Throughout the 1980s and 90s I worked as a graphic designer. I was a founding partner of a London design group called Information Design Workshop and as the name suggests we were all rather serious about the role of graphic design and its capacity for social good. If I had to sum up our philosophy it would be something similar to that old modernist maxim form follows function, which in the world of graphic design meant that we had no pre-set ‘style’. The look of whatever we were working on had to flow out of the needs of the information and the audience it was aimed at. And that meant in-depth engagement with the substance of the publication, and genuine research into its audience and distribution.
At our height in the 1980s we worked in a converted warehouse studio on the Thames complete with studio cameras, dark rooms, sofas and suites of parallel-motion drawing boards. Then came the computer revolution and we slowly shrank our space and equipment and finally abandoned the studio, and the partnership, and dispersed to our spare bedrooms with the only thing we each now needed, an Apple Mac.
It was a good career, a creative and endlessly interesting one, but it was a ‘nearly’ career. Graphic design is full of nearlies. We all trained at Art College so we were nearly artists – but not quite. We shared skills with art but in the parlance of the time, we were not ‘pure’ but ‘applied’ – we solved other people’s problems.
We were nearly printers. Nearly the skilled working class with their technical expertise and trade union hierarchies – but not really. We handed our work over to printers when we had done our ‘arty’ bit (as they would see it). And the final iteration was theirs.
And we were nearly our clients – the local authorities, the QUANGOs, the health education charities, the housing associations, the educational establishments. We had to know their business because we had to communicate it. Sometimes it would seem to us that we knew it better than they did – but of course our knowledge was, of necessity, superficial. For soon we were on to the next job.
But there was something exhilarating and strangely valuable about that in-between-ness. We were neither intellectuals, nor managers, nor trades people, but a bit of all of them – or certainly able to know our way around all those worlds and be able to communicate across their divides. Because it was communication that we were good at. And sometimes – just sometimes – this could make us smarter than all of them. Sometimes we could make a real difference.
I’ve moved on from graphic design now, but I’m still a nearly. A collector, a curator, an academic, a researcher, a writer, a publisher – I am nearly all of those things. I’m none of them really, but I love the freedom that such a description gives me to move across disciplines and follow my own interests. And with the Internet, for all its faults, it’s easier to do that than ever before.
It starts with collecting. I collect small man-made objects from different cultures (including my own). It’s not really a ‘collection’ in the formal sense because my acquisitions are so eclectic that they defy any meaningful category. But I sometimes think of them as objects of belief because, directly or indirectly, they all come out of a belief system of some sort. You could say that about almost any man-made object. What I’m attracted to though are objects with interesting and complex semiotic meanings, and it’s my background as a graphic designer and an enduring fascination with visual symbolism that motivates me.
I select and display my objects. They are seldom valuable or rare (I find many of them in charity shops). I research their origins, their meanings and their significance, and this takes me into different areas – anthropology, history, art, science, politics, religion. Many of the objects are in-betweens themselves. They are not quite what they seem. They pretend to be something they are not. Or they have acquired different meanings as they have been passed, or sold, from hand to hand and changed their context. I am interested in the ebb and flow of human ideas and their strange collective fictions. I have my own axes to grind – I am interested in colonialism, empire, oppression, resistance and their lingering toxicity in race, class and culture. Mundane objects can tell you a lot about such things.
I photograph these objects, I write about them, and finally I publish them (or some of them) on a website called The Museum of Belief: objects that mean something.
It you are interested, do take a look. And you can contact me through the site, so let me know what you think. Two items from the collection are featured in The Ifso Times, the rest can be found at: