Archive for June, 2004

Arts Council Head joins the fray

Tuesday, June 29th, 2004

In an interesting interview in today’s Guardian newspaper (reproduced in full below) Sir Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art and head of the UK Arts Council, says “What’s needed is a new and higher level of national debate about the status and purpose of higher education in the creative arts.” He needs to read sites like this, Point, Cranbrook, Speak Up and more because it’s already happening! Largely, it seems the discussion is hottest in the USA but I know that there are many teachers in art and design in the UK who share the same or broadly similar views to my own but are afraid to speak out – and after what happened to me in my last job I’m not surprised!

While senior management at the top end of the scale, and students at the bottom end (I don’t mean that disparagingly) seem to be pushing for the principle of education through art, rather than simple and quickly outdated training, an academic or liberal arts approach, there are many in the middle who see the role of art and design education to shape a small elite in their own image and bollocks to the rest of ’em.

Frayling’s comments are welcome, and to be fair he has been saying such things for quite some time, and I have a great deal of respect for the guy. But the fact that the discussion has been going on since the 1940s if not longer suggests that there are some entrenched views that will take a lot of shifting. One way is to do what other subjects do – recruit faculty from each crop of students rather than rely, as we do, on part time artists and designers earning a bit of cash by bestowing their “wisdom” until something better comes along, and who fiercely refuse to be thought of as teachers.

I’m being deliberately controversial there (I’m a part time teacher at the moment!) but I have a feeling the only way to get the debate going is to shout long and hard in people’s faces and challenge them to give an intelligent response. I’m happy as ever to play devil’s advocate, but it would be nice if, like other academic disciplines, people like me could say what we want to say without being forced out of their jobs.

Heart in hand

Are there too many graduates in creative subjects? No, Christopher Frayling tells Stephen Cook: it is time to stop thinking of arts degrees as trade qualifications

Tuesday June 29, 2004

The Guardian

The number of young people coming out of Britain’s higher education system in any three-year cycle with degrees including the words “art” or “design” in the title is greater than the entire population of Florence during the Renaissance.

Sir Christopher Frayling mentions it as he talks about how, from Anglia Polytechnic University to the University of Wolverhampton, such courses have become fashionable, and he wonders what happens to the high proportion of graduates in art and design subjects who don’t end up as artists or designers, or working in any part of the sector they’ve studied. “I do sometimes ask myself whether we’re overproducing,” he says.

But the answer the rector of the Royal College of Art (RCA) gives himself is “no”. What’s needed, he argues, is a new and higher level of national debate about the status and purpose of higher education in the creative arts. The debate would be helped, he says, if statements on the subject emanated occasionally from the education secretary and the arts minister, and if politicians were as happy to be seen coming out of the opera as hobnobbing with football club chairmen.

In his immediate surroundings, status isn’t a problem. His college skims the cream off the graduate flood and puts them through two-year postgraduate courses that produce some of the world’s best artists and designers. A new study of what happened to RCA graduates from 1997 to 2001 shows 91% are working at an appropriate level in the field they studied. In some areas the figure is 98%.

Frayling has also been chairman of the Arts Council since late last year, taking responsibility for distributing public funds to organisations ranging from the Royal Opera House to the Babbling Vagabonds Story Telling Theatre Company. His appointment was generally welcomed, although it also produced some remarks about pop intellectuals and lifetime committee men. He is believed to be close to Estelle Morris, who took over the arts brief on her return from self-imposed exile from the government.

Frayling remembers attending his first meeting of university vice-chancellors in 1996. When he told some ivory-tower type that he was the new rector of the Royal College of Art, he received the jokey-but-serious response: “Oh, isn’t that where they mend fuses?” He’s also heard his students referred to as “airbrush fairies”.

That’s part of a persistent syndrome, he says, in which people are unable to accept that the expressive arts are “real” subjects in the world of higher education and would prefer them to be redirected to the tradesmen’s entrance. This attitude survives, he adds, even though Britain’s contemporary artists are hugely successful and the country has become the crucible of the modern design world, supplying people to the top studios in Milan and New York and Tokyo, as well as London.

“There’s still this view that it’s an apprenticeship, a trade qualification, and we can sit in our ivory tower and look down on such things,” he says. “It’s an attitude which says that interpreting the world is worth 10 times the changing of it, and I’ve never understood that.

“After all, how many vice-chancellors can sit in their office and watch the work of graduates go by on four wheels during the rush hour? It’s extraordinary – I look at the Jaguar S class and think, that was designed by one of ours. The Ford Ka, the round one – I remember that guy when he graduated, everyone thought he was mad. So I sit here watching the work of our more successful graduates whizz by, and I feel all paternal.”

However, he says, art and design have been given a boost as serious higher education subjects by the creation earlier this year of the new University of the Arts London, which was formerly the London Institute and comprises six creative arts colleges, which were once independent. Frayling’s quibble was that an impression was created that this was the first all-art and design institution to receive full university status, whereas it was in fact the second: the RCA was the first, in 1967.

“But all this lifts the subject and helps its status,” he says. “There are two of us now, but I don’t see it as a rivalry. It gets us to the high table, and that’s all to the good and it’s exciting. The number of applications from overseas has shot up, because to be in London is now very hip for young artists. Art, design, music, clubbing – it acts as a magnet and it rebrands the city.”

So much for status. The other awkward question Frayling thinks in need of a better and wider debate is the purpose of all this burgeoning education in art and design. At the moment, he says, an atmosphere of “practice or bust” still hangs around many art and design courses, and people somehow feel they are second best if they do not end up as artists or designers.

“In what other discipline would you feel relegated to the second eleven because you weren’t working in the subject you’d studied? You’re not regarded as a failure if you study history but don’t become a historian. Once again, it’s this hangover from the idea of trade, which is very deep-rooted.”

For a way forward he looks to the critic and essayist Herbert Read, who in 1943 wrote a book called Education Through Art. Read argued that one form of art education was education to art, which produces practitioners of painting and sculpture and design, and so on; but another was education through art, which produces people who work in other fields but brings to those areas the useful special qualities that an education in art can foster.

“Read was right, in my view,” says Frayling. “But our sector is not very good at articulating what it is that we’re teaching through art. We still tend to make it look as if everyone is being prepared for actually doing it, and of course that’s not the case. Art education is a means of bringing out things like problem-solving, self-confidence, the ability to say ‘why not’ rather than ‘why’, mental-manual coordination, the willingness to see as well as look, and a flexible approach to navigating through life.

“So if we think art is a good way of teaching life skills and preparing people for other types of work, we need to have a proper public debate about it. We probably need a major figure, somebody like Piaget [the educational psychologist], to write something about all this so that it begins to seep into educational thinking and policy.”

Frayling thinks the “practice or bust” attitude has been left over from the 1950s and 60s, when art education was isolated in colleges and didn’t have much contact with broader academic disciplines. Now that many such colleges have been absorbed into new universities, and universities have started more art and design courses, he thinks the ghetto may be disappearing and new courses are producing a broader, more flexible range of skills. An example of this, he says, is industrial design and engineering, which the RCA runs with its neighbour, Imperial College.

All these questions, says Frayling, are on the national policy agenda to some extent, but the statements are coming from the wrong place – from the less powerful Department of Culture, Media and Sport rather than the more powerful Department for Education and Skills, with its obsession with basic skills and the three Rs.

“Someone once told me – and I haven’t had the chance to research it – that the orginal meaning of that phrase was completely different in Regency times, at the beginning of the 19th century,” he says. “The three Rs were reading, wroughting and arithmetic – in other words, literacy, making things and numeracy.

“Reading and writing are the same thing, basically – the two sides of the literacy coin. So it makes sense to me that the original concept of a fully rounded education was literacy, the arts and numeracy. And then in the era of Mr Gradgrind and the Great Exhibtion of the 1850s, the wroughting got dropped in favour of writing.

“So generally I’m not sure that the standard of public debate is that high about the role of the arts in the curriculum. I’d like to bring back wroughting. I think any rounded education should have all three – literacy, numeracy, making. And then, as Ruskin said, you have ‘the head, the heart and the hand, and thus you produce the complete person’.”

However, Frayling has learnt the hard way not to get too carried away by his theme that art education is a good preparation for all kinds of other professions. He once found himself telling a German audience in Hanover that he wouldn’t be surprised if one day there was a head of state with an art education.

“Then I suddenly realised what I’d said,” he says. “There was a silence for a while, and then somebody said quietly: ‘We tried that once.’ It was a tense moment. All I could say was that Hitler did actually fail his foundation course.”


Saturday, June 26th, 2004

One of my hobbies is writing music – it’s not very good, but it keeps me amused. Like solving cryptic crosswords, I find moving notes around to form melodies, harmonies and patterns to be immensely soothing.

Problem is, I never finish anything I write! Some pieces have been “in progress” now for over ten years, but in recent months I’ve been working hard at them, trying to get them into shape. Two pieces are nearly “complete” now and I’ll be posting them on the web soon so that even if no one ever hears them I can at least say I’ve “published” them.

One piece I finally got around to finishing recently is a piece I’ve called Flying, and dedicated to a friend who is flying off to live in New Zealand soon. I’ll miss her dreadfully – we talk everyday at the moment and I just know that, despite our best intentions, distractions will mean we talk less and less. But we’ll never stop caring about each other; that’s what true friendship is all about.

Unlike most of my music, which tends to be “classical” in tone, Flying is upbeat and modern. I don’t pretend that it’s any good, and the mix isn’t perfect, but I think it gets across the idea of movement and excitement. Technically, the piece is based on a “ground bass” which is repeated in canon to form a repeated underlying harmony, over which several distinct melodies weave their way. It ends with a melancholy tone, as though the plane drifts off out of sight leaving us with our memories.

It’s an MP3 file, about 4.2 megabytess in size – feel free to download it and have a listen, then let me know what you think. Created in Xx and mixed in Garageband on an iMac.

How Advertising Works Part 356

Wednesday, June 23rd, 2004

Every so often you hear stories of estate agents who decide, as a bit of a wheeze, to start advertising property “truthfully”. Sure as eggs is eggs, they get a lot of publicity and everyone has a chortle.

Advertisements, of course, are not allowed to be misleading but you can dress up even the dullest truths in fancy clothes. If a soap powder is given a new additive that makes things glow, you call it “whiter than white” and link it to beaming kids in spotless England football shirts who later go on to become Michael Owen. They’re not promising that your child will become a multimillionaire for kicking a ball into the back of a net (someone please remind Michael that’s what he’s supposed to do!) but it creates a positive linkage the next time you are in the supermarket.

Interestingly, some of my students did some surveys recently (I tell them not to do surveys, but it seems to be ingrained in them at school) in which people say, predictably, they a) are not influenced by advertising and b) they can remember ads but not what they are advertising. The truth is more complex: advertisers don’t intend that you see an ad on TV and decide to stop what you are doing and go down the shops to buy a tub of margerine. What they want is for you to forget about it, then next time you go to the supermarket and are faced with row upon row of seemingly identical products, your memory of hopw the ad made you feel will create a linkage and a point of differentiation.

That’s why most ads are for products that are largely the same as all the other products – shampoos, detergents, cereals and so on. They need differentiation.

Does telling the truth work?

Spotted today on eBay:

Guaranteed future classic!  If this car is not regarded as a classic by, say, 3000AD then contact me in person and I will give you a full refund without any quibbles.

The car is a 1993 Ford Orion 1.6LXi 16v on a “K” plate (which you may find mildly amusing if you’re a hot-shot COBOL programmer).

It has just short of 5,000 miles on the clock, although we may safely assume that it’s on its second time round.

The car is taxed until the end of August and MOT’d until November.  There is a genuine reason for sale … that it’s a very, very dull car.  It starts, it stops, it goes around corners, you can put people inside and stuff in the boot; all of which are useful for a car, but don’t make it terribly exciting so I’ve bought myself an Audi Quattro instead.

Right, we’ll do the good points first (if you’d rather do the bad points first then close your eyes and page down now).

It has been very reliable for the 8 months I’ve had it and has always started first time.

It has electric front windows, power-steering, a sunroof, central locking and a factory fitted alarm/immobiliser – all of which work.

It also has a Kenwood 10 CD auto-changer and head unit, with a removable control panel.  Again, these are all in working order.

Most of the bodywork and paint is in very good condition.

The interior is unworn.

There’s a big sheath of past receipts, MOTs and the original owners handbook.  These would be great if you like that sort of thing.

I’ll throw in the Haynes manual for it, free of charge.  Alternatively you can pay 300 quid for the  manual and I’ll give you the car to go with it free of charge.

For the money you could do a lot worse (you may disregard this point when the bidding exceeds ten thousand pounds, when you really could do a lot better for the money).

It has little England flags on the number plates.

OK, now you’re all fired up I’ll give you all of the bad bits.

There is a small patch of superficial rust on the off-side passenger door (see photo).

There is an equally small dent in the boot lid (see photo).

The temperature gauge doesn’t work (no photo, but it points to cold if you want to visualise it).

There’s a small cigarette burn in the back seats, about the middle.  I nearly forgot about, so you probably will as well.

For some reason it only idles on 3 cylinders, but the 4th one kicks in at about 1,000rpm.  You could fix this properly, or you could set the idle speed to 1,000rpm, or you could just ignore it (which is what I’ve been doing).

It has little England flags on the number plates (they weren’t put there by me, but I’ve left them there as new plates would represent an investment of a considerable part of the car’s value.  If anybody from Scotland wants to buy the car then I’ll provide, free of charge, masking tape to put over the plates when they drive home, to prevent them being lynched).

For the boy-racer crowd; the engine is neither supercharged nor turbocharged and doesn’t generate 300bhp or have a drain-pipe for an exhaust.  The wheels aren’t alloy, the speakers are the standard Ford ones and, unfortunately, the car is not compatible with those little blue neon lights you get in Halfords.

That’s pretty much it for the car, but feel free to ask more questions if you wish and I’m happy to take more photos for you. 

Now for the boring mumbo jumbo …

The car is located in Northumberland, which is England’s border county.  The border in question is the one with Scotland, this means that the car is a VERY LONG WAY FROM LONDON!

Any winning bidder who whines that they didn’t realise how far away the car was and uses that as an excuse for not buying it will receive negative feedback (if e-bay allowed you to leave “stupid” feedback they’d get that, but they don’t, so it will have to be negative feedback saying that they’re stupid).

Because I’ve transferred my insurance to my Audi I can no longer drive this car and, therefore, I am unable to deliver it anywhere, not even for ready money.  However, if a buyer is either local or can make it to Newcastle train station or airport I am happy to give them a lift to my house to collect the car.  My wife, who has hated this car since day one, may offer other all manner of “extras” to somebody who is actually going to take it off her drive-way, but these will have to be negotiated with her and are not included in the price.

Um, the bit above about taking more photos applies only to the car.  I’m not providing photos of my wife.

As is the norm, you should remember that you’re bidding to buy and not to just come and have a look.  If anybody wants to bid to just come and have a look they are welcome to, but it’s really not that impressive a car and I for one wouldn’t pay to see it.  No paying to see the wife either, sorry, but she gets spooked by that sort of thing.

Anybody who wins the bidding and then turns up and tries to haggle will be asked to wait while I go and buy a more vicious dog to set upon them.

Depending on how the auction is going I might stick an advert for this car in my local supermarket, so remember it’s the might of e-bay versus a free postcard sized ad in Safeways.  Don’t let those shopping b@st@rds get one over on you!

That’s it.  Thanks for looking and happy bidding.

At the time of viewing, three bids had been received with the highest being £55.

Graphic Design – Where Does it Belong in the Academy?

Monday, June 21st, 2004

Over at Cranbrook Design forum we’ve been having an interesting discussion about the teaching of history in graphic design courses.

A broad concensus appears to be against the idea of simple survey courses favouring instead topic-based approaches that attempt to draw links between seemingly disparate cultural texts.

[Edit – I’ll suggest a couple of examples another time]

It is an interdisciplinary approach and one that seems to be lacking despite almost universal desire to do it. Part of the problem surely lies in the fact that for it truly to work, the whole degree program needs to subscribe to the interdisciplinary ethos, not just the “critical theory” portion.

The discussion generally eschewed the idea that graphic design should be taught as a skills-based course, but more as a “liberal art” (I am crudely summing up a long conversation here) that does not shy away from the fact that graphic design is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is an occupation. For my own views on this, see the article that started me off on this blog in the first place, Graphic Design Education is Failing Students.

Despite my fierce advocacy for an unashamedly intellectual approach to graphic design (particularly where it claims degree status) I am conscious that the production of design is important.

During the discussion, David Cabianca commented that:

There is a fine line that exists between a highly structured graphic design course that is so skills-oriented to be vocational, in which case one ends up producing individuals who are incapable of engaging ideas in a broader context. They lack an appreciation for art, literature, or even science, beyond the scope of their myopic education.

At the other end of the scale, a overly diverse humanities centered education leaves students lacking the skills to engage their ideas outside verbal form, without the ability to translate verbal skills to image-based materials.

To which I responded (slightly edited here)

I think you can take it too far, I agree. However, the course you’re describing could be said to be “about” design rather than “in” design, if you like.

I see problems with that here in the UK particularly where you have art/design history courses next door to “making” courses and the two hardly ever communicate and regard each other with suspicion. There must be a third way and a university willing to develop it or (if it already exists) come out and admit it.

As I’ve said elsewhere, moving away from the purely “skills” approach will probably produce better skilled designers.

But after 20 years of design being promoted as a way for “thick” people to get a degree (not by me, but by schools and careers advisors) there is a trenchant anti-intellectualism in some, not all, design education, and a perpetuation of lower expectations in some of the students we get. Potentially brilliant designers and critics of design are put off and go and study something “proper” instead. I think it’s time to start grabbing back the subject as an academic one without being ashamed of saying it, if we are to recover the curiosity- and intellectually-driven design that was lost when people started substituting Photoshop actions for thinking.

Now it was early in the morning when I wrote that, but I don’t shy away from the substance of what I said. Art and design is promoted to kids who are seen as intellectually lacking, and those with “brains” are positively discouraged from going down that route. We have a job to do in schools and with careers advisors, and with applicants to courses who might see design as “easy” when it isn’t. We devalue our subject if we strip it of the discourse that has been its reason for its place in the academy and instead turn ourselves into training establishments turning out Mac Monkeys. (For the record, I’ve been blessed by the students I’ve had at degree level but it is depressing to see some of the candidates for entry to pre-degree courses who turn up with a tracing of Homer Simpson and are convinced this is their last chance to salvage something for themselves. Even more depressing when the order comes from on high to accept anyone who can hold a pencil, knowing that they will drop out despite your best efforts, and that they should be trying to mend the damage done at school, not paper over it).

Anyway – more on that another time (resist the urge to flame me until I am more coherent!)

But all through the discussion at Cranbrook I’ve been thinking about where I would place the subject of graphic design in relation to where it is now. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but this morning I put pen to paper and scribbled something on a handy post-it note- a literal position paper if you like.

Here’s the original post-it:

And here’s a cleaned up version:

I think it speaks for itself – I see the study of graphic design as belonging not in “Art and Design” nor in “Art/Design History” but firmly in culture and communication studies, concerned equally with production and consumption of design.

I’ll leave it there for now. Diagrams are useful as they give you something to focus on and ensure that the debate starts from a common understanding rather than flouncing about misunderstanding what everyone means because the same word is interpreted differently by everyone involved. But they also suffer because they oversimplify a complex situation.

But it’s a start.

"What Language Do They speak in England?"

Sunday, June 20th, 2004

Language is a funny old thing. And the English language is about as funny as it gets. There’s a simmering resentment in Britain that “our” language seems to have been kidnapped by the US to such an extent that, when asked, few people around the world correctly guess that the English speak English.

Even my Mac, one of the most internationally linguistically-friendly computers around (if not the most) forces me to choose “British English” as my local language, and far too many web sites for my liking use a US flag as a quick means of choosing how I would like to view them. Germans have a German flag, French have a French flag, Spaniards have a Spanish flag. Note to all website owners: the English flag is white with a red cross, not 50 stars and thirteen stripes…

Oh well. That’s life and cultural hegemony I guess.

(I should say at this point that when Apple discontinued the British English localised version of the Mac OS there were lots of complaints over here. The strongest was the replacement of the “wastebasket” with “trash”. We don’t say trash over here – it’s “rubbish”. But trash isn’t an American word; it was used by William Shakespeare long before most of America had even been found).

Two of my favourite TV programmes are American – The West Wing and Law and Order (and its siblings). It’s always quite amusing how American programmes misrepresent Britain and the British. You might expect it in comedy shows (Friends won few admirers with its dodgy “London” episodes which were filmed over here but may as well have been shot in LA for all the accuracy of the sets, and the way that quite distinguished actors were forced to adopt fake British accents, presumably because their real ones didn’t conform to stereotypes) but in serious drama, I expect more.

The British ambassador in The West Wing constantly refers to “Her Royal Majesty” when talking about the Queen, for example, when it’s “Her Majesty” or “Her Royal Highness” (I forget the etiquette but I think it should be the former when not referring to her person – the latter is for introducing her. Like she needs introducing.)

The actor who plays the ambassador appears to be British, so you’d expect him to correct it, but maybe it’s one of those things. Otherwise The West Wing is quite good for its nods to British culture (Gilbert and Sullivan and a cricket bat all featured in one episode).

Law and Order rarely has to feature Britain, of course, though I sat through an uncomfortable episode recently in which a British nanny was wrongly accused of murder – cue “overdone” British accent and a badly disguised dig at us all for being posh and spoilt.

An American student confirmed to me recently that the British accent was viewed as pretentious in the USA but, as he admitted, he’d never actually heard one in all his time over here. In the same way that we forget the USA is effectively 50 different countries with different accents, cultures and traditions, I don’t think many Americans realise that a) Britain is four countries and several small islands and b) each of those countries is further divided into counties. Now these counties are not like American counties, but more analogous to states in many ways. Yorkshire and Sussex are two entirely different countries, believe me – I grew up in the former and now live in the latter. And there are huge differences in accent and language too. I often use words that aren’t understood down here, and have their roots in old Anglo-Saxon or even Norse, while the village next to where I used to live might have been 1000 miles away, so different were their idioms.

Small country, big differences, which is half the pleasure of coming here, I think. Want to see the real Britian? Avoid London. Go the the regions – York (my home town) and its surroundings have a lot to offer (and if you’re a New Yorker, you really should see the place that gave its name to your home).

No matter how much I watch American TV I can’t get away from the adage that we are two countries divided by a common language. Part of it is deliberate, in a sinister sort of way, with the half-finished attempt to simplify American spelling, for example, which seems more ideological than anything else. But other differences are more intriguing. Some words are different because the two languages named the same thing differently as it was “invented” – lifts and pavements become elevators and sidewalks, for example. Petrol and gasoline, cars and automobiles, estate agents and realtors (or “crooks, liars and thieves” as they are also known over here). I always think American English is more Germanic than “British” English in its preference for long or rhythmically difficult words.

My favourite of the moment is the American word “burglarised” when we would say “burgled”. Easier, straight to the point and a good active verb rather than an adjective.

People are burgled in Britain, but property is burglarised in the USA – a signifier of different priorities, perhaps? Law and Order is full of different ways of saying things, and I strongly suspect there are legal and even constitutional reasons for each word’s evolution.

But it is in idioms that I see the biggest differences – we go on holiday, Americans take vacations, for example. The British phrase tells it like it is. A holiday is an escape. The American version sounds like an exchange, a privilege rather than a right, a chore rather than a pleasure.

Languages truly reflect the culture that owns them, but I wonder if we could have English back as good old fashioned English, rather than British English?

Maybe we won’t need to. Judging from this article by Ben Yagoda, it’s the USA’s turn to start bemoaning the “Anglicisation” of American English. I don’t know if Yagoda is being facetious in his closing remarks but as he points out here, phrases like “go missing”, “sell-by date” and “move house” are far more logical, subtle and self-explanatory than “disappear”, “expiration date” and “move”. More poetic too, I would add.

American Idioms Have Gone Missing (from The Chronicle of Higher Education


One of Peter De Vries’s comic novels has a character who accumulates Briticisms. As I recall, he orders shrimp cocktail as a “starter,” refers to a friend “called” James (instead of “named” – that’s a subtle one), and fills his car with “petrol” for the ride home. Eventually, he winds up in hospital.

De Vries’s conceit, delicious as it was, was an exaggeration. Generally a Yank can get away with at most one such locution in his or her active vocabulary, for example the person I know who likes to refer to his time “at university,” the university in question being a large land-grant institution. Any more than that and he would be laughed out the door, like the professor who habitually shows up at faculty meetings in a bespoke suit, Turnbull and Asser shirt, and Liberty of London tie, done in a Windsor knot.

Lately, however, the American press has become that professor. What set the ball rolling, I believe, was use of the verb phrase “to go missing” to mean “disappear,” as in a person or object that at one moment is available and visible and subsequently is nowhere to be found. “Disappear” doesn’t perfectly convey this idea – it has too much of a Siegfried and Roy, presto-chango connotation – but, along with its slightly more melodramatic counterpart, “vanish,” it had to do the job for a long time. “Go missing” is better, but it was resisted, probably for the very reason that it sounds so British. Along with variants “went missing” and “gone missing,” it appeared in The New York Times not at all in 1983, and only twice in 1993.

In 2001, however, the formulation was employed 24 times. The reason was a major national story about a person who went missing: Chandra Levy. And that year was the tipping point. In 2003, the Times had precisely 50 “go missings,” and today even writers for USA Today and People use it with a straight face.

A slightly different process was at work in the case of “sell-by date.” That is the exact equivalent for what we call “expiration date,” only with better rhythm, two fewer syllables, and a strong British feel. From 1980 through 1994, Times writers used it only four times, always in reference to spoiled food. But starting in 1995, “sell-by” began to be used metaphorically, to refer to a person or idea past its prime. For example, Elaine Showalter wrote in the Times last December, “Intellectuals and professors who write for a general audience are always valuable, but the idea of the ‘public intellectual’ as a specific role is now well past its sell-by date.” That was one of eight metaphorical uses in the paper in 2003, compared with just two referring to foodstuffs. I would say that qualifies it as a cliché, and a fairly pretentious one at that.

Another phrase that started across the pond and is almost always used metaphorically is “at the end of the day,” an equivalent of the American “when all is said and done.” A couple of years of overuse sucked all the life out of it, and now no self-respecting American writer would perpetrate it. A LexisNexis search reveals that it’s still quite popular in the U.K., however.

“Go missing,” “sell-by date,” and “end of the day” paved the way for the Briticisms of the moment – ”run-up” or “lead-up,” meaning the period of time preceding a particular event. The length and awkwardness of my definition proves the utility of the compound nouns. But as with “go missing,” their widespread adoption had to wait for a news story that needed them. Such an entry point has come in the last few months, with a batch of stories investigating happenings in Britain and the United States in the run-up to the Iraq war.

That has given writers the license to use the terms in virtually any context, and they have proved up to the task. On the same day recently, the Los Angeles Times referred to Bill Bradley’s “run-up to the 2000 Democratic nomination fight,” and USA Today predicted that The Passion of the Christ “should do well during the run-up to Easter.”

I have noticed ever more recondite terms in the press. Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker recently talked about the time when Gertrude Stein “moved house” – ”move house” being an exact equivalent to the American “move,” with the advantage of removing any possible ambiguity, being more emphatic, and sounding more British. In his review of Jayson Blair’s recent book in the same magazine, Nicholas Lemann refers to “the bits we’ve all been waiting for.” What a Yank would traditionally say is “the parts we’ve all been waiting for.” (The online magazine Slate now has a regular feature called “The Juicy Bits.”) Several weeks ago on National Public Radio, a correspondent described Roy Disney’s assessment of the Walt Disney Corporation’s profitable year: “not a renewable resource, just kind of a one-off based on some box-office hits.” “One-off” is a very British noun meaning a one-time thing. I read a movie review last week in which a performance was referred to as “spot-on.” Writing in the Times in March, Bryan Miller broke a barrier when he referred to coming across a “brilliant new map.” The b-word had traditionally been used in the United States only in movie, book, and other arts reviews as a hackneyed alternative to “really, really good.” In Britain, it’s an all-purpose adjective for anything you like a lot.

It’s hard to pinpoint the cause of the use of all these Briticisms. Anglophilia hardly seems to be rampant at the moment. Perhaps the success of BBC America is a factor, or maybe the importation of British editors like Tina Brown and Anna Wintour a decade ago is finally trickling down. But I wouldn’t underestimate the eternal appeal of sounding classy without seeming pretentious. The gathering storm of Briticisms would seem to provide a perfect opportunity.

At this point, the trend is moving beyond journalism, and to terms that (unlike “go missing” and “run-up”) have perfectly good American counterparts. In his campaign for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about having “a” (not “some” or “a cup of”) coffee. A visiting friend of mine talked of “booking” (not reserving) a hotel room. David Letterman recently made fun of Oprah Winfrey’s saying that she couldn’t appear on his show because she was “on holiday” – what was wrong, he wondered, with “vacation”? A friend has taken to saying, “I’ll ring you” instead of “phone you” or “call you up.” From various sources, I have heard repeated uses of “sack” (fire), “row” (argument), and “chat up” (talk to, usually in a flirtatious way). Briticisms all: Together they constitute a cultural equivalent of De Vries’s poseur.

I’m afraid I can’t resist the inevitable conclusion, so here goes: Briticisms have passed their sell-by date, and the odor (or should I say odour) is getting a bit rank.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of journalism at the University of Delaware and the author, most recently, of The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, published this month by HarperCollins


Wednesday, June 16th, 2004

This image was constructed very quickly to illustrate a point I made over at the Cranbrook forum.

When I get a minute I’ll tart it up and explain exactly what it means, but to put it briefly:

There is a theory of knowledge that suggests we move through four distinct phases, from unconscious ignorance (I didn’t know I didn’t know something – like this theory, for example!), to conscious ignorance (now I know I don’t know about this theory but I’m gonna learn more), then conscious knowledge (ah, now I know about it!) and finally unconscious knowledge (I apply it all the time but I don’t think about it when I do).

For a teacher it is important because if you attempt to, for example, teach design theory through practice (as many of us do) there is a danger that we may think that students have “got it” when in fact they haven’t because they haven’t even started on that little journey. So in critiquing a double page spread we art direct a student towards a solution that “works” but unless we teach them why it works there is no guarantee they will do so again without our supervision. And by focussing on the product, rather than the process, we keep students in the first two quadrants of the square when in fact we want them at least in quadrant three.

Not a very good explanation, sorry – I’ll try and do better when I get a minute or three!

Probe rules out Iraq-9/11 links

Wednesday, June 16th, 2004

BBC NEWS | World | Americas | Probe rules out Iraq-9/11 links
: “The commission investigating the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US has found no ‘credible evidence’ that Iraq helped al-Qaeda carry them out.

The statement was published before the bipartisan commission began the final two-day public session.

It contradicts Monday’s remarks by the US vice-president about Saddam Hussein ‘long-established ties’ with al-Qaeda.”

So Rumsfeld will be resigning, I presume…

Cheat’s guide to Joyce’s Ulysses

Wednesday, June 16th, 2004

Today is the 100th anniversary of “Bloomsday”, an event in Jame’s Joyce’s Ulysses.

Strangely enough, while walking into work today I was thinking about books I haven’t read that I probably should have. Recently I blitzed Amazon for things like To Kill A Mockingbird and Catch 22, Lord of the Flies and The Wind in the Willows. I read Mockingbird (wow) and A Clockwork Orange (er…) but that’s as far as I’ve got (you should see the pile of books I have to read this summer!). So on the walk this morning I was wondering what else to add to the list, just to do my bit to keep Amazin afloat, you understand.

The BBC did us all a service last year by coming up with The Big Read. I’m no fan of “top 100” lists, but this one is quite useful, particularly as I have actually read a lot of them so can feel quite smug! Some of them are controversial (although I’m a Pratchett fan I’m not sure I’d feature him so heavily), and some downright questionable, but a list’s a list.

One that’s on there is Ulysses of course, and I might give it a go, maybe with a few pints of Guinness, just to say I have.

But what’s this? Spotted over on the BBC News web site (obviously a budding comedy writer in their building!) is a Cheat’s guide to Joyce’s Ulysses. Having read this, I actually think I want to tackle the book, and may go off now and get a copy.

But click on the link and read what others have said – there are some real philistines out there, prepared to dismiss something just because they don’t like it or without even trying it! You wouldn’t catch me doing that. Oh no.


The first three chapters introduce would-be writer Stephen Dedalus, familiar to Joyce readers from his earlier novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

On the morning of 16 June 1904, Stephen leaves the disused watchtower he shares with “stately, plump Buck Mulligan”, vowing never to return.

After teaching at a nearby school he talks to an ageing master who gives him a letter to deliver to the offices of a Dublin newspaper.

He then goes for a long walk on the beach that gives him plenty of time to ponder his literary aspirations and dead mother fixation.


Jewish advertising salesman Leopold Bloom buys a kidney, then returns home to 7 Eccles Street and has it for breakfast. He then defecates. Upstairs Molly, his unfaithful opera singer wife, waits for him to leave so she can entertain her lover.


Bloom attends a funeral at Glasnevin Cemetery, his symbolic encounter with death mirroring Odysseus’s descent into Hades. It’s a real barrel of laughs.



Bloom and Stephen almost meet in a chapter peppered with tabloid-style headlines.


It’s lunchtime, so Bloom stops at Davy Byrne’s “moral pub” for a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy. He then pays a call to the National Library where he overhears Stephen sounding off about Shakespeare.


Lots of short episodes. Lots of different characters. All connected by a Vice-Regal parade from one side of town to the other.


In a chapter full of song – Joyce’s allusion to Homer’s deadly Sirens – Bloom narrowly avoids meeting Molly’s lover, concert promoter Blazes Boylan.


Bloom has an argument with a pub boor whose blinkered anti-Semitism mirrors Homer’s one-eyed Cyclops. He exits, closely followed by a cake tin.


As evening falls, Bloom sees two young girls on the beach and masturbates in a chapter written in the florid style of a romantic penny-dreadful.


Stephen and Bloom meet at last in a maternity hospital in a chapter whose structure is meant to represent both the nine months of pregnancy and the birth of the English language. And they say this book is hard.



(horrorstruck) Blimey, this looks like heavy going.


No kidding! There’s over 100 pages of this stuff, all written in the style of a play script. But all you need to know is that Bloom follows Stephen to a brothel where they have lots of freaky hallucinations.


A weary Bloom takes Stephen to a cabman’s shelter where they listen to the ramblings of a tattooed sailor who makes little or no senzzzzzzz


Q. What happens next?

A. Bloom and Stephen walk back to Eccles Street. Bloom offers Stephen a bed for the night but Stephen refuses and leaves. Bloom goes to bed. The section is written in a question-and-answer format like a religious catechism.


yes Molly Bloom sits awake in bed yes and remembers her youth in Gibraltar yes and her many sexual partners yes in one unbroken stream of consciousness yes and recalls the day she yes gave herself to Bloom while munching some heavily symbolic seed cake yes

(The 35-page chapter consists of just seven sentences. The final words are: “…and yes I said yes I will Yes.”)

Human Need – A Curriculum Model?

Monday, June 14th, 2004

Yesterday I used Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Need to suggest a way in which advertising works.

While writing that post I remembered that three years ago I used Maslow during a teaching seminar I was giving to colleagues teaching a Foundation course in Art and Design. The question we were discussing was “how do we keep students on the course, motivated, and attending regularly?”. I suggested that some of the reasons for poor attendance etc could be identified using Maslow – studios needed to feel comfortable and safe, the course needed to offer something they felt they currently lacked, the way the cohort was grouped needed to avoid making students feel threatened and so on.

It was a “top of the head” suggestion that actually went down well with those in attendance. The logic is plain to see – address base physiological needs first and then move on to the growth needs. I think many courses go straight for the growth needs, often leaving students floundering. The technique is sometimes known as GOFO – Go Off and Find Out (or FOFO, which I’ll let you translate). Ideally, of course, we want courses to facilitate growth, but what we do is miss out the “facilitation” bit, simply setting projects with no clear aim other than to fill a portfolio.

Looking again at Maslow I began to think that maybe it offers a skeleton of a curriculm model. The Bauhaus model looked primarily at the content of the curriculum:

But not so much the shape. In the UK we have “level descriptors” that suggest the cognitive level that should be aimed for at the end of each year of a higher education course, and subject benchmark statements that attempt to identify what different academic subjects are “about” (the art and design benchmark statement is here) but I’m wondering if Maslow suggests a purpose for education that avoids discussions of the curriculum content. I know people might get upset at suggesting content is not important but it seems there is so much argument about what should be taught, we don’t get round to discussing why, and even then it’s only for the good of the subject, not the good of the people.

So maybe our courses should be set up so that we first of all address students’ deficiency needs and do this not just in terms of skills and knowledge but in terms of how the courses are delivered and how the environment is set up. Then as the course progresses we introduce modules and projects that move up the scale. I’ve seen, for example, the deeper understanding that comes if students are allowed to teach other students what they know, or help one another on a project.

Anyway, just a thought to float on a sunny Monday morning. I might come back to it soon. Today, however, I have to catch a train into London. It’s quite depressing – we nearly beat France last night in the football, only to let two goals in during injury time. Ironically, there was no crowd trouble in Portugal, where the tournament is being held, but there were riots here! Even in my street, kids ran up and down kicking cars and generally acting like imbeciles. I just had another beer and switched over – far more sensible.

Effective Advertising Makes Human Connections

Sunday, June 13th, 2004 “The Magazine Publishers of America awarded TBWA\Chiat\Day the $100,000 Grand Prize Kelly Award for its Apple iPod ‘Silhouette’ campaign that shows people dancing with iPods against brightly colored backgrounds.
‘It demonstrated to people that you don’t have to spend a lot of time talking about features to get people to make a human connection with your product,’ said Mike Hughes, president of The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., and a Kelly judge.”

Advertisements work by linking an otherwise “meaningless” object to a human need or desire. An iPod “means” nothing – it’s just a device for storing music. Baked beans “mean” nothing – they’re just cheap and wholesome foodstuff. Shampoo “means” nothing. Cars “mean” nothing.

Judith Williamson in Decoding Advertisements (Amazon UK link | Amazon USA link | Amazon Canada link) describes advertisements as using a “referent system” of signifiers, borrowing signs from the “real world” such as sex, love, power, and grafting them on to otherwise meaningless objects.

So shampoos are sold as being as good, as satisfying as sex. Baked beans offer cheap and instantaneous family happiness. Cars offer a feeling of power, freedom, envy from neighbours, admiration from beautiful women, and security for your children.

It is those things we crave, not the products. But the products offer us easy access to them.

A witty punchline, or a well art-directed advertisement are not enough without that human connection, and it only comes with human understanding.

Abraham Maslow devised a hierarchy of human needs in which humans are motivated firstly by the need to remove certain deficiencies from our lives, then the need to grow.

The deficiency needs are

  1. Physiological needs (hunger, thirst, comfort etc)
  2. Safety and security
  3. The need to belong, to love and be loved
  4. Self-esteem (achieve something, be good at something, be approved of etc)

We tackle each of these needs in turn, satisfying one before we can attend to the next.

Then come the “growth needs”. These are:

  1. Cognitive (we need to know, to understand, to explore)
  2. Aesthetic needs (the need for symmetry, order and beauty)
  3. Self-actualisation (to realise our own potential)
  4. Self transcendence (to connect to something beyond ourselves – to help others to realise their own potential)

Advertising works by addressing these needs. They either point out the deficiencies in our lives (advertisements for debt consolidation, life insurance, home and personal security devices relate to the first two needs; car advertisements to the second two) or they offer us a glimpse of personal growth. The latter is rarer and more difficult. Microsoft address the cognitive need in much of their consumer advertising, but it often comes across as preachy.

But with our consumerist society becoming savvy to the workings of advertising, and our base physiological needs almost sated, advertising will increasingly need to find ways to appeal to our desire for personal growth if it is to continue working. This will require the development of evermore sophisticated visual communication and, with it, evermore sophisticated curricula.