A few weeks ago I was sent a link to a music video featuring a collection of naked breasted female models prancing around a man wearing sunglasses, to a catchy if empty pop song.
I watched for about 30 seconds before I started skipping randomly through, dropping in and out to see if it actually went anywhere. It didn’t. No crescendo was reached. The song stayed the same, the breasts stayed naked, the man stayed in his sunglasses. Intermittently a full–screen Twitter hashtag flashed up over the vaguely adult footage, but that was about it. It was a mildly surreal viewing experience, but I quickly forgot about it and moved on with my life.
A few days later I heard the song playing in the corner shop. It’s unusual for a modern pop song to enter my consciousness such that I will notice it twice, but this one somehow got through the filters. I’m happy to admit it’s a catchy tune, but I had also made that mental connection; this is that song with all the tits in the video. I reached the counter, paid for my wares, forgot about what I’d just heard and got on with my life.
Another few days had passed when I saw a short clip of the video again, this time on TV. It was the same catchy pop song with the same women dancing around the same man in the same sunglasses, with the same screen–dominating Twitter hashtags flashing up every few seconds. It was identical in every conceivable way but for one key difference; this time the nipples of the aforementioned tits were now concealed by clothing. While still a raunchy video, it was clear a certain minimum accepted level of modesty had now been thrust upon it. I noted the clever twin video tactic, then forgot about it and got on with my life.
A few days later still, which brings us to earlier this evening, during a commercial break on TV I see the video again. It was the family–friendly version this time, but again with a subtle difference from either version I’d seen before. This time the women were waving around small plastic objects, each similar in shape to a cod liver oil capsule but between thirty to forty times the size. The hashtags were different too – now they were convincing the viewer to buy a pill. The advert went off, and I didn’t get on with my life. I instead came to the internet to confirm what I had just seen.
They filmed a naughty, titillating video to go viral on the sex–obsessed internet, they filmed a clean version to plaster all over the telly, and they filmed the product placement version for the commercial breaks. The song itself is seemingly designed to capture whatever fleeting moment of attention we might have for it by unloading everything it has during even the briefest burst, and it’s mixed and mastered with so little audial complexity that a first generation Nintendo Game Boy could comfortably reproduce it. Perfectly suited then to the tiny speakers of the mobile phones so beloved of the pop producer’s current prey.
I just looked up the advert on Youtube. There, to my amazement, it can be found with a director’s commentary. A director’s commentary. So there’s yet another version out there, this time offering us a previously unseen glimpse behind the scenes and so providing yet another incentive to watch it.
Let me share a couple of insights it provides, courtesy of the man behind the hashtag:
“Everything that [product] represents is youth and innovation and quality and gangsterism, so that’s everything I wanna be a part of.”
“Any time you can take a great song that’s fresh, and then, you know, you take a cool guy like me, and you mix it with one of the coolest brands in the world, I think it breeds swagger.”
Youth and innovation, quality and gangsterism. A cool guy like him. Swagger.
What moral bankruptcy. What sickening, soul sapping emptiness. What an abhorrent, cynical, foul tasting travesty. It is a strategically coordinated, spreadsheet driven, scientifically proven, misogynistic, multi pronged assault on music, art, spontaneity, creativity and commerce, so entirely and proudly devoid of passion, taste and decency that it happily displays nothing but open and blatant contempt for its audience, for society and for humanity.
At the time of writing, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ is the fastest selling single of the year so far and the current UK Number 1.
The R1200R is the most basic machine in BMW’s line up. It doesn’t offer luxury or performance as justification of its premium price. Instead the owner is rewarded with quality, solidity and heritage.
It’s a proven design. The bike hangs from unique Telelever front and Paralever rear suspension, and the unmistakable design of its air cooled, unit construction boxer engine with shaft final drive can be traced back to BMW’s first motorcycle, the R32 of 1923.
It’s a functional machine that has evolved over time, remaining unswayed by passing trends.
The Carrera 2 is the most basic car in the Porsche 911 range. It’s similar in spirit to the bike above. It’s not the fastest car out there, nor the most luxurious, but it carries a premium price that reflects its quality, solidity and heritage.
Similarly it is a unique yet proven design. It’s been a few years since they were air cooled, but that familiar shape and that layout of boxer engine hanging out behind the rear wheels can be traced right back to Porsche’s original production car, the 356 of 1948.
Again, it’s a functional machine that has evolved over time, remaining largely unswayed by passing trends.
I like German design and engineering, but I admire it most when a unique concept is polished and perfected over time. I like to see things done differently, yet I still most favour the quietly mature approach of constant evolution to the desperate, attention grabbing approach of constant revolution.
It is unfortunate that in the UK both BMW and Porsche have a snooty and superior image thrust upon them. These obnoxious clothes worn at the behest of target hungry marketing teams make it difficult to see beyond the brand and focus purely on the design and engineering.
Those prepared to consider the products behind the brands here will see that things may have been done a little differently, and in a way perhaps not to everyone’s tastes. They’re certainly not the most exciting options out there but they’ve been done for a long time, they’re done right and they’re done well.
They’re as good as they could ever need to be.
Castle Square, known locally as the Hole in the Road, was the crowning glory of Sheffield’s concrete commitment to modernist oddities. After three decades of decline it was finally filled and flattened in 1994, apparently using rubble from the nearby demolition of the similarly short lived Hyde Park flats.
I was twelve in 1994 and I can’t recall the last time I went down there, but I do quite vividly remember peering in from the top deck of a bus as the demolition teams were pouring the rubble. I informed my mum as she sat beside me:
“When I’m old I’ll enjoy describing the Hole in the Road to kids because it’ll seem mad.”
It was mad. I thought Castle Square was mad then as I do now; a sprawling and eccentric piece of civic architecture difficult to describe. The narrator of the 70s publicity video Sheffield on the Move has a good go, referring to it as a “forward looking development; an underground concourse with its ingenious roof of sky”.
I wonder what those charged with the forward looking thought they saw. I wonder because I know had I been in their shoes I would’ve probably seen the same thing.
For those working to build a better society, the modernist utopia of efficiency, logic and order provided such a solid answer. It’s a concept that makes such sense, and had I been around in the 60s and 70s I would’ve thrown myself headlong into the entire movement.
Even now, with the hindsight of a thousand wrecking balls and a thousand tumbling tower blocks, I find the image above so enticing. I let me eyes be drawn up Arundel Gate by the smooth ribbons of tarmac and I want to live there. Even though I actually did and often still do live there and know it to be largely awful, I still want to live in that picture.
Not in the place, but in the promise. I want to live in the promise of that picture, and with the hope it offers. I want to know what it’s like to live with that hope; the hope that a better world is ours to make.
Last night in a pub in Sheffield a hastily arranged party was held to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher. I didn’t go; to me it seemed like an own goal.
The pub chosen is situated in a stone fronted, grade II listed premises originally built in 1867 to accommodate the offices of the Sheffield Water Works Company. Over a century later work began on a large, brutalist office complex adjoining its rear facade. This much larger, purposefully imposing structure and the water works building it subsumed were together intended to house the headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers.
The proposed tenant never arrived. By the time construction work was complete in 1988, the NUM and the entire trade union movement had effectively been smashed by Thatcher’s government. The NUM HQ has stood empty throughout its life.
Though remaining conjoined, around the turn of the century the water works building regained its independence having been internally sealed off from the deserted NUM building. It now houses the aforementioned pub, one of a national chain of high street pubs ultimately owned by an outspoken eurosceptic who last year saw fit to brew a special edition ale as a “salute to Cameron’s stance” on Europe.
So to celebrate the death of their arch nemesis, the lefties of Sheffield chose to congregate in a high street chain pub set amidst the ghost of their own smashed hope and hand over their money to a large corporation used by its multimillionaire owner to further his own right wing agenda. Way to go, comrades.
A couple of blogs back I spoke of my belief that the pound in our pocket has become a more useful democratic tool than the vote we impotently cast twice a decade. I really do believe this, and I think it’s often conveniently ignored by the apparently angry and supposedly active left.
While those marching against the government and the evils of corporate greed remain happy to nip into the nearest Tesco Express for their lunch, they undermine everything they’re supposedly fighting for. Waving a banner isn’t “doing your bit”. Token gestures aren’t politics. Shouting in the street isn’t politics. Big business is politics. Rightly or wrongly, our country is run like a business. What happens in big business affects us all. Even without our government and its supposed opposition up to its eyeballs in commercial interest, we’d still need the books to balance.
So if we want to actually do our bit, we must look beyond our own convenience and make the sacrifices necessary to cut off the flow of money to those we despise. Big business needs our money to do what it’s doing; losing just a small percentage of that source of income would force real change in a very short time.
If we really care we need to stop feeding the hand that bites and start using capitalism against itself. We must shop with our political heads on, thinking about what we buy, where we buy and why we buy. Weekend socialism will achieve very little. Those who care must pick their side and do everything in their power to stick to it. Only then can the balance tip. Conscious consuming has the power to create a conscious capitalism against which our society can fare better. Unconscious consumers can only score own goals.
This is the final frame of a current TV advert. I admire the clarity with which it makes its point.
This leaflet, produced by the Federation of Small Businesses, insists that we keep trade local. It lies crumpled and forgotten in the window of an empty shop.
I agree with the statement, but casting my mind back to what this shop was like prior to its demise, seeing the leaflet lying there irritated me. It was a two way street, guys. I believe that if we are to maintain healthy local communities we do have a duty to keep trade local, but local businesses have a duty to us too. They have to provide a reliable service if we are to rely on them.
The business once occupying these premises failed to keep up its side of the deal. It was dreadful. The interior was dark and untidy, the service was unreliable and the products on display were covered in dust. I know it’s hard to compete with the internet and the retail parks, but daylight, tidiness, good service and cleanliness are free. There was no excuse to ignore those issues.
In our capitalist society, the pounds and pence we spend every day have more power to bring about real social change than the vote we’re allowed to cast once every four years. So I really wish shop owners would help us to help them. If local business proprietors could appreciate that they are custodians of something far bigger than just their own bank balance, they might find their bank balance starts looking after itself.
Thursday 14th March, 2013 – What car do you drive?
I went to a school to talk to a class of fairly disadvantaged fourteen year olds about my job. After delivering a brief presentation on what a graphic designer actually does for a living, the kids had the chance to ask questions. I had been forewarned that the above question would be among the first asked. It was, closely followed by “Do you have a big house?”.
Kid. Don’t worry about cars and big houses. Cars and big houses are burdensome distractions for the generation that spawned you. Ignore the adverts for shiny things, for new things. Resist that oh so enticing allure. Ignore it, for even should you ever be lucky enough to afford it, nothing will ever be shiny enough. Nothing will ever be new enough. Remain free. When the golden handcuffs are eventually presented, don’t offer your wrists. Don’t end up trapped in a prison of your own making.
Friday 15th March, 2013 – It ain’t right.
I went on the Sheffield Friday Night Ride. This month’s theme necessitated a route passing through a few of the less welcoming of our city’s suburbs. As our 25 strong group of mostly middle class, mostly middle aged and entirely very white cyclists entered Pitsmoor we were greeted by a couple of local lads. It’s not unusual for the passing convoy to be heckled by territorial teens; indeed it wasn’t the only time it happened that night. What stayed with me this particular time was the spluttered point bookending a telling pause. “Yo! You guys comin’ into Pitsmoor… It ain’t right.”
Kid. Who told you what’s right? And why ever did you listen? What you suggest is right is keeping you isolated on these forgotten streets. It’s what makes you fear the next street along. It’s what leaves you baffled when something so mundane as a group of cyclists enters your world. Get a bike and join us. We don’t just have one street corner. We have the freedom of the whole city to play in, and so should you. Forget what’s right. What you think is right is keeping you trapped in a prison of your own making.
Saturday 16th March, 2013 – Oi. Speak up.
I went on a bedroom tax protest. Standing outside Sheffield town hall at the back of the crowd straining to hear the speaker, we were distracted by an obnoxious heckle from the attention hungry ringleader of a small group of fashionably attired sixth–formers. “Oi! Speak up!” came the shout. They all laughed and walked off, dismissing the crowd to continue sipping their Starbucks. The accuracy of the statement hadn’t overriden the facetiousness of the sentiment.
Kid. The people here are fighting for your freedom, for your well being and for your future. Don’t heckle. Don’t hide behind derisory laughter. Listen and learn, because the life we’re trying to defend is the one you’re soon to enter, and you’re going to need all the help you can get. One day it might be with sorrow that you look back to the time when you could laugh away the chance to make a difference, while you still had that chance, before you found yourself trapped in a prison of your own making.
I won’t be heard lamenting the recently announced demise of Google Reader. I’ve never liked the idea of RSS feeds. I don’t use the service myself, and you might notice I don’t make any particular attempts to get people to subscribe to mine. There are two reasons why I’ve shied away from them like your gran did with direct debits.
1. A few years ago when I first learnt of their existence, RSS feeds were introduced to me as a feature that would ‘change the way I used the internet’. I was informed that it would make the internet come to me, where before I’d had to go to it. That’s where the alarm bells started ringing.
To me, the internet is a place I go. That’s why it’s amazing. It’s an infinitely huge library around which I can browse at my leisure. I can go there looking for a specific book and generally I’ll find it, or I can go there with no specific idea of what I want to read and come away with a stack of books under my arm that look interesting.
I always feared that if I turned the internet into a service I had sent to me, I’d have to make the decision up front about what bits I want to cherry pick. I can’t get the entire library in my house, so I have to choose what specific genres of book I might be interested in. I have to pick a couple of shelves to focus on, and know I’ll be sent the content from only those shelves as and when they are stocked.
I never liked that idea. If that’s the way I interact with the internet, how will I ever stumble across something I didn’t previously know I’d love? I don’t want the internet to feel like something that is built around me. I don’t want the internet to focus only on my interests. I want my interests to be expanded by the internet.
2. RSS feeds give you all the content, but they strip away the context. That context can be a valuable part of what’s on offer. For the blogger the words are of primary importance, but those words can benefit from a backdrop or environment setting the tone. When the words are sucked clean off the page and fired through a hose pipe along with all the other words everyone wrote that day, you strip away that tone. The context is gone, and the content is left to fend for itself. Marketing types have been claiming for some time now that ‘content is king’. They’re right, it is, but a king without a crown is just a bloke.
When I visit a website, I want it to feel like I’ve stepped into another little world for the duration. I’m stepping out of my world and into a place where somebody else is calling the shots. When I subscribe to a feed, I take and consume their content without having to enter their world. The resulting experience feels somehow a little emptier, a little poorer.
Content without context feels to me somehow as if it breaks the bond between reader and writer, between consumer and creator, and that bond is important if there is to be the basis of mutual respect necessary for considered creation and considered consumption.
The graphic designer maintains a portfolio. A little over a decade ago when I first graduated, portfolios followed this format:
The work would be printed at full size, neatly hand trimmed, carefully mounted onto crisp black A2 card and placed in transparent sleeves. The entire collection would then be threaded onto the snap closing, gold effect rings of a leatherette portfolio, before the whole lot was zipped shut.
The finished item would be placed on standby beneath a bed or down the side of a wardrobe, until a job interview came up or a grandparent wanted to see what you got up to at ‘art school’. As your career progressed the content would change, the older items beginning to date and so being replaced with more recent work.
The above image is of mine, minus the work. I have no particularly fond memories of the content it once displayed and which has long since been thrown out, but I’ve held onto the hardware for its vaguely haunting, ‘Mary Celeste’ quality. I also hold onto it for what it represents, though I’ve never really considered entirely what it represents until I started writing the piece you’re now reading.
When you’re building a portfolio the content is always the focus. Where in the image above you now see white squares, the very best of my creative capacity once took pride of place. My heart and soul was poured into that content; content that kept me captive long into many a dark, lonely evening in the college computer suite.
The portfolio itself was merely a delivery method, a means of transport and display for that lovingly crafted content. The portfolio, all that board and all those sleeves existed to be invisible, nothing more than a frame around the picture. Only sloppy workmanship would ever enable the portfolio itself to distract from the creativity it was there to house, and nobody wanted that.
In my case that precious content, that beautiful content is now long gone, both from my possession and from my memory. As with the sorry majority of graphic design output the passing time rendered it worthless, so it’s entirely without sorrow that I accept what I once poured over with love, pride and care I’ve now long forgotten. It is with that content long forgotten that the value of the portfolio itself has become visible.
Hanging at heel height when in transit, and living primarily on the floor when not, the A2 leatherette portfolio is frequently scuffed and easily kicked. The particular combination of shape and weight requires of the hopeful candidate an inelegant heave when placing it on a boardroom table in front of an interview panel. Unzipping requires an ungainly reach, and so allows time for prospective employers to get sight a) of fingers chafed by an ergonomically insulting plastic handle and b) down your shirt.
The A2 leatherette portfolio really is a rather cumbersome and inconvenient thing, and therein lies its beauty. The beauty is in that bother. It’s in that awkward wrestle. It’s in the initial thud as you bang it down on the table, the second thud when you realise you’d laid it face down, that long unzip and that third thud and subsequent shuffle as you heave all the pages over in one go and spin the lot around, having realised you actually had it the right way up in the first place. That’s the drama. That’s the portfolio pantomime.
When that pantomime begins, everyone present knows there’s a portfolio to look at. It’s an experience to be mistaken with nothing else. Everyone knows the contents on display will represent countless, dedicated hours of somebody’s life. To open a portfolio with pride, perhaps with a mild sense of unease or indeed with outright dread, for the contents to be examined and judged by one’s superiors is an event every designer should recognise.
I haven’t used my A2 portfolio in the eleven years since the interview that led to my first design job. Instead I’ve made books for people, taken prints to show clients, emailed PDFs or simply provided URLs. Most recently I transferred my work onto the iPad, making my portfolio a simple finger swiping exercise.
The iPad fits in my bag. It’s high tech, simple to use and familiar to hand. It has a bright, high quality, high resolution screen. It’s delightfully convenient, handily self contained and can be passed around a room. The work on show can be easily browsed by anyone with fingers.
A traditional A2 portfolio is good for about eight to twelve pieces of work. Anything more than that becomes too time consuming to look through. It feels tiring. It becomes a chore. When you’re finger swiping on the iPad you can scroll through twelve projects in about a minute. On the iPad, looking through a portfolio uses the same gestures one uses to play Angry Birds. On the iPad there is no pantomime.
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.
Last year it was Kenneth Grange and trains. This year it’s Margaret Calvert and bikes.