Underneath the fairly-depressing mood-music of 2013 so far, the motorik backbeat of progress into a brighter future can be faintly heard…
Back when I was in architecture school, about one million years ago, one of our tutors – I can’t remember but I think it was the brilliant Malcolm Parry – used to delight in taking us on site visits to semi-famous, or at least distinguished buildings; and then guiding us as fast as he could to an example of what he called the “Oh, Shit.”
The “Oh, Shit” was his short-hand for the condition of best-laid plans meeting reality.
When all the drawings, sections, detailed drawings and meticulous sourcing in the world clash with odd corners of the physical world, weather, materials and not least the vagaries of human labour.
It’s what Bryan Boyer calls the “Matter Battle”. He puts it beautifully:
One enters a Matter Battle when there is an attempt to execute the desires of the mind in any medium of physical matter.
Here’s a prime example of an “Oh, Shit” – on 10 Hills Place by Amanda Levete (which I wrote a little bit about here).
Malcolm held that the mark of a great architect or designer was not that there were no “Oh Shits” – he saw it as fundamental natural law that there would be – but how the designer resolved it.
How tasty the lemonade made when the team are handed lemons.
This came to mind when I read the recent article on The Register about the launch of BBC News Online, 15 years ago (!) last month.
I have a bit-part in the article:
Matt Jones’ design team had come up with a set of HTML layouts that followed best practice guidelines, but nobody was wedded to the styling, which made use of putty-like beiges and greys.
The BBC at the time was going through a corporate rebranding exercise, which involved commissioning a new logo from design agency Lambie Nairn. The BBC had used sloping letters for its logo, with few variations, since 1962. Lambie Nairn straightened the characters, and changed the font to Gill Sans, and the letters looked better on computer screens. The new logo had yet to be unveiled to the public, and only be made public on 4 October in 1997. Everyone was ordered to work with the WPP-owned branding agency. So rather reluctantly, the News Online team sent their templates to Lambie Nairn with the invitation to “reimagine” them.
Almost overnight, a junior working at the agency, who had no web layout experience, sent back a new set of designs. “Mike, Bob and I looked at them and thought these were so much better,” said Karas.
Without kicking up a fuss, Jones set to work rewriting the news website’s HTML, even though this meant revising every template in the system. Jones would become creative director after the site’s launch, giving News Online a clean, simple and consistent look, and some clever and subtle touches. Even today, the first News Online pages look clean and modern – one of the few websites from 1997 that hasn’t dated – and look better than their contemporary versions.
A few inaccuracies in this – the chap described as “a junior at the agency” who came up with the Lambie-Nairn proposals was an excellent fellow Welshman called Gareth Mapp, who was in fact a senior designer there at the time, but he came from a print and moving image design background, with no experience of the web. This wasn’t unusual back in 1997.
Also, we’d been working on layout/visual proposals with a small design agency called Sunbather that I’d worked at previously, who were soon to be acquired by Razorfish . Mike Bennett (now of Oil Studios) continued to work with me in the aftermath of the Lambie-Nairn U-Turn to resolve the designs a little more. The brilliant Pete Lane, Sam Urqhart and Jude Robinson really then made the miracle happen turning them into HTML and other front-end code.
This was the “Oh, Shit”.
Matt Karas remembers me and him sitting in the BBC Canteen, overlooking the fabled Blue Peter Garden – the statue of Petra the dog staring at us judgmentally, while we re-drew every template of every page of the site by hand to figure out how we could make it work.
Committing to the new designs, and throwing away the months of work we had done was hard.
But we all felt the “Oh Shit.”
We all felt that the new direction was the right direction.
I think recognising this – when there is a path from a crisis that involves risk but rewards you hugely – with something you wouldn’t have imagined, is at the very heart of design. It’s certainly an incredible feeling when it works, when the judo-flip flows just so, and you end up somewhere brilliant.
That’s something the team at BBC News did 15 years ago – a team I’m really proud to have been a part of.
In the UK, the conservative government is trying to remove art and design subjects from the core of their new curriculum, the ‘EBacc’, which the Tories want to focus around readin’, ritin’ and ‘rithmetic.
This is, of course, pretty disastrous.
An age of STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics – (rather than just STEM) is what the UK needs to survive in the foothills of the 21stC. The PM David Cameron et al make a lot of noise about supporting “Tech City” etc., but without nurturing inventive thinking at early stages of kids educations, we won’t be able to compete against bigger and better resourced countries.
I’m pleased to say our company, BERG is signed up.
I was contacted by a journalist from Dezeen with a couple of questions about the campaign, the importance of design teaching in secondary education etc.
Sir Jony Ive in the mean-time signed up to the campaign, so I imagine that was a bit more newsworthy, so understandably my answers weren’t used in the piece!
FWIW, I thought I would post my responses here:
1. Why do you think its important that design is taught in schools?
Three reasons to come to mind.
1) is brutal economics. Global competition for jobs, work, wealth means we as a small country need to out imagine the bigger ones. We’re good at that at the moment. Why not invest in that? We’re not going to ‘out-grammar’ or ‘out-times-table’ China or India. Art and design sharpen the imagination, even if you go on to to be a biologist or a banker. It’s beyond foolish to drop them. We need to invest in our Gross National Imagination to survive the 21stC.
2) is improving engagement in schools. I’m not a teacher but I think there is a halo effect from good design teaching that makes other subjects shine for kids.When I was a kid CDT (Craft Design and Technology) was the great leveller. I had great teachers. The nerdy kids and the tough kids did as well as each other – and stereotypes of how well you were meant to do broke down. That lead to kids breaking out of their pre-assigned paths to not-much, and got them enjoying education. Design education could be an engine of social mobility!
3) Being ready for the future. Most of the jobs we do every day at BERG hadn’t been invented when I was at school. Teaching design, making, and inventive thought at young ages will prepare kids for the jobs we can’t imagine now. With a bit of luck they’ll invent them.
2. What do you think will happen if the proposals to drop design become a reality?
I think a lot of people who wish it was still the 19th Century will be very happy – until they realise that they’ve undermined the UK’s place in the creation of business and culture for a generation.
Visit #includedesign, and if you can contribute your voice to the campaign, please do.
What’s more it’s shipping to paying customers in Europe and the USA from a supply chain system we set up for SVK in beautifully-designed packaging we crafted in-house.
I didn’t really have any involvement in the project – I mainly work on our consulting gigs that enable us to invest in our our product development – but I’m still enormously proud to have been included in this company photo a year ago when we celebrated the announcement.
^ photo by timo
And, even though I’m not in the studio at the moment, I’m super-pleased for them all today as the first products wend their way from warehouses to their new owners.
There are to be major job losses at the steel works in Port Talbot, where my mother, father, and grand-father worked.
My dad was an engineer there, and my mother was a computer (at least until she married by dad and started their family.) I never met my grand-dad, he died before I was born, but he was an engineer at the steel works during its establishing years, who earned an MBE working on refining the steel-making processes there.
It is literally the crucible of my family, and massive part of the psycho-geography of my early life.
It is a huge industrial site, that dominates not only Port Talbot but can be seen for many miles – lit by flame and sodium-light at night, perched on the coast of Swansea Bay.
From the highlands surrounding – the rather-grandly named ‘Margam Mountain’ you can see it nestling/infesting the border between biomes – sandy, scrubby dunelands and lush welsh ‘rainforest’.
Glance to the left and you see Margam Castle, the grounds of which my mother and aunt grew up in – daughters of the Talbot family butler.
You can also see the sands of Kenfig, and the lake at the centre of the nature reserve (a ‘SSSI’ – Site of Special Scientific Interest) – where I spent many weekends as a child in the early 1980s as part of a nature conservancy group for kids.
The lake has legends associated with it – most notably that of a sunken city beneath it, but the formation of the lake and the dunes has more to do with changing tides, climate and the forces they can wield.
And now, changing tides of capital and globalisation are at play on the landscape.
I wonder if subliminally I learned something about the history of power and landscape. Something of the disregard the rulers of the industrial age held for the environment, contrasted against the deep romantic love for nature from those who worked for them.
It’s more complicated than that though – not as clear cut.
Something as big as the steelworks becomes a force of nature, both in its impacts on the local ecosystems – and symbolically.
It becomes landscape.
There’s a walk from Redcar into Hartlepool … I’d cross a bridge at night, and walk above the steel works. So that’s probably where the opening of Blade Runner comes from. It always seemed to be rather gloomy and raining, and I’d just think “God, this is beautiful.” You can find beauty in everything, and so I think I found the beauty in that darkness.
The steelworks imprinted something like this on me early – perhaps not beauty, but majesty in the industrial.
The news this week is very sad – overwhelmingly for the people and their livelihoods that it effects. Environmentalists probably won’t mourn the passing of the steelworks, but those of us who find ‘beauty in the darkness’ might.