Archive for December, 2004

Disasters Emergency Committee

Wednesday, December 29th, 2004

The Cost of Christmas

Friday, December 24th, 2004

According to today’s Independent Britain spent more on cosmetics this Christmas (£4.2 billion) than the UK’s annual third world aid budget (£4.14 billion).

There’s not a lot I can say about that.


Thursday, December 23rd, 2004

I mentioned a while back that I write music (that should be in inverted commas I think!) and since then I’ve had, ooh, two requests to hear some of it. So…

Apart from ‘Flying’ these are AAC files (m4a) so you need to have the latest Quicktime installed or iTunes.

Bear in mind I’m a self-taught ‘composer’ so be kind with your criticism 🙂 They’re not really intended for public consumption

Two Piers

These are two pieces named after Brighton’s two piers. The Palace Pier is still open and is covered in amusement arcades and fairground rides, hence the piece is quite lively and repetitive. It needs a lot of work, in particular a few key changes. I like the little fugue-ish thing about three or four minutes in and the last two minutes or so when the mood changes completely.

The West Pier was closed in the mid 1970s but not until it had starred in a couple of films: Brighton Rock and Oh! What A Lovely War! Just after I moved to Brighton it blew down in a storm and then last year burnt down as well. A real shame as it was a beautiful building. There are still plans to restore it. You can see pictures of the storm damage and the fire in progress on my site.

The West Pier movement started life as a Kyrie, which is the first part of a choral mass – I’d planned to put it forward for a choir I sang in but was too shy to let people know I’d written something, so never did.

Both pieces were written in the mid to late 1990s and I’ve been working on them on and off ever since, usually a few tweaks here and there. I’m getting a bit bored with them now.

Palace Pier is arranged for string quartet, but the computer sythesised sounds are slightly grating.

I’ve arranged West Pier for wind quintet and quite like the sound.

Click these links to hear:

Palace Pier

West Pier

Bits and bobs

A Minute Of Your Time

Just a bit of silliness. This piece actually lasts slightly more than a minute, because when someone says they want a minute of your time, it always over-runs.

Decisions, decisions

Originally written in 1992 I think, inspired by my girlfriend of the time who was practicing a piece by Francis Poulenc called Mouvements Perpetual for a piano recital. I called it Decisions, Decisions last year when a student of mine kept emailing me every few minutes with a new idea for her dissertation subject but would keep returning to the original idea – which is what the piece does. Seemed quite funny at the time.


I’ve already posted this. I quite like this but the arrangement is awful. It’s based on an overlapping seven-note tune – I think the technical term for this is ‘organum’ and dates from plainchant in the middle ages, but I could be wrong. Ocer each repetition of the sequence is a different type of melody.

I called it ‘Flying’ for an ex-girlfriend who moved to the other side of the world (I have that effect). Apparently she got into the habit of listening to it while getting ready in the morning as it lasted just the right length of time. That’s what I liked about her – she didn’t take hours to get ready 😉

I wanted to arrange this piece and make it the third movement of ‘Two Piers’ the idea being that it’s supposed to evoke the sound of walking from the West Pier to the Palace Pier on a Saturday night – the different tunes being the equivelant of the different sounds coming from all the clubs on the sea front. Maybe I will one day but I don’t think it’ll sound right.

Changing minds

Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

I was thinking about the little ‘catchphrase’ thing I’ve got at the top of my blog – ‘I reserve the right to change my mind at any time’. That wasn’t just pretention; partly it was so that nobody in years to come could quote me as believing something I no longer happen to believe but also because I happen to think that it’s incumbent on all academics to try to change their own minds before they can hope to change anyone else’s.

I know I sometimes say things in a very strident tone but often I’m arguing with myself, playing devil’s advocate. I’ve noticed over the past few years that academia is a far less imaginative place than it should be, and I don’t think you could find more closed minds if you tried. If you try to start a hypothetical discussion, or ask someone to consider a radical (or even non-radical) alternative to their own point of view, it often results in a shouting match and ostracising.

I think that’s what worries me about the book on Visual Communication I’m writing (chapter 1 finished and off today). I’m outlining some theories that are controversial (apparently one rather well known designer has already taken umbridge) but need to be aired, even if the end result is they’re soundly beaten. So long as there’s a reasonable debate I don’t mind; I change my mind all the time.

One of my first years changed my mind the other week – not deliberately though. During a discussion they said something in opposition to a point I made and it festered with me. It wasn’t so much that I found I was wrong and they were right, but it opened up an intriguing middle view. I like it when that happens, it’s like things clicking into place – you can almost feel it.

But with publication you’re preserving your words for quite some time. To give an example, I referred one of my third years yesterday to a classic text, Subculture by Dick Hebdige. It’s about three decades old now but is still in print and is seen as the classic text on the subject.

Problem is, the author later wrote saying he’d changed his mind on a lot of the things he’d said in the original volume. But no one seems to remember that, and his original ideas are still taught even though he himself has doubts about them.

Why they don’t bring out a revised edition I’ll never know…

More Sustainable Design Discussion [updated]

Monday, December 20th, 2004

James, one of my third year students, has launched his own blog and posed some questions on sustainability in graphic design. Head on over and add your thoughts, whichever side of the argument you take.


[updated to correct the URL! What a plonker I am…]

Did I Miss Something?

Sunday, December 19th, 2004

North by Northwest was on TV this afternoon. It’s one of those classic films that when you stop and think about it you realise you’ve never seen. Actually, I think I have seen this many years ago as a child, or more likely I’ve seen so many spoofs of it and clips that I think I’ve seen it.

Anyway, I had planned to go to the gym this afternoon to be ritually humiliated by all the people who really don’t need to be there, and appalled by the lack of shame by those for whom it is far too late – both groups should be banned from wearing Lycra. It’s quite funny the place is called LA Fitness as it counjures up images of tanned and rippling bodies but it’s far from coming close (although in comparison to me, maybe that’s what everyone looks like).

But I thought what the hell, I haven’t vegged in front of a Sunday afternoon movie for years so why not?

It’s quite an impressive movie, well-directed (some English bloke I think…) and unexpectedly funny. The sequence where Cary Grant phones his mother had me laughing out loud. Great score too.

The colour palette of the film intrigued me – lots of greys. That got me wondering – was grey a fashionable colour in the US at the time? Or was it so that the few bright colours stood out more (colour films still being quite new)? Or was it so the film looked better in black and white? Or was it simply an art director’s choice? Whatever -it was quite stylish. The UN building looked spectacular, particularly the interior matte painting.

With commercials the film lasted two and a half hours, which is some commitment. Unlike a lot of films, my attention didn’t wane in the third act. I did get distracted as I tried to figure out who the President next to George Washington was on Mount Rushmore (Jefferson, I just found out).

But then it got to the final chase sequence on the monument, we get to the climax where Grant is calling for the baddie to help him climb up from the edge. It looks like he’s going to help but then he just treads on his fingers – and is shot. We cut to a crowd up at the top of the mountain where we hear VanDamme (presumably he’s been captured but it’s so quick you can’t tell) and then Grant leans down and says ‘Take my hand’ and there’s this cut to him and the heroine sitting on a train having been married. The end.

That’s it. Possibly the worst ending to a movie I’ve ever seen and such a disappointment… I can’t believe that’s how it was supposed to end. Very poor.

Oh well. I’m trying to see a lot of films over the next year. I don’t go to the cinema much (no fun on your own) so I’m a bit behind. I caught Goldmember, Hulk and The Core the other weekend thanks to the movie channel I’ve just subscribed to. All rather bad, I thought. I’d enjoyed the other Austin Powers movies, so was expecting better. Hulk – blimey, what happened there? Couldn’t make their mind up whether to be corny or serious, I think. And if I hadn’t just claimed North by Northwest to have the worst ending ever, I might give the accolade to Hulk. After all that chasing there’s a bang and then we’re in south America. Talking of Lycra, where did he get those super-stretchy shorts?

The Core – oh dear. So bad on many many levels, not least of which the physics (so this guy with no research grant has managed to invent a machine that slices through rock like a hot knife through butter and a metal that gets more resistant to heat the more pressure it’s under (and he calls it ‘unobtanium’)? I know this is science fiction but please…

A wuestion kept popping up in my mind. In this movie we see Rome get wiped out, killer pigeons in Londond, San Francisco gets melted (just after surviving attacks by the Green Goblin and The Hulk if I’m not mistaken – what with that and the San Andreas fault I’d suggest it’s not the best place to live, people). If memory serves, Paris got flattened in that movie with the asteroid. So what it is with natural disasters just happening to pick famous, densely populated places?

In my attempt to catch up with movies I really should have seen but don’t think I have I signed up for’s DVD rental service. £7.99 for four DVDs a month and no return dates. It’s an attempt to save money as because I’m really bad at returning DVDs to libraries I often buy movies on DVD (it’s cheaper, believe me!) Oddly enough, rather than put all the classics on my list I’ve started with Shrek 2 and Spiderman 2. Well, it’s Christmas – I can be worthy in the new year.

Overseas Postings

Friday, December 17th, 2004

I have to say I’m quite tempted to work abroad for a bit. I’ve been thinking about the USA or Canada. (New Zealand and Australia would be favourite but have you seen the size of the spiders they’ve got down there? There’s no newspaper big enough to squash those buggers!)

Canada appeals more than the US I think – just about everyone I know who’s been seems to go on and on about it and the other day I caught a TV programme in which two Brits went property hunting and were turning down huge houses with mountain views that cost a pittance compared with what I’m paying in rent for my one bedroom flat (£600 per month in case you were wondering). I wouldn’t say no to the USA of course – except I’d worry about health and dental care (contrary to popular myth we Brits do actually have dentists…)

But apart from a job in Savannah that appeared last year (far too hot for my Anglo-Saxon complexion) nothing that’s appeared has applied to me because of the USA’s employment laws (how is it we’re over-run by Americans over here? Not that I mind – just seems a bit unfair 😉

But today some jobs in Toronto appeared and though I’m not an ideal fit qualifications-wise (no PhD – like I can afford to do one of those, I’m tempted to apply as I think my teaching and publication record is good, and it’s easier to emigrate to Canada to teach.

But two or three things stand in the way of jobs in the USA and Canada. The first is the need to see samples of students’ work – it’s the students’ work, not mine so how should that help me get a job? Anyway I teach away from the studio now so it’s even less relevant. Minor point, and one I haven’t got a problem arguing.

The second is a desire to see examples of my work. I haven’t practised for five years so have no portfolio – when I moved in to teaching I moved all the way. Plus as I’ve said before I happen to think the quality of your design work has no direct relationship to your abilities as a teacher (I mean, my design is mediocre to say the least – god, I hope the same isn’t true of my teaching!)

But the third one is the killer and probably says a lot about the difference between the UK and north America: you have to send three letters of reference with your application. Well that’s it right there. Can’t do, sorry.

In the UK it’s traditional to apply for jobs in absolute secrecy and to invent a sick relative so that you have a convenient funeral to go to on the day of the interview. Applying for a job is often seen as disloyal – I remember in my first job I was in a dilemma about whether to accept a post in Liverpool and asked my boss (who I thought I could trust) for some advice. A few weeks later after turning down the other job I had my annual review and was berated for my lack of commitment!

It’s a lot different in schools over here – friends of mine who are teachers are quite open about going for other jobs and references are sought before interviews, and replacement teachers brought in to cover the day. There it’s accepted as part of a teacher’s career development that they will apply for jobs and, occasionally, get them.

But in post-school education while it’s freer than industry there’s still an element of risk involved. For one thing if you apply for a position that your current employer thinks is too high for you there’s a risk they’ll see you as overambitious. Secondly if you don’t get it there’s a risk your current employer will question your judgement and wonder what it is the other people spotted about you that they should be worried about. Thirdly in an age of short term contracts (my teaching contract is termly, my admin contract is renewed annually) there’s an added risk that they might just view you as not really committed to the job and let you go, job or no job.

Fourthly, what employer is going to give you a glowing reference while you’re still employed by them? It stops them being able to get rid of you later. It’s just not done. In this country, references are only provided (and only sought) after the job is offered – you have to suspect anyone who goes to an interview with glowing letters of recommendation 😉

The fifth reason is a practical one. Given it sometimes takes months just to get paid, what’s the likelihood I could coordinate three references to be sent directly to the university by the deadline?

Well I might consider Canada and canvass for references after the Christmas break (I know a couple of ex students who’ll write a testimonial – that should help).

But it’s cold there, right?

I may not like the heat but I’m not keen on the cold either. Even though Toronto is at a similar latitude as where I used to live, we’ve got the Gulf Stream to keep us warm – that’s why there’s no polar bears in the Lake District over here and why, contrary to the Dickensian images you may see of traditional English Christmases, it actually only snows very rarely in the south (although that’s probably more to do with global warming than the Gulf Stream – although I’m not sure Mr Bush would agree*).

No, what I need is somewhere more temperate, that doesn’t want a PhD, nor to see any of my students’ work, or indeed any of mine, and is happy to offer me a job without references.

What are the odds?

* And comments like that, of course, are another reason I’ll never get a job in the USA. I bet I’m on some database somewhere…

The Complete Works

Friday, December 17th, 2004

BBC Radio 3 is planning to devote an entire week’s schedules to broadcasting every piece written by Beethoven.

This is an interesting idea – I first got into classical music through a box set of Beethoven symphonies on LP that I bought with my first student grant in 1987 – £10, quite a bargain (but 1/7 of my grant so maybe not). It was something of a leap of faith; I was of the opinion that as I was about to become an art student I’d better start being arty, so I grew my hair long, taught myself to play guitar and started listening to Beethoven! God I laugh at myself sometimes.

I quickly became engrossed in the third, seventh and ninth symphonies – particularly the second movements of the 3rd and 7th. Reading the accompanying notes I found myself wondering if the people analysing the music weren’t missing the point of it and I think that was the starting point of my scepticism of the sort of language which is used when describing art, design, music and so on.

I bought a book to teach myself basic harmony, and a biography of Beethoven and eventually studied for a degree in music and history through the Open University (i.e. part time at home), which included a module on Beethoven. Doing this I began to realise that there was a point to analysis and an objective explanation for why music ‘works’ – but also that knowing the rules doesn’t mean you wil be able to do it. (I think this is what Matthew Mulder was getting at in his response to my design education post from many moons ago). The best proof of this is my own music, some of which I might post here soon – pretty dreadful stuff but not bad for someone who’s essentially self-taught!

It’s funny how music links so closely to design, and how my growing love of music led me into teaching and to many of my theories on teaching. I might have to think some more about that.

But the ‘everything Beethoven wrote’ sequence is an interesting idea that I’m in several minds about. I had an argument (too strong a word perhaps) with a student recently because I was highly critical about an exhibition of typography I’d seen at the London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing). They had about 200 typographers on the wall with photos, potted biographies and samples of their work. I wondered how those 200 had come to be chosen, what was implied about the people who weren’t included, and the fundamental question: so what? They’re typographers – big deal. (It was during a discussion on graphic authorship and I was trying to provoke a response). This student said something along the lines of ‘it’s important to learn who the leading typographers are so you know what typefaces to choose’. I asked if the choice shouldn’t be made based on appropriateness to the job at hand, but this student continued that if she knew which typographers were respected she would look up all their typefaces; ‘so you’d exclude all the other possibilities?’ I asked. I also wondered if she believed that every typeface produced by a ‘famous’ typographer was bound to be good, and whether she’d be able to form her own opinion or be led by concensus to rank the designer and the typeface.

I can’t remember the details of the conversation and I’m not sure I’m putting it across properly but I was in many ways arguing with myself and my own double standards: heaven knows I’d be delighted if I were ever included in a list of the great and the good, and come publication day I’ll be standing in Borders pointing to my book saying ‘I wrote that!’

But I also applied exactly this student’s thinking to my exploration of music and started with Beethoven because I’d received the opinion he was great; and I listened to the fifth symphony because it was famous, then I listened to the rest of the canon of his nine symphonies. The same with Mahler.

I suppose canons give us a starting point, a way into a large field, but they also stifle us and lead us to value things that actually aren’t that valuable.

Take for example a story yesterday that Steve Jobs has been given permission to demolish a mansion designed by George Washington Smith despite protests from preservationists. Apparently the building is not a great example of the guy’s work and is run down. Should it be preserved or not? What are the criteria? Is it worth it just because it was designed by someone who did better things? Should we only preserve the artistic peaks or celebrate the whole body of works? And why focus on the designer in the first place? If the building’s useless as a house shouldn’t it be pulled down to make way for a better one? (I speak as a conservationist, by the way – in the UK we’re still tearing down our architectural heritage believe it or not).

The Beethoven celebration is openly playing all his works without a pretence that everything is a masterpiece. One spokesperson said that to appreciate the ‘hills’ you have to hear the ‘valleys’, and there is much in Beethoven’s output which is frankly rubbish.

Personally I think that’s a healthy and rare attitude to take because we very often rank people by their highest achievements conveniently forgetting their otherwise average or below-par work. The design canon, like the musical one, is full of ‘one hit wonders’ and only serves to highlight forgotten genius…

[I’m thinking out loud here so forgive me. I’m actually writing on this subject at the moment for the closing pages of my book and I’m aware that I could contradict myself – actually, I’m happy to do it, to work things out publicly; but because you are only ever judged selectively (as I’ve said) I could say something in print that I later change my mind about, but forever be quoted as the guy who said the thing I no longer think. If you get what I mean!]

I had a meeting today about illustrations for the book and I originally asked for a ‘rogues gallery’ of the great and the good to go on one page to illustrate the idea of a canon, and opposite a similar gallery of completely anonymous designers who produce the things we interact with daily – the playbills, the money off vouchers, the store point of sale material, the catalogues. I think they’re the real design heroes, and the sort of designers that students are most likely to end up being. But we give them this mythical view of heroism, don’t we? It’s unreal.

Anyway the idea was squashed, partly because the publisher doesn’t want to insult the ‘rogues’ and also because, ironically, we’ve interviewed a couple of them for the book! Ha – double standards indeed…

I’d like to mount an exhibition called ‘10% off’ – so called because it would celebrate ‘ordinary’ graphic design , like your 10% off promotional materials that you see around you, but also because it would ignore the ‘top’ 10% of designers, the ‘heroes’, and focus on the rest. Could be the title of my next book and I can apply my own double standards to that as well 😉

Well that was a rambling post – it was only intended to be a couple of lines long.

For what it’s worth, Shostakovitch is my new love – the 5th, 10th and 11th symphonies, the two violin concertos and two cello concertos… to die for.

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | TV and Radio | Radio 3 plans Beethoven marathon: “BBC Radio 3 is clearing the airwaves to make way for the entire works of Beethoven next year.

Listeners will be able to hear everything from his major symphonies to lesser-known folk songs over six consecutive days and nights in June.

For the first time in the network’s history, schedules will be entirely devoted to one theme.

Radio 3 controller Roger Wright said: ‘Our listeners have huge loyalty, curiosity – and stamina!'”

My First Amazon Moment [updated]

Thursday, December 16th, 2004

Ooh what an interesting experience. A book I’ve been contributing to has appeared on Amazon etc.

Sadly, my name appears to have been missed off, although it appears on the WH Smith listing and at Blackwell’s Bookshop, so no doubt it’ll soon be corrected on Amazon. I hope. I came to the project late so it’s not surprising.

Update: have updated the details and I’m now listed. It’s like the thrill you get when the first box of leaflets you designed comes back from the printer…

If you’re in the USA you can place an order now (bloody good price compared with the UK – I’m going to have to buy my copies from the US!):

If you are in the UK, use this link to purchase More Than A Name, although I don’t think they’re actually accepting orders yet.

Mind you, it’s not out yet and won’t be until June so nearer the time I’ll do a proper blurb. My own book should be out about that time too, from the same publisher. Can’t wait…

In the meantime, back to the second draft. I’m trying to find a simple way of explaining ‘hegemony’… I need a cup of tea.

You Are Here

Wednesday, December 15th, 2004

In The Restaurant At The End of the Universe (what do you mean you haven’t read it? Or heard it? Look it up on Amazon right now) Zaphod Beeblebrox is sentenced to be punished by being placed in the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ (see quotation below), a room which projects a scale map of the universe with an infintessimally small arrow and the words ‘you are here’ – the point being it makes you realise how utterly insignificant you are. In the original radio broadcast you hear the blood-curdling screams of the previous occupant before Beeblebrox is marched in…

And then he comes out quite unscathed, to the surprise of his captors. Turns out he was as important as he believed he was after all.

Anyway, I entered a web version of the Total Perspective Vortex today. I took a look at the PubSub LinkRank site and discovered, based on the number of other sites linking to me, that I am ranked 1,039,868 on the web – down (get this) from just 950,000th a month ago.

Check your own ranking out by clicking on the link and replacing the last part of the URL with your own domain. I can see the next few weeks getting a little obsessive…

The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses. Since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation – every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.

The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.

Trin Tragula – for that was his name – was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot. She would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.

“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.

And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex, just to show her. Into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she haw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.

To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot have is a sense of proportion.

Douglas Adams

UK readers click here to buy from