Je Suis Charlie

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Four cartoonists are gunned down. Cartoonists. People who make funny drawings. Very dangerous people, cartoonists – if you an enemy of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – the values upon which our open society are built.

That most wonderful of cartoonists Gerald Scarfe has said this: “I don’t think cartoons in any way alter anything that happens in the world.” With the greatest of respect I have to disagree with him. As a teenager in the early 1970s trying to make sense of a world defined by Vietnam and pub bombings, I found his cartoons in the paper that fell onto our doormat every Sunday hugely provoking and engaging.

And while the pomposity and brutality of Thatcherism destroyed jobs, communities and people in the 1980s, it was Steve Bell’s Maggie’s Farm and If cartoon strips that gave the left confidence that while it could no longer win elections, it still had the best jokes.

The great thing about political cartoons is that they can present visually views and ideas that – if they were to be committed to the printed word – could easily result in litigation. Political artists exercising their comic liberty (which is what cartoonists are) have a skill possessed by few others – to look through the masks worn by politicians and others who exercise power and draw what they see. This form of artistic practice is not only in itself a good thing – but essential to an open society and to our democratic process. Cartoonists are artists who look hard at those who wield (and often abuse) power – providing through great visual economy an eloquent and powerful argument as to why they are wrong – and how they are vulnerable.

This is what the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo did supremely well. And that is why today’s events are such a dreadful blow to those values we hold dear. But through solidarity, love and comic liberty, those values will endure. We must hold on to our faith. And our sense of humour.

Learning from Vanilla Ink

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So Vanilla Ink – the unique Dundee based jewellery start-up incubator and general creative powerhouse – is to shut up shop in the city; for a while at least. Kate Pickering has driven forward Vanilla Ink from an initial hazy notion of what she would have liked to have seen supporting her when she graduated as a jeweller a decade ago, through to being the creative exemplar cited in just about every talk and article about Dundee’s creative economy. Well, in mine anyway.

For Dundee this is an important moment – perhaps more important than we recognise, given the significance of design to the regional economy and to the future that we are seeking to create for ourselves. Personally it’s significant, in that I have worked with Kate in a very modest way over the last few years to support her in building her vision. Some reflection is therefore in order about what we can learn from the Vanilla Ink achievement, where it leaves us, and – most importantly – how we build on the incredible legacy that Kate has provided us with.

What, then, has Vanilla Ink taught us? It would be easy to say that it all rests on the remarkable Ms Pickering of whom I am hugely proud. But as an educator I believe that individuals who do remarkable things stand as an inspiration to us all, and as such help us all to raise our game.

It’s about vision

Right from the start, Kate had a clear vision about what she wanted to create – a workshop space to enable jewellery graduates to develop their businesses, supported by mentors and a structured programme of support that would help them to develop the skills, confidence and knowledge to succeed in the future. That was it. Hers was a vision propelled by the passion she has for jewellery, for the city she had chosen to call her home – and most importantly for people.

It’s about people

It was a vision about how people could work together, support each other and make their own visions real. This has echoes of the idea of the “social expert” – in which craft expertise (or indeed any expertise) is indivisible from social interaction, from mentoring and co-operation. This is in contrast to the idea of the “antisocial expert” who is competitive and selfish with their knowledge. Kate exemplifies the qualities of the social expert, and has created a project centred around the sharing of skill, confidence and creative entrepreneurship. I believe that a sustainable and convivial future is dependent on people who are passionate and caring about other people.

Telling the story

Visions do not become concrete unless they are shared – and to do that their story has to be told. Right at the very start, Kate told that story a little uncertainly, a little falteringly. But the more she told it, the more her confidence came, and the more vivid became the telling. The vision was just the start – it was the story, the narrative, the placing of this idea within her own experience and expertise that made this project a viable proposition. In November 2011 she was one of those invited to speak at Dundee’s first ever Pecha Kucha. Watch her presentation below:

Build alliances

Innovative places require innovative communities, and building communities is the most vital activity, without which change simply does not happen. Again, this is part and parcel of being a social expert, and Gillian Easson’s success in building the Creative Dundee community is evidence of this. Kate was a pioneer (to my mind anyway) in using social media as a means of building a real community around Vanilla Ink, and connecting with others, such as Jane Gowans and Hayley Scanlan, to demonstrate a vibrant community of creative women entrepreneurs in Dundee. Her use of Kickstarter for the first Vanilla Ink cohort was a brilliant demonstration of what crowdfunding could do to generate support, community and finances to raise the ambitions and profile of the group. Indeed, Vanilla Ink was one of the first UK Kickstarter campaigns. Kickstarter was a means by which the City could get behind Vanilla Ink and show its collective support.

Creative leadership

“Mike, I’m going to initiate and organise the first ever Scottish jewellery week. What do you think?”  I thought she was possibly a bit unhinged, and if it went wrong, then it would go spectacularly wrong, but when you are a proven and respected creative leader then that’s not really on the agenda. Creative leadership means forever looking outward, not inward, looking for new opportunities, creating a focus for your ideas, and bringing people along to share in what you create. From initiating Vanilla Ink, then a creative festival to celebrate jewellery was the logical next step. Creative leadership is also about being unpopular when that is necessary, it’s about facing up to setbacks and having the confidence to move on. It is about being brave. These are qualities that she has developed, and that the emerging generation of new change makers can learn from.

Knowing when to quit

There’s a real art to quitting. And indeed a science. I teach my students “the meaning of life” at then end of one of my lectures (no honestly, I really do), and this is in part about knowing when to quit – or rather about knowing when to reinvent. As the inspirational Charles Handy says “The world keeps changing. It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and the ways which got you where you are, are seldom those that keep you there.” I have no doubt that Vanilla Ink could have just carried on in the same way, but the world does keep changing, the challenges shift, and new opportunities arise. This is linked to creative leadership, having an outward focus that constantly scans for new ways of developing and implementing vision.

 

Some lessons for Dundee…. be cool

Finally, a few lessons for Dundee. The creative industries are great. They can be transformative to regional economies and to the profile of a post-industrial city such as Dundee. They bring the allure of awards and celebrations, which of course cities love. But they have two other qualities: they are VERY fragile, and VERY mobile.

We are at a significant moment in our city’s development, which is overlain by some equally significant shifts in employment nationally and internationally. Scotland has a much improved rate of new business start-ups, but we have yet to see the kind of support for new businesses and for the self-employed that the RSA, NESTA and other organisations have been saying we need to see, and which I have been writing about for some time. It is time that the city and the country took the needs of our fragile but vital creative industries more seriously. This is not about asking for hand-outs or subsidy – rather the infrastructure, business support and mentoring that our Millennial-driven start-ups need.

Kate exemplifies Richard Florida’s idea of the creative class – these are the creative knowledge workers in fields as diverse as engineering, the theatre, life sciences, education and business start-ups that all economies demand to retain their dynamism. As Richard Florida says “In the future, they will determine how the workplace is organized, what companies will prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities will thrive or wither.” One key characteristic of the creative class is that it is highly mobile, lacking the traditional bonds and loyalties that formerly bound people to place.

When he was Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg wrote this in the Financial Times: “I have long believed that talent attracts capital far more effectively and consistently than capital attracts talent. The most creative individuals want to live in places that protect personal freedoms, prize diversity and offer an abundance of cultural opportunities. A city that wants to attract creators must offer a fertile breeding ground for new ideas and innovations…. Economists may not say it this way but the truth of the matter is: being cool counts.”

In Dundee we have made considerable progress, but we still have a fair way to go. I have yet to be convinced that the City truly understands the cultural dimensions of economic development, or indeed the needs of our fragile start-ups.

However, my belief is that by learning the lessons from initiatives such as Vanilla Ink, and strengthening the creative communities of Dundee, then we will continue to make progress. Vanilla Ink 2 Dundee will open up, and will take Kate’s vision into new territories. For this to happen we need new energies and ideas to join with hers. She showed us what was possible. Now let us build on that further and really put creativity to work in Dundee!

 

Craft on the new frontier

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How do we characterise craftmakers in the 21st century? Are the varied activities of making taking on a profound shift in response to globalisation, technological change and new cultures of making and consumption? Is making being transformed by an emergent “new industrial revolution”? These were some of the questions addressed by the Crafts Council’s Make:Shift event, held on 20/21 November in London and billed to “explore how advances in materials, processes and technologies are driving innovation in craft practice.”

As chair of three of the sessions, I found the conference inspiring, challenging and dazzling in the sheer diversity of practices and perspectives that were represented. Running alongside the event was the national Make:Shift:Do programme of open workshops, exhibitions and talks that dovetailed the London conference and places the discussions in a national context of making. In Dundee, Louise Valentine and Jo Bletcher put together an ambitious programme of practical workshops, a salon discussion event, and an exciting new exhibition of work from designers, makers and up-and-coming undergraduate students. For us, embedding Make:Shift within our teaching programme and culture was an opportunity we could not miss!

In the conference summing up I presented some initial ideas and reflections, which this post expands on. They are not offered as a definitive view, but as perhaps a starting point, and I would value comments on them. This is not intended as a summary of the conference, as that can be better gained from the conference website with the videos of the various sessions.

Empathy for process and people

Right at the start, Martina Margetts raised the critical question of how we define makers and making. The presentations and discussions of the event provided evidence that definitions are fluid and increasingly diverse. Early on in the conference, one participant described craft as “empathy for materials and process”. This certainly seemed to be reflected in a range of the practices presented and discussed. through an ‘empathetic engagement’ makers had discovered new values and explored the creative affordances of seaweed, loofas, industrial estates and advanced robotics. But empathy for the physical, technical aspect of craft is clearly an incomplete perspective. Empathy for people is critical. As one contributor said “technology is just a tool, that’s all – above all, it’s about exploring context”. The human context is the driving force, to produce work that has cultural relevance and resonance. This human context does not just concern the use and consumption of crafted objects and systems, but far more significantly its production – and perhaps this is where empathy is most necessary.

Collaborating through a trustful language of touch

From the opening keynote to the closing speech and through just about every presentation in between, Make:Shift highlighted a new spirit of collaborative working, and a passion for defining new languages to underpin and enable these collaborations. Roger Kneebone introduced the idea of reciprocal illumination as a way of understanding how we advance craft knowledge. The old teacher > student model of learning has been supplanted by the maker <> maker model of advancing mutually supportive practices. This has echoes of Richard Sennett’s notion of the social expert, and suggests a welcome advance from the conventional notions of how craft should be taught. It made me question how we could better and more explicitly embed reciprocal illumination in our craft courses. Collaboration requires communication, and Roger Kneebone also raised questions about how we develop languages of touch, and of how we value the eloquent voice of silence.

On the final morning of the conference, I asked participants on twitter what their key takeaway had been so far. Tony Quinn replied: “The link between language, skill, collaboration and trust to develop and sustain one’s practice and one’s community of practice”.

Twenty years ago, Crafts Council and other events presented craft as a very much more individualised and solitary practice. I will speculate on some of the factors that have shifted us more towards collaboration a little later.

The maker as DJ

Colleagues at the event from Benchmark tweeted that today’s maker has become a DJ. As co-inventor of the Rip + Mix ‘designer as DJ’ method of innovation in service design, this struck a chord. In many cases we could see where makers were mixing age-old craft knowledge with new knowledge and finding new contexts and applications for their outcomes. We could see evidence of this with Michael Eden’s ‘digital ceramics’, with the electro embroidery of Sarah Taylor and Sara Robertson and in the new hybrid lab described by Raymond Oliver. DJs are above all expert curators and – in a whole variety of ways – create wholly new experiences and sounds out of what they find. Lauren Bowker mixes insights and innovations from science to crafted wearable objects, Roger Kneebone finds harmonising elements from highly disparate craft sources, and Fi Scott discovers hidden values and processes in gaskets and sailmaking.

If we seriously view the modern maker as curator of technologies, materials, tools and practices, as much as an originator, then this places further demands on them as social experts and collaborators.

Farmers and cowboys/girls

Roger Kneebone raised the issue early on about the difference between scored and improvised performance. For a musician this places very different demands on them – as it does the craft maker. This caused me to think about different modes of craft practice, and to connect with an idea expressed recently by Brian Eno. In his view there are two types of creative practitioner: farmers and cowboys. The former has a patient and intimate relationship with the tools and materials of their practice, and has a wealth of learned knowledge and experience to draw upon. The latter works largely in new territories with far less knowledge and experience, and improvises with what is available to them: “I often think that art is divided into the musical Oklahoma: the farmer and the cowboy. So the farmer is the guy who finds a piece of territory, stakes it up, digs it and cultivates it – grows the land. The cowboy is the one who goes out and finds new territories.”

In my view, craft – or indeed any creative practice – requires both cowboys and farmers. A constant search for new territories could pull destructively at the bonds of community and sense of common purpose that reciprocal illumination demands, while the focused cultivation of one creative territory would seem to negate any sense of progress. What becomes interesting is listening to the experience of those makers who have no problem in shifting from one role to another, and back again. Michael Eden, for example, appears very much at ease at being both farmer and cowboy.

Makers as facilitators

The new collaborative culture of craft reflects significant new developments in creative practice over the past decade. The emergence of design jams, maker spaces, the open source movement, DIY culture, a new connectedness enabled by social media has led to new ways of learning and sharing, new forms of collaborative creativity, new forms of practice that not just blur, but render obsolete the old professional/amateur distinctions. Makers are as much concerned with facilitating and supporting the creativity of others, as they are with developing their own. Indeed many define their creative output in terms of facilitation. Increasingly, makers are crafting new opportunities for the creative empowerment and expression of others. The maker spaces and other projects hosting Make:Shift:Do events are evidence of this – as indeed is the Global Sustainability Jam that opened worldwide on the final day of Make:Shift.

A new industrial revolution?

At least a couple of the speakers took issue with some of the more fashionable ideas being expressed currently. Raymond Oliver claimed “I do not believe in wearable technology”. Others rejected 3D printing as overhyped. And while Chris Anderson’s book Makers was cited by two speakers, there was some questioning whether his notion of a new industrial revolution was valid. Revolutions are not made by technology or tools – revolutions are made by people and their aspirations for change and new values.

Ours is not a time of revolution – industrial or otherwise. But is is perhaps a time of an accelerating shift in craft’s relevance and role, and an associated shift in the role of the maker. We are on a new frontier, and therefore we need cowgirls and boys, who can explore and define new creative territories. The qualities they need above all else are empathy, a confidence in collaboration, a curatorial spirit and a willingness to constantly shift from the new frontier to the farm and back again. And perhaps above all, the frontier spirit demands a fair bit of courage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dundee’s Daltrey data dilemma

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YouGov has a massive database of consumer and voter and lifestyle preferences based on 200,000 people which they have made available online for ‘profile’ access. You can’t drill into the data, for that you have to pay upward of £4,000 – but it’s a taste of the data that they have.

Visitors to the YouGov Profiles website are invited to type in “any brand, person or thing” – and will be presented with a typical persona of a consumer, fan or user. Using it we discover that the owner of an Apple iPhone is more likely to be a professional woman with politics in the centre. An Android user is more likely to be male, lower middle class and left wing in their politics.

So, what sort of typical person has an interest in Dundee? A male around 30, working class, with voting preferences bordering on the Marxist. Lorne sausage and Madeira cake are amongst their favourite foods, they are keen on tennis and possibly keep a budgie. They drive a Kia, shop at Tesco and Burton is their tailor of choice. They read The Scotsman and Reveal Magazine, and favourite entertainment includes Gary: Tank Commander and Roger Daltrey. 

But people who like the University of Dundee are more likely to be professional women aged over 40, conservative in politics with a taste for brown rice and horse racing, driving a Peugeot and reading The Herald.

Admirers of Alex Salmond shop at Lidl and drive a Skoda. If they invite you to dinner it’s likely there’ll be a Forfar Bridie involved. They like watching Braveheart, listen to The Stranglers and are regular readers of New Scientist. Yes, I too began to doubt the veracity of this when it got onto reading preferences.

But they’re bang on when it comes to the typical Arsenal fan: a posh woman in her early 20s who shops at Waitrose and John Lewis and reads The Guardian and The Economist. She has a taste for empanadas and probably keeps a goldfish.

I myself am broadly in the demographic of the wearer of Paul Smith (although my salary only really stretches to the socks, and I got given those as a present), a professional male of a certain age with a taste for Jack White, Morrissey, and Apple computers. However the real oddity is this: their politics are clearly left of centre, but they read The Telegraph. Go figure that one out.

YouGov profiles are probably a useful starting point for developing personas and I can see a role for it in teaching. They help to demonstrate differences in values as expressed by brands. As a starting point for other research I feel there us much to commend it. But if I was V&A Dundee planning their launch campaign, I probably wouldn’t rush to sign up Roger Daltrey.

 

 

Why learning through making matters

Poppy

The poppy installation at the Tower of London seems to have moved all who have seen it, capturing the immensity of the human cost of needless war. Certainly it triggered debate, which is always a positive thing.

The irony is that in the week this installation by ceramicist Paul Cummins captured the public imagination, so a campaign was launched to save yet another ceramic course threatened with closure – this time in Falmouth. Throughout the UK ceramics courses have been steadily axed over recent years. Apparently there is no longer any value in learning how to craft beauty and meaning, insight and inspiration from clay. However, the hundreds of thousands of people who have visited the Tower of London in recent weeks may have a slightly different idea.

Paul Cummins learned his craft at the University of Derby, where ceramics is still taught. If we value learning through making, if we value the unique objects and art works that only a mastery of ceramics gives us, if we value the imagination and power evident in the Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London, and the sense of wonder experienced by all those who have seen this remarkable artwork, then surely we must defend the teaching of ceramic art and design.

Ceramics runs deep with us. It runs in our veins. Some of the earliest human made objects are ceramic, such as the 30,000 year old Venus figurine discovered in Moravia. The invention of the potter’s wheel in what is now Iraq around 6,000 years ago revolutionised the production of vessels and led directly to the establishment of cities. Then there is Josiah Wedgwood: a potter who invented the factory system, industrial design, the principles of modern marketing and laid the ground for the industrial revolution. Oh yes, he also helped abolish slavery and provided the money for Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Artistic expression, the birth of cities, innovation, revolutionary change, social responsibility and evolutionary theory. Pottery. What’s not to like?

The craft of ceramics may play a vital role in our history, and can be used to remind us powerfully of recent historical events. But it is not consigned to history. Ceramic design is very much a practice of today – and it is vital for our future. At Falmouth, where the ceramics course is under threat, ceramic design researchers have been leading the internationally recognised Autonomatic Research Group, fusing craft and digital practices in highly relevant and innovative projects in partnership with programmers, cultural geographers, bio-scientists, journalists, social scientists, technology developers, museum curators, and artists. And of course they are doing this in Cornwall, a region where there is huge value in exploring new applications for making and craft.

If you’re still not convinced that an education based on making stuff has any value then perhaps you could imagine living without your phone. As Apple’s head of design, Sir Jonathan Ive pioneered the smartphone and the tablet, and provided the design expertise to make Apple the most highly valued company on Earth. This week he said “So many of the designers that we interview don’t know how to make stuff, because workshops in design schools are expensive and computers are cheaper. That’s just tragic, that you can spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not make one.”

Yes, it is tragic that those who are responsible for design education appear to have no idea of the educational, cultural and economic value of a learning that is based on making. But in most cases those responsible do not actually work in design education. It is part of their “wider brief” as senior managers in higher education who are given an art school alongside a clutch of other related (and usually less related) disciplines. In my experience, these “here today, gone tomorrow” managers have much in common with cabinet ministers who have responsibility for education: they have no passion, no interest and above all, no knowledge of their brief. But – and this is the real tragedy – they are making decisions that future generations will have to live with.

This week the UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan spoke out unambiguously about the value of the arts and humanities: “If you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful – we were told ­– for all kinds of jobs. Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.” In choosing the arts, she asserted, pupils are making choices that “will hold them back for the rest of their lives”. There is a poverty of knowledge and imagination behind these comments that is hugely dispiriting.

It is dispiriting because there is naturally the assumption that learning based on the arts – and making in particular – is somehow a bit dumb, and thus is something pursued by thick people. I don’t agree with this.

Craft is the one true alchemy. It is through craft  – through learning based on making – that quality is found in the crudest of materials. From mud is created ceramic, from sand is created glassware, from ores comes metalwork and jewellery and from a sheep’s back comes woven textiles. It is through craft that pigments from the earth were discovered to have qualities of colour which could be applied as paint – to paint the sky. Craft is the process which takes the earth and paints the sky with it.

Learning through making fuses science and art, technology and culture. It defines our humanity and our values, it provides future visions and possibilities. It captures imagination.

It must not be lost.

Sign this petition.

 

 

 

 

 

Useful work: the changing landscape of entrepreneurship

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“Here, you see, are two kinds of work – one good, the other bad; one not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life. What is the difference between them, then? This: one has hope in it, the other has not. It is manly to do the one kind of work, and manly also to refuse to do the other.”

William Morris, Useful Work vs Useless Toil, 1884

 

Bill was right all along. The alienated useless toil necessitated by capitalism would eventually give way to more constructive, satisfying and useful work. It would take a great deal longer than he expected and involve far less chintz, but the landscape of work would – in the early twenty first century – begin to shift towards sustainable autonomous production involving considerable numbers of people. Perhaps not as part of the socialist utopia predicted by him, Marx and others – but more as a means by which people in advanced industrial economies could gain flexibility and satisfaction, while coping with the erosion of the welfare state.

There are some profound shifts taking place in the landscape of entrepreneurship in the UK which educators and policy makers need to catch up on. Despite record numbers of new business start ups in Scotland, political debate has yet to seriously address issues that concern entrepreneurs or indeed the wider cultural and economic questions of entrepreneurship. This is regrettable because the latest research is providing some rich insights into why people go into business, what meaning it provides for them, and how working and creative practices are being transformed.

A recent report on microenterprise provides some fascinating insights: the RSA/Populus survey Salvation in a start-up? The origins and nature of the self-employment boom, produced in partnership with Etsy and authored by Benedict Dellot. Below I will pull out some themes from this report, link them to other recent research and identify some implications.

A cultural shift

Since the onset of the recession in 2008 we now have 600,000 more micro enterprises (firms with less than 10 employees) in the UK. Today, one in seven of the workforce are working for themselves, and this trend is clearly climbing. Just over the last year we have seen a 9% growth in new business in Scotland, and over the last five years the business start up rate for Scotland has been one of the highest in the UK. According to Entrepreneurial Spark founder Jim Duffy “Coming out of a recession, a new industrial revolution is starting in Scotland. So many people, who didn’t think they were capable of turning their hand to entrepreneurship, are now doing it.”

That much is certainly true. But they are not doing it because of the recession. They seem to be doing it because they want to: it is (to coin a perhaps overused phrase) a lifestyle choice. The RSA survey suggests that only 27% of startups had anything to do with escaping unemployment, and self-employment had in any case been on a steady climb all through the years of the economic boom. This is supported by other recent research including a survey conducted by Ipsos MORI for the Resolution Foundation, confirming that 73% of those who became self-employed since the recession “did so wholly or partly due to their personal preference for this way of working, and not solely due to a lack of better work alternatives”. While the RSA report argues for evidence of structural social and economic change to account for this, I would suggest that there is a more deeper seated cultural shift that is behind the new ‘start up tribes’.

 The new tribes of enterprise

The report identifies six tribes of self-employment, each of which describes very diverse characteristics and motivations of entrepreneurship – shown in the figure below. Only 33% fall into categories that we associate with conventional business culture – driven by profit, a focussed sense of purpose and desire for growth. Virtually all business policy is predicated on the assumption that startups have the ambition to grow and take on employees. The reality – revealed by this research – is that most don’t. Indeed, very few self-employed people who have started up in the last 5 years have taken on employees. There has also been a notable rise in part-time self-employment, suggesting that this can co-exist with part-time paid employment and other activities. Nearly half the rise in self-employment since 2000 is accounted for by part-timers, or nano businesses, as the report refers to them.

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Poorer but happy

Many of those in the RSA survey see work as inherently enjoyable (in contrast to much of society) and 85% say “they are now more creative, autonomous and satisfied in their work” with key advantages being flexibility to deal with their own health and the welfare of family. In other words, autonomy, flexibility and happiness appear to be the qualities of self-employment that are most valued. On the downside, they are earning less money. As the report argues:

“Life for the self-employed presents a paradox: they appear to earn less, work harder and be more isolated, yet in the round are some of the happiest people. The reason seems to be because their work offers greater autonomy, a source of meaning and – perhaps surprisingly – a greater sense of security. All of which suggests that the draw of self-employment lies in what the Swiss economists Benz and Frey term ‘procedural utility’. In other words, people who work for themselves gain more from the way something is done rather than the final outcome of that activity – namely money.”

I would suggest that there is a genuine movement towards creating a culture of useful work and autonomous welfare. The two massive failures of the modern age are the alienation and inflexibilities created by work and the shortcomings of our welfare state, especially in terms of childcare and inadequate pensions. Much of the shift towards self-employment would appear to be driven by an impulse to create meaningful, flexible work rather than profit. This is not to deny the vital importance of the visionaries and the classicals to local and indeed national economic growth, but their needs and significance have to balanced by the very different needs (and contribution) of the remaining two thirds of the self-employed. I will briefly look at three issues below and pull in some additional evidence.

Self employment is about thinking.

The biggest increases in self-employment since 2008 have actually been in professional occupations. In a piece entitled How British workers are losing the power to think, Guardian correspondent Aditya Chakrabortty has drawn on research that strongly suggests an erosion of autonomy in many occupations. “Since the mid-80s, academics have been carrying out regular skills surveys, asking detailed questions of thousands of employees. In 1986… 72% of professionals felt they had a great deal of independence in doing their jobs. By 2006, that had plummeted to just 38%.” Some researchers are suggesting a future workforce in which only 10-15% will have permission to think. “The rest of us will merely carry out their decisions; what the academics call ‘digital Taylorism’, in which graduates will end up on the white-collar equivalent of a factory line.” This would suggest that self-employment is driven by a very basic human need: to use your brain creatively and fully.

Self-employment is family friendly.

The successive failures of UK and Scottish governments to provide adequate and affordable childcare – in contrast to many other European countries – is providing one major motivation for self-employment. One recent survey showed that 65% of mothers with children under ten years of age are considering starting a business from home in the next three years, and 49% “believe that they would be financially better off if they started a business from home”. The rise of the ‘mumpreneur’ (a contentious term), of whom there are estimated to be 300,000, is part of a shift in self-employment away from its historical tendency to be male dominated. Indeed, over the last two years the number of female entrepreneurs has increased by 9.6% in contrast to a 3.3% rise for men.

Make a job – don’t take a pension.

The self-employed are getting older. Those aged 55–64 has risen by 40% since 2000, while the over-65s in self-employment have increased by 140%. The over 55s are now a significant start up demographic and we could perhaps see this group as shifting towards self-employment as a means of dealing with the pensions crisis that is otherwise undermining security into old age. This view is supported by the Resolution Foundation in their separate survey and report:

“28 per cent of the overall growth in self-employment is due to a decline in the rate at which people leave self-employment. Our view is that this is partly explained by the UK’s expanding and ageing workforce. The raising of the retirement age, longer life expectancy and low levels of pension saving may have led to people remaining in employment for longer, and because self- employed people tend to be older than employees, this disproportionately affects this group. Self-employment might be growing as an alternative or complement to retirement, rather than as an alternative to being an employee.”

A policy vacuum

The evidence suggests that this diverse and varied landscape of enterprise is simply not recognised as such by the state, and those public bodies there to support the self-employed. At least that is the view of those surveyed in the RSA report who “still largely feel as though they are overlooked by the state”. More significantly “the vast majority believe the Conservatives have the best policies for their business”. Worryingly, there is also widespread support for a cap on immigration. The Conservatives certainly have more policies and a clear ideological commitment to enterprise and self-employment. The left and the labour movement appears held back by long-established animosity. While the RSA report points out that the most obvious bodies to help provide the collective benefits and support needed by the self-employed are the trade unions, this is unlikely to happen any time soon as the unions “have been one of the most vocal in disapproving of the rise in self-employment, with the Trades Union Congress recently expressing its concern that this type of work is inherently insecure”. 

So perhaps in an independent Scotland the self-employed could be the driving force of a new economy, autonomy and community focused wealth generation and support? Best not hold our breath. In all of its 604 pages, the weighty tome that is Scotland’s Future : Your Guide to an Independent Scotland contains only one reference to the self-employed.

What is clearly needed are conversations to help set a new agenda to support the forms of self-employment that are reshaping work, enterprise and welfare. These conversations should seek to focus around the question of how the UK’s micro enterprises can be taken seriously and influence policy makers. A critical objective should also be to create a vision of how a world centred on useful work could develop and thrive. 

 

Don’t bully designers

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Design requires courage: personal and professional, and perhaps we should tell this to our students a little more. As educators we tend to emphasise just one side of its dualistic nature by highlighting the successes, the award winning achievements and plaudits of commentators and critics. The annual New Designers event in London that I recently attended is a well established celebration of this culture of success. The other side of design requires a slightly thicker skin.

Headlines throughout the world yesterday and today have focused on the Team Scotland parade uniforms for the Commonwealth Games designed by Jilli Blackwood, and not in a good way.

  • “Couldn’t they just go back to blowing up blocks of flats?” asks Stephen Daisley of STV News: “First Glasgow 2014 proposed an uplifting opening ceremony in which the Red Road flats would be blown to smithereens; now Commonwealth Games Scotland wants to kit out our athletes in apparel so gaudy it would make Dame Edna Everage blanch.”
  • “If you thought Australia’s Commonwealth Games uniform was bad, it isn’t a stitch on the host country’s horror design” is the view of Fox Sport in Australia. “Scotland’s athletes will attend the opening ceremony in outfits that appear to have been inspired by doctors’ scrubs and picnic rugs.”
  • “Team Scotland’s got the blues” says Christina Miller at the Huffington Post, arguing that the designer’s skills perhaps don’t lie in the realm of fashion: “The expanse of turquoise fights for attention against the busy tartan that seems to have been draped here, there and everywhere, while the stone bag punctuates what is, quite frankly, a visual disaster. When describing her work, the Jilli Blackwood website says, “… blurs the boundaries between ‘Fashion and Art’ and ‘Art and Craft'” suggesting that yes, Jilli Blackwood might be a successful textile artist, but perhaps her forte is with interiors and art.”
  • “Costume is not for faint hearts”, asserts an editorial in the Herald: “The designer of the Scottish Commonwealth Games uniform has succeeded in putting Scotland on the fashion map – a 19th century fashion map. ‘There will be no mistaking that this is the Scottish team,” says designer Jilli Blackwood. Unfortunately, she is correct. Brigadoon meets Laura Ashley appears to be the theme and shouts from the rooftops that every Hollywood film travesty of Scottish dress is true. The only missing touch is blue-daubed faces a la Braveheart.”
  • “P45 for the “designer. That is just a shocking combination, total embarrassment” is one of the quotes used on the Sky Sports website, followed by “What a shame for the athletes who have worked so hard to get to the Commonwealth Games for a designer to put them in this!!”
  • “It’s the uniform that everyone’s taking about. It’s the kit for the Instagram WTF generation.” The Guardian really doesn’t hold back: “It’s Pixar’s Brave meets Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape. It’s the gift that keeps on giving – the more you stare, the more you see. You can probably still see it when you close your eyes. Yes, Scotland’s Commonwealth Games uniforms have made quite the impression on the Guardian fashion desk. That’s before we get started on designer Jilli Blackwood’s getup.”

These are just a sample of the many news items currently running on this story. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the media is treating this story in a trivial personalised way, as that is how it treats much of design, especially fashion. A particular approach in much of this coverage (and I’ve excluded some of the nastier stuff) is to rubbish the designer herself through questioning her expertise, her taste and overall professional approach. Mind you, treatment of Jilli Blackwood is relatively mild compared with how Australians have responded to the design of their Commonwealth Games swimsuits.

For any student designer reading this, how would you feel if you and your work was discussed in this way? How would you feel late at night after an evening of reading this kind of stuff about you? Do you think it’s fair? Do you think it’s right? Is there a better, more intelligent and more sensitive way of commenting on another person’s creative labours?

I have found no commentary which seeks to understand or inform readers about the design brief, the strategic design objectives of the commissioning body, the negotiated process of design that surely took place, the constraints put in place, or indeed anything about design itself. No, all we have are cheap barbs about the designer. There is simply no attempt in any of this so-called ‘journalism’ to explain ‘the facts’ of design.

Jilli Blackwood is by no means the first designer to be treated in such a bullying, shabby and ill informed way. “A puerile mess, an artistic flop and a commercial scandal” yelled Stephen Bayley in The Daily Telegraph in 2007. He was venting his spleen on this particular occasion on the design of the logo for the London 2012 Olympics. Designed by Wolff Olins, public reaction to the logo at the time of its launch was almost universally negative, so Bayley was very much running with the mob. But the key point here is that the mob was wrong. The logo was a central design feature in the branding of the games which history has shown to be the most successfully branded Olympic Games of all time. The logo’s flexibility, its very concept, provided a consistent visual focus and identity for the games. It worked.

The whole point of design is that in creating something new, it is an act of courage. Sometimes the process of design gets it right, and sometimes wrong. And very often you have to wait a fair time to figure out which it is. Some design is wholly the work of “a designer” or a design team. Some design involves no designers at all. Most design is a rich and dynamic negotiated process in which “the designer” needs every last atom of her or his courage to negotiate the trade-offs and compromises that are part and parcel of design.

What designers don’t need - what they really don’t need – are smart arses who should know better sniping from the sidelines, especially from fellow ‘creatives’. I am sure Jilli Blackwood is like every other professional designer I know, a person who constantly and critically appraises what she does, simply with the objective of doing it even better next time. The design community can either join the mob and weigh in with their pitch forked personalised ‘criticism’ or create a culture of ‘critical friendship’ which is in evidence in professions such as architecture. Bullying designers through global media is not a way to go.