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.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Poundstretcher: The UKIP Logo Is A Postmodern Vortex

By Eddie Blake

It is a slab of ancient olde English heritage rendered in lush 21st century purple. The purple is pretty pure. A kind of deep purple; a power chord of a colour. The colour-symbol combination delivers the most formidable logo on the UK political scene.

In general, party logos are the epitome of committee-designed vacuity. Fulfilling the brief of saying something vaguely positive to the widest possible audience while saying nothing negative to the rest of us. Amongst the sea of neutered symbols lies a robust and unwavering logo. A logo that seems to come from a simpler time, a time before the endless media savvy focus groups.

Nigel Farage back in 1997

The UKIP logo is only beaten in longevity by the Liberal Democrats Bird of Liberty. After an initial flirt with the red white and blue Star of Bethlehem, UKIP landed on the pound sign logo in 1998. Although the logo has had many iterations over the years, the pound sign has been a constant. It is a symbol which draws sustenance from years of  service. The purple pound has long outlived its single issuereason to be, and now remains a feature in the political aesthetic landscape, like a sentinel watching over the very soul of the UK. It is the vessel for some deep myths about our shared identity. The symbol is a constant reminder of a past jeopardy the danger of losing sovereignty an imagined near miss. It is a metonym for a myth about us and them; Anglo-Saxon freedoms versus continental tyranny.

Discontinued official UKIP logos

But since the government officially ruled out entry to the Eurozone in 2007, the loss of the pound as currency has been well off the political agenda, so why has the UKIP pound sign persisted? Perhaps because it is just so good at getting the message across.

The message is clear: UKIP understands the bargain basement issues. It provides Policies 4 U. In 2012, in a slick piece of PR, the party claimed it was axing the logo. UKIP said it was, ‘dropping the pound sign because the battle had been won and Britain was not going to replace sterling with the euro.’ They went on to say, ‘Our pound sign has been a fantastically simple image. But now it […] represents a battle honour and not a forward looking aspiration for a party that wants to represent an independent UK.’

We can only assume this public announcement was a stunt – they knew they were onto a good thing. Their ‘fantastically simple’ image works, persistent like a sleazy dipsomaniac. Even though it is a reminder of their pressure group roots, the bulbous pound sign is too useful to ditch.

A good logo is a conduit for layers of unspoken meaning. In this case, perhaps it conceals some unspeakable meanings as well. The currency reaches back through centuries of history, right back to the homely world of the Anglo-Saxon hoards, connecting us English to those simpler times. Awkwardly, the symbol itself is descended from the Roman libra (hence the adapted ‘L’); the name ‘pound’ is an adaptation of the Latin phrase ‘libra pondo’ - ‘a pound by weight’. It was imported to Britain by southern European immigrants.

The whole point of being conservative is that you really, really don’t want to move on. Even when you are imagining a transformative and traumatic change you prefer to call it continuity. The UKIP pound logo is the product of an eerie combination of an imagined deep past and a discount sofa future. It combines seeming immutability with a no-nonsense Poundstretcher aesthetic and thus produces an unbeatable logo.

UKIP seems to pride its self on anti-design: from the logo which was obviously designed in MS Paint by someone deeply immersed in the oeuvre of Alan Partridge, to the swivel-eyed bacchanalia that constitutes their promotional literature. It’s exactly this anti-design which aligns so well with the more alienated edges of our nation. Pound shops, slot machines and shiny suits. If ever there was a magic bullet for a certain idea of English identity, the purple pound sign is it. There, in one package, is a condensed combination of both the history and the contemporary image of the nation.

Purple has been used in the past to signify the political centre ground: A safe consensus driven space between the red left and the blue right. (For more read here in Finn Williams piece from last time around

Perhaps UKIP’s purple stems from their origins a non-political single interest group. Maybe it was just what was left over once all the main parties had laid claim to the rest of the spectrum. UKIP purple is straight down the line. In numbers: #70147A ; RGB - 112, 20, 122; CMYK- 0.082, 0.836, 0, 0.522. Swirling around that heady world of single-issue Eurosceptic parties around the turn of the last century was a lot of purple. Kilroy knew the score. He kept to the universal appeal of the political purple. His party, Veritas (“The Straight Talking Party”), took on almost exactly the same hue. Businessman Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party went with a classy Maroon and Cream, more in tune with its west London roots.

Labour shifted from the ‘Red Flag’ to the ‘Red Rose’. The move was overseen by Mandelson himself. The Conservatives changed from the red white and blue ‘Torch’ to the strangely green tree. The later addition of the Union Flag was in part the brainchild of the disgraced Andy Coulson, who felt the British flag should be involved somehow as a nod to the disillusioned Tory right, meeting the improbable brief of being both patronising and menacing. Do UKIP have a media savvy monster sitting waiting for the right time to change their logo, or are they just sitting there in the comfortable knowledge that they have pitch perfect semiotics.

I doubt anyone decides where to place their X solely based on graphic design. But if you are impressed by complex semiotics and budget graphics UKIP will make you vote so hard your pencil will break.

The UKIP logo meets the ambivalent postmodern brief of being both banal and scary, both referential and new. The pound sign logo succinctly encompasses UKIP: Dangerously slick PR nous straight out of a car-boot sale.

Eddie Blake is a senior designer at Sam Jacob Studio . He was previously part of Studio Weave where he worked on a wide range of schemes. He studied at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow followed by the University of Westminster, where he continues to be a visiting critic. He has also written about architecture for the Architects' Journal, Blueprint and Vice Magazine among other publications.

Vote Art! Vote Often!

Fraser Muggeridge, graphic designer to the art world (and to Sam Jacob Studio) has sent over these images he made with Jeremy Deller as part of the Vote Art project that aims 'to encourage people to take part in the democratic process.'

Remember, you can still register to vote till the 20th April here.

Heres' more on Vote Art: "'Vote Arts is an arts initiative inspired by the theme of democracy that aims to encourage people to take part in the democratic process.

Vote Art will work with artists Bob & Roberta Smith, Fatima Begum, Janette Parris and Jeremy Deller, plus one other artists to be identified through a national competition. You can find all about the artists here

The project will create five new pieces of artwork that will be exhibited on 10 commercial billboard sites near art venues across England; on 10,000 postcards to be distributed to 10 arts venues throughout England and on social media platforms including a dedicated website, social networks."

Friday, 17 April 2015

A Tale, Told By An Idiot

By James Taylor-Foster

Picks up a framed photo of Margaret Thatcher and pauses in contemplation.
Francis Urquhart: Nothing lasts forever. Looks to camera. 

Hunting alongside his labrador outside his country estate.
Francis Urquhart: Looks to camera. I have hopes of high office, I must confess. But first things first—we have a General Election win.

House of Cards, Episode 1 (1990)

Frank and Claire Underwood

House of Cards first aired on Netflix in 2013 and, two years and thirty nine episodes later, Francis Underwood is President of the United States of America. His trajectory has been marvellously sensational, suffused by a terrifying edge of authenticity. As one MP (John Dalberg-Acton) famously said, ‘all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ It makes for great TV.

Amidst the backstabbing, murderous, lust-infused plot line of corruption and uncontrolled ascent, how many UK voters realise that this piece of fiction was born out of something closer to home? The original House of Cards was penned in 1989 by author, playwright, former MP, and Life Peer, Michael Dobbs — first advisor and later Chief of Staff to Margaret Thatcher. The original Underwood was Francis Urquhart: a ruthless, cold and aggressively driven governmental whip whose sole purpose was to rise to the pinnacle of the British political amphitheatre, set amidst the menagerie of a post-Thatcher political void.

Over two decades later Hollywood called, and Francis’ transatlantic counterpart  - played by Kevin Spacey - emerged as a fictional superstar. The appeal of the theme maintains its currency because theatrical entertainment is so closely aligned to political performance. Underwood’s trademark monologues to camera is a technique known among thespians as ‘clocking the audience’. Breaking the fourth wall and feeding the viewer with dramatic irony compels the audience to empathise.

It’s also something that Shakespeare, master of the early political thriller, often exploited. Think of Macbeth (or Frank Underwood). Although he has murdered and usurped, the audience is still compelled to sympathise with his actions against all reason. Even as Lady Macbeth (or Claire Underwood) enters the throws of insanity, the audience pities her in spite of her malevolence. And why? Because Shakespeare provides insight into their ambitions, doubts and fears. In essence, the audience is made to feel complicit in their actions and aligned to their twisted political motivations.

Francis Urquhart / House of Cards
Ed Miliband / Leaders Debate

It’s the night of the 2015 Leaders’ Election Debate, hosted by ITV. As Adrian Shaughnessy noted on this blog, the ‘gameshowification’ of the event is strangely palpable. The dramatic opening music is accompanied by a shining silver title sequence, which shatters to the beat of an orchestral crescendo. All the while a camera pans around a glistening studio, each podium lit in its party colour.

ITV Leaders Debate / Titles

During introductions, the spotlight turns to the potential leaders. They either smile at one another or look authoritatively toward the seated audience. In any case, they’re acting. When his name is called Ed Miliband silently turns to the camera and smiles. It’s an unintentional, disconcerting allusion to the emblematic Urquhart-cum-Underwood’s glance: as if about to break into soliloquy about what he really thinks about that chap wearing mustard yellow trousers on the front row.

Here, the anatomy of the show begins to take form. One by one, the camera hovers before a candidate and gently zooms toward their face as they make an opening statement. In turn their speeches, meticulously written and slightly over-rehearsed, are relayed to screens across the land. Watchwords such as ‘votes’, ‘fairly’, and ‘deficit’ form the backbone of these orations, keenly interspersed by the informal personal pronoun — mostly ‘you’, ‘I’, and ‘we’.

As is the case in so many political performances, it boils down to faith. How believable is the staging? How well delivered is their recital? In most cases, the key points of their speeches have been heard before and so the audience watches and waits, hoping that this time the candidates will forget a statistic or carefully phrased policy. Based on the human details of these fragmentary performances, many will cast their vote.

‘It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.’
Macbeth, Act V, scene v

It’s all just pantomime.

James Taylor-Foster is a writer, researcher, editor and architectural designer working between the UK and The Netherlands. James writes and lectures on art history, and is the author of the international bestseller Monet: Colour in Impressionism (2011)*. He is an Editor at ArchDaily, the world's most visited architecture website, and writes on contemporary architecture for a number of journals and magazines. He consults and undertakes freelance research in this capacity for small practices.

James is an in-house practice researcher and publisher at Mecanoo architecten in Delft, Editor of LOBBY Magazine (Bartlett School of Architecture, London), Guest Lecturer at Manchester School of Architecture, and co-leads an independent research team based in the UK studying a neglected aspect of the architectural discourse. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

Cut Boris Johnson's Hair

By Jonas Berthod (with help from Andrew Brash)

One of Boris Johnson's most deceiving political moves resides in plain sight: it is his hair.

Presented to the public like a pledge of friendliness and good-heartedness, his dishevelled hair—that he half-jokingly assures cutting himself 'with nail scissors'—is a constant source of public and media obsession (the thatch extraordinaire even earned its own Twitter handle, @Boris_Hair).

Perhaps Johnson isn't unlike Samson, his strength residing in his hair. (On a side note, the mayor seems to share Samson's unabashed interest in women.) I wonder if is is the case of all politicians, considering all that talk around Cameron's bald patch and Osborne's new haircut.

In any case, what Johnson really wants is for people to focus on his logo-like hair extravaganza. It is just one facet of 'Brand Boris', a persona he reportedly started developing at Oxford University. His disorderly look is a careful construct, shaped with wax, ruffled before rushing on stage, rumpled as he gets on TV sets.

That the seemingly innocuous tuffet is in fact nothing more than a PR toupee should come as no surprise. After all, in our times of constant exposure, there are not many politicians who would dare speaking a word—let alone grow a moustache—without consulting at least their press secretary. And English hair politics it is nothing new: they have a precedent with the Roundheads of the English Civil War.

What is perhaps more revealing of our times of constant PC is the strategy Johnson decides to embrace. By appearing bumbling, he is insinuating that he is too busy to take care of his look: he has a city to run, after all, and the tousled do turns into a proof of his efficiency.

Simultaneously, with his forwardness, Johnson is distancing himself from the politicians of the establishment, whose Photoshopped appearance and polished stances are now perceived as untrustworthy.

The straight-talking, normal-acting middle class white man character is also embraced by Nigel Farage: his sempiternal pint is to be taken as a token for his supposed normality, breaking away from the accepted image of the well-meaning politician, who neither drinks nor smokes. (Take that, NHS: the politician who had a rant about 'HIV tourists' bases his political campaign on promoting a lifestyle that costs you billions.)

Perhaps this approach is modelled after Jeremy Clarkson, who benefits from massive popularity. After all, not that many public figures can boast as supporters the (albeit shortly) hunger-striking daughter of a Prime Minister. His personality perhaps appeals to the public because of a continuous refusal to conform to political correctness. And when he retreats behind humour and temper to justify actions which would be inexcusable for any other public figure, he might only be putting forward the fact that he is just 'a normal person' prone to making mistakes—just like his audience is made of 'normal', 'average' people who also make mistakes, drink pints and have bad hair days.

Similarly, by acting a buffoon, Johnson is coming across as a friendly human—perhaps even the kind one would enjoy as having as neighbour. In any case, he seems charmingly harmless: his apparent detachment from the establishment and rapprochement with figures of 'normalcy' is reassuring to the 'normal' voter.

Another interesting aspect about Johnson's approach is how he manages to turn the usually bland PR manoeuvre into a joke—which simultaneously allows him to take distance from it, thus taking ownership of the usually perilous operation. This is evident not only with his look, but also in his interviews and speeches. For example, when asked by Guardian journalist Elizabeth Day whether he cried easily, Johnson cleverly juxtaposed his forced exposition with the neutralisation of the interviewer's agenda—all thanks to irony:

“Sorry, should I be more emotional?” He calls out to his press secretary on the other side of the room. “Camilla, is it good to be more of a blubber or less of a blubber? What are the readers of the Observer going to want?”

However, behind the peacock-like public persona hides a charged agenda. In that sense, Johnson uses his hair like a screen masking his ambitions, a tactic he constantly comes back to—with his ministerial ambitions, for example, or when he masquerades his real interests behind seemingly patriotic public positions.

In a sense, Boris Johnson has perfectly understood how our 140 characters long approach of understanding the world works. By using his hair as a shortcut for his persona, he takes advantage of the media and the public's little interest in the subtlety of the world, giving them panem et circenses instead.

Jonas Berthod is a designer and researcher working between London and Switzerland. He runs an independent practice dealing with his overlapping interests in design, research and teaching. He is a lecturer in Critical History of Design at ECAL, Lausanne.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The Gameshowification of Political Debate

By Adrian Shaughnessy

For the major commercial TV networks, the prospect of another month or so of political journalists debating the mathematical intricacies of the deficit does not make for the sort of steroid pumped schedule-filling TV that they want. Nor are the media sales teams energised at the prospect of a few more weeks of showing party political broadcasts – the ricin of TV ad sales.

What the TV people really want is the gladiatorial spectacle of power-hungry politicos fighting each other to the death. They know the modern TV audience wants political blood. TV viewers want to see ambitions thwarted and careers derailed. They want ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. What better way to provide this than adapt politics to the game show format?

No one does the game show better than ITV – masters of the Quiz Format and Lords of the Shiny Floor. And so when seven of our would-be leaders agreed to debate in public (The Leaders Debate, 8:00pm, Thursday 2 April 2015), it was fitting that they should do it on ITV – home of Mr & Mrs, The Price is Right and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. This was electioneering with a Saturday night TV gloss.

Over seven million of us to tuned in to see our plucky contestants dressed and styled for primetime TV: men-of-the-people suits for the gents; department store tailoring for the ladies. Hair and make up was attended to in the established ‘mild embalming’ style of TV make-up departments. Amongst the female contestants, only Natalie from Australia failed to take the opportunity to introduce a bit of colour into her attire – on the other hand, Nicola from Scotland and Leanne from Wales seized the opportunity to inject a defiant note of celtic-fringe redness. Only Nigel from Kent’s wardrobe hinted at swagger – his ‘patriotism’ brashly semaphored by his pinstripe suit. You felt that he’d be happier still in his signature velvet collared overcoat. But the lights, Nigel – very hot under those lights.

The set design was ITV-lite. Restrained, tasteful even, with just the reflective qualities of the shiny floor to convey glamour – not to mention subtle reflections of the party political colours. There was even a hint of Kraftwerk with the streamlined lectern like-podiums. As the ITV website informs us, it was ‘a TV set not just with a bigger number of podiums than ever before for a UK election – but with colours which don’t scream “Labour”, “SNP” or “Green” or any of the seven hues of the political spectrum taking part.’

The website advised us in advance of the ‘little things’ to watch out for: ‘Yes, Farage is a few paces away from Cameron – and Miliband is too – but close up cameras will catch every twitch.’ Bad luck anyone hoping to pick up on any policy revelations – but there was plenty of twitching to occupy us.

The contestants were kept in check by a an efficient Quiz Mistress. More medical orderly than affable hostess, Julie Etchingham ruled with buttoned up rigour and curbed the male contestants appetite for shouting over each other.

Seven million people thought this was watchable television, so we can assume there will be more of the same. But let’s also apply game show rules and introduce penalties for failure: points deducted for an evasive answer and a lie get’s you booted off the show. That would be a ratings smash to gladden the heart of a TV mogul.

Adrian Shaughnessy is a graphic designer and writer based in London. He is a senior tutor in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art and a founding partner in Unit Editions a publishing company producing books on design and visual culture. Scratching the Surface, a collection of his journalism, has recently been published

Friday, 3 April 2015

Pink Herring

By Maria Smith

As Selfridges launch a gender-neutral fashion campaign, Sweden add a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary and Yvette Cooper pledges to look into gender X passports, the first televised election debate centred around Kay Burley's pink dress. Oh dear. The world said she looked like she was hosting a cocktail party, like she was going to a Wetherspoon’s hen night, and like she was ovulating.

Pink seems to rile people up in a very special way. The drama with Labour's pink election battle bus last month illustrated this perfectly. Harriet Harman created a pink bus to travel the country to talk to women about women’s issues and oh how we went wild. It was so much fun hating on the pink bus: so much permissible indignation. Too much perhaps, perhaps revealing that what we’re really cross about is something not quite so permissible.

My suspicion is that the colour of the bus is a Pink Herring and our excessive anger is actually about whether or not it’s even ok to talk about ‘women’s issues.’

Countless commentators made the comparison with a Barbie bus and many of us are keen to distance ourselves from typically girls’ toys.  But hidden behind 'I don’t even like pink toys' is there: 

'I don’t feel that I live in a world rife with sexism and I’m starting to worry that going on about it all the time will become a self-fulfilling prophecy'?

Many felt it was insulting and patronising. But hidden behind 'It’s condescending to assume that all women like pink' is there: 

'I want to believe that women differ from each other as much as people with brown eyes differ from each other and I’m deeply uncomfortable with the thought that as long as there is a concept of gender we are inherently grouped and will have a raft of commonalities'?

Several critics took issue with the underlying assumption that women like pink. But hidden behind: 'pink shouldn’t be exclusively for girls' is there: 

'I feel that issues of work-life balance, maternity pay, or domestic violence should be issues that we all worry about, and billing them as women’s issues besmirches them as special treatment for the weaker sex'?

It’s difficult to say these things without fear of coming off a bad feminist. It’s difficult as a Gen Y to talk about gender issues without seeming ignorant and ungrateful to our foremothers. It’s easy to rage against pink. 

Pink is never neutral. We can't wear pink without meaning it. Pink has become such a loaded colour that whether we choose to wear it or not we are inevitably making a statement about our attitudes and even values. 

This happens in two main ways: 1) Wearing pink; and 2) Not wearing pink. 

If we’re feminine and adorn pink – as Kay Burley did – then not only do we risk being told we look like we’re out on the pull, but if we surprise people by then saying something intelligent we gain easy and often immense power. That power is not only troublesome because it’s borne out of low expectations associated with femininity, but it’s also dangerously addictive. But damned either way, if we’re masculine and avoid pink, we’re still supporting the dominance of masculinity over femininity, which though arguably less problematic than male over female, is still perpetuating the patriarchy. 

Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, was released 25 years ago this week. The poster showed Gere in a black suit, his tie tugged over his shoulder by a smiling Roberts in a pink crop top, black mini skirt and patent thigh highs. The title of the film stands next to the pair like a third protagonist in the hottest of pinks.

A quarter of a century later and story of a girl deemed beautiful enough to be worthy of class ascension by a rich businessman feels dated to the point of nostalgia. 

Now we have Frozen, whose use of pink  The use of pink is interesting. The message in the film about true love in sisterhood provides a strong counterpoint to the Pretty Woman school of power games, but Anna still wears pink. Sure, it’s a dark purpley hue, but is there a conflict between the empowering message of sisterhood and the use of stereotypical pink to create a brand that appeals to the little girls the message is intended to reach. Maybe there isn’t. Maybe this means pink is being reclaimed now.

Anyway, Harriet Harman said the bus was magenta, while Gloria de Piero called it cerise. Kay Burley tweeted that her dress was coral. 

Also in the news this week, these two mysteriously turned up in Portland, Oregon. One day, we will live in a world where we can all adorn pink as joyfully and casually as these chicks.

Maria Smith is a founding director of Studio Weave

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Kitchen As Political Theatre

The Miliband second kitchen

So far its the kitchen that's emerged as the most important political space of the moment.

First, we had Ed Miliband filmed at home in what transpired to be only one of his kitchens. What wasn't filmed was apparently a bigger affair downstairs. As Ed tried to explain later "The house we bought had a kitchen downstairs when we bought it. And it is not the one we use. We use the small one upstairs"

Sarah Vine, columnist for the Mail (and Tory chief whip Michael Gove's wife), described the Miliband's (second) kitchen as “bland, functional, humourless”, comparing it to “Communist era” housing. (Here's her full article)

Meanwhile Ed hit back at Prime Ministers Questions. To a Cameron jibe about kitchen cabinets, Miliband replied "I thought he might mention kitchens ... At least I paid for my kitchen unlike the government chief whip.” A reference to the fact that the Gove kitchen was apparently paid for by taxpayer money.

Cameron showing The Sun how he makes a sardine sandwich in the Downing St kitchen

At the same time, Cameron was inviting The Sun into his 'well stocked' Downing Street kitchen where he was filmed whipping up a quick ‘Sardines a la Cameron’ lunch as part of his day-in-the-life of a PM movie.

Cameron's country kitchen

Now, we have Cameron inviting the BBC to his Witney constituency home filmed for the interview where he seemed to get ahead of himself a little by claiming he wouldn't stand for a third term as PM.

Nixon & Khrushchev's Kitchen Debate

Is all this kitchen action accidental? Surely not. We only have to think of the famous Kitchen Debate between Nixon and Khrushchev back in 1959 to see how the image of domesticity acts as the perfect ideological theatre for political ideas.

In the current proliferation of kitchen photo-ops its not the explicit political argument that's at stake but the semiotics of kitchen design which is the political argument. In other words, the kitchen has assumed the role of staging the authenticity and humanity of our politicians. 

Why? Well, they have co-opted the heart of domestic life in a desperate attempt to look like real people - people like us, with, y'know, real kitchens. That's why they all look - in what should be the most natural and relaxed of places - completely awkward. And why their kitchens seem to be doubling, becoming phantom-like, less real and more like the staged kitchen of the American National Exhibition.  

Except in that case the kitchen was an deliberate piece of cold war propaganda. It showing a kitchen full of the promise of technology and convenience, a kitchen staging an idea of the domestic future. 

This batch of political kitchens however are simply trying to stage the present.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

In Praise Of The Polling Station: Analogue Non-Design

By Hugh Pearman

“Nobody has ever asked me that before,” said the surprised person at the Electoral Commission. I’d called to ask about polling booths – those flimsy softwood-and-plywood folding arrangements, each equipped with its stubby pencil on a string, at which one stands to vote in UK elections. They appear to be precisely designed: room for just one person, the side screens discouraging overlooking, each one a tiny lectern at pretty much the right height, linked either in cruciform pattern or in rows. Ultra-basic but utterly fit for purpose, they have not changed in my lifetime – with the important exception of a low one now being mandatory at all polling stations for those needing it - and, so far as I can tell from archive photos, go back much further. Are there national design guidelines for these? Does a factory somewhere make them, or are they knocked together by local municipal workers from a manual?

The polling station is a kit of essential parts, like a field hospital, erected inside another building. Also like a field hospital, it is governed by very exact procedures, and is capable of coping with sudden rushes of people interspersed by longeurs. You won’t find many people exercising their democratic right at an average polling station at, say, 11 am on election day. Particularly not local elections with their low turnout. But the system is there to handle everyone. It’s also designed to be packed up quickly in an emergency and reopened elsewhere. Like stalls at a fete, when it rains.

The six essential parts of the kit are:

1. Notices. I have no idea what font it is, but the paper signs announcing POLLING STATION, usually crudely printed in black capitals on white paper, sometimes painted on wood, always make me think of Clement Atlee, Stafford Cripps, and postwar Austerity. Sometimes there are black arrows and “Way In” signs printed on other bits of paper to direct you to the right door. Once inside, other notices tell you what to do and there’ll be an enlarged version of the ballot paper with all the candidates’ names on it.

2. Trestle tables. Generally available in the school halls and community centres where polling stations are set up, so pressed into service. You need a minimum of three – one for the two poll clerks (a paid Presiding Officer and assistant, working a 16-hour day) one for the polling agents (observers appointed by the candidates), and a “sundries table”. Plus something to put the ballot box on.

3. The polling booths. These must be set up so that they are well lit and so people outside can’t look in and see how other people are voting.

4. String. Essential to fasten the mandatory thick soft-leaded pencils to the booths. The Electoral Commission guidelines have a checklist which includes: “Is the string attached to the pencils long enough for the size of ballot papers and to accommodate both right-handed and left-handed voters?” Though you don’t HAVE to use the pencils, you can bring your own pen.

5. The ballot box. Disappointingly, these seem to come in many varieties and materials but for me they really have to be large, battered, black-enamelled metal boxes. There are various kinds of seals – legal pink ribbon is good though plastic closures are now more common. There’s a pleasing ritual, just before the 7 am kick-off, when the Presiding Officer has to show everyone present that the box is empty, before sealing it. Except for the slot, obviously. After close of play at 10pm, the slot is sealed too, for the box to be transported to the count. You’d expect fleets of security vans nationwide but no: it seems the back seat of the Presiding Officer’s Ford Fiesta is just fine.

6. One or two chairs available so that any voter needing to can rest.

I treasure the ceremonial of polling day, which is a series of short walks and satisfyingly simple actions. Everything about it seems a form of historic re-enactment. First, the walk to the polling station. There will be an assortment of people outside, perhaps with party rosettes (rosettes! Antique knightly badges only otherwise seen on prizewinning animals at livestock, fruit and veg shows and the like). These people are called ‘tellers’ and want to know who’s voted so they can chase up the ones who haven’t. But they are only semi-official, must remain outside, and you are free to ignore them, grandly.

Inside, you proffer your voting card, are scrutinised by the two officials and carefully marked off on a register, then are handed your ballot paper. You move to the polling booth with its rough shelf, to mark your X. You fold the paper and progress to the ballot box, post it, and exit. The process is rapid but feels important, as it should.

Security is there in the form of a bored police officer outside, but apart from a very few well-publicised cases of intimidation, we all know that this is not usually where electoral fraud takes place – it’s in the postal voting and the handling of full ballot boxes and the town-hall counting where things can go awry. A polling station could be a target for attack but we have no experience of that yet in the UK. So we trust the reassuring, unchanged and distinctly functionalist set-up.

Enjoy this throwback analogue low-tech procedure while you can because presumably it won’t be long before we’re all voting online. That’s recommended by the Electoral Commission, will be much more convenient for everyone and will most likely greatly increase voter involvement. Then again, you can just imagine the whole system being hacked and crashing on the day.

Finally the amused press officer at the Electoral Commission got back to me on my polling-booth question. No, she said, there appears not to be a standard recommended design. Anything will do so long as it meets requirements for privacy and accessibility, it’s left up to the local authority Returning Officers. Nonetheless there seems to be this typical wood/plywood product. All I can tell you is that somehow they cost about £90 each to make and that Cornwall County Council, looking to save money, has trialled £15 snap-together cardboard ones instead.

Hugh Pearman is editor of the RIBA Journal, architecture critic of the Sunday Times, and visiting professor in architecture at the RCA. He likes design that doesn't try too hard.