pretty, ugly

UGLY: individuals, ideologies, or actions that trade in selfishness, greed, and especially intolerance or discord directed toward those on the perceived fringes who are apparently a threat to the implied 'normal', wholesome core. Usually attached to the end of a pudgy, jabbing, over-privileged, survival-of-the-sneakiest-type finger.

PRETTY: individuals, ideologies, actions, that are pure expressions of one's self; for that is who you 'normally' are. Lived experience, not who you pretend to or 'choose' to be, nor carried as a deliberate affront to others.

There is an uneasy relationship between superficial, celebratory commercial presentation and the normalisation of deep ugliness. We can be told something, or someone is pretty (normal/acceptable), or ugly (abnormal/unacceptable), but how things look, sound or dazzle, often belie how they actually are.

**This list will grow.

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Brand activism, or belief-driven value marketing to use the adverspeak, where a company positions itself as taking a stand on hot socio-political topics, is not a new phenomenon but is dominating PR strategy in many a boardroom right now. Ordinarily presented through compellingly right-on and emotive copy, ‘radical’ celebrity endorsement, or other disruptive messaging, it is more traditionally attached to entities with a vested interest in such matters: charities, NPO’s, public issue campaigns, but it is increasingly cementing as a recuperative branding device in corporate and consumer goods marketing.

We are all (mostly) alert to the typical devices employed to get us parting with our hard earned paycheques. We are wise to the game, and we can smell it when we are being patronised or misled. The message here is simple, by all means paint a colourful, nourishing picture of how much you care, but do care. Don’t get caught just acting like you do. If a company is going to align itself with certain beliefs we would clearly prefer this to be done in ernest, and not just adopted as a surefire profit-bump based on psychographic insights generated among the algorithmic-basement-super-brains housed at your Edelman’s, Kantar’s, and Nieslen’s of the world.

Last week, Iceland supermarket were denied the right to broadcast their seasonal ad because it carried too ‘political’ a message for the advertising standards gatekeeper Clearcast. The content of the ad, a rebadged Greenpeace film narrated by Emma Thomson, pits an animated orangutan against a young girl who feels affronted about her room suddenly being occupied by said orangutan. This serves as reflection for the orangutan’s lost natural forest habitat to the aggressive machinery of a palm oil plantation - Iceland stopped using palm oil in its own brand products some time ago. A moral position to take no doubt, but seemingly this corporation is not permitted to make such a political statement on the airwaves. This is interesting on a couple of levels. First, in their defence, what kind of harm is this really doing? Who does this message offend, and who’s interests are really being served by banning it? The main thing for me though, how sympathetic to Iceland’s cause should I really be in the first place?

Take the buzz around the recent Nike Just Do It 30th anniversary campaign. It put the face of Colin Kapaernick up close and personal, and attached the copy “Believe in something. Even if it means losing everything” (in a nutshell, the NFL star who took the first knee to protest racism, in case you’ve been living under a rock). This prompted some backlash; burning shoes, vandalising stores, but this was far out-weighed by a massive 31% sales boost, including a 17% store footfall bump US-wide in the week following its appearance, which is serious ROI for an ad campaign. No ban for political messaging applied here. I'm not arguing which issue is of greater import, but what is the definition of a political message, and when is it OK to align publicly with it?

Edelman released a report this year confirming the increased consumer responsiveness toward value-based marketing. But it doesn’t take big-data-crunching to tell us that we are a fairly switched-on and conscious bunch these days. We all have issues, and issues matter to all of us. Anybody who seems to be aligned with our global outlook gets our vote. Or in the case of Nike, hard-earned paper for leisurewear.

I was preparing to write something on the process of recuperation for some time, with a specific example in mind that caught my attention because it was so cynically executed - more on this in a moment, but with the industry buzz circulating on the wider phenomenon my horizon broadened. Before I roll on in, I do want to make clear that I’m not at all opposed to corporations acting more conscientiously. Quite the contrary. From the hope that being in a position of power and influence change can happen, and it would be nice, if a little optimistic, to believe that year-end dividends were not all that mattered to a firm. But also from the position that things do actually need to be made, and they need to be pitched and sold, and we are living in a time where not just the demands of a competitive marketplace exist, but also the level of intellectual sophistication we humans demand in how we are spoken to. Advertising is not the devil basically. It is necessary and inevitable, so why should it not be more agreeable?

So, recuperation then. The jumping off point of which is its antonym détournment - used to define a process were counter-cultural messages are delivered by subverting, or sometimes adopting the typical mechanisms of mainstream corporate communication; culture-jamming, brandalism, insert your preferred nomenclature. The typical purpose being to transmit a socio-political message that may run contrary to the dominant media stream, or perhaps sometimes with no loftier ambition than to disrupt, protest or represent anarchic positions, including anti-capitalist sentiment. Recuperation, put simply is a technique whereby modes of communication, or aesthetic conceits typically associated with sub-cultural or radical values, are coopted and used by corporate entities to position themselves as right-on; that they might be prepared to storm some barricades, or at least that they may have partied a little in high school too. Mainly though, it’s to shake off any potentially icky evil-corp stench.

This could include narratives portraying ‘alternative’ lifestyles, maybe off-the-grid, counter-cultural, and often imagery more commonly associated with protest or civil action. It can be quite a tough sell in many cases; Volkswagen pitching the flower power generation, 'hey hippies buy this gas-guzzler, we painted some flowers on it, man', and Coca-Cola's "I'd like to buy the world a Coke...", spring to mind. Or in more recent cola-comms, and perhaps worst of all might be 2017's Kendall Jenner ad that shows us how hip, diverse, and urbane types can eradicate oppression with a Pepsi. The standout well-executed example of this line of corporate communication was presented by United Colors of Benetton with their unforgettable, provocative photography-based messaging, art directed by Olivieri Toscani in the 1990's. This was significant because Benetton decided to use their bandwidth to display broad-reaching, bold visual statements on issues of humanity, race and equality, eschewing talking up their goods almost entirely.

Picking through the semiotics of the Nike campaign, essentially they are identifying with independent ‘free’ thought, and signaling empowerment of the ‘individual’. Which they hope translates into me or you buying some of their kicks to express our individuality, and simultaneously show solidarity with Mr Kapaernick. Presumably we are to focus more on this socially-conscious face, rather than the pittance-paying-sweatshop-overlord face. I don’t mean to snark. Actually, irrespective of their oft-criticised supply chain practices - or insert here a-n-other signifier of corporate black hearts, there should be nothing but nods of approval, because yes it’s a device to drive profits but it's a win for everyone. It is a huge platform for a very real social issue and surely stands a greater chance of aiding in shifting attitudes forward as a result of the increased exposure. 

So Nike done good. So I think did Iceland, but somehow their message is much less immune to the censure of the media watchdogs. What is really at play in determining how much virtue signaling a corporation is permitted to display? In the interest of getting a handle on the parameters, it is worth looking at that example of extremely cynical recuperation I mentioned. Somewhere this censure maybe should have been more rightfully applied. There are many poor examples out there, but in this instance the mantle unfortunately belongs to Bacardi rum. 

It doesn’t help to focus on the negative in life I know, but frankly, if someone is going to scream in my face, crying foul and presenting their cause as just; demanding my sympathy over their status as lowly and oppressed, when it isn’t true you better believe I’m going to call them out on it. Bacardi's recent campaign of print and motion ads portray a rather deceitful, and frankly offensive alignment with individuals who are actually oppressed. 

What’s all the fuss then? Without going in to a protracted chronology of events, following the Cuban socialist revolution private companies were effectively forced to submit to state takeover. I am neither defending nor denouncing this. The Bacardi family preferred to pursue their capital interests rather than align with the new socialist Cuba, and decamped to Puerto Rico to continue building one of the worlds most successful liquor companies. The original owners of the Havana Club rum product also left Cuba, under debated circumstances, but did sign over their business to the authorities before they left. Bacardi went on to apparently buy the original Havana Club recipe and rights from the Arechabala family some 40 years later. The narrative presented in Bacardi's advertising gives an image of the freedom fighter, the exiled and suppressed stakeholder who longs for his homeland, a tiny voice, seeking the world to join them in their cry of injustice. 

“Forced from home. Aged in Exile. Forever Cuban” reads Bacardi’s Havana Club copy. As I said earlier, belief-driven marketing is not a new thing, back in 2013 Bacardi's message was their Irrepressible campaign, “Some men are kicked out of bars, others are kicked out of countries”. It is a complex story no doubt, and I am not really trying to dispute Bacardi’s Cuban-ness; though on a side note, there are some juicy conspiracy theories knocking around about their complicity with the CIA and related dirty deeds*, certainly some fairly shaky disputes over their US market-only, and embargo-dodging Havana Club product, pitched against the globally-distributed (and actually made in Cuba) Havana Club. Again, I’m not questioning their authenticity here, and this isn’t about defending the romantic integrity of Che Guevara and the Cuban cause célèbre either. Quite simply, it is entirely inappropriate to appropriate the iconography of revolution and activism against perceived oppressive forces in the interest of capital gains. Full stop. 

I have not been able to glean accurate figures on the relative success of these campaigns, but one thing is for certain, Bacardi are not struggling too badly with a current estimated brand value of around $1.9billion, never mind the rest of their business portfolio. So please, if you are rocking a belief-driven brand identity, can it not make me feel so queasy with its painfully transparent cynicism - nor indeed with such aggressive machismo. In the case of Pepsi, who engaged clumsily in recuperation without defining a specific issue, just aping and romanticising the aesthetic of civil action, Bacardi are targeting a specific human identity. No matter how their provenance argument is sliced and diced, this really boils down to a story of protecting global market share, not the plight of a backyard mom’n’pop's right to earn a humble living, let alone restoring a national identity. 

As if to highlight even more how they are simply borrowing this social conscience beret, rather than owning it, they switch up their brand identity on an almost annual basis. To be fair, some of their other hats are genuinely right-on. For instance their SpiritUp 'music liberates music' campaign geared to help promote and develop up-and-coming Caribbean artists. Again of course, this will feed into there bottom line, but at least is an honest, simple and essentially very positive social initiative, Bacardi-brand-awesome. 'Don't tell us we're not Cuban', Bacardi-brand-gruesome. This is one aspect of their brand story best left un-leveraged.

If we are going to be presented with a softer side to major players in global commerce, wonderful, but don’t try to make us pity you personally when executive bonuses and shareholder dividends are so blatantly the ‘cause’ we are supposed to be identifying with. Take a leaf out of Nike’s book. It’s not all heart, but credit where it is due, they took a risk and stood on the right side of a very divisive social and political issue. An outstanding example of speaking to, rather than at their consumers. Or indeed from Iceland’s book, where, ironically (intentionally?), their attempt to broadcast an alignment with a globally divisive environmental concern got blocked, simply added even greater rebel notoriety to their brand caché. 

There are concerns over how much influence a mega-corp, primarily answerable to their shareholders, should be allowed to exert in socio-political debate. I suppose this is the criticism levelled at Iceland’s commercial, for openly denouncing the palm oil producers which, what, might ultimately affect the economic stability of countries reliant on its production? I feel much more likely would be the potential corporate legal backlash being ducked by the private company entrusted to uphold these advertising standards. Much more plausible than simply coming-a-cropper of clearly hit and miss nanny-statesmanship over public opinion being swayed on the issue. 

So it will be interesting how much further companies are willing to push their corporate social responsibility, and how much real-world value or change the public see reflected in their neo-radical identities. I welcome the platform. Clearly indy, homespun and smaller scale operators can really go to town on irrerverent and controversial positioning, with lower profiles and investment there is a lot less on the line. In the realms of larger scale global enterprises, the risks are higher, but the mutual rewards are equally so. Companies such as Blake Mycoskie's Tom's shoe company, and their 'one-for-one' model in delivering developing world aid and eye care solutions for every purchase made, would be a solid example of walking that walk. But they too of course have come in for criticism. There will always be naysayers and snide's, but I can't stress enough, doing something is better than nothing. We surely can't prefer a world where 'companies should stick to what they know', devoted only to collecting the biggest sack of shiny tokens. Is our consumer-based economy going away any time soon? Unlikely. Is it possible we focus on massaging it into being a better version of itself, rather than doom-watching and decrying its existence? At least in the absence of a more persuasive and actionable solution, I'd say so.

We are at a level of metaconsumerism where people in most corners of the world's leading economies, and to large extents beyond, are totally ready to see their purchasing power directly linked to a dose of social responsibility. In this instance, I am not talking up the merits of people heading towards a state of essentialism, people are always likely prone to indulge, but within that at least I have high hopes this can be leveraged to benefit on all sides. Companies will do well if they respond to this by being willing to genuinely throw down and invest in tackling their chosen causes, beyond superficial bandwagon-jumping and amplifying virtuous soundbites or cosying-up to righteous individuals. Let’s just keep an eye on who’s interests are really being served, how transparent their agenda's, and we will see who the real revolutionaries may be.

* sources available upon request

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The Private Sector performed at last year's Brighton Fringe Festival in a show called the Brexorcist. For the life of me, I can't get hold of any downloadable/purchasable tracks from their touted album; apparently titled Your Mind Our Marketplace, so I can't share any direct links. I think there is a quick'n'dirty Youtube clip someone sent up after the show somewhere. (*update, 09/05/18)...but wait... Graham Duff's Mixtape radio show broadcast on Totally Radio features this very track! You'll find it around 23 minutes in.... and the rest of the show features a range of generally handsome recorded music while you're at it.

The track is basically a darkly satirical spoken word assault on the 'state of things'. Built on reflexive lyrical contrasts throughout, amongst the many many highlights are the opening "Less Albert Einstein's, more Harvey Weinstein's, Less understanding, more branding", and later "Less benefit concerts, more football nonces","Less giving a toss, more Paul Ross"... they keep on coming.

I am hoping more of their content and material bubbles up soon. Certainly would love a chance to see them play live and show my appreciation. I think while the material is pretty bleak, it is hilarious and absolutely necessary. A politically-charged critique of a world we seem all too comfortable living in; where corporate interests dominate and are often pitched in opposition to human happiness and well being. Hard to argue with that assessment sometimes.

Anyway, I threw together this collage and custom 'icing-sugar' lettering as, well, fan art really ... huge thank you to Cameron Diaz for providing the lips. I felt this song lyric alone is very meme-rable, a bon mot for our age. There seems to be a steady grind toward diminished expectations in the current entertainment landscape - nothing too challenging, nothing that takes too much effort hits the spot for a great many of us.

I will resist the temptation to plunder all their insightful contrasts for similar treatment as I'm sure I won't be the only person tickled by them or similarly inclined. Find their website here.

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天高皇帝远. The heaven's are high, and the emperor far away.

This well known Chinese expression refers to a universal truth, beyond the gaze of the authorities, regulators, a rule of law, humans can and will try to get away with murder, sometimes literally. The phenomenon of nail houses; privately owned structures and homes where the occupiers refuse to cave to the pressures of forced relocation or the thug tactics carried out by unscrupulous provincial real-estate developers and corrupt local official cronies.

The expression might sometimes be interpreted as the freedom to live and express oneself at a safe distance from a controlling and overbearing state, but most accurately it defines the abuses of power by the powerful over the powerless. The central government organ - the 'Ministry' of Housing and Urban-Rural Development of the Peoples Republic of China (中华人民共和国住房和城乡建设部), are happy to rubber stamp such dubious forced relocation proposals, while ignoring the many hundreds of petitioners trying to save their homes and livelihood throughout China.

*original photo credit: Reuters

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Homespun (cr)Edible T(h)reats

No doubt this is going to divide opinion. I have done a few anti-branding projects in the past, and I am working on a series of them right now. I want to introduce the latest, but I also felt like explaining a little more about their intended value. These started out partly as technical creative exercises; no matter what other work is on, I always have personal projects on the go, things I care about, and to keep me sharp. The idea is to take all the insight, strategy, tools, devices, and visual aesthetics typically applied to commercial messaging, and then apply them to something that is un-brandable. In this case, North Korea's nuclear threat.

By unbrandable, I mean something that is either conceptually too broad, weird, possibly also ideologically and ethically unpalatable, or a bit inappropriate. So is it at all possible to put a glossier sheen on a message that does not have one, nor indeed should have one? The answer is yes, mos def.

Here we have O'Puk Nukes then. Imagineering a campaign of banner ads and billboards that present the Dear Leader as with it, hip, but above all, winning. The 'product' is positioned as an urbane, artisanal, and irreverent consumable. There are suitable typographic choices and Korean colour palettes that further imbue authenticity –and fortuitously are loud ( 2017/18). There are image choices and treatments with all the culty, retro, homespun, indy tropes I can cram in, that are de rigueur in so many visual identities around right now. The tone is a kind of hybrid asian-americana; a bold, breezy, surf cult feel which I think is appropriate since Kim and co. are oftentimes seen giving the US the proper runaround, so why not imagine them at play, in the most iconically recreational American way?

I'm also embracing the bad-taste-is-good-taste vibe in the copy. In the taglines and brand mark, 'Puk', as if it needs explaining, scans as fuck. So O'Puk Nukes ... 'Oh fuck, nukes(!)'- expressing dismay that anyone should have access to such things (except us of course). Within this, Korean language does not have the sound 'Ff', therefore typically when English is spoken by native Korean speakers the sound comes out as... you get the point. This is intended to play self-deprecation as a form of endearment, but also it is blunt, and this is the era of the Donald after all; we are all about telling it how it is now. So un-subtlety, employed un-subtly as a subtle brand value.

But why?

So this project is of course partly satirical détournement, but I do have a wider more serious point to make. Before you dismiss this as adolescent tomfoolery, let's look at the facts. We have a well-oiled behemoth of a commercial media machine, pumping out volumes of eye-candy and persuasive ego-massaging adver-spiel, and this effort is most effectively –and expensively– applied to FMCG and any number of other largely non-essential items, but also often rather iffy political and well-funded personal agendas. We are pretty numb to it, and we kind of thrive on it. We love it. And we hate it.

A large part of this creative endeavour is to serve as a reminder to always ask yourself the following questions: what is the message, and who is the messenger? No matter what we are peddling, truly understanding these questions helps a strong message find a receptive audience, and the audience can weigh-up who to trust.

I have an issue with hysteria and skewed perspectives; the manipulation and misinformation that is so often dispensed in our physical and digital environs. Let's be very clear though, I am certainly not a Kim apologist, nor condoning violence, or any forms of extreme, inhumane endeavour. Nor am I completely cynical about the motives and necessities of commercial transmission. I'm interested in sparking debate, the powers of persuasion, and pulling people into considering alternative viewpoints, no matter what the message.

There is no doubt that North Korea is a bafflingly unstable, and certainly roguish regime, but it is also quite clear that they are not nearly on the same scale of military might as their primary nemesis, the US. So the rhetoric and verbal chest-thumping from both sides, but mainly coming from Trump (in the hot seat right now), is tragic, but actually turning serious geopolitical and humanitarian issues into more of a bloated ego-driven war game. Also, war and a foreign threat is always good for business, and this always smells fishy. On these facts alone, I feel it's completely fair game to try and visualise this 'rogue state' in a way that leverages the iconography and visual narrative belonging to their (clearly) much more powerful foe. Wouldn't it be nice to try and get people to engage in better understanding, rather than relying on institutional spin, or worse, straight up ignorance and self-interest?

We can put a glossy sheen on anything, in this case a fictional commercial munitions wing of Kim's regime; and why not? If Trumps' PR of paradocracy can work, why can't this?

The more real these look as commercial messaging, the more people who don't already think too deeply about such issues might just do so a little more.  

But it's fine, you can tell me to puk-off if you disagree.

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Databend tribute art... or something like that.

I produced this to scratch an itch, inspired by some local heroes of mine, the Young Fathers. I wasn't living in the UK during their defiant rise, but somehow it gave their music an even greater resonance for me. On the one hand, I have found it hard over the years to identify many individuals hailing from my homeland/town that I was massively proud of, and who I wanted to crow about; but more importantly, the fact that while they hailed from there, they weren't entirely from there - this is a truly honest and beautiful manifestation of a sound, an identity, that belonged to a place, and at the same time belonged to every place. The vocals and harmonies displaying a definite east-of-Scotland lilt, and grit, but lifted and transformed by the influence of international heritage, and life-paths of the band members. Of course the sound itself pulling in so many pan-global influences. Many times in my life I have felt like I didn't particularly belong to a place, and in fact it is much healthier to see yourself as belonging to something much bigger. Especially in light of recent events, where folks seem to be turning further away from one another, or pointing fingers... a deeply worrying state of affairs.

Genre-defying definitely, it is hard to adequately describe how uniquely out-there their sound is. With the at once delicately balanced and incendiary collision of sounds and emotions - if I was forced to define it, maybe some kind of twisted, geo-punk-pop (!?) ...hilarious, the second I typed that I started to cringe... we always feel the need to define parameters, or pigeon-hole. It makes us more comfortable I guess. Anyway, I hold them in the highest of esteem. Pure and impure, raw yet refined, tightly controlled and combustible, mirroring life in a state of equilibrium, undefined by fixed parameters and a constantly shifting balance. Enough gushing though. How did the above image come to pass?

One of my favourite tracks from the band is War from their 2014 album Dead - ancient history to some of you probably, but it stuck with me. I'm sure they might tell me I'm off the mark, but something I was forced to think about when I listen to it was conflict (obviously), and how unpleasant that is, but more specifically who personifies, justifies, or permits such acts of inhumanity? And so I dug around to find such characters, eventually coming across Admiral Blandy with his wife and cronies at a party, celebrating the successful testing of a pair of nuclear detonations... with a mushroom cloud cake (Operation Cross Roads, in case you were interested). What signifies more the impassiveness and detachment from the horrors their diligent efforts would bring upon the world, than the banality of supping on a glass of sherry and munching on slice of novelty cake? 

No doubt the track is more broadly referencing other aspects of conflict, certainly not this specific one, but I thought it was a really suitable image to blend, and bend with the sentiments of the song. The quality, and texture, the contrast of the period photography with a contemporary digital-distressing. The actions were wrong, broken thinking; breaking the image seemed appropriate. I suppose that is what this is. 

In terms of process (should you care), I took the image file and opened it in a text editor to view it as the lines of code that are the digital image, then I bent it - in this case by judiciously mixing the lyrics of the song in specific, and random places amongst the lines of code. Once saved and reopened as a graphic image, I then made further filtering edits to get it where I wanted it. 

Here are the source materials:


Big fish little pond More like a whale In the mother fucking ocean You lost your child Everything was good The smile was golden Couldn’t ask for much than a ball and the chain Forgive them Lord Thou who have sin put your sin put your sin upon me Calculated friends and the trip was costly Bang like a Bangladeshi in the Bombay Wanna get to heaven you’re flying the wrong way Free like Eid has spread his seed Mmmgh yes indeed Forgive them Lord you lost your child Gotta get ‘em now (woooo) Forgive them Lord you lost your child Gotta get ‘em now You close your eyes when I’m reaching your door You know it’s time to settle the score This is war C4 This is war This is war C4 This is war Bish bosh banging on the calabash Dead ringers Zombie singers Coughing in the coffin Reborn a new beginner Destiny’s past You dutty wee rass Chewy like tripe Situation ripe Dishing out endorphins For nature’s orphans Something something something The 4th thing Stepping up in the world Kissing your feet The guide dog walking behind ya Still on a leash Rolling in the dirt Just to hit you where it hurts Squeaky clean queen But you’re far too keen You close your eyes when I’m reaching your door You know it’s time to settle the score This is war C4 This is war This is war C4 This is war

....and here we are, printed and mounted in a vintage frame ready to hang.

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The Beat Kit 'Remover Installer' appeared on shelves in 1984. It was a fake product created by Sean Wolfe as a nose-thumb to the then solidifying culture of consumerism. The product itself was a luridly-coloured plastic baby-rattle-come-machine-part-like object that had absolutely no practical function or use. It came replete with commercial packaging, and a vibrant brand identity which included ads, posters, POS displays, bumper stickers, basically the full compliment of marketing collateral you could have expected in the mid-1980's. "Panic Now' was the brand mantra and call to action. Slicing away the subtle soft-soaping, romanticising or any other distractingly persuasive marketing spiel we expect from the average FMCG brand messengers, the naked truth is presented: 'stop what you are doing right now, you want this in your life, no, you need it in your life, go and buy it'.

Beat Kit, a subsidiary anti-brand of Gross National Products, had other satirical-fakery to peddle too, including some indeterminate mothers-little-helper-style tablets. All in all, a detailed, comprehensive, and very nicely executed series of high-concept culture jamming, and a socially-conscious assault on the public's passive acceptance of the 'new world odor' defined by what stuff we can accumulate.

I've said this before, I'm as much of a hypocrite as the next guy. I love stuff too, but I do try. I try to focus on essentialism; this doesn't mean I became completely ascetic and stopped spending money on anything, it just means being more controlled in acquiring what I actually need. It also doesn't mean I can't have 'nice' stuff, just not stockpiling umpteen versions of said stuff, and in particular, not being seduced too much by slick messaging!

I have worked on a number of projects with a 'social' bent. I rate Mr Wolfe's work as a benchmark for anti-branding. The characteristics and tone of counter-cultural creative expression, street art for an obvious example, have been widely adopted for some time now in mainstream commercial comms. There is obviously a rich vein to be tapped; if we are thinking cynically about it, in terms of drawing on the same powers of wit, irreverence, and persuasion on a level that connects directly with certain audiences. Especially in this day and age, well beyond the postmodern and the taste for ironic, self-deprecating trends in modern messaging, where, whether it be a commercial project or something more left field, the humour and simple directness of Beat Kit offers a lot of guidance. Sean Wolfe's spirit of creative dissent is alive and well, Banksy is an obvious (if massively more successful) contemporary standard-barer.

A third of a century on from its inception, it is as relevant and thought-provoking as it was then. I do wonder how much more successfully disseminated its message would have been with all the comms channels available now?... I certainly rate it as highly, if not more so, than Shepherd Fairey's Obey anti-brand for example; mainly because Obey eventually morphed from something counter-cultural, into a mainstream commercial product line (this obviously proves the point of the traction and power in the anti-brand positioning). But generally for being more vibrant, and just more fun. I suppose it came down to how dedicated he was to keeping it going, compared to how relentless and ubiquitous the Obey paste-up narrative became. *I know Obey was not trying to say the same thing, but they do share an aesthetic, tone, era, and medium.

While on the subject of leveraging counter-cultural street cred for capital gains, check out the Blackspot Unswoosher. A footwear product from Adbusters Magazine, which, while touting the 'most ethical'(sic), organic, recycled, union made, right-on sneaker on the planet as an antidote to the life-sucking mega-corp sinners (Nike, most pointedly), they are in fact maintaining the same amount of commodity fetishism and continuing the cycle of conspicuous consumption that they purport to be combating! A meta-oxymoron, assuming they are self-aware, at all. I mean, surely you can't on the one hand be pushing International Buy Nothing Day, and then be creating a cult of cool around a fashion product, no matter how right-on its provenance? That is just a personal criticism of what I believe to be a glitch in the Adbusters agenda, I am more focused here on how it represents successfully positioning and messaging their product by leveraging a counter-cultural aesthetic....and certainly, no argument, if we can be honest and admit we are going to still want stuff, holding up right-on-ness as a core aesthetic would be fantastic. I suppose these things serve to highlight the pickle we are in, caught between our desires and our conscience, but certainly, this is precisely the psychological space in which creative communications thrive.

Anyway, perhaps a cheeky wee reboot, a Beat Kit 2.0 model shouldn't be out of the question? Here's hoping. I for one fell under the spell of this must-have item - the Remover Installer was actually produced and sold in limited numbers, in case anyone is reading this and wondering. I'm sure he gets all warm and fuzzy knowing that he successfully got people (me) fetishising his non-product. Bravo that man.

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Best digital interactive design studio on the planet, this cannot be overstated.

They say: "Resn is a creative digital agency. We infect minds with gooey interactive experiences and saturate the internet with digital miracles."

click... <cue dreamy, amorous, surf-jazz audio track>

It is important to recognise, and tip a cap in the general direction of anyone making our digital world a brighter place - credt where it's due. Enough polycarbonate-trophy-wielding industry types have told them so already no doubt, but as much as it's worth, I'm adding my voice to the adulation. They have been doing their thing at the bleeding edge for a good long while now, so anybody working in commercial digital production, user interaction, in-browser animation, or connected in anyway to this realm of communication, if not already familiar with their work, really ought to be.

Founded in 2004 by Rik Campbell and Steve Le Marquand, Resn now knock major league global brand campaigns and messages out of the park for fun. Perverting the Web was the title of their recent Awwards keynote address this year in Amsterdam (where one of their offices is based - the other being Wellington, NZ). The crux of it was to push the message of thinking out of the box (container), to challenge, and disrupt. This is pretty much a mantra above the conference room door of every contemporary comms agency, but this crew definitely do it, and kill it, every time. Some of the content they produce is mind-blowing, in terms of demonstrating how intuitive, and how fun a time users can have interacting with in-browser content, whether the content be slick corporate automotive industry stuff (see their work for Subaru), or punky, urban 'yoof'-oriented (loads for Adidas, KFC, and many more). It doesn't matter whether their talents be applied to commercial endeavours, or just causes, the quality of their work shines throughout. There is a humour and a warmth to their work, but there is also always a demonstration of incisive intelligence, and limit-pushing determination that is nothing short of inspirational. Thank you Resn. 

*See the above mentioned talk here (delivered by two of the companies creative directors, Kris Hermansson and Simon Jullien).

*See the static slide deck from it here.

*See their showreel here.

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Golok, Qinghai, Tibetan plateau

As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard.", a private person once said.

He continued, "...When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel around the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon. How many juries will convict us when we are caught in these acts of beneficent citizenship?". That private person was, in fact, a rather public one; David Ogilvy, founder of the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency, quoted from his book Confessions of an Advertising Man, 1963. Master-puppetmaster turns culture jammer. Awesome. It is a fascinating trick of the human mind, to crack on in your endeavour, while deep down your conscience is at odds with it. A debate for another day, I won't judge, I'm as much a hypocrite as the next man.

On the subject of billboards though, I feel they hold a strange allure. In the case of the image I took above; an enormous, blank sheet of aluminium glinting in the sunlight, it was tragic, and majestic. Planted a hundred miles from any kind of civilisation, I was really drawn to it. It appeared like Arthur C. Clark's monolith in 2001, an eerie, geometric counterpoint to a barren, vast green expanse. A similar feeling I have about seeing wind turbines dotted across the horizon in remote wilderness'. A beautiful contrast.

Their incongruous placement, or juxtaposition can actually add to a scene. Controversial I know, and undoubtedly I am of a generation so bombarded with signs and signals, that I am slightly immune to it, it is so normalised. The world of marketing and commercial transmission reaches so deeply into every realm, it is expected. But I think it is more about there being a wider appeal toward the aesthetic of disruption. Where something anomalous, something that breaks the pattern, something unexpected, can be much more stimulating than the safe, warm blanket and mug of cocoa that is expected continuity. The image is interesting because of the object planted in the field, otherwise, it would just be a field.

Clearly in this case the scene would not hold its ominous, conflicted charm if the billboard had an actual ad or political propaganda statement adorning it; it's emptiness gives it a tragicomic quality, to whom, and about what, am I supposed to be broadcasting, way out here in the himalayas? I suppose What Mr Ogilvy was criticising more was not the physical object, but rather the corrupting of, or violation of a natural environment with the steady creep of consumerism. Agreed. But in this case, captured and imortalised as a motif, I find that 'corruption' is precisely what stimulates my cerebral cortices.

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Putting my designers hat on, I can relate to the thrill of problem-solving and finding elegant solutions; through innovation, working on efficiency, ergonomics, inventing products, processes, devices and all manner of industrial, scientific and technological boundary-busting. Sadly, when it comes to environmental issues, and in particular our increasingly more hazardous AQI levels, serious psychological and behavioural shifts need to take place, accompanied by lifestyle changes, and letting go of purely capital-driven decision-making.

As much as I value the design thinking behind this or that pollution mask, or discretely elegant domestic air purifier as immediate industrial solutions to combat pollution on a personal level, it is just symptomatic of the anthropocentric belief in our supremacy over the natural world. That environmental conditions can be tamed, and we can indefinitely find neat solutions allowing us to plough on into an ever-worsening situation, while making ourselves a touch more comfy along the way. The problem isn't going away, but rather than slow down a bit, let's shop our way out of it. Or, possibly... get busy dabbling in transhumanist ideals of meddling with our own physical evolution? ... "nothing too drastic mind, but as long as we don't have to give up the Escalade baby, hook us up!".

Anyway, I believe in the show being more effective than the tell, so here is some marketing collateral for just such a (possible) near-future technocratic solution . Is it so hard to believe that with enough bio-tech advances and a sufficiently desperate public, that we wouldn't consider a surgical intervention to a dire health concern if it was on the table?


Sure, sealing up your nostrils and implanting a genetically engineered membrane in your mouth might seem a bit extreme. Sure, you will be taking all your dietary and nutritional requirements through an atomiser - also available through the Technocratic Solutions Store - but you would at least be breathing. Sure, rendering yourself a fully paid-up member of the mouth-breathing ranks might seem like a cultural back-step, but let's look on the bright side...

A word from the Technocratic Solutions Clinic

We began at a time where the appliance of science and technological innovation was employed as a crutch, a patch-up job when things went wrong - as if your human form was the pinnacle of evolution, and maintenance was all we demanded.

We knew the story of mans' evolution didn’t end there.

Thanks to the vision of our founding fathers, Technocratic Solutions emerged to offer all the necessary advancement. To take charge of body and mind and shape it with everything required to meet the demands of the 21st century, and beyond.

Thanks to our flagship SO IF procedure, you are not only free to leave your homes once more and feel the sun on your face without the archaic apparatus you were once burdened by, but to excel - the opportunity to live longer, live stronger, live faster.

Join numanity and visit one of more than 6000 worldwide state-of-the-art clinics today!

WE RESOLVE SO YOU CAN EVOLVE - subway tunnel advertisement (click/swipe)

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I have been doing some freelance consulting with the multimedia department at Greenpeace east Asia in Beijing. The past couple of months I worked on producing some smart die-cut bilingual brochures, keynote presentations, and a mobile mini site to showcase their work in the region.

The direction chosen was geared primarily toward a key post-millennial target audience, hopefully resonating with them as more receptive, socially and environmentally conscious, but still feeling accessible across the psycho/sociographic spectrum. These are serious issues, but the content needed to feel lively and not too sober. I think we achieved this.

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I don't often gush. But I love this piece. It has been replicated around the globe, and honestly I can't track down where it first appeared, but certainly the tiles have been glued up in Brighton and London for a year or two, maybe more?? Culture jamming at its best. No poh-faced doom-watching, just a really sweet (pun intended) jibe at the cheery face of a serious social concern. Gentrification, at its worst, basically means forcing local communities, typically on low income out of their neighbourhood due to its inflated rent hikes, directly tied to inflated popularity as a trendy new(old) des-res part of town for the hip and urbane. The more faded, shambling, gritty, industrial, 'urban', "authentic", the better. A huge draw for a certain type of individual. The certain type of individual who is downwardly mobile, and requires kooky, throwback confections to accompany their whimsically erudite tastes and visage. Just in case you are feeling particularly worthy, take a wander over to Edible Geography . A great article discussing the wider debate and a study from a few years back conducted by NewYork-based urban planning academics, discussing this very issue. How you can affect and measure the development of social space, amenities, the transference from local economies based on production proper, to leisure and retail-oriented models.  Food for thought (sorry).

The world burns, we'll be throwing a tea party in our Doris Day sun dresses.

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One of the strings to my bow happens to include once-upon-a-time being an industry nominated UK Bartender of the Year. Of the many hats I have worn in my life, working in F&B was one of the most rewarding and valuable experiences for me; in terms of developing super-refined soft skills, as well as seeing the immediate impact on a customer/client for a job well done. It could be hard work for sure, but the personal satisfaction, pride and of course fun was a worthy reward.

Working in many areas of the industry before, during and after my student days in the UK, I stepped away from that world while in a role as head bartender and management team for an award winning boutique UK restaurant and bar group. This role required a great deal of time devoted to attending training, workshops, tastings, ambassadorial roles at industry events, competitions (winning one or two along the way), and of course one of the aspects I loved most, developing new recipes, creating menus, pairing and balancing flavours to complement food offerings.

As someone who thrives on being hands on, and being of a creative bent, this line of work was fantastic... Anyway, let me introduce Wetwork.

The aim here is to present both formal and informal creative work associated with the ontrade, but also serve as a point of contact for any consultation or commissions that might come my way. This may relate to the service side, the product, the venue itself and of course any VI and marketing-related needs. I was prompted to put this together after doing a little bit of moonlighting recently as consultant, staff trainer and duties on the comms side for a few restaurant and bar venues in Beijing. I've also had a couple of recent magazine features on cocktail-related matters. 

So expect to see design work, plus a handful of words, photography and indeed recipes that may be of interest to any folks fond of liquor, spice and all things ice.

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I am currently on retainer with Edumaxi, working on a variety of design needs including instructional design, book designs and branding work for their clients. I was also tasked with giving them themselves an updated identity.

They are an established New Zealand-based company with an impressive list of global clients including most of the major private education providers in Asia, McGraw-Hill Education amongst others.They operate two branches, educational design and corporate consulting and as they grow and their profile increases there was need to better and more clearly represent themselves with two distinct faces that belonged to a cohesive whole. As well as a new hierarchy, they wanted a more contemporary and striking logo and palette.

Since their core values revolve around education, shared knowledge and support (hence the group of abstract figures huddled-up in the centre of their original logotype), it was important to keep some visual metaphor for this while simplifying and becoming more memorable. We settled on this clustered primary circles direction.

Part of my pitch to them:

...Circles represent completeness and inclusivity; overlapping and interlocking forms implying collectivity and connectivity. You are a multi-faceted organisation with global reach... The logo mark can be decoded as an abstracted group of individuals, colleagues or partners, equally they can be viewed as spheres of influence...

The typography is a Clarendon face. It obviously has a traditional 'established' look and feel but of course is much bolder and punchier than a lighter serif would be; this speaks to the aspect of their market where they should not appear too sober and corporate - it should convey an air of established success, while still seeming human and approachable. To this last requirement, the lively high chroma palette helps the overall weight of the type seem friendlier. I enjoyed working on this and feel it's a pretty strong and fitting brand mark.

Here's some exerts from the guidelines:

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I was dragged out of retirement to help with consultation on setting up a new bar in our Beijing neighbourhood, Fang Bar. I say that like it took much persuading! In a former life I was a 'drinksmith' of some renown and have moonlit more than a few times over the years, so I jumped at the chance to get my hands wet again. I will give another post on the drinks themselves – which are pretty special if I do say so myself, and make great use of local produce and personality – a good drink always requires a good story behind it too. But, in addition to this I was asked to help with VI, menu design and copywriting. I think the results are decent for the relatively shallow budget.

The bar is an intimate and informal joint. Great product and fairly polished service, without the pretence of an 'uptown' bar. The bar is also trying to integrate with a neighbourhood in 'old-Beijing', which means of course it is part of a wave of hip pseudo-bohemian gentrification, but in decor and attitude the guys are treading lightly. The identity and collateral therefore wanted to be, understated, not flashy, but certainly not too consciously antiquated as so many jazz-age, speakeasy, 'discerning dispensers of authentic libation' establishments will want to do these days. Yes, I put brass rivets in there, but that's the only nod to a 'vintage purveyors' provenance, I swear. Essentially, it was drawing on traditional asian publishing vibes.

The remit for the primary print collateral; the menu, was to be compact in format, with clean and legible bilingual copy presentation. This was a really nice and technical design exercise requiring a light touch, minimal graphic design, and perfectly matched bi-lingual typography was the order of the day – this is so often so lazily done and really needs a good understanding of both latin and Chinese typographic styles. I think it ticks those boxes.

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Grievous Bicycle Harm (GBH). I can neither confirm nor deny any knowledge of the actions leading up to, during, or after these heinous acts were delivered upon our bicycle brethren. I have documented since early 2009 numerous crime scenes and those unfortunate survivors, now forced to eek-out meagre existences in varying conditions of disgrace and physical burden. Suffering under the tread of the automobile rampage, a cautionary tale documenting the abused, abandoned, and driven into bondage.

turf war
beast of burden
chain gang
pole dancer
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