Graphic commons: Government sanctioned dérives

Making the most of the ‘sanctioned’ time I am allowed out to exercise during the UK government’s coronavirus pandemic ‘lockdown’, I have been drifting through my neighbourhood on a daily basis for the last week. Despite the awkwardness of swapping sides of the road every time I see someone coming in my direction, this has allowed me to visually re-engage with the Graphic Commons of this area of east Ipswich.


I know these streets well from the many dog walks my wife and I have done around our locale. Or so I thought. However, with our dog a year gone, and in more recent years him being so lethargic with age we tended to take him for less lengthy walks, it appears I have either become unfamiliar with some aspects of my surroundings, or simply never spotted them in the first place. So now, under circumstances I would not choose, I have been conducting observational research on the visual culture of my immediacy.

As would be expected, the start of my walks tend to have some degree of planning; at least in respects to me deciding what direction I am going to head in before I close the front door behind me. From then though, I make my decisions on a whim—that whim is often influenced by whether there appears to be too many people for my liking walking in one particular direction—and I drift the streets based on instinct and the random thoughts that themselves drift through my mind.


The above drain cover is a good example of something that has revealed itself for the first time on these recent walks. It just down the road from where we live, near a cornershop I used to visit regularly and a post box where I have posted many letters. I have photographed this area often, yet now is the first time I have noticed the embossed lettering. On subsequent outings I have hunted for the same wording, but this, to date, is the only example of Cocksedge Ipswich I have found.

As noticing the drain cover suggests, there tends to be a lot of looking down on these dérives. Doing so has revealed a heritage trail of past communications systems in my neighbourhood. It is fitting in these lockdown times to consider such histories, given the salvation that broadband has been for businesses, for entertaining those staying at home, and for connecting people to distant love-ones and friends.

It goes without saying that examples of Graphic Interruptions are never far away. The ephemera of graphic design, whether employed professionally or crated by an untutored hand, are still at the mercy of the weather. These items become part and parcel of our everyday visual surroundings, degrading over time and creating by themselves some interesting abstract imagery or metaphors to ponder.

Where repairs to interrupted graphic design do take place, a lineage of activity is revealed for all to see. There is a reminder in this to current thinking around historical building conservation; that rather than try to blend a repair in to its surroundings, the repair is left visible for future historians to read. Here too on the streets, while accidentally so, a constructivist mosaic of geometric road controls tells a story. Some though, go further and attempt to reinvent the wheel.


There are examples of interesting lettering cropping up, as hastily written shop signs are stuck in windows. Take-aways state they will now only provide a delivery service—the example below having echos of Stefan Sagmeister’s hand—or a local shop owner sticks on their door an emotive letter about why they are forced to close and implore everyone to stay safe.


There have, likewise, been many handmade window displays made by newly home-schooled children. They offer their love and support to the NHS and other key workers, with rainbows featured heavily. As a metaphor for hope, these are as heartwarming to see as they are heartbreaking, raising a multitude of emotions in anyone reading these symbols of humanity if they are anything like me. (To note: I took photographs of examples of these on a shop run prior to the actual lockdown—since then I have felt too self-conscious to point a camera at someone else’s frontroom window, hence no shots here.)


Signs of corporate activity, inevitably, are still dotted around. Even though there are less people on the streets now, that doesn’t stop advertisers taking every opportunity to try to sell stuff. The site of the above drives home the obsolete nature of phone booths even more in this current situation, as people embrace the video-calling of loved ones from mobile phones from the comfort of their front rooms. Trekking to a phone booth, like so many of us did many years ago, is now an obsolete concept to many. Yet this historical infrastructure serves a new purpose as it is employed as an urban ‘pop-up’ advert to interrupt our line of sight and grab attention. In this it could be argued they echo a ‘pop-up’ advert appearing on Facebook, but are instead inserted into physical surroundings—there is simply no escaping the lengths advertisers will not go to to implant their commercial message into brains.

In amongst all of this closer, and often critical scrutiny of my neighbourhood, it is good to see there are still surprises to be had, and this brickwork lettering on Bishops Hill is one of those.


Having driven, walked and cycled past this hundreds of times in the past, it only revealed itself to me the other day. Posting the photograph to Facebook, many friends who know the area well, commented how they too had not previously seen this. It is almost as if it were only just recently mortared in to place. Whether it is because there are less cars on the roads now that this allowed my eye to be drawn to it, or because the act of drifting allows for the mind to alert the retina it has seen something interesting, I don’t know. In all likelihood, it will be a combination of the two. Regardless of the reason, it is a joyous item of typographic architecture to discover. I could write an essay about this find alone, but that can wait for another day.

Distance walked: 14.5 miles
Steps taken: 31,742
Duration: over 6 days, approx 40–50 minutes per day
Ground covered: Residential urban area on the east Ipswich town. Mixed housing, terraced, semi-detached and detached: dense in places. Local, residential streets, side-roads and skirting a ring-road with retail outlets such as mini-supermarkets, convenience stores, take-aways and small businesses.

Published by Nigel Ball

Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design

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