Je Suis Charlie


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.


Design thinking and the quest for a beautiful world



Back in November when I was in Rotterdam running a Masterclass in Design Thinking for the European Institute for Brand Management (EURIB) I was interviewed by Pascal Kuipers, a Dutch business media journalist. I now find that the interview is the cover story for Tijdschrift voor Marketing – a leading marketing magazine in The Netherlands.

Of course, the five page feature is all in Dutch, but I have translated a small part of the interview. This magazine is not available online, although you can order a subscription. So here is an extremely bad translation which does no justice to the excellent journalism of Pascal.

Professor Mike Press: “We need a beautiful world to live in”

As a design professor, when Mike Press travels to give workshops on ‘Design Thinking’, he takes a large suitcase and a backpack. In the backpack are personal items. In the suitcase are craft materials that his students use to represent their ideas. Objects and images, not language, is the Esperanto of the international design community, he says.

Prototyping is an essential part of the creative design thinking process. “Actually, design thinking not a good name,” says Press. “It’s not about thinking but doing – making to think. Because it is about stimulating your creativity.” Therefore Press takes a mobile hobby shop to the locations where he gives workshops. Similarly in Rotterdam, where he is giving a Masterclass for the European Institute for Brand Management (EURIB). To managers of businesses, educational institutions and the public sector he is giving a brief introduction about design thinking, then getting participants to get to busy prototyping.

“Design thinking is not a solution but a method of creatively exploring the problems facing businesses and institutions to do,” says Press. Too often when we discuss such things, your fixed beliefs and assumptions are not challenged. In 99 percent of conversations we defend our position, and are not open to something new. Many managers simply express their fixed views with powerpoint presentations. This kills creativity stone dead.”

Want to read more? Then simply place a regular order for Tijdschrift voor Marketing with your newsagent. A fascinating journalist and real honour for my ideas to be featured in this way.


Thank you, Eric

Every year I give a lecture to my postgraduate design students about writing: how and why we write, and in particular how to write well. This latter quality is not one that I myself possess, so I refer them to people who I believe exemplify the art of writing. My rather select list comprises Susan Sontag, Peter Dormer, Malcolm McCullough and Eric Hobsbawm. I learned this afternoon that Eric Hobsbawm has died at the age of 95.

It is certainly not for me to write his obituary, for that has been done today by others. Indeed the obituary of this seemingly obscure British Marxist historian can be found in the pages of newspapers in just about every country on earth tonight. That is a reflection of the impact of his writing, of the power of his storytelling. For Eric Hobsbawm was a masterful storyteller, who made history come alive and make sense. But as a Marxist, his concern was as much about the future as it was about the past, and his genius was in crafting the vision and the narrative to help us understand just where we were in time and space, and where we might go in the future.

Scattered over my home, on various bookshelves are books by him that stand as markers in my life. Way up high in the study is a small Penguin volume Industry and Empire that has my 16 year old signature on the first page. It guided me through my A level years. On the bookshelves up the stairs is his collection of essays The Forward March of Labour Halted which shaped my ideas as a postgraduate student, and which (as Tony Blair admits himself) provided the intellectual impetus for New Labour. But please let us not blame Eric for that. In the living room is a  collection of his key works – Age of Capital, Age of Revolution, Age of Empire, Age of Extremes – which are vital contributions of this time lord. And alongside is his autobiography, one of the last presents from my late father, which is his personal history of the 20th century.

I loved Eric Hobsbawm as a writer because of the effortless way that he shaped his vision and ideas into words that told a story. As a Jew born in the First World War, brought up in Vienna and Berlin and living through everything that followed, then his experience of the twentieth century shapes his unique insights of history both before and after. But more than that, it was his problematic and contradictory relationship with the Communist Party that I found most inspiring. I was a member of the Party when Eric Hobsbawm was the focus for those of us in the Eurocommunist faction, providing a real sense of political vision. He helped many of us through all those contradictory feelings.

Tonight it feels like a light has gone out. It was always there: a pole star of wisdom and insight against which you could judge your position and navigate yourself into new territories. But we will find our own way forward because of the inspiration and insights he leaves us with. Great writers do not just leave us with their words, but with the actions that those words inspire. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.

Our Island Stories

Following the Olympic and Paralympic Games, a number of us starting discussing a new sensation we were experiencing – national pride. For those of a certain generation who are broadly speaking on The Left, national identity and patriotism have been problems over the years. And so my friend Catherine Annabel set up a blog to discuss these questions, and invited me to contribute.

Our Island Stories begins with this call from Catherine:

So, do we treat Danny Boyle’s vision of the Isles of Wonder as a requiem for what we value about our country, or a celebration?  Or even, perhaps, a warning and a call to action? Do we allow our ‘normal state of being’ to be reinstalled in the British psyche, without protest, without attempting to hold on to what we briefly experienced?  As Billy [Bragg] asks in his blog, ‘Has the euphoria of the past two weeks has caused a seismic shift in the meta-narrative of Britishness? … Can a new spirit of engaged and transformational patriotism emerge from this experience? One that seeks to build a fairer, more inclusive tomorrow, rather than constantly rehashing a narrow vision of the past?’

My contribution is far less any form of profound reflection on these questions – more an explanation of how I ended up having a highly vexed relationship with the idea of Britishness. Flagging up the issues focuses on my experiences during two days in 1977. If strong language and descriptions of violent acts offend or disturb you, then please do not read it.

Gerald Scarfe

Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design is appointing Gerald Scarfe as an Honorary Professor for Design and Craft, and he will be giving a free public talk in May 2012. In 2008 he was awarded an honorary degree by us, and I was fortunate to give the laureation address. Below is an edited version of what I said.

Please note: this week’s talk by Gerald Scarfe has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances. We will reschedule later in the year.

During the height of the troubles in Northern Ireland Gerald Scarfe – perhaps a little inadvisably – drove into the Bogside, and sat in the passenger seat to do some drawings. After 20 minutes a car pulled up quickly in front of him and four men leapt out, driving him away at gunpoint. He was let go, but not before one of the IRA men studied his sketchbook carefully and said to him “ah, but you’re a brave drawer”.

Gerald Scarfe is a brave artist in all respects. He is perhaps best known as a political cartoonist  – indeed as the political cartoonist who redefined the medium from the 1960s. For the past forty years he has worked for The Sunday Times, bringing his unique style and insight – a venomous visual ferocity – to a wide audience and international acclaim. In 2007 he was voted Cartoonist of the Year in the British Press Awards.

Great art is brave. It takes risks, it reinvents, and it connects with the world around it.

Working as a reportage cartoonist in Vietnam, in Calcutta and in Northern Ireland enabled him to take the idea of the cartoon into a new domain, redefining the cartoonist as a reporter.

For Gerald Scarfe, his relationship with his audience is a vital one, and his long-standing work on the Sunday Times has enabled him to take the readership with him on a journey of the visual interpretation of events and the people who make them.

The other thing about great art, is that it is never satisfied with one medium or one audience.

For many people of my generation, particularly those outside the UK, Scarfe is not known as a political cartoonist, but as the artist who took the music of Pink Floyd into a startling and disturbing visual dimension.

His collaboration with Pink Floyd centres on The Wall – an album that sold 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all-time.

As well as the record sleeve design, Scarfe was responsible for the sets, graphics, videos and animations of the 1980 world tour of The Wall – the tour that was to wholly redefine the rock performance as a multimedia event. Two years later he was the film designer and animator for the Alan Parker directed movie of The Wall.

So in two decades Scarfe’s work had moved from the rarified readership of Punch to a live global audience, making him one of the most influential designers, illustrators and artists of his time – certainly influencing a whole generation of visual artists and animators.

Scarfe’s work can be considered in terms of the lineage of British caricaturists that stretch back to Gilray, Rowlandson and Hogarth. But his creative career has taken the unique art of caricature into new directions and new media.

A film maker for BBC and Channel 4, a theatrical set and costume designer for numerous productions, a designer for opera and dance, a designer for a set of Royal Mail postage stamps, a production designer for the Disney film Hercules, creator of a unique project with the National Portrait Gallery – Scarfe’s work just over the last decade reveals his insatiable appetite for new creative challenge and risk taking.

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. As a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s trying to make sense of a world defined by Vietnam, Biafra and pub bombings, I found his cartoons in the paper that fell onto our doormat every Sunday hugely provoking and engaging. They influenced how I thought, and I am sure how many others thought too. Gerald Scarfe’s cartoons remind us why it is right to be angry about events in our world and why it is vital to be passionate about truth and justice.

Gerald Scarfe is an artist who has had an unequalled impact on our visual culture. He has significantly extended the art of caricature, he redefined the role of the political cartoonist, he married the visual arts to music and performance, and he used all media at his disposal to fully engage his art with his audience – with us. And he has done all this with a profound sense of responsibility and artistic honesty.

Pecha Kucha Talk

I was fortunate to be invited to give a talk at the Dundee Pecha Kucha Night vol 2 held on 28 February. My talk was on the theme of public education, and I have made a version of the talk available below. It is a prerecorded rather than ‘live’ version.

If you are unfamiliar with the format, each speaker has 20 images projected, each of which stays on the screen for 20 seconds – so you have 6 minutes and 40 seconds to make your point! Creative Dundee are to be congratulated for organising these excellent events that attract a full audience. Live videos of all talks will be available soon from the link above.




What design can learn from Jimmy Reid

On 16 September I gave a keynote address to the Create Debate event at Glasgow School of Art. The title of my talk was Design as an affirmation of values and its is available here to download. Create Debate was a showcase for postgraduate students at GSA, but the audience also included students from elsewhere (including DJCAD Dundee), design professionals, and others from local government and health services. Organised by Sarah Drummond, the event centred towards the end on the question of whether it was time for evolution or revolution in design. I go unequivocally for the latter.

The central argument in my talk was that design is driven by values and, as such, is an inherently political act. Given the nature of the crisis we are now facing then it is necessary to define with speed and clarity what the values are that the progressive design community should champion. While some at the event cautioned us not to ditch capitalism, I rather fear that it is capitalism that has ditched us already. We appear to be seeking security in the idea that “everything is basically OK” – just shave 25% of public expenditure and it will be back to the good old days of spend, spend, spend. I rather think we are deluding ourselves. As I said at the event, so too does Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman who only today wrote: “Future historians will marvel at the austerity madness that gripped policy elites in the spring of 2010.”

The task facing us all – clearly not just in design – is to rebuild from the bottom up a vision of how we want our political economy to serve us – as in us the people. We do this by understanding the current crisis, and looking back into our history for those values that champion, express and pursue our humanity. In Danger and Opportunity: crisis and the new social economy, Robin Murray argues that the early years of the 21st century are witnessing the emergence of a new kind of social economy. His analysis of the economic crisis is readable and extremely useful for those of us working in the broad area of social design. Once we start our understanding of the crisis, then how do we move out of it? Charles Leadbeater poses this question: “Where might we turn for inspiration for a comprehensive programme for radical change on the scale required to match the crisis we are in?” His answer is perhaps surprising: “A good start would be with a bunch of men in southern England, in April 1649, led by Gerrard Winstanley who started digging common land to create a self-governing, cooperative and productive community as the basis for the new social order.” In his book Digging for the Future, Charles Leadbeater draws insightful parallels between the 17th century Levellers and Diggers, and the 21st century social entrepreneurs, environmental innovators, open source hackers and grass roots campaigns. I agree wholly with Charles Leadbeater that we need to look back to move forward.

This was a timely invitation to speak in Glasgow, following the sad death of Jimmy Reid this August. This Glaswegian trade unionist was one of the leaders of perhaps the most inspiring and successful campaigns waged by the labour movement in living memory. The work-in of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in the early 1970s inspired many throughout the world, including myself as a teenager far away in the south of England. But as important as the struggle itself, was Jimmy Reid’s articulation of those values that it sought to further. His address to the University of Glasgow in 1972 was hailed by the New York Times as comparable to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and they put an edited version of his speech on their front page. I encourage you to read it.

In Design as an affirmation of values, I focus on his speech and draw out some lessons for those of us working in design today. There are lessons about values, and about the importance of creativity. But perhaps the greatest lesson we can draw from this great man is the need for us to explain our position in clear ways to people out there. Design as a force for positive social transformation will be taken seriously when we engage with the public, with politicians and policy makers in ways they can clearly understand. We need new approaches and tactics for reaching out. And we need them soon.