Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can either be a longing for something from your own past or a longing for a past you never actually experienced. The latter is ever present in the world of design and architecture. Graphics, for example, is awash with remnants of design thinking that has gone before.
Above a delightful spoof 60's style paperback series by an enterprising young designer.
The internet has enabled designers to plunder the past world of graphics at a click, and the source material can be replicated, approximated and adapted to produce convincing facsimiles of that graphic heritage, mostly in the hands of young designers who were either far too young to recall the period or were not even born then.
Nostalgia can be triggered by a smell, texture, taste or piece of music and suddenly you are transported back decades. If I happen to get a whiff of coal, I am instantly propelled to the streets of Dagenham, where I lived in the 1950s. Coal merchants still made daily deliveries of their jet-black cargo to every household. The moment the familiar truck appeared in our street I would rush out, stand by it and breathe in the magnificent aroma of those loose lumps of natural coal.
Sellers, Milligan and Secombe in The Goon Show still running on BBC4 Extra
At night, by the glow of our brown Bakelite radio, I would tune the dial to the BBC Light Programme to hear The Goon Show or Journey into Space,which I was besotted with. I used to remember them fondly – I say used to because, in recent years, both programmeshave been resurrected on BBC Radio 4 Extra and its predecessor Radio 7. Having originally listened to them over 50 years ago, my own fond recollection has now been eroded due to the constant repeats, which have devalued their potency.
A bit of America comes to Britain in the 1950's with, Life with the Lyons
Paul Temple currently rerunning on BBC4 Extra
And it’s not only my particular favourites: there is a raft of 1950s and 60s programmes spewing out on BBC 4 Extra: The Navy Lark, Life with the Lyons, Paul Temple, Ray’s a Laugh, Round the Horne, Educating Archie and many, many more. If you have the radio on all night, like me, you can easily wake up in the early hours thinking you’ve been transported back to the 1950s.
As a teenager in the late 1950s, Sundays were without doubt the most boringly depressing day of the week: shops were closed and nothing seemed to happen. I would normally be drawing, and the smell of the many Sunday roasts on the go emanated from the surrounding houses. All the mums were tied to the kitchen and all the dads would be down the pub. The radio would splatter out an assortment of extremely dull programmes like Life with the Lions or Educating Archie,
Imagine a ventriloquist act on the radio, well, Educating Archie was just that
but the worst of these was the Billy Cotton Band Show, and what a horror it was for me. The humour was out of the ark, along with the appallingly bland music.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, there was a singer in the show called Alan Breeze, who looked like someone’s dad and not the teenage pop stars of the period. Embarrassingly, Breeze would sing the latest hits, be they by Cliff Richard, Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard or Buddy Holly. The latter collection of stars would rarely be played on the BBC at the time – for that, you had to tune into the crackly reception of the commercial station Radio Luxembourg. So, we had to put up with Breeze, and it was so depressingly awful for a teenager to have to endure his annihilation of the hits we liked so much.
This is a crystal set. Many of us had these back in the 1950s to tune into Radio Luxenbourg under the bed covers.
At the time, the BBC was awash with programmes like this, all aimed at a ‘family audience’ – teenagers didn’t exist to the corporation. The formula had remained virtually unchanged since the Second World War radio era. And the liberation for teenagers, pirate radio, was still a decade away.
The digital age has given us so much, but it has also devalued the distant and fond memories of radio programmes that seemed so special then but are never quite the same on rehearing. Nostalgia really is becoming a thing of the past.
To give you a flavour of my dreary Sundays back in the 1950's here is a sample of The Billy Cotton Band Show (This is a 1960 TV version, but the 50's radio version was exactly the same).
Click here to be depressed.
And here is a short film of a Radio Luxembourg broadcast, rather hilarious
The year: 1974
This is what was happening:
The first British television-savvy politician, Harold Wilson, was elected Prime Minister.
Professor Erno Rubik invented his 'Magic Cube'
Tom Baker became the fourth Dr Who in 1974
Alan Fletcher won a D&AD Gold with this Reuters gift.
“We’d like to offer you the job as Art Director of Fontana Paperbacks,” said the voice at the other end of the phone. Filled with excitement and the dread of having the task of telling Charles Pick, Managing Director of William Heinemann, that I was going to leave to join Collins’ paperback division. He simply said. “Oh well, at least they are in the family.” Both Heinemann and Collins had joint interests in Pan Books.
Roland Gant, Heinemann’s Editorial Director plus a wonderful mimic and raconteur, took me for a farewell lunch at The Garrick Club, a male-only haven for thespians and arty types. On arrival, the porter discreetly told me that I would have to wear a tie and produced a most inconguous specimen for me to put on. While standing at the bar, Roland said, “Oh look there’s Osbert.” (Osbert Lancaster was a well-known cartoonist at the time, and a rather short man.) I was taken aback as I’d always imagined him as a tall, elegant figure, like the many aristocratic characters depicted in his cartoons. In a nervous moment, I was about to splutter, “I didn’t realise you were so short” (yes, I really was), until I felt a sharp prod in the ribs from Roland, who’s antenna was up. I quickly changed it to “I would have recognised you anywhere.” I was still socially inept in certain circumstances.
Osbert Lancaster's Illustration for the cover of The Kindly Ones
At the time, lunch was served at The Garrick at long, refectory-style tables with large jugs of water placed at regular intervals. A bevy of what I recall as dinner lady types provided the service. I realised very quickly that many of these London clubs were simply extensions of public school environments with their porters and servers.
Above the last catalogue I designed for the World's Work children's list for '74
For the last months of my time at Heinemann, I had a new secretary in the shape of Penny Waldmann, daughter of some property tycoon or other. After working out my notice, I walked ten minutes away from my familiar Mayfair environment to the equally exclusive address of St James’s Place, where William Collins & Sons was located in a charming Georgian house.
The home of William Collins & Sons and Fontana Paperbacks and also my new home for the next happy 5 years, way up at the very top of the building.
Once more, the studio was right at the very top of the building, in what would have been the maids’ quarters.
On my arrival, I found a two-roomed studio painted entirely in matte black. It was dark and depressing; apparently, the previous Art Director, John Constable, rather liked the gloomy atmosphere. This was exacerbated by the fact that Britain was plunged into a three-day week due to industrial action, and the electricity supply was cut off each day at 4pm, when everyone had to work with the aid of candles or Tilley lamps.
Illuminated by gaslight during the industrial dispute of '74.
It created a wartime spirit and miraculously, everything still got done in those analogue days – God knows what would happen now.
Within weeks, I’d had the whole studio repainted white throughout, with a mid-grey lino floor and two spacious plan chests. I had also inherited a secretary – who I seem to recall was the stepdaughter of the wartime flying hero Douglas Barder – and a young Anglo-Polish designer called Tad Aronovitch. It is always tricky inheriting assistants from another regime – a lot of suspicion and judging goes on in the background. I actually needed two assistants, so the call went out and, a week or so later, I hired a charming young college leaver called Bill Jones. So now there were four in my new tight-knit ship.
The Fontana team. From the top me, Bill, Rosmary (who replaced Douglas Barder's step daughter) and Tad, on the roof of 14 St James's Place in the summer of 1974.
Fontana had a much larger list to deal with: almost 500 titles per year. The list was very varied: extremely commercial at one end and highly intellectual at the other. I had a secret agenda to transform the look of Fontana Paperbacks to rival Penguin. Even though a large part of the list was escapist airport fodder, I decided that if they had to look commercial, I would still care about all the elements that made up the covers.
Nothing to write home about but this was the very first Fontana cover I designed on my maiden day there. Film tie in covers were common and turned around very fast. This is an example of me with my 'commercial' hat on. There would be a lot more of that over the next 4 years.
My immediate boss and the person who hired me was Mark Collins, the youngest of the Collins publishing dynasty. He was a bespectacled, gangly, ungainly character with a rather disarming, boyish shyness. He inhabited an unbelievably messy office with manuscripts piled high and covering most of the floor. It also had a large double-sided partners desk sitting in the middle, with every drawer filled to the brim.
My first few months were spent gaining familiarity with the list of authors, genres and the increased volume of work. I very quickly introduced a uniformed typographical style to the spines. And I pulled in many of the designers and illustrators who I had used at Heinemann along with some new finds, and I set course to hopefully make some waves.
My Film for 1974:
Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather II
My Job for that year:
Related post: Fifty years on No. 11
Since childhood, I have always been fascinated by the voice and what this complex mechanism is capable of. I’ve always loved Impressionists because of their incredible vocal dexterity and ability to deconstruct every aspect of a voice.
Peter Sellers was a master of this, and in the 1950s you would find me glued to the radio listening to The Goon Show with Sellers’ wonderful repertoire of characters. Every kid in the ‘50s would imitate Bluebottle or Captain Bloodknock. Listen to Peter Sellers: Guide to accents of the British Isles.
If you can do such a thing, I have collected voices like stamps, going way back to the 1950s: Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Raymond Massey, Orson Welles, James Mason, Dirk Bogarde, Paul Scofield, Cyril Cusack, Henry Fonda, Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck, to name just a few, and that’s only the men.
The voice, like any other part of our body, needs exercising. Neglect it and it becomes dull, thin and boring. When I first meet anyone, it’s their voice that I instinctively tune into, and I am often surprised at how few people consider the effectiveness of their voices. But the fact is, with a little understanding and a bit of TLC, they could be greatly improved.
Just like hand writing is mostly for others to read. But in this digital age, it is fast becoming a thing of the past, with few bothering to write beautifully. The voice, on the other hand, is something we use all the time to communicate with others. It is a barometer of our mood. Just saying one word (like ‘Hello’) can reveal a lot about what is going on and whether we are up, down or flat: just in how that one word is spoken.
Even poets, whose words are meant to be delivered aloud, are often the worst people to do it. A classic example is Dylan Thomas reading his ‘Under Milk Wood’. It is diabolical when compared to Richard Burton’s wonderful rendition here.
And our current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, should be discouraged from reading her own work.
With the exception of very few poets, it is best left to the voices of trained actors who can transform poets’ words into something of great beauty.
But rather than go on about it, here are two examples of what I mean about the beauty of the human voice. The first is the wonderful late Paul Scofield reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet
The second is the last scene from ‘American Beauty’, with Kevin Spacey’s mellifluous voice over:
Related posts: Speak up!
Here is the 2nd of Michael Wolff's letters to designers in India - and to all of us too.
“Remember, remember the 5th of November.”
Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night in England and we’re celebrating the failure of his plot, in 1605, to blow up our Parliament. My ears are full of the sound of crackling fireworks and the sky is full of brilliant colour and light. At the same time in India, and in England too, people will be celebrating the Festival of Diwali.
In many of England’s cities there’ll be a glorious firework competition. I hope you enjoy a happy and colourful Diwali.
In my first letter to you, I wrote about going to a design conference in Oslo. I was invited to talk about the opportunities we have as designers to contribute to making our world a happier, healthier and better place. I was surprised because I was expecting yet another conference with designers explaining how wonderful and significant we are and how brilliant our work is. But here was a conference focused on inclusive design, in which all sorts of people, including me, shared experiences of how inadequate our antennae still are, in the way they notice the needs of differently-abled people. How, at best, so much of the physical world that we designers have influenced, doesn’t work well enough for many people. And at worst, is actually callous.
In Oslo, Marcus Berglund, Disability Ambassador for the Scandic Hotel Group, asked me how I would feel if, when I wanted to take money from an ATM, I had to ask a stranger to take my card, use my pin number, check my bank balance, handle my money and then give the card and the money back to me. Obviously I wouldn’t feel good at all. No one would. But that’s what most wheelchair users have to do because the ATM’s are often not positioned with sufficient consideration.
Equally surprising is how many wheelchairs don’t allow their users to raise themselves to their full height, so, much of the time people who live in them have cricked necks from looking up, or are endlessly looked down on, like children, by full-height people. There’s only one wheel chair I know that enables this flexibility, but its appearance is typical of the aesthetically impoverished and functional aesthetic that disabled people are offered. And it’s very expensive. I’m surprised at the beauty and wonders of bicycle, motorbike and even small car design compared to the worthy but gloomy ranges of products whenever disability is concerned.
There’s an enormous and growing global population of differently-abled and aging people. It’s the elephant in the room that many of us in the design business are still choosing to ignore. It’s a substantial opportunity for designers and entrepreneurs around the world – an opportunity that will handsomely reward those who take it. What’s needed now is elegant innovation and great design that includes everyone in the enjoyment of practical and delightful things and places. Many of the great ideas produced in our conference in Oslo, in just 24 hours, showed how with collaboration, inspiration and imagination, wonderful ideas can come to life and improve the lives of millions.
Recently in the UK, there have been initiatives to demonstrate how design can improve both the cross-infection statistics and the respect and dignity that people who are ill in hospitals are given. The Design Council ran competitions to generate new and more considerate ideas. Although there were many innovative and useful ideas, nearly all the work I saw looked like my dentist’s surgery. Most of it had that look of implacably dull product design, still influenced by modernism where humour, charm and the joy of colour appeared to have little place. It seemed to me to still be a reflection of some product designer’s vision of the world, in which everything is serious, simple and plain and where pleasure, delight and human idiosyncrasy don’t quite fit.
Of course there were many benefits in much of the innovation and nearly all of it was worthwhile and intelligent. Although, in my view, there didn’t seem to have been enough evidence of the designers having taken their own shoes off and having spent time living in the shoes of the people we all serve.
Being in other people’s shoes is no different from being in any kind of naturally considerate relationship. But it requires an extra amount of curiosity and appreciation. That extra amount of curiosity means pushing into more intrusive and personal details to discover deeper and more emotional things than you find out from ethnographic research. It means a journey of exploration with your partner or client or customer – the person who will use the results of your imagination, your creativity and design. The deeper you go and the more you can be in their shoes, the better prepared and more effective the results of your creativity will become.
The same is true of appreciation. Among the most valuable attributes we’re fortunate to have as designers, is a capacity of noticing – a kind of fearless openness to everything. Like a zoom lens, we can see from the widest picture of a person’s anxiety in a scary hospital reception area to the most detailed close-up of a person with arthritis struggling to open a piece of bad packaging.
We can use our zoom lens actively and notice how people are reacting to everything around them. Any designer can use their noticing and appreciation to open conversations with people about their experiences with things and places. I’ve found most people enjoy these conversations and then find out that they hadn’t noticed themselves, how well or badly the things they use in their lives serve them. Many, like the wheelchair users with the ATM’s I described, just put up with it, and so the banks have no pressure to review and correct what they do.
The inspirations from inside you that drive your imagination will come directly from the power and intensity of your curiosity and appreciation of others. I’ve always called these the muscles that enable me to progress the quality of what I expect from myself. Muscles, because I exercise them. The same is true for my imagination and performance as a designer. It’s hard to give up the preconceptions of style that you choose to express you, and the taste that you enjoy personally, nor should you. It’s a question of when and how you give them the reins.
In my own experience, until I feel complete with the work of my curiosity and the learning from my appreciation, I don’t trust the interventions of my imagination. The many ideas that lurk unused and unappreciated within us are no substitute to removing our shoes and living in the shoes of those that our work is intended to serve. Sometimes swapping shoes isn’t easy.
A year ago, during one of the RCA (Royal College of Art) and DBA (Design Business Association) 24-hour design challenges, in Dublin, I was supporting five groups of designers – each working with partners with various impairments. Their challenge was to make Dublin easier to navigate. One partner, with cerebral palsy, was in a wheelchair. He found it hard to control his movements, including the muscles in his face. He communicated by moving his head so that a small unit at the back of his neck transformed his movements into text on a screen. I felt awkward in his presence and even found childlike fear inhibiting me in approaching him. I was ashamed of myself.
Later in the day, I walked behind him and the designers he was working with, by the side of Dublin’s river Liffy. They were walking beside a wall designed to protect children from falling in and to allow adults to enjoy the river view – but not adults in wheelchairs. Suddenly the words “I can’t see over this fucking wall” appeared on his screen. I cracked up, and at that moment of humour, our relationship became possible for me. We started our conversation. He’d inspired me to be able to be in his shoes. So for me, embracing everybody, whatever individual problems they face, and especially the things and qualities that make them different, is what inclusive design is all about.
It’s the quality of our inspirations that define what we can achieve. Before imagination, innovation, design and technology can come into play, inspiration, that moment, or even split second, has to have happened. It’s like a thought appearing from nowhere or from a moment of enlightenment – a thought that went from not being there to being there – a sudden unpredictable moment or flash of inspiration. That’s what my friend in his wheelchair in Dublin, gave me.
When you have the insights and the empathy you gain from taking your own shoes off and being in the shoes of those you serve, you’re bound to get that inspiration, and only then you’ll be in the position to put your own shoes back on and take the steps you choose towards making the world a happier, healthier and better place for us all.
With my best wishes to you,
This is the first in a series of occasional guest blogs by my good friend and the design supremo Michael Wolff (above), the man who put the ‘B’ in branding.
He has been in the business for well over half a century and during that time has amassed a hell of a lot of wisdom, much of which he will impart in these delightful letters over the course of the series. These were originally written for an Indian design magazine called Kyoorius but are equally at home here on these pages.
So here is the first.
It’s mid May - I’m in Shanghai - and Shanghai is now in me. Yesterday I went to their art museum and connected with the breathtaking skill and artistry that Chinese people still produce and were producing four thousand years ago. I marveled at the abilities of human beings and their extraordinary expressiveness - just as I did in Mumbai when I was there a few months ago.
In Shanghai’s museum I was in the presence of priceless treasures.To say these things are inspiring seems trite, but I don’t know how else to tell you how moved, excited and astonished I was and how impressive it was to see queues of thousands of Chinese people, waiting to see and enjoy these things too.
People can produce such beauty that, although it never equals the beauty of nature, it can still stop me in my tracks and evoke emotions beyond my control. The inventiveness and artistry of human beings and their capacity for comprehension and communication is wonderful. It always has been. That science and art are now seen as one makes life itself a cause for perpetual curiosity and celebration - a celebration that, for me, contains a terrifying mystery.
At the same time, as I enjoy the work of such creative designers as Thomas Heatherwick and his design for the British Pavilion (above) at the Shanghai Expo, and many other nation’s more banal seeming expressions of human achievement, I can’t help thinking of the mysterious and threatening plight of the bees.
Bees with whom we share this planet are dying all around the world. They pollinate our plants and without their collaboration, our very existence could be at risk. When I think of the bees, I start thinking of the extent to which we seem so stuck in believing in the values of our nations, our cultures, our religions and even our sexes without realising how they imprison us in habits of thinking and being. Many of these assumptions and points of view are bringing all of us, and our planet, into situations which now threaten the future of our existence. It’s our inability to see ourselves as a species, among other species, that I think of as a terrifying mystery.
Why don’t we see ourselves as human beings, all together on a fragile planet, before we enjoy all the other aspects of what we think of as us? Why don’t we see what we all share and have in common more clearly than we see all the things that we allow to separate us? Why, as Buckminster Fuller expressed it so poignantly, do we still live in a ‘you or me’ world and fear the idea of a ‘you and me?’ What is it we feel instinctively that we will lose if we let go of enough of our individuality to embrace the rest of humanity and all the other species on earth in our consciousness? Is it because we don’t have or share a common vision of what the planet should expect from a successful species?
Is it because we’re distracted by our own apparent self- interest and blinded by the idea of a common interest in success or even survival?
Some people are single-minded others relish a huge breadth of influences and distractions to fuel their creativity. We could easily complement each other to get the most fruitful results to leave for future generations. Yet we seem to still be trapped with all our insights in the subdivisions of our identities that prevent us from achieving what Desmond Tutu calls “one community” – the human species. Trapped into competing with others instead of competing with our own past performance.
I know that I myself am a basket full of contradictory thoughts and desires. My school report used to say “too easily distracted.” For example, right now, as I write this, while I’m thinking that more of us starve to death today than did in the 1970’s I’m also thinking that I love my Apple iPad. The oceans are choking with the results of our plastic progress and pollution and I still love the beauty of a Camper Nicholson yacht.
I can watch the moods of the sea for hours and the dancing flight of seagulls for days. How can they be so clean? At the same time, I’m horrified that thousands of magnificent albatrosses’ lives have been compromised by dangerous sea-born bits of our plastic debris.
For me, the flight of an albatross, the beauty of a Chinese stroke of calligraphy, the grace of an Indian woman’s walk in a sari, the power of a volcanic eruption and the stillness of a beautiful Koi in the purest of Japanese ponds, each express the glorious beauty of our planet. These wonders and the gift of noticing what doesn’t work about us, has led me to becoming a designer.
A ‘becoming’ which is still progressing, and which I hope will never end.
I need to finish this letter and I’m distracted by a torrent of irrelevant thoughts. I would be lost without distraction. For me it’s both a source of inspiration and, for better and for worse, integral to how I choose to enjoy my life.
Next week I’ll be in Oslo persuading designers that in thinking about how difficult ordinary things in life can be for people who see less well, hear less well, move less well and deal with all sorts of impairments, they will be able to design more effectively for all of us.
Inclusive design – that’s design that embraces the needs of all sorts of people including the ‘differently-abled’ and the old or even the dying – is better design, than design just aimed at financial profit for a minority. At the same time, I will breath the clean air of Norway and see again the mirror like quality of the fjords reflecting the mountains that contain them, reminding me of the astonishing beauty of water.
So how do I, and any other designer, reconcile the appreciation of beauty and delight with our
dysfunctional ways of living and being that seem to be inherent in humanity? How can we be useful instead of being the willing or inadvertent collaborators with what clearly doesn’t work or serve the world?
That question, I think, is one that each of us has to answer for themselves. From time to time I think I know the answer for me, but often I lose it. Writing this letter to you in a new magazine that hopefully other designers will read, is an opportunity for me to ask you the question and to tell you that living in this question continues to be both my biggest frustration and the inspiration that drives what I do.
You can see Michael Wolff's Oslo talk on inclusive design here