Golden Conundrum


This article was written for the Critical Path column on Eye magazine’s blog at the beginning of the Olympic Games in London 2012.

‘Let the games begin,’ they said, and so to the latest round of logo-bashing. It’s lucky logos don’t have feelings.

Since branding consultancy Wolff Olins unveiled the London 2012 Olympics logo, designed by Luke Gifford and others in 2007, the jaunty mark has been the object of numerous perjorative metaphors. It was like a swastika, the word ‘Zion’, cartoon character Lisa Simpson engaged in a sexual act or a middle-aged man trying to look cool on the dance floor. It induced epileptic seizures. The design press compared it, unfavourably, to the visual identities of Tokyo 1964, Mexico 1968 and Munich 1972.

Five years on, and now that London’s Olympic moment has finally arrived, it is probably time to move past the name-calling and consider exactly why the London 2012 visual identity is a failure.

Don’t get me wrong: I too appreciate the formal beauty and resolution of the designs for Tokyo, Mexico City and Munich (by Yusaku Kamekura, Lance Wyman and Otl Aicher respectively). I admire Kamekura’s counterbalancing of a red minimalist disc with the five Olympic rings; the happy conflation of concentric lines in the art of the Huichol Indians and the then contemporary Op Art (see ‘This is 1968 … this is Mexico’ in Eye 56); the chequered ‘wreath of rays’ (Viktor Vasarely’s Bright Sun) and accompanying pictograms designed according to the ethos of the Ulm school. Each of these identities combined highly resolved geometry with appropriate spirited subliminal associations that were then applied to all aspects of the graphics programme in a total design approach. Each brought something new to the task of visualising the Olympics, whether it be the abandonment of classical imagery, the first use of the pictogram, or the first licensed use of an emblem for merchandising.

They also conveniently married the universalising tendencies of Modernism to their local needs. Modernism proved a useful vehicle for asserting centrality or contemporaneity on the world stage, for elevating the image of a third world city, or for reinventing a country as a technological powerhouse. A style that aspired to be rational and functional suited the complex practical and logistical demands of the unruly Olympic project.

Apart from the last factor, none of this has been in London’s remit, and anyway even as they purport to espouse enduring values, the Olympics are never what they used to be. They are flashpoints for, among other things, changing configurations of power and nationalist self-perception.

There is no doubt the designers of the London 2012 logo could have made their job easier. They could have redrawn the usual range of nationalist icons and symbols to capture the zeitgeist – see the logo for Team GB, for instance – and we would probably all be politely applauding the result’s elegance and harmony much as we did the contemporary British classicism of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. This, however, was never the intention.

If the London 2012 logo is ugly, garish and awkward, it is purposefully so. Wolff Olins have openly admitted its aspirations for an identity which would convey ‘dissonance’ and which would ‘break the rules of corporate identity.’ (See AIGA conference review in Eye 66.) At the time, I wondered what processes and procedures could be put in place to achieve a visual identity designed according to anti-aesthetic principles. Perhaps it could draw on Britain’s rich sub-cultural history, on the legacy and impulses of punk and new wave, for instance, or somehow acknowledge the age of user-participation. (See the FastCo interview with the agency’s Brian Boylan and Ije Nwokorie.)

Alas, the logo’s application has been profoundly disappointing, showing complete disregard for any resulting visual resonance or association. When the original yellow shadow is reversed on a coloured background, the impression is of nothing more than a cartoon. Add the saturated colour scheme of an ostensibly welcoming bank, the open-ended management-speak inciting someone to inspire an unnamed generation, a web of intersecting lines, sometimes outlined, sometimes filled in to create an aesthetic of shards like much 21st-century break-the-grid architecture, and an intentionally gawky typeface (2012 Headline, designed by Gareth Hague), which is unfortunately not useful for the demands of legibility in wayfinding, and the sum total of what is communicated is nothing much at all. Then there is the recourse to old methods, which, eschewing the block-like quality of the logo and adopting the diagonal linework of the typeface, have resulted in a set of unsatisfactory pictograms. Surely communicating dissonance, as Wolff Olins said it was trying to do, is not the same as making a mess.

This raises the question of whether the stringent rules and top-down conventions of branding can ever be reconciled with more egalitarian values. Wolff Olins claims that many attempts on its part to reinvent the conventions of branding for an age of participation and social media, such as its proposal for the painting of a ‘ninth lane’ through many towns and for a campaign to encourage the general public to generate their own logos, were zealously quashed by LOCOG in the interests of protecting the Games’ corporate sponsors.

It is worth noting here that versions of the logo made by others, such as the one for the education programme, which fills it with neatly arranged bright coloured pencils, have been considered successful.

Wolff Olins’s stated aims for the logo have also been given a different take by Greg Nugent, the director of marketing, brand and culture for the Games, who with the help of FutureBrand implemented the ‘One Look’ programme with the explicit goal of making all parties and places involved in the Olympics – airports, venues, government bodies, sponsors and London boroughs – look the same. (See ‘London 2012: the look of the Games’ in Creative Review.)

Whether they have succeeded is debatable. What is clear is that the powers that be failed to come up with a process that delivered an appropriate graphic language for this time and place. What they have done is expose a conundrum and some of the difficulties of the relationship between dissonance and coherence.

In 2012, any impulse on the part of the public to join in the Olympic spirit must be traded for the commitment to drink Coke, eat McDonald’s and pay for it by Visa. (That is, if you have managed to get a seat not already owned and left empty by another corporate sponsor.) As it stands, the London Olympics 2012 identity still looks like a corporate disaster. Oddly then, perhaps in this climate, it is a fitting sign of the times.

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A User’s Guide to Oxymoronic Machines

R2B2-1.1-72ppiThis essay was published as a series of captioned images which were interspersed throughout Useless, an anthology of essays published by the first graduating class in Critical Writing in Art and Design from the Royal College of Art, London.

The Futurists lauded them, artists at the Bauhaus created ballets in their honour and the pioneer of industrial efficiency, Frederick Winslow Taylor, timed their smooth operation down to the one-hundredth of a second. Yet for every engineer or artist who has vaunted the qualities of precision, calculation, flawlessness, simplicity, speed and economy as the hallmarks of the machine, there have been others who have begged to differ.

The present day is no exception. In their attempts to delineate a new role for themselves by shunning what they regard as the dubious motivations and effects of mass-production, many designers are shifting their focus from the object of production to its mechanics. In their re-examination of the machine, they are reconsidering its very nature and investing it with new qualities, giving us machines which are human, social or even funny. By concentrating on the mechanical workings of things, they also offer us a timely reminder that we will never be privy to the dance of electrons which go on inside a microchip.

While fascinating conceptually, the critical effectiveness of these machines , however, is up for debate. Frequently appearing on the design festival circuit and discussed on design blogs, often these machines have been created to perform or to be watched as much as they are there to do or to be productive. Have their designers retreated from the mass-production and consumption of goods only to become complicit in the production and consumption of images? Interspersed in the pages of this publication, the following User’s Guide to Oxymoronic Machines presents this new economy.

The Ramshackle Machine
The design critic Reyner Banham anointed the second decade of the twentieth century as the first Machine Age, one in which mechanization infiltrated everyday life through the widespread availability of cars, telephones, typewriters and appliances. Enveloping products in the 1930s, the streamline design style quickly followed, formalizing assemblages of constituent parts into new objects and becoming a code for speed and modernity. This marked the beginning of deliberate obsolescence in commodity aesthetics. The Ramshackle Machine, by contrast, such as Christoph Thetard’s r2b2 (2010, see above) seeks to make all mechanical joints, hinges, bolts and screws visible. The kitchen appliance includes a hand blender, coffee grinder and food processor that fit onto a wooden unit containing a pedal-powered drive mechanism. The fly-wheel at the heart of the machine is left exposed which leaves no mystery as to its origins and ensures it is no fetish in the making.


The Erotic Machine
Marcel Duchamp represented the erotic relationship between men and women using analogies drawn from physics and engineering in The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). Executing the work on two panes of glass with materials such as lead foil and fuse wire he represented the sexual encounter as a mechanical process.

In the 2011 music video for Electrotechnique, Dutch multimedia artists Lernert and Sander present a series of animated pastel-coloured tableaus comprised of domestic objects. Two suitcases support a pedal system of red stilettos on a mattress; a record player powered by a kettle is mounted with a stick that protrudes and rotates through the bottom of a plastic chair; a champagne bottle strapped to a vibrating exercise machine suggestively wobbles; and an office chair swivels round and round wrapping itself with an extension cord conjuring sado-masochistic associations. As the song progresses to the pounding of an electric drum beat each tableau reaches a climax:  an umbrella springs open, an inflated rubber glove bursts, a white box oozes effluvium and a plastic bag deflates. 


The Solipsistic Machine
Exhibited at the seminal exhibition on technology and art curated by Jasia Reinhardt at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1968 entitled Cybernetic Serendipity, Richard Kriesche’s World Model was comprised of two industrial robots alternately fulfilling identical tasks. Each robot performed a series of movements culminating in the pressing of a button which sent the second robot into the same routine, and so it continued ad infinitum.

The purest form of oxymoron, the Solipsistic Machine is one which, in a display of egotistic self-absorption, exists only to perpetuate itself. The idea has its most extreme incarnation in The Ultimate Machine. Also known as the Leave Me Alone Box, The Ultimate Machine functions only to turn itself off. A plain box with a switch on top, when flipped the lid opens and a hand or lever emerges in order to push the switch back in the other direction.

Ironically this exercise in the fundamentals of mass and energy was invented by the man who defined the third state of matter, that of information. Claude Shannon invented The Ultimate Machine as a gift for executives based on an idea of his colleague, Marvin Minsky, while working at Bell Labs in the USA in 1952. The transmission of information is also responsible for The Ultimate Machine’s recent resurgence in popularity. Do-It-Yourself instructions for making one are rife on the internet. One video alone displays 46 different versions of the machine using everything from Lego, transparent perspex, suitcases and cigarboxes.


The Living Machine
For her installation entitled The Immortal (2012), Revital Cohen has connected a number of life-support machines in order to mimic a complete biological organism. The circuit of electronic medical machinery challenges entrenched oppositions between nature and culture and between the mechanical and the organic. While conventionally diametrically opposed, humans and machines have been elaborated in the other’s terms for centuries, the knowledge of one infusing the conception of the other. The internet, for instance, has often been compared to the workings of the central nervous system.

Cohen’s installation is also an eerie reminder of theorist Paul Virilio’s prediction, made at the end of the last century, that after humans conquer physical and cosmic space, they will turn inwards to colonise the body. The reign of the computer will implode inside us. The emblem of this tendency is the pacemaker, which can change the fundamental rhythm of life. ‘Once this happens,’  Virilio asks, ‘how can we possibly assume that things will remain in working order?’ [1]


The Writing Machine
In ancient times, so sacred was the task of writing the Bible that scribes were required to say each word whilst writing it and wash their bodies before materializing the word of God. The document became invalid if there were any errors or if two letters touched. In 2007, German collective Robotlab delegated the responsibility of writing the Bible to a robotic arm retired from a car factory. Mounted with a nib, the Bible-scriber known as the Bios studiously pours over a roll of paper, methodically reproducing every word of the Bible in a fifteenth-century typeface. Giving the impression of human embodiment, it performs for anyone who wants to watch. The history of the alphabet is one in which the curve of a letter or angle of a serif contains the residue of a past means of inscription, whether of a metal plate, a chisel or a calligraphic nib. The presence of the tool itself, however, is usually a guarantee of the human relationship to the document. This is not the case with the Bios. It merely simulates the trace of the human hand. In its grip then, the pen no longer testifies to the presence of a human being or offers a promise of authenticity.


The Social Machine
Whether or not automation has been of benefit to the human race or has made it redundant is still not certain. Today, a new generation of designers is reconsidering the machine’s goal of economy and efficiency. Austrian duo Mischer Traxler’s Collective Works (2011) is a basket-weaving machine which will only work in the presence of a human being. Four coloured markers attached to the corners of the contraption document the number of people in its company. The machine only functions when sensors in its frame detect an audience. When watched, a spool of wood veneer begins to unwind through glue before coiling back on itself to form a basket. Progressively darker hues are introduced as additional onlookers approach so that each basket becomes a colour-coded record of its own creation. To date, only eight baskets have been made.


The Destructive Machine
Like the inventor of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Swiss artist Jean Tinguely learned the hard way that unfettered technological curiosity is not of its own merit constructive and that the realization of the best-made plans are not always within human control. On March 17th 1960 in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art, for his Homage to New York, Tinguely orchestrated his junk assemblage of bicycle wheels, piano keys, a roll of paper and a weather balloon, which he designed to destroy itself. Alas, the machine did not self-destruct as it was intended to. Tinguely misattached a belt, everything went dangerously wrong and the fire department was called.

Today, physicists and engineers are hard at work three hundred feet under the outskirts of Geneva on the particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider. By accelerating protons to fantastically high speeds, these scientists hope the resulting collisions will provide the energy to unearth the origin of mass, crack Einstein’s famous formula and find a fourth dimension beyond width, length and depth. The down side is that some believe they may also produce a black hole, which could devour Switzerland and the rest of the planet with it.


The Drawing Machine
A robotic arm hovers as it selects a coloured marker and then, in a sequence of frenetic movements along both a vertical and horizontal axis, it makes a line drawing. When it finishes, if the machine is so disposed, it is capable of erasing the whole composition. In this way, the affectionately titled Rita — along with her two siblings Hektor and Viktor — have been stupefying audiences on the festival and gallery circuit for nearly a decade. The three drawing machines, the latter two which run on two motors and some cable, are the inventions of interactions designer and software developer Jürg Lehni. They operate in conjunction with the software he created called Scriptographer. This is a scripting plug-in for existing drawing applications which aims to empower the user by enabling him/her to create tools beyond the usual limits of the application. With these projects, Lehni tries to operate in the space between standardization and human idiosyncrasy.

Closely related to the Writing Machine, Drawing Machines also have a long history in fine art. They have often been invented to question the origins of the creative act and the originality of the artwork. Past proponents of the drawing machine have included Jean Tinguely, whose mechanical devices were an ironic commentary on the notion of gestural abstraction as artistic expression. More recently, artists Damien Hirst and Oliafur Eliasson have contributed to the canon; the former involving the audience in his artistic ministrations. Even if they admit the audience to the spectacle of the drawing process, it must be said that drawing machines cannot make the observer privy to the embodied or practical knowledge that holding the pencil itself produces.


The Chain-Reaction Machine
Also known as the What-Happens-Next Machine or the Heath Robinson, the Chain-Reaction Machine involves a series of everyday objects organised in sequence, each behaving according to their ‘natural’ tendencies. Once started, each object triggers another, forming a chain of events. Sometimes chain reaction machines are a convoluted means of achieving a simple task; other times they have no purpose at all. Nevertheless, their recent appearance in popular culture, on YouTube, in television commercials and in contemporary design festivals makes their appeal worthy of consideration.

The chain reaction turns the machine into an event or narrative and more often endures in film rather than in concrete reality. Typified by Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s seminal 1987 film, The Way Things Go, in which everyday analogue objects such as tyres, chairs, bottles and ladders fulfil their gravity-dictated destinies, often to comic effect, in a seamless sequence orchestrated by the artists, the gesture was imitated in a Honda commercial of 2003 without any sense of its forerunner’s precarity. Dutch outfit HEY HEY HEY recently created and filmed their own chain reaction machine called Melvin in a warehouse on the outskirts of Eindhoven. The ringing of an alarm clock triggers a chain of events involving balloons, umbrellas, toy-parachutes, a trail of fire and the spilling of paint. The film ends propelling a video camera upwards on a seesaw, the view of which is shown as the final shot of the film, focusing on the camera crew which has been constructing the illusion of a seamless sequence. In its harnessing of everyday objects, the Chain-Reaction Machine can be seen as an existential inquiry gone burlesque. It enacts a sense of destiny counteracted by the possibility of numerous diversions from it. The forces of nature although binding, are also not reliable and the Chain-Reaction Machine presents this existential conundrum in the spirit of play.


The Embodied Machine
The conventional narrative of the relationship between human and machine is that tools like the spoon and spear were invented to assist the body.  Later, machines were invented to first alleviate and then eliminate labour all together. The figure of the cyborg appeared in science fiction to show how mechanical and electronic systems could be designed to extend human functions. This reversal of the conventional subject-object relationship between human and machine is made real with interactions designer, Choy Ka Fai’s Prospectus for a Future Body (2011) which involves the use of an external digital apparatus to invest human beings, particularly dancers, with muscle memory. The implement choreographs the body rather than vice versa, or so it seems.

Elsewhere, Joong Han Lee’s Haptic Intelligentsia is a human 3D printing machine which attempts to reunite computer design technology with the sense of touch. An extruding gun attached to a haptic interface nudges and guides human hands in the making of a pre-designed object such as a bowl.

[1] Virilio, Paul, The Art of the Motor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995) p. 103.


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Catalytic Clothing

lightboxA different version of this article appeared in the inaugural issue of Disegno magazine in 2011.

Helen Storey would probably rather be reading this article in Vogue magazine. The professor and designer from the Centre of Sustainable Fashion at the London College of Fashion has been promoting her latest collaboration with leading chemist Tony Ryan from the University of Sheffield and in doing so has noticed a distinct trend in the reactions of journalists. ‘Anyone product-related or those who came from architectural design had no problem with it whatsoever…but anyone to do with fashion couldn’t get a handle on it at all.’ An article in the likes of Vogue magazine would signify acceptance by the fashion industry at large of the ends to which Storey is currently putting her skills as a fashion designer.

The project in question is called Catalytic Clothing and involves the addition of a photocatalyst sometimes found in cement and other urban applications, such as self-cleaning glass, to the composition of washing powder. In a similar way, Catalytic Clothing re-imagines the function of fashion by using the surface area of clothing to purify the air. The catalyst in the powder makes the electrons in fabric more reactive and able to break down air-borne pollutants into non-harmful chemicals. The powder draws on nanotechnology, the area of science concerned with the manipulation of matter on a molecular scale. As such it is a prime example of the burgeoning opportunities for designers in the dissemination of science. Yet the form of Catalytic Clothing and the prospect of its success point to some of the challenges which arise when trying to reconcile the potential of science and technology with the culture of the fashion industry.

From spray-on bikinis to lapels which can turn on the lights and jacquards which can emit sound, open the graduate catalogue from most fashion schools these days and you will most likely find any number of designs which with the help of up-to-date technology and scientific knowledge propose new purposes for the things we wear. Nor is the world of haute-couture a stranger to such developments. Hussein Chalayan has experimented with everything from shape-changing memory alloys to light-emitting diodides on the catwalk. Martin Margiela has flirted with microbiology and bacteria-affected cotton; while Viktor and Rolf have used bluescreening to propose the garment as digital display.

Yet away from the rarefied contexts of the academy and the catwalk, gaining mainstream traction for these propositions is notoriously difficult. Styles may change like the wind but put flights of fancy to the service of anything but escapism, status, self-expression and the creation of identity and the juggernaut that is the fashion industry is resistant and inert. Alternative functions for fashion may be conceivable but in everyday reality those motivated by self-interest and individuality seem to trump all.

Add to this the fact we live in an era when both the validity of science and the desirability of its applications are debatable, how then do you take a product which is amorphous, the benefits of which are impalpable and sell it in a cultural arena which is not known for its claims to authenticity or for altruistic and collective gestures?

Storey acknowledges the challenge of working with ‘something you can’t see, you can’t smell and you can’t touch’. Yet in order for Catalytic Clothing to be enduring and widely applicable, she was determined to avoid the fickleness of style. She realised ‘quite quickly it shouldn’t be the case where you have to wear a particular sports brand. What you’d have to do is piggy back it onto human behaviour.’ The everyday activities of washing and walking presented themselves as good solutions. This strategy, however, threw up its own challenges. Without an object other than powder to materialise it, which itself is not visible when in operation and the benefits of which are not immediately discernible or palpable, she needed a way to disseminate the project to the public.

She is adamant the journey from scientific discovery to its implementation in everyday life is made via cultural intervention: ‘Science moves very slowly; because it deals with life and death it has to. Culture changes every three seconds. However for science to be of value to society it needs to have a much bigger conversation with culture.’ According to her, turning the washing powder into a cultural product should also enable people to discriminate between the authenticity of Catalytic Clothing and the spurious scientific claims of other products on our supermarket shelves.

Catalytic Clothing has therefore been incarnated as a highly-considered cultural campaign. It has seen a number of iterations which depending on how you look at them form a rich, genre-busting tapestry of allusion and symbolism or a communications nightmare. It began with the design of a ‘couture textile sculpture,’ a gradated chiffon dress with a textile pattern of human lungs the inside of which is splashed with pearls of concrete. The concrete references the pre-existing technology in urban applications. This and other tangible design decisions were made to be conversation starters about various aspects of the project. Enigmatically entitled ‘Herself’ and redolent with metaphor and symbolism, the dress was toured as a conversation piece to a Sheffield pub and then to cities such as Moscow, Dubai and Singapore. It was then taken viral in a highly stylised video campaign with an ambient soundtrack by Radiohead and art-direction by experimental fashion filmmaker and contributor to SHOWstudio, Adam Mufti. In the video, model Erin O’Connor stands statuesquely clad in ‘Herself’ amidst light-projections of calculations, computer code and scientific imagery. Catalytic Clothing has also involved an installation of numerous pairs of denim jeans, which had been treated with the catalyst, standing in a field like torso-less scarecrows.

Storey claims ‘The idea of using…pop culture is to be able to have a conversation with the world about a technology that is yet to come.’ Whether or not Catalytic Clothing can be classified as pop culture is debatable. Storey is nevertheless a strong believer in the communicative power of fashion: ‘No one’s afraid of a frock.’ By her own admission she works ‘in the uncomfortable ground between Joe Public and the world of science…’ In this she shares the aims of critical design as articulated by interactions designers, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Critical Design uses design as a medium for discussion about the social and cultural implications of science and technology. It therefore offers the general public an opportunity to reflect and comment before such implications are instituted or set in stone.

Whereas Critical Design confines itself to a gallery context, perhaps belying an awareness of the limits of communication, Storey has broader aspirations for Catalytic Clothing: ‘The dream end of the project is that the catalyst we’ve come up with becomes what’s known as a threshold product so it’s a bit like fluoride in water. It becomes accepted that you don’t produce cleaning stuff unless this stuff is in it.’ With this aim, Storey and Ryan are working with project partner and cleaning fluid manufacturer, Ecover, to bring the product to supermarkets in two years.

The success of Catalytic Clothing entails a belief in change affected by collective action rather than by top-down institutionalisation or legislation. An estimate of the required level of uptake to affect a significant reduction in the level of air borne pollutants in a large city could only be achieved if for every metre of pavement width, 30 people wearing Catalytic Clothes walked past each minute. In order for it to have any noticeable effect then, a lot of us need to make washing with it part of our routine.

Storey’s own trajectory from designing shock frocks to washing powder is not as unexpected as it may seem. After working for Valentino, she had her own label in the 1980s. This hung in stores alongside those of her contemporaries Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett and came with the requisite attitude. Then she was driven by feminist critique. In many ways her political concerns have moved with the times. Fifteen years ago she discovered the wonders of science when her sister, a developmental biologist suggested they work together. The result was an installation called ‘Primitive Streak’ which translated the first thousand hours of human life into dresses. After reading about quantum mechanics in her spare time, she had a fantasy about an environmentally-smart plastic bottle which could disappear when empty. She approached Tony Ryan with it after hearing him on Radio 4. Their first project together, entitled Wonderland, involved a dissolvable dress intended as a medium for discussion about waste. Shifting her concerns from style to sustainability entailed a reassessment of her own authorship. She insists ‘in a sense I’m a designer last in the process…I’ve got an instinct for fabric and cloth and I have an instinct for the human body in it so at some stage that comes into it but it comes into it in service to science and not the other way round.’

Whether a fashion-oriented sculpture, an art installation and an experimental film distributed via social media can fulfil the mass aspirations Storey has for Catalytic Clothing remains to be seen. There is certainly no science to communication or to persuading people to re-purpose what they wear. Storey is determined that there must be ‘a good balance between…being able to be understood…(and) some kind of mystery…because often the mystery attracts people.’ Her next project with the Centre for Sustainable Fashion is an exploration of the psychology behind our desire for clothes: ‘We’re working with neuroscientists to map the wanting of stuff in your mind…of what it means to be a consumer and not express the addictive part of ourselves through our shopping habits.’ Perhaps she should have embarked on this project first.

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Set in Stone

1053 V&A Blitz damage sign 3 Jun 2010

This essay was written as part of a workshop entitled ‘Writing London’ during my candidacy for a Masters degree in Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art in 2011.

In 1985 a Canadian man named Leo Heaps wrote a letter to the Victoria and Albert Museum. The letter, now housed in the museum’s archives, told of one of his frequent visits to the museum when Mr Heaps had overheard some tourists talking. The group was dismayed to find a wall on the western façade of the building in a state of disrepair. The wall to which they referred was the screen of Portland stone, part of architect Aston Webb’s neo-classical scheme for the museum, designed for a competition held by the Office of Works during 1890 and later realised in 1901. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the wall on Exhibition Road was decrepit. Chunks of stone were missing from its surface; it was chipped and its horizontal seams were interrupted by pock marks. The wall was damaged in a way which in the view of the tourists was not becoming to the world’s leading museum of decorative arts.

An institution essentially dedicated to the significance of material objects which it had acquired and catalogued as a symbol of Britain’s imperial power, the Victoria & Albert Museum had always been scrupulous about its own preservation, so much so that in July of 1941 it had received another letter. This one was from Jack Pierpoint Morgan asking for advice on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum in New York and of the library named after him as to how to go about safeguarding their collections in the event of war.

The idea that cultural artefacts have value and warrant protection came about during the Enlightenment. The Victoria and Albert Museum accordingly took the job of protecting its treasures very seriously during the Second World War. When approached about the possibility of the museum providing refuge for people in that period — for children evacuated from Gibraltar — the director Sir Eric Maclagan saw it as an imposition. Only begrudgingly did he allow the Royal Air Force to use the museum as a canteen. He still maintained ‘it ought not to be allowed’.

By April 1939, the museum was involved in highly-organised operations topreserve its contents. Internal reports and memorandums belonging to themuseum show that it was considering the detail of air raid procedures as early as November 1938. Plans were also afoot to secure the basement on the eastern side of the building as a strong room. Architectural plans specify ceilings to be reinforced with steel, windows to be bricked in and provision to be made for air locks, fire hoses and a first aid room. Meanwhile detailed inventories were made by every museum department dividing the collection into four categories. Marked ‘secret’, they listed portable objects to be removed to the new bomb-proof store, larger and heavier non-perishable objects to be stored in Aldwych underground station and perishable and fragile objects such as carpets and textiles which were to be transported to an unidentified location in the West of England (later revealed to be Montecute House in Somerset). Items which could not be moved were to be protected in situ with sandbagging and asbestos. When this actually occurred the activity was documented in photographs.

When the war did come to London, the Victoria and Albert Museum was repeatedly hit during the Blitz. Each bomb blast was conscientiously recorded and typed up by the warder on duty. On the 15th of October 1940 the warder wrote:

I beg to report that at approx 2.30am this morning a shower of incendiary bombs were scattered by enemy air craft over the whole of this area. Two fell on the museum. The first came through the glass roof of room 76 in the library and fell against a bookcase just inside the office door of the room occupied by Miss Armatage and Miss Finnis.

The report of November 7th reads:

at 8.45pm a high-explosive bomb fell in the Refreshment Room yard a few feet from the Circulation Department, Western Gallery. Much window glass was broken and about 20 framed paintings resting against the wall were overturned or slightly moved and in six of them the glass was broken, but no painting was scratched or otherwise damaged.

During the period of the Blitz, other bombs were logged ‘in the large room of Mr Willcock’s flat’,‘in the Imperial Institute ground close to the Indian Section,’ and ‘close to the entrance door of the Royal College of Art’, to name but a few. Then on one particular night the logs attest:

The museum suffered considerable damage. Two powerful bombs hit in the vicinity on Exhibition Road. It has practically wrecked the west side of the museum. The surface of the masonry was badly knocked about and the Exhibition Road doors were blown in. Practically all windows, frames and iron grilles were destroyed and we have lost most of the glass roofing on that side of the museum.

Whilst the museum had remained open during the war to boost public morale — often exhibiting reproductions — after this particular incident, the museum was forced to close for a few days to clean up the mess. The wall on Exhibition Road, however, which was damaged by the impact, was never repaired. To this day it bears the material trace of one moment. In an age when wars are often communicated in distant images: in those akin to simulated video games, to visions of the sublime or of the exotic other, the holes in the wall are literally concrete embodiments of history and the realities of warfare.

In 1985, retired from the air-force himself, Leo Heaps knew that the state of the Portland screen was not a product of neglect. He did not, however, want there to be room for any misunderstanding. In his letter to the Victoria and Albert Museum he offered to pay for the chinks in the wall on Exhibition Road to be explained to the public in the form of a plaque. To do this the museum enlisted the help of calligrapher David Kindersley. Kindersley decided against the addition of a plaque to the masonry. He opted rather to carve directly intoits surface. He strategically manoeuvered text around a gash left by the bomb blast. Appropriate wording was discussed and out of sensitivity to the Goethe Institute down the road and to the post-war international climate specific references to Germany were deleted. With resonances of a classical inscription, the resulting text reads in seriffed capital letters:

The damage to these walls is the result of enemy bombing during the Blitz of the Second World War 1939-1945 and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict.

Thus a monument was born. With the addition of a caption, a derelict wall was transformed. The text invested the stone with an aura, and disrepair was immediately transmuted into the romance of decay. The forensic trace of one instant was incorporated into the collective memory. The relic of one moment was imbued with the connotations of an epic event. A hole became an index ofone nation’s grand narrative. And the rest, as they say is History.


Charlotte Benton, “’An Insult to Everything a Museum Stands for’ or

‘Ariadne’s Thread’ to ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Inspiration’? Daniel Libeskind’s

Extension for the V & A and its Context. Part II”, Journal of Design History (vol. 10 no. 3 1997, pp. 309–28)

Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War(Reaktion Books: London, 2006)

Rose Macauley, Pleasure of Ruins, (Thames and Hudson: London, 1984)

John Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum: The History of itsBuilding (Victoria and Albert Museum: London, 1982)

Katrina Royall, “History of the V & A: V & A at War 1939–45” http:/

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Fluorescent Highlights

An abridged version of this essay appeared on Disegno magazine’s website in 2011. Photograph by Max Creasy from the series Constructed Forms (2011).

One can tell an analogue human activity has become second nature when designers try to simulate it in the digital world. Such is the case that the recent invention of touch-screen digital display devices has been accompanied by an increasing number of software applications which give the reader the ability to highlight text with bands of fluorescent colour. We may take this facility for granted but it is not one which has been around for very long, a fact which itself is underscored by the fortieth anniversary this year of the tremendously popular Stabilo-Boss Highlighter. Attention-grabbing yet prone to fade and resistant to reproduction, the luminous hues these markers place at our fingertips have themselves a colourful but brief history. They have also had a more varied range of uses and associations than the brash palette necessitated by their chemical make-up.

Fluorescence is a form of luminescence which occurs when light is emitted by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation. To bask in its glow is to be in the presence of a seemingly other-worldly light, one that appears to defy the hierarchy of the rest of the visual field and in which there are no nuances of light and shade. First noted as a natural phenomenon in a kind of wood during the sixteenth century, but also emitted by various animals and minerals, fluorescence was only named as such in 1852. Manmade pigments, however, did not appear until the early 1930s when a man from Ohio by the name of Bob Switzer began mixing fluorescent minerals with wood varnish in his bathtub and as a result invented Day-Glo paints. Early uses were for magic tricks but the United States Army soon took notice. Too many GIs were dying in friendly fire so the army commissioned Switzer to combine his dazzling concoctions with fabric. The result was the first high visibility protective clothing which has since become de rigeur among those who clean, tend, build, protect and cycle through our cities. If fluorescent colours can ensure one’s safety, however, their high-visibility should not be confused with standing out in a crowd. The anonymity as well as the connotations of public service afforded by these ubiquitous uniforms mean that criminals of more recent times have taken to wearing them simply to avoid detection. In 2006, for instance, the largest cash robbery in British history began when the manager of a cash management depot in Kent was duped by a man in high-visibility clothing. Joined by his accomplices the wearer of fluorescent garb then proceeded to abduct the family of the manager, tie up fourteen staff members and make off with £53,116,760.

The availability of fluorescent printing inks during the early 1950s made them all the rage in advertising and graphic design. While technologically innovative, they were not received without reservation. Proponents vaunted their perceptual qualities claiming at least two hours added visibility at dawn and dusk. Detractors lamented the vulgar colours were just that and that they were no more than a cheap stunt to be had only at the expense of good design.

At around this time the ink’s ultraviolet glow and promise of imminent decay invited correlations with anxieties about nuclear catastrophe. Such associations of fluorescence with radioactive activity were soon overshadowed by the emergence of counter-culture movements in the 1960s. Bold and brash these brilliant colours perfectly suited the purposes of youth rebellion. The sensory boost they offered provided a means of expression for drug-induced mind-altered states. Fluorescent hues were quickly attached to the art nouveau inspired ornamentalism of psychedelia, the nihilistic, anti-aesthetic of punk, and to the more recent technological pulse of electronic music.

Fluorescent-coloured writing fluids could not have come into existence without the invention of the modern felt-tip pen. This occurred in 1962. A year later the Avery Corporation created the first “hi-liter” by introducing translucent ink into the cartridge in pastel shades. The first fluorescent pigment in luminous yellow followed a few years later. Then in 1971 Schwan-Stabilo launched a new pen for the workplace.

The brilliance of the ink aside, it is the shape of the Stabilo-Boss Highlighter which has made it so enduring. This famously came about in a moment of the designer’s frustration. Dissatisfied with his former attempts, he brought his hand firmly down upon a cylindrical cone clay prototype and the instantly-recognisable squat lozenge with the signature black lid was born.

It is tempting to see the grip required to clasp the Stabilo-Boss Highlighter as ergonomically conducive to the sidewards swipe of its slanted calligraphic nib. Whether or not this is true, its stout proportions are so markedly different from the slender form of a pen or pencil, it seems to have established its own archetype. Since its creation in 1971, the shape of everything from toasters, to cars and computers has evolved with both manufacturing processes and the spirit of the zeitgeist. Apart from a small redesign in 2008 which attached a slight bulbousness to its form and the development of smudge-proof ink, the Stabilo-Boss has remained the same on desks for forty years.

From the moment of their first manufacture, fluorescent pigments have been harnessed to everything from protection to provocation. The connection of these lurid colours to both counter-culture rebellion and more studious activities involving a highlighter may seem unrelated. It is important to remember, however, that the highlighter pen is above all a tool for the act of reading. And it was in the second half of the twentieth century that theorist and philosopher, Roland Barthes, famously proclaimed “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” Challenges to authority were expressed in the academy with the empowerment of the reader and the acknowledgment of reading as a productive force. How apt then that the Stabilo-Boss has helped us mark our experience of the text in trails of luminous splendour.

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On Logophobia


This essay was first published in Meanjin Quarterly vol. 69 no. 3 in 2010.

In July 2009, the state of Victoria held the annual State of Design Festival. The festival is a ten day celebration of local design, an initiative of the Victorian State Government which in its own words ‘aims to strengthen community appreciation for design and place Victoria’s design excellence in the international limelight…(to) drive growth across the Victorian economy.’[1] Also in 2009, Robert Doyle, the Lord Mayor of Melbourne decided the city’s image needed sprucing up. According to him, its old logo, an amalgam of a sun, a serifed M, and a Doric column reversed out of a giant gumleaf, designed by Richard Henderson, was a hangover from the 1990s.

Organisations usually choose to redesign their visual identities to indicate a new era in their development or to maintain the loyalty of their patrons during times of change. Such was the case in 1992 when after the $2.6 billion collapse of its merchant banking arm, the State Bank of Victoria was sold to the Commonwealth Bank; and it was also the case in 2001, when the Australian mining giant BHP merged with a London group to become BHP-Billiton.

According to the Melbourne City Council, Melbourne’s new graphic identity should dispense with references to history and traditional Australiana for a logo which would represent ‘modern, vibrant, cool’ city Melbourne has become.[2] On July 22nd, after months of work and research, in the middle of the state’s annual design showcase, Melbourne unveiled its new signature: a chunky M of squat proportions divided by intersecting lines into gradated planes of blue and green, a logo which the council had commissioned from the Sydney office of a foreign owned, multi-national branding agency.

The unfortunate irony of the logo being produced in Sydney was not lost on Melbourne’s general public. The new logo, instantly identifiable with the multifaceted, break-the-grid architecture for which Melbourne has become known, immediately attracted ire in the mainstream press. One media personality thought it looked like ‘a three on its side’ or ‘a 1990s rave party.’[3] Another person likened it to ‘the Westgate bridge as it’s collapsing.’[4] Melburnians from all walks of life wrote into the city’s blogs and daily newspapers complaining of hypocrisy. ‘What a disgrace,’ wrote Olga Howell of Greensborough. ‘So many talented local designers could have done as well or better. How generous people are with our money.’ ‘Hey, Robert Doyle,’ wrote Alison Baker of Elsternwick, ‘clearly you’d be happy your philosophy about having to go overseas to get the best doesn’t apply to the selection of lord mayors.’[5]

Australia is no stranger to the practice of logo-bashing. The yellow diamond displaced by a black wedge — the points of which were inspired by the constellation of the Southern Cross — designed by Ken Cato for the Commonwealth Bank endures to this day on almost every main street of Australia. It did not take long, however, after it was introduced for it to enter the Australian lexicon as the ‘Kraft cheese single’ or the ‘Sao cracker dipped in Vegemite’.[6] Similarly, when FHA Futurebrands replaced BHP’s stylised, angular map of Australia with a sequence of metamorphising organic shapes, the result was immediately mocked as the ‘coffee spill’, ‘an ink-jet print gone haywire’[7] or ‘four burnt peanuts’.[8]

Despite the impulse to cultural protectionism, and our national propensity for irreverence, the name-calling is telling. The metaphors may change but where graphic design and quotidian visual culture is concerned, the tone of disparagement never does. While the reaction to the City of Melbourne logo was negative, it was often not clear whether the object of scorn was the logo, the fact it wasn’t home grown or the discipline of communication design itself. Peppered among the attempts to defend the local industry, were the conventional objections usually levelled at minimalist art and aesthetics. The logo was instantly compared to the Melbourne City Council’s most infamous and controversial commission from the 1980s, the yellow angular Vault sculpture by Ron Robertson Swann. The oft-heard refrain ‘my four year old could do this’ appeared in the city’s tabloid newspaper, the Herald Sun.[9] As well as instantly equating the simple with the facile, people also balked at the price-tag. The Melbourne broadsheet, the Age, published the comment ‘At $240 000 M stands for Madness,’[10] among many others of a similar vein.

Such comments are indicative of communal values. Together they belie a kind of antiquated materialism and the curious expectation that each iteration of the logo show evidence of old-style craftsmanship. They underscore the view that the monogram be valued at its weight in gold. They also reveal a collective reluctance to pay for anything as nefarious as an idea. Never mind the fact that the identity was not the work of local designers, the implication is that even if it was, they should not have been paid much for it anyway.

In the daily press the only columnist to come out in favour of the logo and of the design enterprise itself was Eddie McGuire. He insisted that the ‘commissioning of…a logo isn’t as simple as sitting down and getting out the Derwents and a piece of paper.’[11] Despite the experience and training of professionals, graphic design tends to be seen as a domain not requiring expertise, a view which has gained more momentum since the 1980s when digital design software became widely available.

Ignorance of the design process is partly to blame for the wide scale denigration of the Melbourne M. While its simplicity means the final incarnation of a logo may be easily and quickly recreated, the process of inventing it is often long and considered. This point is made evident on Landor’s website, in a photo which will be familiar to most designers who are trained to be rigorous in their approach.[12] The image shows a pin-up session, a wall full of many typographic iterations and variations on a visual theme in front of which stand two designers apparently considering the impact of each. Quoting on a design job involves estimating the time (and money) needed for an imprecise creative process. Since logos increasingly have to communicate an ethos rather than represent something figurative or literal, the designer’s task is to give form to abstract values, concepts and attitudes in a single mark. When he/she casts them into visual form, he/she has the history of visual codes of communication to consider as well as the effects of composition, colour and materials, for instance, on the act of reading, not to mention the practical limitations of scale, media, budget and format. Sometimes inspiration strikes. More often than not, however, alternatives must be tried and tested, and visual rules for its application must be devised in order to maintain its distinctiveness in a complex visual environment. Then, once a design for an individual application has been approved more work is required to prepare it for production.

None of this was mentioned in the ensuing discussion about the logo, nor did anyone ask exactly on what the $240 000 was spent. In the face of the criticism, Landor — the agency responsible among other things for formally putting the ‘coke’ into Coca-Cola and the red bat wing into Levis jeans — remained silent. For his part, Lord Mayor Doyle basked in the publicity. He defended the decision not to hire a Melbourne firm on the basis that he ‘wanted the best product and this work is not actually done very widely.’[13] Those within Melbourne’s communication design industry did not agree and the professional body representing Australian graphic design, the Australian Graphic Design Association (AGDA), made this known in an open letter to Doyle which attracted twenty-six pages of signatories from Melbourne’s design community.

In the ensuing discussion on AGDA’s website, the majority of designers were not concerned with the parochial Sydney-Melbourne rivalry, nor with a multi-national agency’s winning of the job which most considered a likely outcome in the age of globalisation.[14] The source of their outrage lay, on the whole, in the Lord Mayor’s ignorance of the skills of his own constituency and the fact that apparently not a single Melbourne-based studio was invited to tender for the work. It was also suggested that the designers of Melbourne had fallen victim to the very image the City of Melbourne is trying to promote; that their reputation as typical occupants of Melbourne’s celebrated laneways and as proponents of the urbane boutique culture there had precluded them from being considered for the management of a complex large-scale corporate project.

In the mainstream press one person who did speak up on behalf of the local industry, was Honours co-ordinator at the RMIT School of Design in Melbourne, Russell Kerr. Interviewed in The Herald-Sun he claimed ‘it was crazy that local designers were not engaged to create a new Melbourne brand.’[15] He then let his students demonstrate what they could do. Together with other readers’ submissions, the results were featured on the newspaper’s website under the headlines ‘Design students whip up Melbourne logos quickly and for free,’ and ‘Melbourne logos take an hour, cost nothing’.[16] Unfortunately a gesture aimed at defending the local industry contributed to the wide-scale devaluation of the profession and reinforced the idea that design is easy and should be cheap. If the student work only took an hour, however, it showed. Much of it looked derivative of Landor’s solution or of the original, and the readers’ submissions demonstrated a propensity to make use of default filters in Photoshop.

It is tempting to read the doubts about the City of Melbourne logo as symptomatic of an Australian predilection for sport and sun over any intellectual or indoor activities. Yet if designers expected support from members of other creative sectors, from artists or other patrons of ideas, they were wrong. From their firmly colonised space on the broadsheet, cartoonists Ron Tandberg and Michael Leunig shared their view of the incident, integrating the graphic rhetoric of the logo into the hand-drawn style of their cartoons.[17] Playing with the graphic style of the M, Leunig reconstructed it into different objects, including trousers, a tie, a collar, and finally a dunce’s hat. He thus reiterated the view that the logo is facile. Depicting two homeless people on a park bench above which hangs the giant monogram, Tandberg’s cartoon questioned the allocation of government funding towards activities such as identity design. An article in the Herald Sun, which envisaged the funds spent on the logo being reallocated to security, graffiti removal or food for the homeless, followed the same logic.[18] According to such thinking, there is no potential for design to be an investment rather than simply an expenditure.

One of the most scathing criticisms of the Melbourne logo came from Melbourne novelist, Anson Cameron. His article in the Age lambasting the cost of the Melbourne M when compared to the rate paid per word to Australian writers. According to him, the upshot of this comparison shows that the taxpayers of Melbourne should feel robbed:

Any Melbourne rate payer who doesn’t feel they have been swooped upon and laid waste by a band of brigands who are now dancing around a harbour-brasserie naked, dousing each other in white rum, is impervious to injustice and could be burgled thrice weekly for a decade without realising their chattels are thinning.[19]

This comparison is completely inappropriate. Words are the tools of a writer’s trade and Cameron makes his point plying the formal qualities of verbal language, including alliteration, an acerbic narrative voice and vivid imagery. Yet at no point in the article does Cameron acknowledge that the visual aspect of words has an impact on how we understand them or that design involves skills and literacies that are distinct from those of literary composition. While he has 600 words in which to convey his message, a logo designer has perhaps the duration of a glimpse to capture the audience’s attention and to etch that glimpse into their memory.

Cameron’s article is driven by a contempt for appearances. His piece implies that verbal language — and conventional high-culture forms such as novels — counts and that everyday visual language does not. He seems to adhere to a traditional view of images and their makers that holds both to be deceptive, unreliable and inauthentic. The conflicts of interest that became apparent in the process leading to the design of the city’s graphic identity and public responses to it reflected not simply those of the tension between local and multi-national interests but also that between the values associated with verbal and with visual culture.

For designers, words are often not the favourite mode of expression. It is nevertheless vital they make no bones about what they do. While Landor calls itself a ‘strategic branding and design consultancy’, the word ‘design’ is a rarity on its website. The website itself is text heavy. In the scheme of Landor’s self-promotion, the photograph depicting designers at work is thumbnail-sized and but a footnote. In order to promote themselves to clients  they have had to downplay their job as designers, as people who deal in aesthetics. Rather than focus on what they do, Landor couches its activities in the abstract language of free-market economics. ‘We’re not just brand consultants,’ they spruik, ‘we’re experience innovators.’ Yet the words they use to describe themselves such as ‘opportunity, strategy, experience, impact’ are so riddled with hyperbole and clichés that they seem divorced from any recognisable concrete or sensual experience, divorced from the essence of design.

Cameron and members of the general public also queried the intellectual property of the Melbourne logo and used this concern as a gauge of its worth. Writing to the Herald Sun Anna from Taylors Lakes remarked: ‘I feel a copyright dispute coming on.’[20] Cameron jibed: ‘And is our M protectable by copyright or patent? Might not the burghers of Munich and Mooroopna filch our M, just as Herr Hitler filched the swastika from Hindus?’[21]

Rather than discrediting the design by questioning this, they actually revealed a source of its under-valuation. Conventional models of authorship and the associated system of copyright, have never fitted well with the practice of communication design. Graphic design is often a complex and messy business. Designers, who are usually employed to create something — for use by third parties, find themselves at the crossroads of a network of interests and stakeholders. Their creative products are subject to the constraints of technology, budget and other people’s opinions. Since Western culture tends to privilege originality and the individual inspired genius, cultural forms that lack a clear authority figure are often dismissed.

Aside from the furore surrounding the Melbourne M and cynicism about the value of graphic design, there remains the question of whether or not the mark produced by Landor is any good. The bottom line according to bloggers Les Flaneurs is that it is not. ‘The problem really is that this new identity is not visionary…The “design local” issue arises mainly because the new identity conveys no feel for Melbourne’s unique soul.’[22] Metropolitan spaces are often valued for being hives of activity. The brief for the representation of Melbourne apparently asked for this aspect of the city to be made explicit. Although the quirky proportions of the Melbourne M lend it some character and its geometric form makes it look modern, the graphic style of the logo is undeniably slick and corporate. While the mark developed by Landor represents multi-facetedness in its iconography of gradated fragments, the syntax of branding suggests exactly the opposite. A logo is a unifying symbol and branding is concerned with the overall application of that symbol and its distinctive formal elements. Branding promotes an overarching concept using formal consistency. The representation of of variety and diversity in conjunction with branding as a mode of communication therefore results in an oxymoron.

The paradox of having to communicate diversity in a unified way has been considered by Dutch designers Mevis and Van Deursen in their unrealised proposal for the visual identity of Rotterdam. The duo designed a kit of geometrical glyphs to be assembled in different ways by each of the city’s organisations and departments which required visual representation.[23] In their speculative projects, the European graphic design collective Metahaven has also considered the conflict between the aesthetics of globalisation as exemplified by branding, and the demands of democracy. The collective argues that where the visual identities of countries are concerned, brands offer the illusion of consensus and are designed to bypass political differences in order to communicate in a global marketplace. From a graphic design perspective Metahaven aims for ‘the trangression of brands and concepts – their removal from the inherent tendency to represent consensus and suspended political practices.’[24]

In addition to the umbrella effect of branding, for the City of Melbourne re-branding involved a streamlining of the city’s identity carriers. While many have complained about the cost of the project, the new branding will save the council money by gradually replacing about fifty different logos the city uses to present and promote various services and functions. This means that Melbourne will present itself in a singular tone. Designer Steven Cornwell has been critical of such communicational whitewashing:

Is the City of Melbourne about beautification and tourism, or is it about governance, waste, welfare? How do you reconcile selling the City of Melbourne as a multifaceted city of laneways and diverse culture in a tourism sense and then receive your parking fine, welfare assistance and waste pickup with the same symbol strewn across everything?[25]

The local-global tensions that arose over who produced the logo therefore persist in the disparity between the city’s message, the visual rhetoric used to convey it and the city council’s apparently more centralised organisational hierarchy.

The Victorian Government has committed $15 million over four years in a comprehensive strategy to encourage design-led growth in Victorian industries through its establishment of Design Victoria, of which the aforementioned State of Design festival is a part. If there is a link between design and a healthy economy — and there are examples — clearly this link is yet to be made in the communal consciousness. If people are dissatisfied with the image of Melbourne presented by the city’s elected leaders, then perhaps they need to take the stuff they see and that surrounds them more seriously. A much richer discussion of our visual environment is possible, a discussion in which designers should join. In this instance, we could have been discussing how and when a city should represent itself, as well as who has a right to represent it and to whom. We could have been discussing whether the brief provided to Landor was appropriate, whether the mark embodies Melbourne’s ethos with any integrity or even whether a logo was the best outcome. We could have explored exactly how the $240 000 was spent before passing judgement with knee-jerk reactions.

In Australia as the manufacture of things moves off shore and people face the increased urgency of climate change, there is an urgent need to reconsider what we’re making here, and how. We have every indication that we cannot depend on material productivity as a measure of economic success. This argument alone should be enough to suggest that rather than mocking it, we should invest every M with as much significance as possible. 

1 (viewed November 2009)
2 Robert Doyle quoted in Inga Gilchrist, ‘Hip to be Square: Melbourne’s modern new logo a chunky move,’ MX, 22 July 22 2009, p.1.
3 Dave O’Neil quoted in Kate Lahey, ‘Shades of the Yellow Peril as Melbourne gets logo makeover’, Age, 23 July 23 2009, p.3.
4 Raymond Gill, ‘Our city must go for a song’, Age, 8 August 8 2009, A2, p. 7.
5 Age, 24 July 2009, p.12.
6 Tom Reilly, ‘In world of logo disasters, Melbourne’s far from worst’, Sunday Age, 26 July 2009, p. 7.
7 Sharon Kemp, ‘BHP spills the goods on new logo and its profits,’ Age, 21 August 2008
8 ‘Logo not a-go-go,’ Australian, 21 August 212008, p. 26
9 Bryan Lukas, Herald Sun, 24 July 2009, p.37.
10 Age, 24 July 2009, p.12.
11 Eddie McGuire, ‘Focus’, Herald Sun, 26 July 2009, p.70.
12 (viewed November 2009)
13 Robert Doyle quoted in Kate Lahey, ‘Shades of the Yellow Peril as Melbourne gets logo makeover’, Age, 23 July 2009, p.3.
16 Matt Johnston, Herald Sun, 24 July 2009, p.3.
17 Age, 24 July 24 2009, p.12.
18 Matt Johnston, ‘Madness…and they haven’t finished spending yet’, Herald Sun, 23 July 23rd 2009, p.7.
19 Anson Cameron, ‘Fancy a letter? How about this one for just $240, 000…’, Age, 24 July 2009, p.13.
20 Herald Sun, 28 July 2009, p.24.
21 Anson Cameron, ‘Fancy a letter?’
23 See Paul Elliman, Recollected Work: Mevis and Van Deursen, Artimo, Amsterdam, 2005, pp. 96;119–120.
24 Metahaven in Markus Miessen, ‘Secret Practices: Markus Miessen in conversation with Metahaven, Vinca Kruk and Daniel Van Der Velden,’ Zak Kyes and Mark Owens (eds.), Forms of Inquiry: The Architecture of Critical Graphic Design, Architectural Association, London, 2007, p.164.

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