. Engineering isn’t art. It’s not about personal opinion, it’s a science. The only way to do something is the right way, and these chaps seem quite passionate about, and justifiably proud of, their ability to do just that.

I decided therefore that pure logic should be the only consideration of any design I did. This wasn’t the time for expression or creative indulgence. There was a job to do. A job I wanted to do in the same way the client does theirs.

First things first then, I needed a grid. I wasn’t going to do this by eye. Even my early sketches couldn’t be done by eye. Everything had to behave itself from the very beginning, so the grid came first. With that in place I started looking at the content. The brief stated that the logo was to be the initials of the company directors, the content was set. So I knew what it needed to be, I knew the grid it needed to conform to. Now I needed a method of constructing that content.

In the world of engineering an effective method of improving efficiency is to employ modularity, using fewer but more versatile components. So I did the same. The stylised initials are built of modular construction, with the design using only two separate components – the square and the quarter-circle.

The accompanying typeface is a mixture of Bold and Thin Helvetica Condensed, chosen in this instance for its obvious legibility. The type conforms to the same underlying grid that shapes the graphic, tying the whole logo together in one cohesive form.

With legibility a priority, the flat colour and the simple composition make for a scalable logo that should survive being used across all media, from a favicon to the side of a Transit van. Driven by pure logic, efficiency and order, I suppose it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they went for my first proposal. After all, engineers will be the first to point out that it’s quite hard to disagree with logic.

Cigarette warnings

A lot of my posts recently seem to follow on from others. Sorry about that. This one follows on from an earlier piece about the enforced eradication of cigarette branding.

My attention was turned back on to the subject this morning following a bit of clicking around online. I happened across Ricky Trickartt’s interesting and pretty cool experimentation, which itself followed on from the earlier efforts of Build.

They’re both interesting, but essentially flawed because despite the best efforts of the designers, they still look pretty cool. Personally I think the last person in the world qualified to design an unappealing cigarette pack is an established and talented designer. The best person for the job must surely be an HR professional; finer purveyors of clipart, comic sans and Microsoft Publisher I’m yet to meet.

Anyway, in his accompanying blog, Trickartt questions the effectiveness of the health warnings found on fag packets:

“I’m sure it could be argued that smokers are becoming desensitised to the messages present on current cigarette packaging, but there’s not really any other consistent way of getting the message across. To people who don’t smoke or don’t spend a lot of time around cigarette packaging, though, the images and messages can seem shocking, and may act as a deterrant.”

I wonder if perhaps there is actually another consistent way of getting the message across. Either way, before I have a try myself I’d like to make known my own feelings on cigarettes in the hope that it might avoid my smoking readership coming over to punch me in my smug, self satisfied face.

As I said in my earlier post, despite my personal hatred of smoking, I do think smokers have been outcast enough now. If people want to smoke then let them, I don’t care. Why would I? With the smoking ban as it currently stands, it’s rare I ever even notice a cigarette, let alone smell one. In the last year I can only remember a single occasion where I had to deal with cigarette smoke, which makes me think that the worst aspect of tobacco smoke – passive smoking – has been mostly eradicated. Smokers pay horrendous tax on their chosen vice too which, let’s be honest, would only be sought elsewhere if they all quit.

So though this post may seem like yet another cheap stab at smokers, it really isn’t meant to be. I actually approach this from a certain level of personal experience. I’ve never smoked, but I have been on the receiving end of self righteous repetition for doing something deemed socially unacceptable. I used to drive a Land Rover you see, and there are few things this side of puppy stabbing that attract such holier than thou vitriol from an ignorant general public. So I know what it’s like to live through that same kind of blind criticism on a daily basis. I know what it’s like to be seen as evil, ignorant and stupid, to be treat as an outcast and an acceptable target of hate by those self appointed judges of virtue, those who are generally unaffected in all ways except the brief and tragically needed spike in their own sense of superiority and self worth.

So please, don’t take this post as smoker-bashing. I’m genuinely interested in what sort of thing might act as a good deterrent. Finding a good deterrent has got to be a good thing, right? Even if it offends? So, onward.

My first thought is that existing messages are a bit irrelevant. I mean, smoking kills? Smokers die younger? Yeah, we know. It gives you cancer and that. We’ve know that for years. So does everything else we consume, don’t consume, watch, don’t watch, do or don’t do. We live in a world where, if the media is to be believed, the only thing not carcinogenic is reading about things that are irrelevant to us and then getting offended by or worrying about them. We know threats of death and cancer don’t work – any health related threat is a bit of a lost cause. We don’t as a species seem to care much about things like that. Driving is one of the most dangerous things we humans do after all, yet we indulge on a daily basis. We accept risk and danger, some of us even seek it – it’s part of what we are. Must think of something better to focus on then.

What if we focus on a more immediate issue? Death to most of us seems a long way off but self esteem is right here, right now. It’s also a very delicate thing, far more open to manipulation than our sense of mortality. Perhaps we could point out how disgusting the smoker smells?

It’s a valid point, but it just sounds like non-smoker whining, which is never going to work. Smokers hear that already and choose not to care. Perhaps we could be more offensive then? Less whiney, more brutal?

No. There’s no faster way to lose your audience than by mindlessly insulting them. I’m not particularly happy with the reliance on insults anyway to be honest. We’re dealing with addiction here and insults aren’t going to be productive. We’re looking to provide incentives to quit, not to kick someone while they’re down. Carrots work better than sticks. Perhaps we need to dig further, really tug at the deeper psychological issues?

Hmm. I suppose I quite like the power of that. Surely it must hit a nerve with anyone who started smoking when they were young, when they bowed to peer pressure and took their first drags to fit in with the cool kids. The problem with this though is one of contradiction. The smoker is being attacked for being weak, easily led and conformist by an overbearing establishment trying to get them to conform to its will. Bit of a paradox, really. Still a little bit insulting, too.

So we’re looking for something hard hitting and eye opening, not focussed on health issues, and it can’t be offensive. It’s tricky stuff this.

Of course the use of imagery is a fairly recent and more hard hitting approach.


The application of such graphics has been a requirement here since 2009 and it’s all good stuff, but it must really suffer from desensitisation. Think about it; cinema audiences of today will sit through video nasties like Saw 12 or Hostel 6, happily devouring buckets of sugared popcorn and cookie dough Haagen Daaz, watching as innocent people are forced to eat their own eyeballs and have their legs indulgently wound through a mangle by a preposterous maniac, all in glorious HD and 3D.

Eight year olds spend their evenings chainsawing hookers to death and throwing grenades at everything in sight in Grand Theft Auto, and the charmless slapstick innocence of You’ve Been Framed long since gave way to decapitation compilations on Youtube.  Our sense of decency is so out of whack that if anything is to even register as entertainment these days, it needs to be pretty extreme. Let’s be honest, a drunk fat auntie tumbling off an inadequate garden swing to the commentary of Harry Hill just doesn’t cut it as entertainment anymore when Tubgirl, Goatsee and 2 Girls 1 Cup are a mere click away. I’m not making those hyperlinks.

Big Brother (the TV one) was once an interesting study of human emotion, of group psychology. It was a relatively calm affair focussed on normal people discussing normal affairs in an abnormal situation, a study of how they dealt with isolation. When the experiment was repeated in series two we were immediately bored, and now if reality TV is to enjoy any ratings it has to feature manic depressive celebrities suspended by bungee cord over a vat of boiling piss, gnawing the genitals off a live kangaroo in a glass case full of vomit covered scorpions. This is 2011 – we’re alright with gore and violence. We expect it. If you want to shock us you’re going to have to try harder than a few pictures of smokey lung.

There is of course another overriding problem at play here. Pretty much anything you will put on a cigarette packet will come across as patronising. Every smoker knows the risks involved – it’s not an issue of lacking education. We all know smoking is bad and no harping on about it is going to make a difference. If someone smokes they do so knowingly, and no amount of information on the pack is bringing anything to the table. So it comes across as patronising crap, and being patronising is guaranteed to achieve nothing but the solidification of the mindset it’s trying to change.

It’s powerful then, being patronising – you’ve got to admit that. So perhaps we can turn it on its head and use it to our advantage? Worth bearing in mind.

What else? Money talks. Nobody likes waving goodbye to money, least of all in the form of taxation. Everybody hates The Man too don’t they – few things irritate the British more than the state telling us what to do for our own good. Which is exactly what we’re doing here really isn’t it. So again, what if we turn that on its head and use it to our advantage? What if we appeal to the smoking public’s famous belligerence, but from a different point of view? Might reverse psychology work?

Hmm, that looks a bit like a badge of honour. Maybe we need to drive the point home a bit more.

Bit wordy though, and lacking in punch. I’m a minimalist, so let’s see if we can cut the word count and increase the volume. Let’s add a bit of smugness too.

Are we getting anywhere? Perhaps if I add a picture of David Cameron’s stupid smug smiling millionaire face that’s got to help?

If bringing attention to the constant stench or lungs full of poisonous tar is failing to get the message across, maybe a picture of a smug millionaire gloating patronisingly about the outrageous amount of tax smokers voluntarily pay for those delightful privileges will provide a bit more of an incentive to quit.

Thanks to Carnavalet and Andy Bullock for making their pictures available for reproduction under creative commons licenses.

Plain Clothes Products

According to the BBC, the government is considering the enforced removal of all branding from cigarette packaging. It is hoped the measure might make smoking less appealing to the consumer. Though I’m tempted to think the smoker has probably seen enough social exclusion and ridicule by now, this is a prospect I’m quite interested in. I’ve wondered for a while if this is the sort of thing we should look into. My horizons were a fair bit larger however, as I wasn’t thinking of restricting it to cigarettes, but rather applying it to all consumer products.

When stood in the isle of a supermarket looking at row after row, stack upon stack of brash, intelligence insulting, gaudy, attention grabbing packaging, I often wonder what would happen were all the branding to be removed. Just imagine, starting from 2012, a law would be introduced preventing manufactures from applying any form of branding to their packaging. Designs would be restricted to plain white containers, and the only way to communicate information about the wares inside would be with simple black Helvetica. What would happen?

Putting aside for one moment the welfare of the thousands of now redundant packaging designers up and down the country, and any boring effects the law’s introduction might have on the tediously fragile global economy, I really think it would be fascinating to see the outcome. If the popularity of products relied solely on their own merit rather than the hard and cynical work of the marketeers, which ones would survive? If all choices were based on need rather than want, on fact rather than showmanship, which companies would stay afloat? Which lines would flourish, who would collapse?

It’s quite interesting to examine a product and see what’s actually left when you take away the brand. Often it’s quite remarkable just how bland and generic things can seem.

Take Lucozade as an example. What is Lucozade exactly? Well, it’s a drink favoured by athletes such as Steve Backley, Liz McColgan and John Regis of course. It’s packed with all the energy your body needs to perform at its physical best during the marathon or Olympics in which you’ll one day perform. That’s about right, isn’t it? Well no. That’s just branding. Strip that away and what are we left with?  What actually is Lucozade? Try again. Erm, well it’s gold, fizzy, doesn’t really taste like anything in particular – except perhaps coins, it’s really sticky if you spill it and wasps seem keen. Beyond that I’m struggling.

Without the advertising, without the celebrity endorsement and mock science, without the images of toned calf muscles, washboard stomachs and track spikes poised in starting blocks adorning every bottle, would anyone ever buy Lucozade?

Likewise, without the repeated suggestion that it gives us the requisite appendages for unassisted flight, would anyone buy the distinctly medicinal tasting, tooth stinging, brain frazzling and biblically expensive Red Bull? Without the wisecracking Italian-American, Noo Yoyk attitude plastered over the Goodfellas frozen pizza box, would we choose them over ones half the price? Without heart warming thoughts of lovely old Grandpa’s soft, gently oozing butter candy, would anyone buy Werthers Originals?

It’s an interesting thought. Just replacing the brand names with factual, descriptive names, simply calling the products by what they actually are has enough of an impact. Lucozade becomes Metallic Tasting Carbonated Sugary Beverage. Red Bull becomes Eye Twitchingly Tart Caffeine Drink. Goodfellas’ Manhattan Pizzeria Style Deep Pan Margherita becomes Pizza, Thick, Cheese and Tomato. Somehow, honest truth makes popular products seem a bit less necessary.

Rolling such measures out across our supermarket wares would be like a nationwide blind taste test, an experiment of which the outcome would be fascinating. I’d love to see how the consuming public’s buying habits might change, how society itself might change. The results could in fact be more shocking than we would immediately think.

It’s been a long time since consumer products appealed to our actual requirements, when their advertising carried nothing but pure fact. When coats, for instance, were sold as thicker than the competition, and therefore warmer. It all changed during the 1920s when a certain nephew of Sigmund Freud gave birth to public relations, a more acceptable name for propaganda, as a method of manipulating the populace.

With the invention of PR, Edward Bernays created a world where coats could become something far greater than a garment designed to keep us warm. They became a way of expressing ourselves, a method of projecting the way we wish to be perceived by others. They became the thing to be seen in for the winter season. With a frightening lack of effort, the focus of our desires was shifted from the practical to the emotional. Practicalities are after all just that: practical, impervious to changing whim. Emotions however are fickle, open to endless manipulation.

The idea was to appeal to our subconscious to create a need within the population to be consumers, a need that before didn’t exist. Working from the psychoanalytical discoveries of his uncle, Bernays believed that to maintain order the populace must be kept docile, and in order to be kept docile we must be kept content, happy.

Or at least be told that we’re happy. The real irony is that in order to convince us of our contentment, Bernays’ method manipulated our mindsets in such a way as to ensure that we could never be contented. He ensured that we would instead be in endless pursuit of happiness. From that point on, no matter how competent a garment it might be, our coat could never satisfy us indefinitely. Only our endless search for the elusive one that might could possibly keep us placid. The creation of consumerism didn’t mean we were satisfied; instead we were offered satisfaction as a goal to aim for. A goal where the posts can be continually and cunningly moved just beyond reach.

The saying goes, you can’t really buy happiness. Many people dismiss that, and it is fair to say that a few million quid in the bank would no doubt improve the life of just about anyone. But you wouldn’t really be content, you’d just have more stuff. In reality, it is impossible to buy happiness. You can only buy inanimate consumer items, and inanimate consumer items do not in themselves provide contentment. The millionaire doesn’t just buy the fastest Lamborghini available and thus automatically live happily ever after. He trades it in after a year and buys a newer model with a bigger engine.

Nothing is ever enough. It actually can’t be. If it ever were, life as we know it would be in trouble. Modern consumer culture, on which our whole economy and therefore society is hinged, relies on the very fact that you can’t buy happiness. Instead we base our whole lives around the chase, the promise of happiness. We continue in our naive belief that it’s just around the corner, just one more purchase away, and if we work that little bit harder and spend that little bit more we’ll get there. The search keeps us content, distracted from the reality of our pointless lives. The hope that our next car, our next mobile phone, house, pair of shoes, fragrance, meal will satisfy us – it satiates our in-built hunter-gatherer, survival instincts we all have and need to exercise, yet know no use for. The theory goes; while ever we’re queueing outside the Apple Shop for the new iPhone, we’re not roaming the streets with rudimentary axes, killing and eating each other.

Bernays believed that consumerism was a vital tool in maintaining order, in controlling the populace to allow the continued existence of placid democracy. That if we’re looking for things to buy, we’re not looking for things to burn. Though I hate him, his legacy, everything he stood for and the world he created for us and sincerely hope he burns in the fiery pits of hell along with Dr Beeching, he may well have been right. Fair enough, I do hate seeing people queueing outside the Apple shop, but I’d sooner that than have those same people charging towards me with bloodied sticks while I beat a hasty retreat to the relative safety of my crudely armoured pickup truck, occasionally turning round to blast the faster ones in the chest with the sawn-off 12 gauge I recently prised from the rigor mortis stiffened fingers of a half eaten farmer.

I’d hate the removal of branding from consumer goods to bring about the downfall of civilisation, honest. But that doesn’t mean I’m not curious to see what might happen. After all, I really do adore the idea of supermarkets full of minimal Helvetica-on-white packaging.

In fact if the government has its way and the tobacco industry is forced to adopt such an image, I might start smoking.