Monday, July 12, 2010

Always Amazing Value

Via @WillWiles's twitter feed I came across this article by Rick Poyner on Poundland's graphic design. It's an interesting article, or, at least, an interesting starting point, but he comes to some odd conclusions. Along the way, Poyner makes some good points about the relationship of graphics to wealth, taste and, ultimately, class. These are things that I think design critics should talk a lot more about so I don't find any of his observations problematic, despite the comments here, where it seems to be assumed that talking about class in itself is somehow patronising.

Anyway, Poyner's main point is that Poundland's growth and its move into wealthier, more middle class areas makes its brutally direct, eye popping graphic style problematic. Will new, posher, customers, used to the tasteful graphic niceties of Marks & Spencer or Ocado, be able to stomach Poundland's "proletarian" directness? Or will they need to be flattered into shopping there, reassured that it all fits into an aspirational lifestyle distinguished by lime green fonts and reusable canvas grocery bags?

Not a bad question which probes some interesting conceits about shopping habits and the way that stores play on a mixture of social mobility, snobbery and guilt in inducing us to shop there. Inverted snobbery, of course, plays its part in Poundland's success along with a slightly nauseating tendency towards pretend-slumming by people who could well afford to shop elsewhere.

But Poyner is also all over the place in his conclusions. Having described Poundland's graphics as "highly specified and refined" (which is partially true, but they're also cheap in the literal sense) he goes on to denounce them as patronising and crude. Crude possibly, but why are they any more patronising than, say, the subtle shifts in font and graphic style used to denote upmarket brands in supermarkets? Can only the 'proletariat" be exploited? And, more importantly, why would a tasteful graphic signature used to lure in the middle classes not be patronising or exploitative?

Some years ago BA used to have a budget airline called Go. Despite the fact that its no-frills cheapness made the experience of flying with it identical to that of flying Easyjet, its Damian Hurst-esque spot pattern livery and tasteful graphics made it the acceptable budget airline for the middle classes. In the same way that some people prefer flying from Stanstead over Luton, despite the fact that both experiences are equally terrible, design has an ability to lend a patina of acceptability or sophistication, an aura of class, that has nothing to do with the quality of the product or the ethics of the experience.

Poyner has, like most design critics, confused ethics with aesthetics, assuming that his taste is morally superior, more honest, more truthful, somehow simply better. But there are no truths in typefaces, only taste cultures each with their own values.


Murphy said...

Slightly off topic, but regarding airport aesthetics, a few recent trips to Gatwick left me feeling slightly fond of its dowdy modernism.
The train station back to London has one of those 70s space frames that really hits home the dusty, manky truth of the Archigram future (less zoom, more trundle), and upon returning to London Bridge there's another of the bloody things.
So- regarding class and aesthetic and so on. Forget Foster at Stanstead, let's enjoy dank yellow light and the oily dust on those 70s roofs, before they're all swept away - they do exactly the same thing, just as well, after all! Functionalism should be ugly!

Charles Holland said...

Yes! I remember thinking something very similar in Gatwick myself along the lines of: "This is what Archigram would look like if built". I have the same sense when I look at the Royal Festival Hall Pier. And i agree, slightly ungainly space frames are always preferable to aerofoil section pseudo-functionality.

owen hatherley said...

Recently I had the experience of using St Pancras International (which always sounds oddly absurd...) and Luton Airport in the same week, and was struck that both were quite shit in design terms in very different ways, aimed at different classes - the shed at the back in St Pancras is nearly as bad as the curved-roof canopy at Luton, while the latter has at least a weirdly Sant'Elia-esque orange shed housing Easyjet. It's fascinating how train travel now markets itself as the upper-crust option (we have lots of deep brown wood and a branch of Foyles! Etc), with a prohibitive price to match, while the formerly jetset world of aviation is desperately cheap in every sense * - (which, of course, reinforces the sense that the environmentally friendly option is the middle-class option) but what makes this aesthetic difference concrete is the fact that in St Pancras the passenger is, just about, treated like a human being, and in Luton, like cattle.

(* not that airports can't make similar moves, I suppose - Terminal 5 goes for some St Pancras Farrowandballism, though the big secret is City Airport - a shockingly ugly shed by Seifert Jr, every bit as shoddy as Luton, which houses by far the nicest and least obnoxious airport in London)

owen hatherley said...

...but, er, re the actual post - yes, yes and yes - the idea that making Poundland more chic would be a good idea is atrocious - I bet something similar will occur though, some sort of Keep Calm And Carry On version of budget shopping aimed at Guardian readers. Design aimed at the latter can certainly do patronising.

Charles Holland said...

I don't know what you mean Owen. I find that website friendly, approachable yet quirky and ethically reassuring.

Susan said...

That's a very complicated ad to get across a seriously simple message.. and the colour scheme's vile. By the way, I mentioned your marvellous blog on my website the other day.

lottery coupons for a living said...

I think the actual products being bought and sold and the different kinds of product over-/under-design is a more interesting subject... also I think this is more about culture than class. There's a connection between both, of course, but you know the kind of people who hate both the upper classes and (to some extent) other working class people? They get angry at any kind of bollocks design, whether it's for the poor or for the rich, because it's complete and utter shite, that's what it is.

bloody lotto coupons ha HA said...

(my point is that cultural differences like that amongst the working class itself do affect people's lives, which means there IS some truth in typefaces. maybe not "TRUTH", but some truth, yes.)

3 gigaton bomb at marks & spencer, victims buy collective lottery coupon said...

(These radical people don't have a place in the media or in mainstream design. They have little everyday stuff to identify with, except maybe objects and places such as the Tube itself or certain neighbourhoods, but that doesn't help a lot, it's just like a starting point that's going nowhere. Again, this means there is some truth in typefaces, although I guess it doesn't matter as design is so easy to co-opt.)

1 metric ton of £1 maltesers up your arse: disarmed, you can only rely on lotto coupons to recover your status said...

(and by "truth" I don't mean morally better or worse, what I mean is that socially it does matter)

Justin said...

Very interesting. Is there in fact something that could be called 'working class graphic design'? I have wondered this when walking past the Dreams bed superstore many a time. Looking at their logo I cant work out whether it is a great bit of design made to fit the market perfectly, or whether they hired Jon's sister's boyfriend who knows computers and did it on the cheap? Or perhaps their is such a thing as working class graphic design. Just look at Argos. I investigate these questions in my blog below if you are interested. Regards Justin

Charles Holland said...

Lotto etc. I guess my point is that culture and class (in the sense used in the post) are the same thing. Or closely intertwined and that Poyner's article pointed this out before going on to reinforce his own class prejudices.

Justin, thanks for the link. Looks very interesting, will investigate further.....

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