The Secret Genius of Modern Life

Members of the the Design Group have been working on an OU / BBC co-production called The Secret Genius of Modern Life, a series that uncovers the secrets behind the miraculous technologies of the modern world, revealing the mind-blowing stories behind their invention.

Derek Jones and David Sharp were the academic consultants and it’s probably fair to say that  both had to make use of a lot of knowledge across different areas of knowledge – from the electromagnetism of espionage to the social dynamics of innovation.There’s more inside a bank card than you might think – and there’s even more ‘stuff’ around the bankcard to make it work than people realise.

In fact, the bankcard highlights the complexity of many modern technologies and how reliant they are on invisible infrastructures, systems, services, even supply chains, and other global-scale entities.

Have a look for yourself – catch up on the episode here:

And you can find out more about some of the challenges and ethics of modern technology on the OU’s Connect page, including additional material from the academics and Hannah, as well a chance to contribute your thoughts:

Every city needs a Supergarden!

During the last weeks of summer, hot on the athletic heels of the Commonwealth Games, Birmingham burst into flower with the arrival of a spectacular supergarden. PoliNations, a celebration of Birmingham’s diverse population, wove an exploration of the city’s cultural heritage with that of the plants that adorn and breath oxygen into its gardens, conceived around the fact that around 80% of the latter arrived here from overseas, through colonisation, migration, medical research and scientific endeavour. Taking nine of our iconic plants including the rose, daisy, pansy, tulip, amaranth and apple tree, PoliNations told their fascinating stories.

PoliNations in Victoria Square, Birmingham

The project was set up by multi-disciplinary arts organisation Trigger, with creative director Angie Bual, as part of the government commissioned ‘Unboxed: Creativity in the UK’ festival. It was one of 10 cultural community projects spread across the United Kingdom. Originally, and rather unfortunately, it was known as the Festival of Brexit, purporting to celebrate what Britain could be in its glorious new isolation, but this proved so unpopular, designers threatened to pull out if the name wasn’t changed!

Topically, PoliNations served to emphasise the importance of access to green spaces, and how we need to nurture the planet. After the ‘greyness’ of the pandemic, it offered an oasis of beauty and peace where people could come together again, and reflect on what’s really important. Images on the news of nature reclaiming its territory whilst people stayed indoors made us so much more aware of what we have lost and could potentially lose forever.

Banks of ferns and flowers planted by Chris and Toby Marchant

Victoria Square seemed to expand in proportions as spectacular 40 foot trees soared up from the concrete, using wind power to generate electricity, and collecting rainwater to irrigate the 6000-odd plants beautifully planned and placed beneath, together creating a forest garden in a thoroughfare of the city. Community lay at the heart of the project. In May, hundreds of children and adults from 60 diverse community groups across Birmingham began growing marigolds, a flower which itself has a fascinating history, ready to plant in the square in September. The opening ‘Plant-up’ event, saw these groups working alongside the horticultural experts to build the beds with the knowledge that once the festival was over, the plants would be distributed back out into Birmingham for community groups to re-green the city. On the final day there were queues for the great Plant Giveaway, as visitors happily adopted a plant to take home.

The planners’ intention that there would be something for everyone was certainly borne out. When the gates opened and children rushed in to roll on the luxurious grasses, and people immersed themselves in the banks of flowers or got themselves comfortable on the cushioned benches, some of the designers were emotional. Over the two and a half weeks it was open, visitors were able to join creative workshops for all age groups in the Buckminster Fuller-style Wondersphere or enjoy a daily programme of music and talks on decolonisation, well-being, sustainability, protest and freedom of expression as well as more physical activities such as yoga, tai-chi and dance. Birmingham’s diversity was enmeshed in these events, including Birmingham’s emerging drag culture promoted by Yshee Black who MC’d and performed at the lunch time talks.

Accessibility was also central to the design concept. Braille signage and 3D maps, along with touch tours of the garden enabled those with visual impairment to fully enjoy the experience.

3D maps of the site and braille signage.

Performances were also created to offer a sensory experience for the neurodiverse, and the area was made accessible for wheelchairs. For those who couldn’t attend, there was, and still is, a virtual supergarden, where you have the opportunity of creating your own plant, based on your thoughts and feelings, and then you can place it anywhere in the world. I created mine in memory of my brother, once an avid participant in Mardi Gras, and planted it on his street in Melbourne,  PoliNations – Create

Bahija Beerid: My virtual plant.

In exploring the stories of the iconic plants, visitors were able to more fully understand the enormous impact plants have had on our culture, such as how ferns had fuelled Birmingham’s industrial revolution; how our tea got here from China; how tulips caused the first asset bubble; and even how flowers have been appropriated in the quest for sexual equality but also how their names were used as slurs. You can read more about their fascinating backgrounds here: PoliNations – Iconic Plants

The Tuk Tuk providing daily free cups of chai for visitors.

I wasn’t able to be there early enough to catch the ‘Awakening’ soundscape each morning at 8 but I was lucky enough to experience the ‘Sunset Shift’; a nightly light and sound show. I saw it twice; first after a tumultuous thunderstorm that temporarily shut the gardens, but which turned out to be a zen like experience with rich scents released by the rain, and then later, on the closing weekend, where live music blended with the electronic soundscape, and performers dressed as iconic plants gyrated around the Mother Tree. It was magical. If you stood near the trees, the dramatic rhythmic sounds booming up through their trunks similarly reverberated through your body.

What couldn’t have been predicted, apart from the British weather which somewhat let us all down after the long hot summer, were the train strikes, and most sadly, the death of our Queen. As a result, the ballistic seed parties and grand finale, where the trees would have exploded out a cloud of confetti and colour, cross-pollinating Indian Holi, Caribbean Carnival and Pride, never took place and the final days were more reflective and very much toned down.

Iconic plant costumes at the closing weekend.

The Commonwealth Games Raging Bull joining in the Poli celebrations.

Perhaps not appreciated by its critics, Unboxed has offered opportunities and a mentorship scheme for hundreds of trainee creatives allowing them to gain experience in the industry and build confidence in their skills.

It’s sad that the garden wasn’t able to remain. Every city centre needs a supergarden!

(All photos: Theodora Philcox)

John Christopher Jones: In Memoriam – by Nigel Cross

The first Professor of Design at the Open University, the pioneering, internationally renowned and influential design researcher John Christopher Jones died on the 13th August 2022, in London, at the age of 95.

 John Chris at his 80th birthday party, Hampstead Heath and at the 50th Anniversary DRS conference, Brighton, 2016

(Photos: Robin Roy)

Known particularly for his early work in design methods, Chris later moved far beyond that, becoming a visionary proponent of ways of seeing and creating human-centred systems and ways of living, suggesting that: “The future job of a designer is to give substance to new ideas while taking away the physical and organizational foundations of old ones. In this situation, it is nonsense to think of designing as the satisfaction of existing requirements. New needs grow and old needs decay . . .” But, more than that, “it’s not another way of doing design, it’s a way of doing what designers currently don’t do at all.”

John Christopher Jones was born in 1927, in Aberystwyth, Wales. After National Service in the Army, at the end of the Second World War, he studied engineering at Cambridge University, and emerged into the brave new world of Britain in the 1950s. He immediately became involved in the field of design, at the Olivetti works in Ivrea, Italy, and for the Festival of Britain exhibition in London in 1951. Shortly after, he began working for AEI, the large electrical engineering manufacturer in Manchester, where he was one of the first people involved in applying ergonomics within engineering design. At the same time he was occasionally teaching in industrial design at the Manchester College of Art. Throughout the 1950s he wrote several articles for the Design Council’s Design magazine, including a pioneering and insightful series on the implications of automation for design. In 1959 he published a seminal article outlining ‘A Systematic Design Method’ in Design (no. 124, May 1959), reporting a project with students to design a set of cutlery.

He has said that he became involved in systematic design methods only as a way of trying to get ergonomics data included in the engineering design process at the time and place where it belongs – at the beginning. He has also always said that the aim of his growing involvement in studying and redesigning the design process was to be able to include within it both rationality and intuition. In 1962 he was the lead organiser of what became known as the Conference on Design Methods, but which was actually a ‘Conference on Systematic and Intuitive Methods in Engineering, Industrial Design, Architecture and Communications’, with contributions from artists as well as engineers and designers. The conference led to the foundation of the Design Reaearch Society in 1966, celebrated at the DRS 50th Anniversary Conference in 2016, which Chris attended as a guest of honour.

In 1965 Chris was invited by the far-sighted Professor Denis Harper to establish what became the Design Research Laboratory, within the Department of Building at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. There, he engaged in a variety of design research projects and devised and led an MSc course in Design Technology, introducing design students to ergonomics, statistics, research methods, the history of technology, and the then-new subjects of computing, operational research and systems engineering, as well as design methods. At the Design Research Laboratory he pioneered approaches to what became known as user-centred design, and developed several of the design methods and techniques that became used in design consultancies around the world. One of his recurrent themes was that machines should be designed as ‘zero-learning’ devices, meaning that they should be usable in obvious, intuitive ways, or ‘user friendly’.

In 1970 Chris published his influential book on Design Methods (Wiley: 1970, 1980, 1992); it was a comprehensive manual of research, systematic and creative methods for designing, but the opening part of the book also set design within an historical development from craftwork, through industrialisation and ‘design-by-drawing’, into post-industrial beginnings and possibilities. The book’s subtitle, ‘seeds of human futures’, suggested the visionary sense that he was developing for design and presaged the moves he was about to make from conventional views and practices of design into something else. Although immensely influential in the establishment of design methods, the book was actually, he once told me, his farewell present to the design methods field, he had quit it – something which, for quite a long time after, people never realised.

The same year, Chris Jones was appointed as the first Professor of Design in the Open University. Nigel Cross, Chris Crickmay, and Robin Roy, ex students of his in Manchester, joined him as the first lecturers, and also Simon Nicholson, forming the first Design Discipline group. Chris was an inspiring teacher, but better in leading face-to-face group seminars than in giving lectures. Always thoughtful and quietly spoken, his incisive off-the-cuff comments and radical insights would often lead a seminar discussion into new directions and unexplored territories. He introduced and encouraged some experiments into the OU’s early rather rigid educational media of pre-recorded TV and radio broadcasts and carefully co-authored teaching texts, such as radio phone-in discussions with students, audio cassette recordings (forerunner of today’s podcasts?), loose-leaf files of teaching materials that the students could add to, and then-new portable video tape recorders for students at OU Technology summer schools to make their own television.

However, he was clearly struggling within the constraints of the OU. He had some part-formed visions of what an open university might be, taking advantage of more open media technologies and more radical views of education. But he found the Open University was turning out to be nothing like the future learning facilitator that he tried to imagine, and so he quit that, too, in 1974.

Ever after, he was an independent researcher, writer and sage. He turned to redesigning design in a much more radical way – including to the use of chance processes in composing and creating, and in designing life. When he was invited (as he often was at that time, given his reputation in design methods) to give visiting lectures, some of his audiences were clearly astonished at what they were offered; imagine the audience at London’s elite Architectural Association when they were presented with a slide show of very odd snapshots from his family holiday in St Ives, Cornwall, taken from chance-decided locations, or the audience of design methodologists in the USA, presented with randomly-chosen readings from a variety of sources.

He wrote quite prolifically, often incorporating chance methods of composition, and several new publications appeared in the 1980s. One of them, Essays in Design (Wiley: 1984), was a randomised collection, with section titles chosen at random from poems by Wallace Stevens. It was recently re-issued as designing designing in the Bloomsbury Press series on ‘Radical Thinkers in Design’ (2021).

And then along came what I think he had always had some intuition would appear: the Internet and the world-wide-web. He once told me that whenever he was asked by a new acquaintance “So, what do you do?”, he would reply “I’m a beginner”, meaning that he saw himself as someone who initiated new things and was a forever novitiate. His broad definition of designing in his Design Methods book was ‘to initiate change in man-made things’. When he started a ‘digital diary’ in 1998, he initiated – or was a very early adopter of – what became known as blogging: a personal diary of everyday events, thoughts and reflections, available to anyone who logged on to his ‘softopia’ website [“softopia: an invented word meaning utopian software or a new culture that is softer (and i hope less inhuman) than is the mechanised society we inherit”].

His last-ever blog entry was on 15 June 2022, on ‘the future of caring’, whilst he was in a hospice. It is, as ever, gentle, inspiring, diffident, enigmatic, hopeful, looking to the future.

Nigel Cross

Design@50 – Design in a Time of Climate Emergency

The latest Design@50 event focused on the topic Design in a Time of Climate Emergency, featuring reflections and discussion between Prof Stephen Peake, Dr Emma Dewberry, Dr Alessandra Campoli and Dr Derek Jones.

The event also featured archive footage from the first Open University course that introduced design, connecting it to far broader issues around socio-technical, environmental and sustainability.

Some things haven’t changed very much at all, as can be seen in the clips. But a few things have moved on and the panel explored some of these in an extended discussion.

Link to the recording is here:

All recordings from the Design@50 series can be found here.


Walking the memory lane to gain design inspirations

Design education at the OU encourages students to draw inspiration from everyday experiences. I learned this week that revisiting the history of your lived experiences is also an excellent source for design inspiration.

I grew up in Magdeburg in former East Germany, in a newly build neighbourhood in the 1980’s. In 2022, I returned to my former home and walked along ‘my memory lane’. I revisited the places where I learned, lived, and played as a child and teenager. I observed the physical, social, and environmental changes over the last 20 years.

In the 1980’s, my neighbourhood saw an influx of young families when a large estate of blocks of flats was built. These are called ‘Plattenbauten’ in German because they use modular prefab concrete blocks or ‘Platten’. The German reunification in the 1990’s had a large impact on my youth neighbourhood. Many families apparently had worked for the ‘Stasi’ (the East German Secret Service) in the close by ‘Stasi Knast’, a prison that was opposite my school (image below front) and is now a historical site. I sometimes saw prisoners walking in the courtyard from the window seat in my classroom (yellow building in the background). In the early 2000’s, the blocks of flats emptied out quickly and were either teared down or served as temporary accommodation for refugees.


The temporary refugee accommodations turned into permanent housing for the new immigrants. Rent being affordable, my parents still live in this neighbourhood today. This mix of old and new creates a diverse and lively neighbourhood that occasionally sees conflicts of worldviews and behaviours arise, but also new alliances being formed. My dad sometimes talks to ‘the boss’, he calls the man who is seen managing goods and people out of the opposite block of flats from where my parents live. You want to be on his side, my dad tells me. When I met the boss, I was offered a delicious, freshly baked deep fried sweetened dough. That was our communication, eating together.

The changes in the design around these blocks of flats, however, do not provide for many opportunities for friendly encounters. When the first immigrants arrived, a high fence was erected, right through the middle of the shared green space between the two opposite blocks of flats. On one side the immigrants, on the other the then mainly German tenants. Walkways or shortcuts between blocks of flats were cut off. People were discouraged from mingling, making chance encounters or friends by design. I observed my son playing football on the one side of the fence, and he was observed by the children on the other side of the fence, but they couldn’t easily join in. One contributor to this inhibiting design intervention was the change to private ownership of the blocks of flats by different landlords. While the tenants would like to tear down the fences, the law prevents them to do so. A neighbourhood, which was once build on socialist ideals with shared spaces, that no doubt supported neighbour snooping and state control, are now harmfully retrofitted to serve norms of capitalists control.

Fences and private ownership not only diminish shared spaces and divide community, but they also create a negative environmental impact. Not far from my parents block of flats, just across the ring road, a slightly more affluent transformation has happened. Private ownership of individual flats which comes with a piece of back garden on the ground floor makes the impact of privatisation and consumerism visible. For example, three neighbouring private gardens divided by just a low fence between them owned each a trampoline. The combination of private ownership and high visibility to the neighbour’s garden must fuel an unhealthy competition and consumerism. Families buy the same gadgets and tools for each household which could easily be shared across.


While the fence regulates private ownership and fuels unsustainable consumerism, a lock on the recycling bins controls environmental stewardship. The refuse and recycling bins are shared across blocks of flats and located centrally between them. One general key is used for the entrance to your house and to access the individual bins. A possibly unintended consequence of this rather odd arrangement is littering on the roads with items that could be recycled. The strict German norms and behaviours around recycling seem not to be shared by all neighbours, was my first observation, but I soon saw that the neighbours use different strategies for recycling and reuse. One day I noticed a heap of discarded electronic household items littering the roadside, from which all the reusable items were taken. The other day the remains were discarded in the rubbish. Instead of throwing out the recycling and putting a lock on it, the neighbours’ strategy was to take time to find recyclable parts and discard the rest. This caused the littering the roadside intermittedly because there was no designated space for this activity. Could there be? While I felt initial anger walking along heavily littered pathways, I saw that the environment was just not designed to facilitate behaviours of reuse that the new neighbours employ.


Walking the memory lane caused many more emotional reactions, I felt puzzled when I walked along endless weed infested wastelands where once blocks of flats stood. I felt joy walking along a tree lined pedestrian pathway with trees I witnessed being planted 30 years ago when I was a child. I felt fear visiting a park whose lake had dried out and I felt glad seeing another park that was previously unused finally being used as a meeting point for families. Revisiting your lived history is tainted by emotions, and it can be difficult to utilise these feelings as starting points for design inspiration. But I revisited these spaces again and again, I questioned the origins and dynamics behind what I observed, and reflected on human design interventions, which helped me to gain some distance to an otherwise emotionally loaded topic.


My Design@50 Research story

Last month, Jeff Johnson and I were interviewed in the online event OU Design Research @50. In the discussion, ably steered by Claudia Eckert, Jeff and I reflected on how design research has developed at the OU and what is distinctive about the OU’s design research approach. I thought for this blog it might be useful to pull together some of my own reflections and insights that emerged from this event.

My path to becoming part of the Design Group at the OU was a somewhat indirect one. In 1974 I joined the OU as one of its first PhD research students. This was not in Design but in Social Sciences, with my supervisor being Ray Thomas. Ray was a Senior Lecturer in Economics and he was Director of the New Towns Study Unit. My PhD was on the design of transport systems for new towns and could easily have been based in the Technology Faculty’s Design Department. Indeed, as I settled into my PhD research, I found that, rather than networking within the Social Sciences Faculty, I was increasingly drawn to a group of people in the fascinatingly diverse Design Department, particularly the Energy Research Group that included Steve Cousins, Godfrey Boyle, Andy Wood and others who were working on some fascinating transport technology projects. I also started doing some research and teaching work with Robin Roy and that led me, in 1987, to swap Faculties and work with Robin and his team in the Design Innovation Group.

I had an interesting introduction when joining the Design Department and their home in the temporary hut, Wimpey 3. The day before I started, there was a fire in a mainframe computer that smoke damaged most of Wimpey 3, including my office, and also burnt down the adjacent Creche. I had already worked with Robin Roy and the Design Innovation Group (DIG) for three years as a consultant and very much enjoyed the socio-technical perspective that DIG adopted, working with colleagues in Manchester Business School. The key thing about DIG (and indeed a big theme in the Department’s approach as a whole) was the linking of design and innovation to explore how innovative designs come about; the design explorations that take place and how interactions with users lead to the emergence of dominant designs. It was all about getting behind designed objects to understand what determines the outcome.

My first work was transport oriented – a detailed teaching study of British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train design. Here clashing design cultures within an organisation played a big role and led me to coming to work in the Design Department on the Commercial Impacts of Design (CID) project, which explored the importance of putting a value on what designers do. In the late 1980s sustainability was emerging to become a key research issue and we in DIG undertook  a green design version of CID and later explored the environmental impacts of alternative HE teaching systems, work that eventually led to the influential SusTeach project. DIG also work with the Energy Savings Trust on user experiences and perceptions of heat pumps – well ahead of the current agenda to phase out gas boilers!

I ‘retired’ in 2013, but have continued to work with Matt Cook in the Future Urban Environments group within Design. In the last 15 years we have contributed to a series of socio-technical projects on electric vehicle charging infrastructure, smart grids, autonomous vehicles and the design of new transport systems. It is notable that the practitioner industry funders have come to increasingly value our contribution and skills on the social relationships involved in these technology projects.

My journey to and within Design at the OU is, perhaps, not quite as unusual as I first thought. Design at the OU is not a traditional design department, but contains an amazing range of people doing fascinatingly different things with Design at its core. This goes back to the vision for the original Technology Faculty about having some conventional departments and groupings and then two departments representing the integration of technology and society – and these were Systems and Design. So, you have an amazing breadth of design research from complexity, cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, manufacturing, fashion, urban and built environment, participatory design, innovation, energy, sustainability and more!! I have always like exploring across disciplines, working with people with other expertise and perspectives – design research here is so very stimulating – hard work, sometimes frustrating, but never boring.

But the diversity of design research at the OU does present us with an identity challenge. Possibly the periodic funding exercise of the REF/RAE is where we have had the most important research challenge about our integrative design approach as opposed to being traditional design researchers. For the first of these, Nigel Cross argued that we had to be in the Design unit of assessment and make our case. That was hard work and tricky, but it worked. I worked with Peter Lloyd on the following RAE and remember vividly waiting for the results to be unveiled and were amazed to see us at the top of the rankings. Our approach to design is recognised and valued – even though we still may struggle with funders.

For the future, I feel that the OU’s diverse and integrative approach to design research is very appropriate for the research challenges of our time. Recently I have started to use the term ‘transformative design’ – where you don’t just tinker with the performance of products, services and systems, but work within a process that can lead to a transformation in performance – be it quality, price, social accountability, user satisfaction or (crucially) environmental sustainability. That’s what’s we have done recently through working with practitioners on local transport and energy innovation projects. They may not in themselves produce a massive improvement in sustainability, but they move us towards that much needed transformative trajectory.



Radical Acts

An exhibition currently on at Harewood House in Yorkshire, bears the title “Radical Acts”. This grand stately home, surrounded by gardens and an estate, was built on money from West Indian sugar plantations and was, as information around the house freely admits, bought on the backs of slaves. Indeed in 2021 the black actor, David Harewood, discussed the entwined family histories of his family with David Lascelles, the Earl of Harewood’s own ancestors.  In the current biennial exhibition, Harewood House showcases a number of crafters, designers and makers whose work provokes the viewer to consider a number of important challenges.

The first room encountered is dominated by a long table, on which are laid out clothes from staff working for the Harewood Trust. Each piece has been beautifully darned by Celia Pym, a textile artist who explores stories of damage. The results of this mending lend a uniqueness to each garment transforming the mass produced into bespoke pieces.

The theme of clothing is picked up in a later room, where banners and a video present the work of Community Clothing, a social enterprise started by Patrick Grant, known for his appearances on the Great British Sewing Bee. The initiative uses factories from around the UK to manufacture each of the garments that it offers and sources the materials used from other factories, including spinners, weavers, knitters, dyers, finishers, embroiders and textile printers. The aim of the enterprise is to re-invigorate a highly skilled industry which has suffered from the move of manufacturing to outside of the UK. All of the manufacturers working for Community Clothing receive 60% of the final cost of the garment, rather than the industry standard 25%. The creation of quality clothing that is designed to last, rather than be discarded after a season of wear, is seen as critical for both environmental and social sustainability, and the mission of the enterprise is to encourage fewer, more considered, purchases with long life spans, and, as Celia Pym’s work shows, even when garments are worn they can be given new life.

The exhibition also questions product design, with, for example, work from Korean designer Eunhye Ko, which considers alternative, more sustainable materials for electrical and electronic products for example a wood, wicker and leather vacuum cleaner and a ceramic and hair dryer. Ko questions how products are valued, stating that crafted objects are valued more than mass produced ones and seeking to reimagine objects so that their true value is seen.


Michael Marriott’s work issues a similar challenge, with reinvention, reuse and upcycling of materials, for example a lampshade made from a builder’s bucket and classic Windsor chairs revamped in bright red. His installation “Kioskö” is a mix of his products plus a collection of other useful objects including tools, foodstuffs, books and clothing.

The work of Retrouvius, Maria Speak and Adam Hills, who salvage architectural materials for reuse and recycling is shown through the creation of new table extensions made out of wood reclaimed from shelving at the old Patent Office. The contrast of the inserted pieces, patterned by the variation in colour of the materials, is striking and demonstrates how a combination of design and craft skill can create value from the seemingly valueless.

The sustainability of food and the issues with commercial farming that degrades the environment and has social consequences for traditional farming communities are addressed by the work of Fernando Laposse who has worked with indigenous communities in Mexico to plant colourful heritage corn and to transform the corn husks into marquetry panels.

Alongside the exhibits discussed above are a number of other contributions which comment on the history of Harewood and its links to slavery. Among these is one from Mac Collins who created an elegant set of silver dominoes, representing a popular Caribbean game. He presents these on a black table, in front of an Adam’s fireplace in the Cinnamon Drawing room, giving the game prime place in a room created with the money from slavery.

Likewise, the juxtaposition of oxidised copper vessels by Francisca Onumah against the backdrop of the state bedroom displays vessels reminiscent of a family group, reminding the viewer of the human cost of the finery that frames them.

Overall this is a good collection of work which gives some insight into the depth and breadth of designing and making and the concerns of makers. Importantly it serves as a provocation to discussion of a wide range of issues which should be of concern to all designers and makers. The extent to which an exhibition can educate and raise awareness, when held within such a rarefied setting as a stately home, must be questioned, but none-the-less it is a bold statement of commitment and intention which will, hopefully, have an impact on those who engage with it. The question we must all ask as designers is how radical are our acts?

To learn more and to watch films and listen to podcasts from some of the featured makers go to this page:  an introduction from the curator, Hugo MacDonald can be found here

The body as an artwork – the body as a community experience

Once again, it is a novelty experience to go to a physical exhibition. No other exhibition could have been more appropriate than Daniel Lismore’s “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken” (what a title!). The focus in the exhibition is on the body, more precisely on Daniel’s body as an artwork, but the bodily experience relates also to the visitors moving in the exhibition space with other bodies, the feeling of proximity, the random encounter, a frown in someone’s face, the smile in another, the overhearing of a comment. This is what makes people connect, and more importantly, this is what makes meaning. It helps you form your own view by being immersed in snippets of other visitors’ experiences alongside your own. It is a sort of community I experienced when I visited Daniel’s exhibition, however fleeting this experience may have been. I was part of a ‘community of interest’. This community membership really crystallised by visiting a physical show.

I was stunned by the intricate detail of Daniel’s dresses. There was a lot of armour, a lot of glitz, and a lot of stuff. In most dresses, the body was entirely covered except for the eyes. You could really feel the richness and tensions Daniel weirs on the outside, but which probably reflects a lot of what goes on in the inside. Daniel mentions in this TED talk, “I don’t like my body, so I cover it”. I am sure many of us can empathise with this sentiment. Have you ever noticed that when you catch a glimpse of yourself from the back, you may not even recognise yourself? I think we have a very two-dimensional, flat view of ourselves.  But in Daniels dresses you see the whole three-dimensional person. Details are not confined to the front of the dress, which strikes me as a differentiator of his artwork to a simple or not so simple dress-up. “I am not a drag queen; I am a living sculpture” underpins this position.

I was absolutely stunned by the costumes for the Harrison Birtwistle’s opera: The Mask of Orpheus.

It is really worth listening to Daniel’s TED talk and check out his website

We probably accept that the clothes we wear show who we are and where we belong, but Daniel Lismore certainly elevates this to a different level. This reminds me of a short book chapter I wrote nearly 10 years ago entitled Wear Your Skills on Your Shirt. It acknowledges that collaboration between learners at the distance is dependent on participants indicating their skill set. Learners do this online by choosing a particular photo or drawing of themselves as an avatar, or something that represents them in a particular style and often with finesse. This indicates to others not just who they are, but also what they are skilled at and interested in. Maybe we can all be a bit more Daniel when we represent ourselves online to help us find our shared interests beyond what we may say in words? Wouldn’t it be great to be able to curate a collection of virtual stuff that interests you and show aspects of this to those you encounter online, peers or tutors, or friends and family, and dare I say, future employers?



Creativity, Rituality and Sustainable Development: A Case Study from the Global South



A few years ago, while researching the persistence of traditional creative practices in Nepal, I heard about the Janakpur Women Development Centre, an NGO in Southern Nepal, where local women work on the preservation and re-use of traditional patterns and imagery used in agricultural rituals. The NGO aims to improve the quality of life of the women involved in the project. Having never been in that area, I decided to visit the NGO to know more about its activities and the context in which it was born.




The ancient Kingdom of Mithila stretched from the Ganges in northern India to the foot of the Himalayas in Southern Nepal. This is a flat area with ponds, natural and artificial lakes and ritual pools, which function as a significant water reservoir at the end of the monsoon season.


Today the Mithila region is home to approximately three million people in Nepal alone, making Maithili the second most widely spoken language in the country. Like other communities in Nepal, the Maithili society is still informally but strictly divided into castes, despite the caste system being made illegal in 1962.


Janakpur is believed to have been the capital of the kingdom of Mithila from its foundation. Kuwa, the small rural village where the NGO is based, is located a few miles from Janakpur.


Roles and Rules


Traditionally, women from the Maithili community have rarely worked in official positions.


As it happens among many Nepalese ethnic groups that observe the rule of ‘virilocation’, women abandon their father’s house and move in with their husband’s family after their marriage. Since that moment, they spend most of their time in the courtyard (mandap), except for agricultural works that require their presence in the fields. Any contact between a married woman and men not belonging to her family group is considered “undesirable” (Campoli 2006).


Although many of the issues faced by Maithil women are similar to those faced by other communities in Nepal, “Maithil women are generally economic dependants on their families – first as daughters, then as wives and mothers, and often as widows” (Davis in Rousselot 2016).


“[T]raditionally and for the most part still today, Maithil women do not hold [nor can they pass down] significant property, nor retain control over their own incomes if they have incomes. Their labour is in service to their husbands’ families” (Davis in Rousselot 2016).


Women’s movements, communications, and daily habits are tightly regulated. Women spend most of their time at home, and the domestic courtyard is where most female activities, family life, and the main village rituals happen.


This home-centric culture has also resulted in the development and preservation of a particular artistic tradition, passed down from generation to generation, from mother to daughter. 


Mithila Art as Domestic Art 


The art of Mithila is a visual representation – more or less figurative and often abstract and symbolic – of the seasonal and agricultural cycles and the rituals connected to them. The paintings have the function of conveying the deities’ blessing on the house where they are painted (Campoli 2006).


Producing the paintings is a ritual itself that only women can perform. The complex scenes and symbols are painted on the walls of the traditional mud houses or the dusty floor of the courtyards. They have an ephemeral nature and are supposed to be washed out by the monsoon rain. 


When the rains do not destroy the paintings, they are covered over with a new layer of mud plaster during the celebrations for the New Year (Juristal), leaving the walls as a blank canvas for the following ritual.


From Earth to Paper


Interest in the Mithila paintings, starting from the 1960s, increasingly impacted the Bihar area – in India. However, in Nepal, the same tradition continued to persist in relative obscurity. 


It was only in 1992 that the Janakpur Womens’ Development Centre (JWDC) was founded in Kuwa, a small village on the outskirt of Janakpur, along with other projects focused on improving the region’s economy. The JWDC’s aims were to use existing creative skills to give local and marginalised women support and income-earning opportunities outside the home, help them gain independence, a role in society and a voice of their own.


The ephemeral wall paintings were transferred onto paper to create sellable artefacts. 

Creativity and Opportunity


At JWDC, women received marketing, management and language training. They also learned to make the paper for their paintings, to be fully self-sustainable.


This strategy aims at empowering local women using their existing skills and helping them to become economically active members of society. The founder kept the supervision on the centre, which eventually became a local NGO with a local woman as a president. 


“The artists themselves run the NGO and market their art. So, they become the beneficiaries of profit from the sales,” said Aava Suman (Suman in Thapa 2016), president of JWDC. According to Suman, JWDC, building its foundation upon the rich artistic heritage of Maithili women, provides training in management, leadership, gender awareness and basic business skill (Thapa 2016).


After a challenging beginning (some of the women wouldn’t speak, and they always had to have a male chaperone with them) and the initial opposition of the local villagers, the centre started employing more and more women from the nearby villages in a variety of crafts. Paintings and decorated objects began being sold in shops in Nepal’s main cities – Kathmandu, Chitwan and Pokhara – and later abroad.


 “These women broke the ground; now there’s been some societal changes and more women are gaining independence, but these women really had to fight at the beginning; it wasn’t an easy thing” (Burkert in Rousselot 2016).


When I was at the centre and spoke with some of the women working there, they confirmed that they felt empowered by having an active role in their family and the village economy. Mothers can pay for their children’s schools. Wives can buy small plots of land to improve their family status. Widows – that, after the death of their husbands’ ‘belong’ to the husband’s family – have stopped living in fear of being repudiated and becoming outcasts because they can provide for themselves. Some women have also left the centre and opened shops or engaged in international selling on their own.


Overall earning money through their own art has made it possible for those women living in small rural communities and in an extreme disadvantaged situation being proud of themselves, feeling empowered and breaking gender stereotypes in the Nepalese society.


An interesting – and symbolically important – evolution in terms of art production is that Mithila art, which was once anonymous as most forms of traditional ritual art, is now associated with the name of the women who produce the piece. Women have started signing their work and developing their own style, which means coming out from the shade in which they were relegated and becoming an ‘individual’ who deserves to be recognised as a person.



Conclusion and Final Reflection Points


Although JWDC and other similar initiatives have undoubtedly improved the lives of many women, helped create change within the community, and positively impacted the local economy, there has yet to be a radical change in the social structure. Access to education is still very limited – especially for girls and for some of the marginalised groups – and the majority of women still live a recluse life.


However, several positive points can be outlined:


  • Born as a training centre, the strength of JWDC was combining traditional artistic skills with commercial demand.
  • The diffusion of Mithila artefacts helped draw attention to that particular style and through it to several social, economic, and cultural issues that impact that area, fostering debates and local and international initiatives.
  • The centre provides women with art training butt also with management and business skills, giving them a choice. They can either keep working for the centre or leave and set up their own business.


To conclude, why do I think this case study is important, not only in relation to Nepal, but to a wider context? 

Because all the points outlined above can be transferred to other cultures, geographical areas and activities when creating or promoting social initiatives:

– the connection between local culture and tradition with the current market; 

– giving the weaker and marginalised elements of a group an active role in society; 

– providing them with specific skills but also with the business and management skills that they need to promote themselves; 

– breaking stereotypes; 

– promote the economy of a rural area through the preservation of local traditions while connecting it to the global context.


Link to the JWDC website:





Burkert, C. (1997) Janakpur Art: A Living Tradition. Kuwa Village, Janakpur: JWDC.

Campoli, A. (2006) Ritual Art of the Kingdom of Mithila: Traditional Paintings by Janakpur Women in Nepal. Kathmandu: Vajra Publications.

Fleury, H. (2003) Les Peinteurs du Mithila (Inde, Nepal) au Coeur de Mutations entre Rituel, Art et Aritsanat.

Rousselot, J. (2016) Nepal’s Maithil women break traditional gender roles. Available at:

Thapa, C. (2006) Mithila Art Sculpts Businesswomen in Nepal. Available at:

Vequand, Y. (1977) The Women Painters of Mithila. London: Thames and Hudson.


Image Credits

Photos by Alessandra Campoli.

What did YOU do in the War (against Covid19)? Engaging a response to the covid pandemic through visual communication.

James Hodson and Jason Keet: Daddy, what did YOU do in the Corona Virus Crisis?

It seems we might just, finally, be starting to win our battle against the scourge of covid. In fighting an invisible enemy that has had such a devastatingly tangible impact, it is not surprising that the rhetoric has sometimes carried metaphors of war. COBRA meetings in Whitehall and the Queen urging the country to remain “united and resolute”, along with her emotional ending to her speech to the nation on April 5, 2020, that ‘we will meet again’, have contributed to us feeling we must pull together patriotically. These past two years truly have been horrific, not in the same way as a war, but there has been a shocking number of casualties; millions of lives lost and others left with significant physical and mental scars. I have been surprised, therefore, with something so powerful and all consuming, that the official visual communication has been so generic and unmemorable. Unlike in a war where the posters urge a call to arms (that very phrase, a gift to our vaccination programme), our graphics have, in the main, either looked very corporate, or have been insipid compilations of what looks like free clip art.

Designing for health is not easy. Posters need to be accessible to a wide range of ages, cultures and languages. Ideally they should communicate their message without any need for text. Government directives need some common styling to give them authority, especially for specific instructions like hand-washing, but one size doesn’t fit all when presenting a challenge to how we live. Seeing the same image month after month can also mean the message gradually blends into the wallpaper. The demographic who watch the news via televisions received a daily dose of often scary medical footage and information to guide them in their behaviour, but what of those who didn’t access these channels? The government did infiltrate social media by posting some of its guidelines. Anecdotally, many younger users simply scrolled past these, although the ‘Look them in the Eyes’ campaign did more readily engage them, making them stop and listen in the same way that earlier photos of medics showing their battle scars left by the constant use of PPE had made an impact. The reason, no doubt, is that these images made eye contact – a well known device for those designing magazine covers to grab browsers’ attention on the news stand.

Look them in the Eyes

The directive was more personal but did it really motivate a change in behaviour? There’s a place for guilt inducing imagery, but too much doom and gloom leads to fatigue or a sense that an individual’s actions can’t make a difference. The British campaign also had a scoldy, accusatory undertone which didn’t wash well with some audiences.




The pandemic was an opportunity for designers to create some of the most powerful graphics they might ever have the chance to produce. What has been interesting is that much of the strongest material has come from open calls, encouraging the public to submit their own ideas for communicating vital information.

In late March 2020, the Dutch design company, Studio Lennarts & De Bruijn, in collaboration with Overdeschreef, launched a poster platform, Stay-Sane-Stay-Safe, to gather creative responses to the pandemic.  There are now over 2000 posters on the site submitted by designers from 89 countries, free to download and share. Their aim was to create positive messages rather than spread fear and doom and some of these were displayed in Dutch hospitals and on massive billboards, as well as around many public spaces. Sebastian Pren’s Disney cartoon-like ‘Keep ‘em Clean’ design was featured with 11 others around the city of Breda. The light-hearted, witty and inclusive designs are more likely to capture the attention and encourage the compliance of a demographic who might deliberately eschew an authoritarian government directive.

Sebastian Pren: Keep ’em clean’ Stay Sane Stay Safe

Kanaka Raghavan: Re-cover. Stay Sane Stay Safe











Other coordinated participatory campaigns include that of The United Nations which put out a call for artists to produce “concise and impactful visuals to help share life-saving information on COVID-19.” Between March and April 2020 tens of thousands responded from all over the world after which point, the submissions were checked for accuracy before being made available to download and share via their online gallery. Around the same time, a similar model of sharing engaging posters for free was promoted by Seattle arts group, Amplifier. They asked artists to focus on mental health and well-being, and from the thousands of submissions 60 entrants were awarded generous cash prizes.

Damien Cifelli: Breathe life back into the world. Credit: Amplifier

The lead image on their platform by Thomas Wimberly shows a female medical worker wearing a mask with a map of the world on it, with a schematic globe behind her head like a halo. Her eyes meet ours. Simple and direct. Some of the submissions have been translated into powerful public art installations in collaboration with art activist group The Illuminator thus having a wider reach.

Thomas Wimberly. Global Forefront. Credit: Amplifier

The style of Wimberly’s poster is not dissimilar to a series of images produced by LA Studio Number One, (partnered with the local government) on the theme of ‘Protect and Respect’. The second set of these focused on encouraging residents to get vaccinated, with images again recalling war posters, and most especially J. Howard Miller’s ‘Rosie the Riveter’.

Camilla Lonis: Protect and Respect. Credit: Studio Number One











Art is powerful. People are drawn to images they think cool. An eye-catching colourful poster can make mask wearing seem appealing; a must-have to be part of the in-crowd. If it’s cool enough, funny enough, or just pulls a punch, a poster might get shared on Instagram, or more anarchically, fly posted. Award winning graphic designers, James Hodson and Jason Keet, were surprised to see their work being pinned to trees in parks and people’s windows. At the start of the pandemic they had set up a website, ‘war on covid 19’, showcasing their designs based on old war posters.

James Hodson and Jason Keet: War on Covid 19

They launched them on social media, encouraging people to download them and share, and their playful artwork began to appear in London, Manchester, Brighton, and even in China. Such fun, easy to digest imagery gets the message home.








In America, other artists were doing similar things. Marc Rosenthal in New York, was drawing on the style of WW2 posters to create illustrations to help stimulate a united wartime spirit whilst Clara Aranovich was appropriating war posters, motivated by the moment when the number of Americans who had died of covid 19 surpassed the number who had died in the first world war. Like Rosenthal, she hoped her work would help inspire a sense of camaraderie in the same way that the original posters had helped bring people together to support the war effort. Like Hodson and Keet’s imagery, her posters gained wide exposure via social media.

Marc Rosenthal: Stop Bad Breath

Clara Aranovich: Will you have a part in Victory?











The generosity of designers to allow their work to be freely shared, and the success of the open calls, shows how we can all pull together and use our creativity determinedly for the common good, hitting audiences the government can’t reach and without a destabilising message of fear and a multi-million pound price tag. Art reassures and inspires in times of crisis, and can help us feel that we are actively doing something rather than feeling impotent, even if this is just sharing a powerful image on Instagram.