one of the books i bought in foyles was a monograph on ken garland. as often i find myself wondering why i didn't do graphic design instead of architecture. no doubt the blinkers were mostly self-imposed - i was obsessed with architecture from the age of 12, designed buildings every night, read all the architecture books in the library. but i also don't remember graphic design as a very visible career option, in a small town in mid-1970s england. it would perhaps have been filed under 'printing', or something.
at that time career paths with academic substance (which is where i was at) were the traditional professions (of which architecture was one), or management in industry - private sector or state-owned. i think at that time about 50% of the british economy was state-owned. the financial sector, in the modern sense, hadn't happened. neither had graphic design, in the sense of branding and communications design. it's all-pervasive now, we're all designers of our own identities and players with fonts and photos. but that's part of the cultural shift of the 1980s away from making things into selling things, from products to appearances.
so i was maybe 10 years too old to have taken that path - before peter saville and factory records and the face had made young people think about typography and image as cultural weapons, as something with history and meaning that you could spend a lifetime on.
at the grace meeting tonight, i said that i had already thought up the logos for our new events, even before we had decided what those events were to be. the same was true of event horizon - the logo followed immediately upon the title, before we knew much about the event itself. this amuses people, but i think that the logo represents a form of subliminal processing, nonverbal and intuitive. it grasps the nature of the event, ahead of the details. the logo tells you what the event should be.
spent friday at the first alpha-ville exchange, a one-day conference bringing together key practitioners in the digital arts and media. it's hard to summarise such an immersive and inspiring event, which i will be digesting for a while to come. one is supposed to tweet a continuous stream of half-baked snippets from the auditorium, but the real connections revealed themselves over the whole day and on reflection.
all the speakers operate in the ill-defined territory where art, technology, coding, interactivity, design, advertising, animation, environments etc meet. everyone in the room, audience included [no clear boundary of course], was a hyphenate, doing multiple overlapping things as paid employment and as personal projects. nobody knew quite how to describe themselves [people's tags on their badges were almost comically unrevealing], and one of the underlying messages of the day was about finding self-definition and identity outside of the boxes of job or genre. shantell martin's apartment door is covered with stickers saying 'who are you'. stephanie posavec settled on the term 'data artisan' to capture her love of physical craft and labour in presenting complex data.
all the speakers were seeking ways to balance human and digital inputs and processes, often in novel and unexpected ways. kokoro & moi use crowdsourcing methods as a generative device for randomness - in effect, the world as computer. eno henze hacks lasers to produce drawings on photo paper that look like hand drawings. henze, hellicar & lewis and onformative have worked with dancers as a tool to translate human interpretations of music into digital processes. posavec turned the raw data of facebook posts between couples into dance steps marked on the floor. someone, i forget who, spoke of using people and machines for what they are best at. posavec's data mining of literature cannot be done by computers, which cannot understand the contextual nuances of language in the texts she uses. conversely, shantell martin and sougwen chung produce drawings in the kind of generative, iterative way that one associates with computers, and then use them as the basis for digital art in relation to music.
the event was a superb piece of curation in that the speakers and their work spoke to one another in many ways, with themes in common yet divergent approaches and emphases. sometimes the conversation was literal, as an audience question to field about honest presentation of data became something that every speaker felt they had to address.
some disconnected notes:
the importance and use of [hand] drawing, as tool to generate and explore. i should take my drawing seriously.
drawing as an iterative process. draw again and again.
there are no mistakes if you don't know where you are going. use what happens.
the process of making the work is the work.
the format of the medium creates the work. shantell martin began by drawing in a concertina-fold notebook using a very fine pen. her whole subsequent work was generated by this happenstance - the 'endlessness' of the concertina-fold page and the complexity of the fine lines.
good interactive stuff is immediately legible and usable to people who don't know what it is.
all of your practice is important, is who you are. don't accept that one part [eg that can be defined as 'commercial' or 'art' or 'design'] is privileged over the rest.
[23.01.14 first link now points to the event summary on alpha-ville's site]
and the last entry reminds me of flickr, which was doing just fine through years of benign neglect until yahoo acquired tumblr. and flickr was immediately subjected to a flashy makeover that was at once superficial and damaging, all so that yahoo could capitalise on the publicity splash around tumblr and say, hey, we're totally new and happening and competing with instagram etc etc. aside from displaying photos badly and making it hard work to load and scroll through, the reskin badly damaged the social aspects of the site by hiding descriptions, comment threads etc from easy perusal. given the elegance of the flickr app it was bewildering, but it probably looked great as a screenshot in the CEO's powerpoint presentation.
this was a salutary reminder that placing your content on other people's platforms subjects it to their business plans and visions which may not align with your own. flickr was originally created for family and personal snapshots, but was squatted by professional and serious amateur photographers and designers who set up a thriving network of special interest groups. when yahoo suddenly decided to repurpose flickr for teenagers with smartphones, that entire ecosystem was disenfranchised and placed under notice. one long term solution would be a photo-sharing site specifically dedicated to serious photography and design, on a subscriber model. another solution would be site owners who nurture what they have in its uniqueness rather than chasing the next me-too must-have gold-rush thing.
this is what the first few Grace flyers looked like:
and this is what nic hughes did for 1996:
i wonder about the effect of this redesign on Grace's self-image. it told us what we were going to be. that logo, typography and strapline were a template of cool but friendly modernity that still shapes our output and self-understanding 19 years on. identity through design. thanks nic.
after the last post i found this 1986 article about the 80s tube refurbishments in an old file of architectural magazine extracts. the writers' judgements have broadly stood the test of time, although the kings cross scheme, which they liked, has gone while piccadilly circus which they didn't like remains - for the moment. it has to be said that london transport's design standards wobbled in the 80s [see also here].
designers' journal was a good magazine - intially a monthly supplement to the architects' journal, then as a stand-alone. it closed in the early 90s recession which bit the building industry very hard. i had every copy of designers' journal, i kept a few and some extracts but i wish i'd kept more. i didn't know then that i would be working in that field 20 years later.
in its 150 years of existence the tube has been through many eras of design, each of which has left its mark. each era has its own ideas about what constitutes a good public transport experience, and has its own repair and upgrade issues. the preceding untidy and outdated era is always being improved and swept away, but the job is never finished before economic and political circumstance intervene. so the glory of the underground as we have it is in its incoherence, its many layers of old fashion, a richness denied to those newer metros that only have consistency to offer.
at the moment we are in the middle of another clean-up campaign, tied into crossrail and the olympics. on the whole this has been a good thing. many formerly dingy stations now gleam. there is a kind of improvement kit which has a standard ceiling and lighting setup, the standard signage and station name systems, and white wall tiles with line-related accent colours. it's the wall treatment that worries me. it's fine in itself, and where the preceding treatment was irremediably filthy, ugly, or unsuitable. but i fear for the quirky or unfashionable parts of the system - those places that are ageing, out of date but not yet 'heritage'.
the 80s seem to have been most under attack lately. many central area stations had total makeovers in the mid 1980s, which were sorely needed at the time. major artists were commissioned to design the wall treatments. the designs made reference to their locations and were very different from one another, rather than providing a consistent tube-branded experience. this aspect was criticised at the time and ever since.
the current refurbishments have imposed the new uniform of white tiles, leaving only the more distinguished artwork elements - some have gone entirely, some survive only as a small representative patch. given the scale of works at tottenham court road i wonder how much will eventually be left of paolozzi's mosaics.
above: paolozzi mosaic detail
the fate of the 80s work shows the reversals of fashion well. its consistent background colour was beige tiling, not white. at the time white was considered cold and clinical. at embankment artist robyn denny created an interior of white stove enamel panels, with coloured stripes performing sequenced, abstract moves. at the time it seemed very dated, a hangover from the 60s by someone who hadn't moved on. now it seems timelessly modern, while the beige and brown is swept away.
above: 1980s beige and site-specific design
in fact, in the 60s the new background colour of the tube was not white, but two shades of grey. the blue/grey colour scheme of the victoria line was the height of early 60s modernist fashion [see also british rail]. it was said to be a neutral background, and that people would provide the colour. unfortunately financial restrictions led to poor lighting and a dingy effect. naturally these stations are in line for cheering up, not without good reason. but i hope that one or two can be preserved, like pimlico which is almost intact. clean it and improve the lighting. it has its own quiet elegance.
above: 1960s grey and bare fluorescent tubes
at warren street the grey tiles have just been replaced by cream, which is a throwback to 1950s stations like bethnal green. i have to say it's gorgeous, especially with black and red or orange.
above: 1960s grey replaced by 2010s neo-1950s cream. the 1960s maze artwork remains.
more of this would be good, but please leave a grey station or two, or the magnificently gloomy passageway at vauxhall where i used to wait for a train when leaving vaux.
above: 1960s dark grey and pale pink. it's the floor and ceiling that are bad.
and then there are the intense late 70s jubilee line stations, whose colours inspired the first smallfire.org site and much else. the white tile wave seems to have passed and spared them for the moment, but i wonder what will happen when the fading yellow/grey/ochre laminate panels need replacing.
above: 1970s orange, yellow, grey and ochre
when i move through the tube i am constantly inspired by the strange juxtapositions and wrong colours - the combinations that once seemed good or normal, in their day. green and black, red and cream, orange and grey, beige and brown, yellow and purple. colours that show you how different the past was, or how different the future could be. combinations you wouldn't think of, inside the prison of your own time and taste. i hope that the people designing refurbishments have catholic tastes and historical awareness. i hope they have an eye for the distinctive and odd, not just for good taste and design classics. they could give me a job, of course.
in creative review this month, this photo by me of the paolozzi mosaics at tottenham court road tube station. it's nice that they chose the one of laika. nic [who got me into looking for appearances of laika] would have smiled.