Sunday, 21 February 2016

So, with the US Election process underway, and now a date set for the UK Europe referendum it seems like a good time to get Election Aesthetics going again. Once again, we're looking for submissions that note, analyse and otherwise consider the visual culture of modern politics - So please do feel free to contact us with ideas and contributions!

To get the ball rolling, here is a link to something less contemporary but no less fantastic. Joan Didion's essay 'Many Mansions' (published in the excellent collection The White Album) is a tour de force of journalism, describing the Governor's Mansion built by Nancy and Ronald Reagan in 1975. Never finished, the Reagan's never moved in, yet through Didion we see this vacant mansion as an exposition of the soul of what she termed the 'California Republic'.

Full text here, but below some extracts:

“It is simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego… mediocre and ‘open’ and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn.”

"‘Flow’ is a word that crops up quite a bit when one is walking through the place, and so is ‘resemble.’ The walls ‘resemble’ local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a rather stale yellowed cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and the exposed beams ‘resemble’ native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown.”


“The place has been called…a ‘Taj Mahal.’ It has been called a ‘white elephant,’ a ‘resort,’ a ‘monument to the colossal ego of our former governor.’ It is not exactly any of these things. It is simply and rather astonishingly an enlarged version of a very common kind of California tract house, a monument not to a colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities…flattened out, mediocre and ‘open’ and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn. It is the architecture of ‘background music,’ decorators, ‘good taste.'”

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Obscure Design Typologies: Swingometers

Almost there! The scaffold media platforms are all bolted together on College Green and right now no doubt there are dry runs being run on the broadcasters graphic suites. So just to get in the mood, here's a selection of the strange design phenomena of the swingometer ... a design typology that - given the new state of British politics - will have a range of new scenarios to describe. Till then, enjoy these:











And finally, a BBC 2 documentary on the history of election broadcasts.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Kandy-Kolored Konstituancies: The Geography of Electoral Markings and Political Paraphernalia

By Paul Bower

Risk! in game play. Image by Laura Blankenship under a CC License

General Elections foster a culture of visual marking of territory in the United Kingdom, which only Royal events, Christmas, football World-Cups and Northern Ireland can typically match (but rarely surpass for a mass tribal event which isn’t violent).

Visual markings, united by their temporality, can take many forms in the run-up to a General Election. As election-day approaches they start to appear at an unrelenting rate. The physical and territorial paraphernalia of a General Election enters the public consciousness through our cities, neighbourhoods, streets, windows and letterboxes. Posters, leaflets, flags, balloons, billboards, placards and rosettes of all colours act as non-digital visual signs - nostalgic reminders of an age before Smartphones and the Internet - of an eccentrically antiquated democratic state.

Staunch party members and decided voters will often place such signs in their front window, or allow one to be staked in their garden informing passersby of a territory recently taken, as if they’re partaking in a huge game of Risk!

Like the strategy board-game, territories or Parliamentary Constituencies make up the board on which this game is played. Pollsters attempt to rig the game by predicting places where a swing in vote is most likely and where Party efforts should be focussed to maximise impact and sway the electorate to amass a majority. Such focus tends to reveal itself territorially as party funds are re-directed, the printing presses roll and political paraphernalia is circulated around the streets by a foot-army of dedicated party members walking door to door. Meanwhile, in so called safe-seats, where a political party has all but conquered, very few visual signs of a General Election can rarely be seen at first glance.

Colour takes on an added political hue during a General Election. Constituency maps are coloured in by their dominant political party colours and the paraphernalia placed in the built-environment is no different. Battle-lines of colour are drawn and political strategists direct efforts from their ‘war-rooms’ and colour co-ordinated campaign-coaches touring the country.

Election day arrives and the territorial paraphernalia has reached its best-before-date. The ultimate mark of a black cross in a box is to be made. One more day and all but a few of the visual signs will be recycled as the next Government is decided.

What is seen on a micro level is taken to the macro-max as Polling stations close. The country becomes visualised as a fragmented map of 650 ‘isles’, reminiscent of Rupert Thomson’s dystopian novel Divided Kingdom, each awaiting to be filled in one by one, like a democracy colouring-in book for the watching masses.

The people sit in their living rooms watching the live count and wait for the verdict. Which colour will their territory remain or turn? The result is announced and the territorial marks fade whilst new contested territories - often a lot less visual - emerge.

Paul Bower is in the process of finishing an architecture PhD at Queen's University Belfast, which has attempted to probe 'post-conflict' architectural practice in Northern Ireland.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

A Pint Glass, A Laundry Basket and a High-Vis Jacket: Objects as Political Props

By Nick de Klerk

‘Every idea and object has a history, which describes its provenance and tells you what it is doing there.’ Christina Mackie

Scenario 1

A pint glass, full to the brim with warm, English ale is held aloft, a St George’s flag grasped in the other hand. The backdrop: a broad, apparently effusive grin that belies its well-worn, workaday nature.

Scenario 2

A lurid green laundry basket, carefully placed not quite under the second kitchen’s counter, hovers ambivalently in view. It appears empty, although there might be something heaped at the bottom. A man and a woman stand alongside each other: she leaning against the opposite counter, he facing her, resting his hand against the counter. They are both holding coffee mugs, and are apparently deep in conversation. 

Scenario 3

A pair of middle-aged men face each other, one awkwardly holding what at first glance appears to be an architectural model, but which, on discerning the trowel gingerly grasped by the other, reveals itself to be a plastering hawk. The space they are in appears to be a warehouse or construction site – what it is, is not clear, but the inference is: this is where work happens. As if to press home the point, they are wearing construction helmets set at deliberately jaunty angles and bulky high-vis jackets.

Three mass manufactured, synthetic objects, three contrived scenarios. The pint glass, the laundry basket and the high-vis jacket (as deployed) nonetheless attempt to create points of connection with the everywoman and man at whom these scenarios are targeted, within three visible spheres of influence: the pub, the home and the workplace.

The pint glass, an ‘inverted truncated cone around 6 inches tall’ which tapers by ‘about 1 inch over its height’, is pushed to the foreground, augmenting its bearer’s claim to an authentic ordinariness. The measure of the tea coloured ale is regulated by UK law and sold in imperial measure while the definition of a pint of beer was the subject of an early day motion in 2008. As an ‘an imperial symbol of defiance that says "back off" to Brussels’, it’s a pithily appropriate flagstaff for a nationalist political party. It’s very form and identity is rooted in the commons, matched by the ale’s ability to fuel and lubricate public discourse.

The laundry basket, according to apparently genuine customer reviews, is popular and robust. ‘Verified Purchaser’ bunny1967, from Gloucester deems it ‘lightweight but sturdy’. In the constituency of customer reviews its purchasers have exercised their franchise, assessing value, quality and ease of use. It too is a truncated cone, which tapers out from a slightly narrower base. The basket wall is punctured by a series of oddly truncated arched openings for ventilation, set out radially from the centre of the bin, grouped in four rows of four. They look like they could be windows and have a curiously architectural quality. It has an odd, borrowed monumentality, shot through with pathos, given the cheapness and disposability of the artefact.

The high-vis jackets, like a small cluster of fluorescent carapaces, cannot help but dominate the image, simultaneously obscuring and yet conferring authority on the scene playing out in front of us. They too have become a well-worn trope of political posturing, used by many politicians as a visual shortcut to working credibility. Perhaps if you build it, or at least appear to be trying, they really will come.

The props demand an increasingly central role in a political culture dominated by images and soundbites, with less and less of a demand for, or interest in, ideas. They have become both product and process, and constitute publics around them – in use, consumer reviews and comment forums. It’s a short cognitive leap to consider whether these objects are merely artefacts of a political culture or whether they are the culture itself.

Two current exhibitions suggest there may be some credence to this proposition. The Parliament of Things, currently on at FirstSite in Colchester, draws its title from Bruno Latour’s notion, and considers how we ‘understand and perceive objects’ and ‘the influence that technology bears on how value [and meaning] is assigned.’ In brief, Latour’s project complicates what he sees as artificial categories of social and physical constructions and the discourse that surrounds them.

Okwui Enwezor’s Parliament of Forms, one of the main exhibitions at this year’s Venice Biennale, suggests that forms or objects can be ‘brought together to form one stage of meaning, one stage of enunciation, one stage of articulation’. These forms have long been relegated to a supporting role – codified and regimented and always seen in relationship to a social or political action. By invoking the collapse of history and the recognising the entanglement of things, time and people and processes, we can begin to articulate an equivalence of form with other actors in any given scenario, offering an opportunity to see the political process and our relationship to it anew.

The pint glass, the laundry basket and the high-vis jacket have a visual and formal language entirely of their own which has embodied and associative qualities. Consider the supply chain or the market in which they are bought, sold or traded, the extraction and processing of the minerals from which they are manufactured, the communities displaced, and labour exploited and organised in the process. Territories, titles and land, shipping and transport, storage and packaging and ultimately disposal to waste or recycling – only to change shape, continuing in an unbroken cycle.

No longer mute accessory to or conveniently representative of an expressed political narrative or scenario, the props jostle, compete and occupy a political stage alongside, against and in concert with the usual protagonists.

Nick de Klerk works in architecture, tweets at @nick_deklerk and blogs (occasionally) at

Thursday, 30 April 2015

How to Launch a Manifesto

By Henrietta Ross

The stage is set, the audience is hand-picked and thoroughly screened, the leader’s backed by evocative imagery and armed with a set of policies committed to print. It’s the manifesto launch: the jewel in the crown of the seemingly infinite array of highly constructed presentations which have come to characterise much of this general election campaign.

This is an era in which our would-be leaders fight it out through the medium of the sound-bite and the staged photo-opportunity. We are increasingly encouraged, and perhaps willing, to base our political choices on images, overly simplified policy statements and the highly crafted or unwittingly captured characteristics of political leaders.

The manifesto launch is possibly the most stage-managed appearance in electioncampaign. With three basic components: a leader, a backdrop and a publication, it also offers a set of highly comparable events: a means to consider how each of the political parties have chosen to construct an identity in a context where presentation has apparently become paramount.

First, Labour and the Conservatives: worth considering side-by-side because it seems both have made good use of the standard-issue manifesto launch pack made up of the key customisable components for capturing the centre ground. 

The striking similarity of the slogans is driven home by the common choice of justified type. Variations in size and, for Labour, weight and case, enhance the shared emphasis on the ‘future’ theme. The typography says I have a vision, it’s bold, it’s direct, it’s a distinctive future – the individual appeal of which is arguably undermined by the fact that apparently so does the other guy, in a very similar way. Meanwhile the union flag is present in both backdrops, but given a starring role by the Conservatives.

Here distinction in the visual rhetoric can be discerned. Conservative supporters can identify the key elements as the nation: the unruly, full-colour union flag, to be led by Cameron and a handful of cabinet colleagues, who lean in on one and other on the manifesto cover: their backs to a dark, blurry outside world. For Labour the flag’s muted red symbolism might signify the state, which backs the people, who back the party, led by Miliband and the manifesto he hopes will become the basis of his mandate.

For the SNP and UKIP – with campaigns characterised by efforts to temper the impression of their radical roots and appeal to a broader spectrum of the electorate – justified type is again in evidence, but in a more moderate form. Both limit the text-block to two lines and the SNP break it up with the diminutuve ‘for’. The usually bold SNP yellow is also mellowed, making the stand-out impression the socialist red of Sturgeon’s suit: a not-so-subtle nod to the party whose traditional supporter-base the Scottish Nationalists have set their sights on.

Farage meanwhile introduces cursive type for the everyday man-of-the-people feel. The UKIP purple is muted and morphed into the blue of the union flag in the backdrop, which looks too small for the job at hand and is set in a low-ceiling, strangely shadowy room. If UKIP aim to overturn the impression that they represent a threatening fringe group lurking in the sidelines of the political spectrum, this presentation seems to fall wide of the mark.

For the Green party the full backdrop has been dispensed with, replaced by banners framed with natural light. Two politicians stand at utilitarian-looking podiums on wooden floorboards. The emphasis is on dialogue, openness and fresh thinking, with type set at an angle that’s different, but not radical. The manifesto cover showcases the range of issues, beyond saving the planet, the Green party are ready to grapple with. Slices of key policy areas stacked on top of the solid foundation of sustainable energy suggest a move towards the political mainstream anchored by their origins as the alternative vote which is, in Bristol and Brighton at least, becoming an increasingly viable one.

Clegg and the Liberal Democrats’ party political broadcast slogan urges voters to ‘Look left, look right, then cross’. Their manifesto launch was presumably intended to position them as the centrist alternative, but the effect is more ‘anything goes’. The brick-work, glow-stick lighting, exposed rigging and hand-printed panelling gives the impression that Clegg might have inadvertently stumbled onto the set of a Saturday morning children’s show. Meanwhile pressing the rhombus form into service as part of a brightly coloured bricolage of policy pledges looks unfortunately pick-and-mix: an unwelcome reminder for the party-faithful of the way key manifesto commitments were unceremoniously dropped by the party in coalition.

While Clegg may soon prove to have lost swathes of his core vote through his coalition compromises, it seems he’s found a friend, stylisticly at least, in Jim Murphy and the Scottish Labour Party. This time the plackards are off the walls and held aloft by an impressively thorough display of diversity. The type maybe ranged left, but those on that side of the political spectrum might struggle to identify any connection between this and the brooding bugundy of Milliband’s launch. Maybe if the data projection wasn’t being drowned out by the ambient lighting things would be a little clearer.

However, while any substantive connection with his colleagues south of the boarder seems to have been lost in Murphy’s presentation, it is perhaps the most engaging of the seven considered here. While the crowd behind him might appear a little hand-picked, they do, at least, look like they’re having a pretty good time. The combination of the line-up, the brightly lit hall, wooden flooring and coloured signs and t-shirts suceed in fostering a sence of inclusivity, enthusiasum and atmosphere. Murphy himself, despite the regulation suit and tie, seems casually charismatic.

And yet, polls predict that Muphy, by the end of this election campaign, is likely to have lost nearly half of the 42 per cent share of the Scottish vote his party’s held since 2010. Their seats could well be slashed from 41 to just one. Having arguably won on static images of manifesto launch events, Scottish Labour could be the biggest loosers in this campaign. Reassuring evidence perhaps that, while the media-focused activities of our politicians might suggest otherwise, presentation isn’t, to the electorate at least, everything.

Henrietta Ross works for Soapbox, a studio which specialises in design for policy, research and advocacy organisations.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Anatomy of a Political Poster: Miliband in Salmond’s Pocket

By Benedict Pringle

The first feature of a good political poster is the presence of intellectual clarity.

Achieving intellectual clarity might sound like a simple task. However, when you consider that the accepted rule of thumb for the length of a poster headline is 8 words, the job becomes more daunting. Have you ever tried to make a compelling argument on a complex issue using fewer than 8 words?

What makes the poster featuring Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket so impressive from an advertising perspective is that they have managed to bring to life the possibility that a vote for Labour could help usher the SNP into Downing St without even using a headline.

The second feature of a good political poster is the creative impact.

The Conservatives have got everything right in this regard, brilliantly juxtaposing two characters to create a deeply provocative image.

They have made Salmond look powerful and authoritative by dressing him in a sharp blue suit and matching tie. His facial expression is calm (even smug) and comfortable; have they perhaps retouched his skin to make it look like he’s arrived back from a holiday in warmer climes?

Miliband on the other hand is made to seem like a young, confused boy. He carries a stupefied facial expression and is wearing a white shirt that looks like it has been washed too many times, paired with a Just William-style tie.

In a world where almost anyone can make something that resembles a campaign poster it can be easy to devalue the skill required to create a brilliant piece of political advertising.

But craft and care has gone into this execution. They have delicately balanced a huge number of variables and in doing so have produced the most memorable political poster for over a decade.

Benedict Pringle is a political advertising obsessive; it’s an unhealthy fascination with the grubbiest part of the dirtiest business. He writes the blog which analyses political advertising from around the globe and regularly appears in the media as a commentator on political marketing.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Portraits of Hardworking People: How Manifestos Picture Us

By Jon Abbott

Source: Conservative 2015 Manifesto

Source: Labour 2015 Manifesto

As the two leading parties rush to the centre ground in a bid to convince the few swing voters, a bizarre game of cross-dressing has taken hold: the Conservatives have rebranded as the party of working people and Labour are touting themselves as the party of economic responsibility. The homogeneous rhetoric is being backed up by manifestoes that employ a visual language so similar its uncanny.

The medium of the day is photography but there’s not an Instagram filter in sight, because these are honest images of hardworking people. But hardworking doesn’t simply have to mean economic work – we all know how challenging life can be when trying to bring up a small family. Of course, not an irresponsibly large family or a family with ugly teenagers but a young family, preferably with one child (two at a push).

Source: Conservative 2015 Manifesto

Source: Labour 2015 Manifesto

Source: Conservative 2015 Manifesto

To give them some credit, there is a slight difference in approach. The Conservatives have gone for the action shot, providing a window onto the quotidian tasks of hardworking people: talking, herding, screwing, smiling, soldering and choosing. Labour, on the other hand, have plumped for static portraits of hardworking people, equipped with the tools of their respective trades: the hard hat, the paint brush, the comb and scissors, the pen, the glasses. Perhaps the only hint at ideology is conveyed through their choice of healthcare professional – the bourgeois doctor versus the proletariat nurse.

Source: Labour 2010 Manifesto
Source: Conservative 2010 Manifesto

Source: Conservative 2010 Manifesto

If we look back the 2010 election manifestos, the visual languages were again similar but perhaps a little more divergent than 2015. Bright colours and child-like illustration elucidated Labour’s core policies whilst the Tories utilised info graphics and graphic sloganeering to communicate to their concept of the big society (whatever happened to that?).

With the two largest parties producing manifestos that are barely distinguishable from corporate annual reports, and their leaders espousing trite soundbites, is it any wonder that their share of the vote is in decline? If there are positives to be drawn from this woeful homogeneity then it must surely be that the freshly vacated fringes are now occupied by smaller parties with something a little more distinctive to say.

Jon Abbott is a senior designer at Barnbrook, one of the most well-known graphic design studios in Britain, operating in the fields of art, culture and commerce.