Graphic commons: progress and an Essex drift


Notes on current research
As my graphic commons project grows and I’m formulating links between different urban studies and theories, I’m finding out how little research there appears to be into graphic design in shared environments, (within both current or historic thinking around the topic). This may obviously be because I just haven’t found it yet, and others may be able to fill the holes in my studies, (please post in comments or DM me via the contacts page if you do have any research pointers). A 2017 report by the Design Commission titled People & Places: Design of the Built Environment and Behaviour, makes reference to how urban environments can influence mental health, but fails to mention anything in regard to how everyday visual culture may impact on this. Such references tend to be more explicitly discussed in anti-advertising doctrines such as the excellent Advertising Shits In Your Head. However, in doing so, such texts tend to be polemic and agitational in nature and do not make a wider connection to urbanism as a theoretical study.

Others discuss the visualisation of environments in passing, but do so more abstractly by talking either about visual pollution or the commercialisation of space without reference to specific pictorial material, (see Fezer’s Design In & Against the Neoliberal City, obviously Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life—in particular volume 2: Foundations Of Study For A Sociology of the Everyday—and visual pollution is discussed in the introduction to the recent republication of Nelson’s How To See). In relation to how my research on the ground is going, it fits more with some of the projects I am reading about in Campkin and Duijzings’ 2016 publication: Engaged Urbanism: Cities & Methodologies, although none of the featured work is studying graphic design in shared environments per se.

An estate agent, Essex Boys and a Polish deli

Recent drift
So my background research goes on, as do the psychogeographic walks: the most recent being around Chelmsford in Essex.

Distance walked: 4.3 miles
Steps taken: 9,683
Start time: 10:15 (arrive at Chelmsford Station)
Ground covered: City centre shopping precinct, surrounding river developments, park, cathedral, and industrial area

It is a city I have frequented several times many years ago to see friends and acquaintances, as opposed to actually visiting the location for its own sake. In these trips to the town, (although it gained City status in 2012, I still think of it as a town), I have never felt the urge to get to know its history, any unique features it might have, or its retail opportunities. In regard to the latter, I have passed through other towns with similar 1980s/90s shopping centres, (two that come to mind are Yeovil and down town Lincoln), and thought to myself that such generic locations are ‘much like Chelmsford’. They are all chain stores, pedestrianised/block-paved thoroughfares, and hard seating areas.

Chelmsford, like any such town today, has its fair share of boarded-up stores and charity shops that tell a tale of the times. That said, despite the different waves of ‘regeneration’ the town has been subject to, it is good to see some aspect of vernacular remaining amongst the paving slabs; street signs left over from the 1960s (?), and a nod to the bling culture Essex is famed for on some shop fronts. It is interesting to see Essex Boys Barber Shop sitting comfortably next to a Polish store in these Brexit days, although admittedly, I am seeing this as a tourist so am not privy to what local tensions there may be.

A vernacular of x-height variety

The refurbished riverbank area is bringing in the newer chains such as John Lewis, Bill’s, and Bryon Hamburgers, giving Chelmsford a contemporary lift. But if we use the walk through the older precincts/previous developments as a guide for how planners have failed to keep on top of their upkeep, it is surely only a matter of time before these new areas hit similar doldrums. A measure of a town’s future success, it could be argued, is on how well the older areas have been looked after—if neglect is endemic in ‘upgrades’ from the recent past, why would anyone think that the regeneration of another area will be anything but a short-term plan? (There are cities that have negated such problems; Norwich has had a wholesale facelift over the last 10 years that pictures the city as a whole, rather than as compartmentalised areas. As a result its centre feels like a product of joined-up thinking with the whole of the town, which unfortunately is not the case for Chelmsford).

A large communal area awaiting swirling litter in the breeze
Precinct cats
New bling store
A town stag do
Those that have gone before
Cup half-empty or half-full?

If there are any graphic trends, in terms of application, then the proliferation of banners around the town appears to be one of them. I was hard pressed to find a run of railings in Chelmsford that haven’t had the communication potential squeezed out of them. Where several banners hang together, they visually clash with each other as the hanger has only considered one visual perspective and not how they sit collectively. All ignore the fact that there is a reason that railings are railings and not walls—you can see through them. Thus, wheelchair users may not be able to see traffic hazards until right up against a curb, or a view of the riverbank becomes obliterated by crude graphics. It makes me wonder whether permission is needed for such visual accoutrements, and I suspect not. Judging by how out of date some are, the production of these banners is obviously money that can be thrown away by their originators, although I’m left asking what the financial return actually is?

Banner frenzy

Chelmsford, I’m sure, is not unique in this banner frenzy. Nor is it unique in other ways that graphic design imposes itself into eye-lines and shapes our visual lives in shared environments.

Retail Dreams and Costa culture
Not UKIP, but UKIP colours. Message unknown.
Health and safety devices scream for attention amongst all the rest of the ‘visual pollution’
A swatch of blues
Poster mimics content

In terms of its graphic commons, Chelmsford is much like any other city of a similar size, although it was good to see a bit of personality on the edges of its commercial areas. But any town centre’s reason for exisiting in contemporary society is as a location for capitalism to do its business on a human level. As a result it doesn’t feel like too long before the small traders will be squeezed out and historical wayfinding will be replaced with each new wave of regeneration. As Fezer states in the aforementioned Design In & Against The Neoliberal City: “As phenomena to be understood within the crisis of neo-liberalism, the emerging design practices in question consist of almost exclusively top-down strategies to further control and commercialise urban space.” (p23)

Pouting for attention

iPhone shuffle selection
Björk – Sacrifice (Death Grips Remix)
Be – Uplift
Ministry – All Day Remix
Liars – A Ring On Every Finger
Andy Moor & Yannis Kyriakides – Doorways Make You Forget
Panda Bear – Come To Your Senses
Einstürzende Neubauten – Salamandrina
Sons Of Kemet – The Itis
Savages – Surrender
Fat White Family – Goodbye Goebbels
Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – Girl In Amber
The National – Runaway
Aphex Twin – 180db_[130]
John Grant – No More Tangles
Sleaford Mods – The Blob
Zomby – The Forest
Colin Newman – fish 2
Björk – Black Lake
Tony Fearon – Message To The Nation
Eek-A-Mouse – Virgin Girl
Cavern Of Anti-Matter – Insect Fear
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Lie Down In The Light
Jah Lion and The Upsetters – Generation From Creation
Bonobo and Speech Debelle – Sun Will Rise
David Bowie – Girl Loves Me
Liars – No Barrier Fun
Idles – Well Done
Mbongwana Start – Shégué
Boards Of Canada – New Seeds
The Fall – Mister Rode


Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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