Design’s Political Agnosticism

At the Victoria & Albert museum in London at the moment is a very good exhibition called ‘Disobedient Objects‘ [1]. The exhibition shows examples of things produced for protest: against governments, against organisations, against building programmes, against injustice. Wandering around the show sparked lots of ideas, but not only for me; I overheard one girl knowingly saying to another, just in front of me: “are you getting blog inspiration here?”

She could have been talking to me, because that is what I was thinking too. The exhibition made a link for me that had previously been a bit hazy. It was brought home when I read the following quote, describing one of the exhibits. Try and work out who the ‘they’ is at the beginning:

“They have to be strategic with how they deliver their message. This can mean engaging tactically with the media, or finding ways to circumvent it and speak directly. Today, this involves immediate hands-on forms of expression alongside appropriating cutting edge technology and social media.”

The ‘they’ could be a Barak Obama political campaign – or any politician’s for that matter. It could be Facebook or Google or Vodafone, or any new start-up. It could be David Beckham or Victoria Beckham or even Brooklyn Beckham.

It is, in fact, a general description of how social movements voice dissent and hence how objects can be appropriated for ‘disobedience’.

The use of all manner of objects in civil disobedience shows how creativity and design is essential to form an effective protest. Police using tear gas? Make a gas mask out of a 5-litre water bottle (see below). Need to lock yourself to a post to stop a road being built? Make a lock-on device using a metal pipe with nuts, bolts, and chains. Need to distribute information quickly to avoid censorship? Make a pamphlet bomb.


An improvised gas mask from ‘Disobedient Objects’. The original caption reads: “The Turkish Government used record amounts of tear gas to disperse the 2013 Istanbul protests. Protesters devised homemade gas masks as a form of protection” (p.48)

The quote was interesting to me because of my teaching in the area of Design Thinking. Rewind to 2009 and I was working for The Open University to put together a new distance-learning course called Design Thinking: Creativity for the 21st Century. Currently over 4000 people of all ages and abilities have studied the course – most with no previous experience – and learned about the many ways in which the methods of design can be applied [2].

In putting the course together, and arguing for the University to invest a considerable amount of money in a new area, I justified it in one primary way: that teaching design methods to people who wouldn’t normally have access, or the confidence, to undertake such an education was empowering; a way of engaging more with the world around and consuming less. Design to self-actualize, in other words, not design to produce more pseudo-useful stuff.

Of course there were other aims too. Giving people a foot up to study Design in a Design School, for example, or using Design Thinking to contribute creativity to an organization or service. And that is where the link I made above comes in; Design Thinking is an ability that can be used equally effectively for business or, bizarrely, for protest against business. In fact, ironically, the strategist planning an effective protest probably has a lot more in common with the strategist in politics or corporate business than they’d like to think.

It does perhaps reveal the strength and weakness of having a Design skill too – its political agnosticism. Design can be used for good or ill, protest or profit, obedience or disobedience.


Resistance! Original caption reads: “In December 1981 martial law was imposed in Poland in a crackdown on Solidarnosc, which was declared illegal. Supporters wore tiny badges with the Solidarnosc logo, which signalled their support for the movement in a way that could be easily concealed. A more oblique strategy was to attache a ‘moc rezystor’ (power resister), taken from a domestic radio, to your lapel – a play on words which indicated resistance to the government and support for pirate Radio Solidarity.” (p.116)

I like to think that my teaching in Design Thinking produced, if not outright disobedience, then a measure of resistance (as one of the objects in the exhibition nicely exemplified, see below). I mean resistance in the sense of a questioning of the world around.  But that may no longer be the case, if it ever was. The Design Thinking course is now being offered as part of the Business Studies degree, and they’ll be no Protest 101 any time soon I’d wager.

[1] Floor, C., Grindon, G. (2014) Disobedient Objects, V&A Publishing.

[1] As a nice piece of Design Thinking in itself, the description about how the mounts to display the disobedient objects were put together is worth reading.


Double-Barrelled Design (or How Designers and Engineers can Co-exist in Harmony)

Last week’s fire at the Glasgow School of Art brought to mind a lesser known Charles Rennie Mackintosh building, far from the Mackintosh theme park of Glasgow. 78 Derngate in Northampton was completed in 1917 and comprehensively restored with a museum added in 2003.

The Doorway to Charles Rennie Mackintosh's 78 Derngate in Northampton, 1917.

The Doorway to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 78 Derngate in Northampton, 1917. All images in this blog post are reproduced with kind permission from the 78 Derngate trust.

Rennie Mackintosh, on the shallow, downward curve of his career, remodelled the original Georgian town house for his client and patron Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, the owner of a local business manufacturing model trains. The house was for Bassett-Lowke and his new bride, Florence Jane Jones, and features top-to-bottom, inside-and-out, furniture-and-all, familiar Rennie Mackintosh tropes; super-sized chair backs, vertical extension in composition, repetitive patterning effects, and sharp symmetry throughout. A minor masterpiece well worth a visit in other words.

That model train connection turns out to be interesting. Bassett-Lowke’s business was essentially a manufacturing engineering business, turning out train sets and accessories for a growing market in the early 1900’s.

Bassett-Lowke model train and figures.

Bassett-Lowke model train and figures.

The train paraphernalia needed ‘designing’, for sure, but it was Bassett-Lowke’s commitment to a larger idea of design that is striking. His investment in, and collaboration with, a world-leading designer and architect is unusual for a manufactuing engineer, to say the least, and reveals a mind open to the value that good design could bring, both to business and to life.

The battles between engineers and designers are well known to anyone who has worked or taught in one or other of the subjects. Engineers think design is some fluffy (and probably unnecessary) addition to the technical, manly, business of producing important things, while designers generally think of engineers as small minded, unnecessarily obstructive, and overly conservative. Though the cliché wears thin in places, the structure of it remains sound.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke posing with a catalogue of Bassett-Lowke scale models.

Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke posing with a catalogue of Bassett-Lowke scale models.

Why did Bassett-Lowke see a value in design? We might think that the model products of his business – railways, stations, figures, houses, hedges, and, of course, the trains themselves – led to thinking of the subsequent construction of the model as a creation of a small world (every consumer an omniscient narrator of infrastructural development!). Bassett-Lowke, a successful businessman, probably viewed the actual world a bit like that; a manipulable, work-in-progress for a better future. And this view of the world helped him to realise that good design could help achieve and communicate concrete, ‘real-world’ progress. He also clearly saw it as something that could have a qualitative effect on his life.

The collaboration with Rennie Mackintosh – and it does seem a genuine collaboration with Bassett-Lowke asking pointed questions of Rennie-Mackintosh’s evolving design – would have provided great insight into the process of design. Subsequently, perhaps through ideas of design that he was introduced to by Rennie-Mackintosh, the output of Bassett-Lowke’s factory was more consciously designed. Not the trains themselves, which remained simulacra of the real thing, but the packaging, which was more graphic and composed, as was the lettering and graphics for the company.

Christmas card designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Bassett-Lowke in 1922. The trains and ships refer to the Bassett-Lowkes model toy business.

Christmas card designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for Bassett-Lowke in 1922. The trains and ships refer to the Bassett-Lowkes model toy business. © 78 Derngate Trust, reproduced with kind permission.

Each year, starting with Rennie Mackintosh, Bassett-Lowke would commission a designer to design a Christmas card for him, something that would have seemed something of an indulgence to most engineers (and probably most in his own company), but something that illustrates a growing aesthetic sensibility and its importance in achieving longevity. Over time the collection of Christmas cards has formed a significant legacy of Bassett-Lowke’s company.

When it came time to move house from the Derngate, Bassett-Lowke turned to another discipline-spanning designer, Peter Behrens, who worked at many scales, from products to graphics, to architecture, famously with AEG in Germany. In another whole-hearted collaboration, though this time led by an increasingly confident and design-literate Bassett-Lowke, an entirely new Northampton house was designed and realised in 1926, appropriately called ‘New Ways’; one of the first houses of the modern movement to exist in the UK.

'New Ways' designed by Peter Behrens in collaboration with Bassett-Lowke in 1926. One of the first houses of the modern movement in Britain.

‘New Ways’ designed by Peter Behrens in collaboration with Bassett-Lowke in 1926. One of the first houses of the modern movement in Britain.

As demand for train sets began to dwindle, during the Second World War, Bassett-Lowke turned his model-making skills to help in rebuilding a battered and occasionally ruined country. He worked with local council architects and planners to produce scale-models of new urban environments, helping to envision a new designed and ordered world. This way of visualising the urban future through physically modeling would have been relatively scarce in 1943, though model-makers are often part of large architectural and urban-design practices now.

Bassett-Lowke's model of the proposed new city of Coventry in 1943. The photo caption reads:

Bassett-Lowke’s model of the proposed new city of Coventry in 1943. The photo caption reads: “Model of the New Coventry, showing the Central Market and Commercial Buildings”.

Bassett-Lowke’s is a story both of appreciating the value of design – and importantly acting on that appreciation through investment – as well as one of collaborating across traditionally antagonistic disciplines. It is a little-known story we would do well to learn from.

Seat Envy

“After all that nonsense at Heathrow, it came as particularly welcome to find himself upgraded to First Class, his champagne was in a real glass rather than a plastic facsimile. It made a difference. He had way more room to stretch his legs, and on a nine-hour trip to Chicago that counted for something, especially after a four hour delay. The big armchairs were ranged in curved couples, like Victorian love-seats”
(from the short story ‘In-Flight Entertainment’ by Helen Simpson)

Flying back on United Airlines flight 928 via Chicago, after giving a keynote in Online Learning in Design at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, I silently upgraded myself within the same section of the aircraft from Economy (almost full) to Economy Plus (pretty much empty) for better leg-stretching capacity. Gaining the extra few inches in leg-room turned out to be a pyrrhic victory however, as two young children took the seats directly behind me leading to an occasional battering when boredom struck. It probably served me right.

Coincidently, I had bought a copy of the latest The New Yorker magazine to read on my flight and which has an article about the design of luxury aircraft seating. The New Yorker often has good articles on the quieter aspects of design and its cultural impacts, so it’s always worth a look. This article brought to mind a presentation by Joe Ferry, former head of Design at Virgin Atlantic, who made a nice comment about having to convince senior management about the value of design because curves are always seen as costing more than straight lines (notwithstanding Raymond Loewey on the aesthetics of curves: “the most beautiful curve is a rising sales graph”).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of aircraft seat design where every ounce of weight and every inch of seat pitch can save money. The article cites the (possibly apocryphal) example of Gulf Air: “reducing their annual fuel bill by $120,000 by using slightly thinner leather in the upholstery of its first-class seats”. The development of luxury seating, however, is nothing compared to the science of pricing where: “profit and loss on a given flight can be less than the fare from a single seat, so airlines work hard to predict demand, which is influenced, on an hourly basis, by weather, military coups, school vacations, disease outbreaks, sporting events and innumerable other factors.”

It is not about selling the flight out quickly, it is about extracting maximum profit in a constantly changing market place.  Capitalism at its naked best, in other words.

The division in class distinctions, and the language that describe these distinctions, is the more subtle design problem alluded to in the article. That difference between Economy and Economy Plus is a recent distinction (and one not enforced by either flight attendants or interior architecture) but has other variants – ‘Economy Comfort’, ‘Premium Economy’, or ‘Main Cabin Extra’, for example.  All denote a slightly-more-comfortable-than-basic flying experience.

My eye was drawn to two advertisements in the magazine, both selling Airlines on the basis of the in-flight experience. The first was from Delta Airlines shown below.

Delta Airlines

Advertisement for Delta Airlines in The New Yorker, April 21st, 2014

You Don’t Share a Seat. Why Share a Screen? the advert tells us.

Apart from seemingly being decades out of date (when was the last time you had to look at a central screen on an aeroplane?) the graphic is a curious one. All those seats, in black and white, look a bit like the Chinese terracotta army, lined up to face the leader, with a Big Brother beamed to a screen a foot from your face. If restraining straps were added to the armrests this would look like an A1 environment for torture or brainwashing. The red Delta logo only serves to add an authentic Communist slant to the proceedings! The advert, in telling us about ‘personal, on-demand entertainment’, merely serves to illustrate how anonymous we really will be; just one of a big crowd. Unless we like socialism that is; in which case, we’ll fit right in.

The second image is for World Business Class on the Dutch airline KLM:


Advertisement for AirFrance KLM Airlines in The New Yorker, April 21st, 2014

The only difference from home is waking up in a different continent, the advert tells us.

Really? Is waking up in a different continent the only difference from home? If that’s the case where are the wife and kids, the open fire, the dog, the kitchen, the lawnmower in the garage, the car on the drive, the irritating neighbours?

The image shows three self-satisfied business guys (and they really do look like guys), approximately all the same age (mid-40s?), similarly be-shirted, ethnically mixed, and probably straight. The black guy is dozing, the Indian guy is making full use of this chair/bed and sleeping, and the white guy is gazing contentedly into the mid-distance, orange juice to his side, perhaps thinking about his family at home (or perhaps his secret gay lover). These guys should look a bit more worried though. From the view out the window the plane is flying dangerously low, and could even be about to crash land.

What an odd thing those luxury design seats are. There are horrid bits of curved plastic and fascia, defining awkward functional elements. That place to recharge your iPhone, not quite big enough for an iPad, looks like a dust trap. And the reading light looks like an afterthought. The translucent dividers (described in the advert as ‘smart privacy screens’) look like they have water droplets running down them – but perhaps that is the smart bit? And somehow the expensive curves look linear.

If you want to be one the guys, fly KLM World Business Class, the advert says.  It may not be the socialist utopia of Delta Airlines, but you’ll get to hang out with Brad and Malik.  It has the same false appeal to the individual (‘we care about your experience’) while betraying the generalities that any advertisement must have to reach a target market. The luxury seat turns out to be a conceit; a carefully crafted illusion of visual rhetoric.  But that is cold comfort for anyone stuck in Economy.

HS2 and the Dutch Golden Age

Another day and another newspaper article on HS2, the idea of which is fast becoming a text for all kinds of things to be projected on to. Here are a few recent headlines:

HS2 alternatives could require 14 years of weekend rail closures (28th October, 2014)
Soil from HS2 ‘will trash’ Chilterns beauty spot (1st December, 2013)
China: We’ll help to build HS2 rail line (3rd December, 2013)
Boris Johnson’s father calls for ‘popular uprising’ against HS2 (25th January, 2014)
HS2 may increase risk of homes being flooded, senior Conservatives fear (23rd February, 2013)
HS2 will increase fertility, but may cause cancer, chief medic warns (13th March, 2013)

Ok, I made the last one up, but you get the picture. HS2 is drawn very easily, and probably unnoticed by newspaper readers, into feeding other national discourses (the preservation of nature, the rise of China, the threat of floods). It has become a sort of cipher to pour other things into to make some kind of value judgement possible. In Newspaper world the consequences of HS2 can only be dire or euphoric; the end of the world as we know it, or a new utopia.

But the textual nutmegs are sophisticated compared to the visual representations of HS2. The problem for the newspapers is that we are dealing with something that only exists – and then only tenuously – on paper; though admittedly by now, quite a bit of paper. No track has been laid, no stations built, and no trains speed through the landscape. Not much to take a photo of in other words. Apart from the paper.

So what kind of a picture fits an article on HS2? The answer is, this one:


Image of High Speed Rail 2: The Berkswell Viaduct

The computer-generated image above, paid for (we can assume) by HS2 Ltd, and which you can see here, here, here, here, and here – oh, and here – has become the most familiar image of HS2, shown over and over again. It is an image that shows the future in a past-infused version of the now. A stonking great HS2 railway makes only a minor difference to the quiet, rural landscape, the image suggests, you might not even notice it as it blurs by. You can barely make out the hi-tension power lines that run alongside the railway against the strategically placed grey clouds. The clean, elegant lines of the viaduct complement the linearity of the canal, which appears much larger than the HS2 line; much more of an intrusion into quiet country ways. The weather is good too; there are the aforementioned clouds on the horizon but blue sky above, reflected on the surface of the water, as is the viaduct (though curiously not the train).

There are no people in the image prompting the question: if nobody sees an HS2 train cross a viaduct, does it make a sound? The answer turns out to be interesting because the image, in fact, is a frame from a well-worked, computer-animated film of HS2 that you can see below – watch it on fullscreen for the complete HD effect.

It’s very quiet isn’t it? Snaking through the landscape, barely even observable at some points in the film. When it gets to the viaduct segment at 28 seconds see how the surface of the canal gently laps and how the trees gently sway in a soft breeze. Perhaps a modern version of the question above could be formulated. If everybody sees the train silently passing over the viaduct on YouTube, does it make a sound?

The other day it struck me what else the HS2 image reminded me of. It was thinking about the reflection on the canal that did it. The image that was brought to mind was The View of Delft by Johannes Vermeer, painted in 1661 and shown below.


Perhaps there is more of a relationship between the imagery of future infrastructure and Dutch landscape painting in the Golden Age than one might think? The painting has a similar sky to the HS2 image, though there are more clouds. A feeling of space in the painting is created, as it is in the HS2 image, by the reflection on the canal, where both Oude and Niewe Kerken (old and new churches) are both visible.

Some years ago I regularly walked past the point where the View of Delft is painted from and often wondered about the painting and the reflection. Can one really see the townscape in the canal? (yes, kind of) Would the people really appear so small? (no) The perspective does indeed float a little, giving a feeling of, if not omniscience, then slight queasyness in the viewer (quite like a computer-generated model might in fact, though the HS2 image perspective is based firmly on the toe path). But the picturing in both cases – the frame, the sky, the water; the space – is similar, and strikingly so.

Ten years ago, if there had been enough computing power to create and run it, the HS2 animation would have won awards for the subtle rendering of surface, the realism of the movement, and the quality of the direction. Today I just wonder how it is that our visions of the future are based so much on our picturing of our past? It’s almost like we’ve run out of ideas.