“It looks like a brochure for a very bad wellness clinic,” says Simon Esterson, designer and co-owner of the graphics magazine Eye. He’s describing the announcements made by the chancellor on social media, in the middle of the gravest economic and health crisis of most people’s lifetimes, to impart matters of vital importance to the public. CORONAVIRUS JOB RETENTION SCHEME EXTENDED, says one, all caps, sandwiched between the words WE STAND TOGETHER. Underneath, like a celebrity endorsement, is Rishi Sunak’s signature.
Another, announcing the Treasury’s bounce-back loan scheme, randomly extends a horizontal off one “B” and the vertical off another such that they randomly cross over each other. “It looks to me more likely done by someone who’s got a degree in economics than design,” says Esterson. “It can only have been done by someone who’s in a graphic timewarp, unless it’s a very sophisticated parody.”
The colours, font and layout of the different announcements vary wildly, and are at odds with the usual sober graphics of government departments. They are part of a more general haphazardness in the government’s visual imagery, such as the “stay home/stay alert” virus messages (designed by the MullenLowe marketing agency), which Eliza Williams, of Creative Review, calls “strikingly ugly” and “very confusing”. Or the five-level “alert system”, which was rapidly compared to Nando’s “peri-ometer”, for measuring the spiciness of chicken.
A 3D example is Boris Johnson’s delivery of a crucial speech from behind a back-to-front desk wedged into a Downing Street doorframe. Sometimes there’s the pomp of symmetrical union flags and oak doors; sometimes the ad hoc informality of Dominic Cummings sitting behind a cheap-looking table in Number 10’s rose garden while sitting on an incongruous maroon and gold chair. As was pointed out on Twitter, he looked like he was selling raffle tickets at a village fete. Johnson, in his doorway, looked like he was welcoming visitors to a stately home.
Which, very possibly, is the point. If this government likes to define itself as the opposite of the metropolitan centrism of Tony Blair, then it follows that it rejects New Labour’s embrace of contemporary design. If Blair got Terence Conran to furnish the setting for an international conference (“I’ve seen the fuchsia and it works”, wrote the witty Telegraph columnist Boris Johnson), then it’s unsurprising that the current government looks as if it has bought its furniture from a Cotswolds charity shop. Uncool Britannia, you could call it.
The guffaws of experts, in this reading, are what the government wants. “Who cares,” as Cummings said in a slightly different context, “about good looks?” Such disdain for consistency and elegance would be of a piece with Cummings’s famous trackie and beanie fashion sense. It would also follow on from the Conservatives’ “get Brexit done” election campaign, in which the party drew contempt for its use of the much-derided Comic Sans typeface and for its appropriation of club culture.
The negative reaction was intended: not only did it get their messages retweeted, but it also portrayed the Tories – as Creative Review put it – as “‘real’ people, just as terrible at graphic design as the next normal person and in no way part of the London creative elite”. The campaign was credited to the creative agency Topham Guerin, which had previously helped Scott Morrison win re-election as prime minister of Australia with what it called “boomer memes”. These, as an anonymous insider put it, were “really basic and deliberately lame”.
Esterson is himself at pains to stress the relative unimportance of design at this moment. “It’s much more useful to be a shelf-stacker in a supermarket than a graphic designer,” he says. But looks still matter to this extent: if it’s essential to deliver clear messages about the pandemic, then the clarity of their visual presentation is also important. Esterson argues that the overuse of capitals makes it harder to take in information. Williams says that the “stay alert” signs’ use of green – a colour denoting “go” – obscures the order to stay (mostly) still.
The Sunak messages, she says, “lack seriousness”. She compares the current use of visuals unfavourably both to the memorable public information posters of the second world war and to the New Zealand government’s “well thought-out” campaign in the current crisis. This uses simple and ordered visuals, together with popular icons such as the Eden Park rugby ground, both to deliver information and promote a sense of national togetherness.
“If they think it’s what the person in the street wants it’s a failure,” says Esterson of the British government’s efforts. “The person in the street is being patronised.” He does, however, note that the “stay alert” posters have at least achieved at least one kind of success. Like the “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster (which was conceived during the war but not widely used at the time), it lends itself to endless parody. They lodge in the brain, even if their messages don’t.
As often with this government, it’s unclear whether we’re dealing with bumbling fools or tactical masterminds. Perhaps the Sunak signature is a brilliant way to connect with the general public. Perhaps it is simply a symptom of rivalry between numbers 11 and 10 Downing Street, with the chancellor wanting to imitate Donald Trump’s signing of US coronavirus relief cheques before Johnson got the idea for himself. A Treasury spokesman was unable to tell me who designed Sunak’s announcements; nor was he aware of any Whitehall masterplan to impose consistently inconsistent graphics on the nation.
The most likely explanation, given what else we know about the handling of the pandemic, is offered by Williams: “If the design looks a bit shoddy, you think what’s going on is a bit shoddy.” In which case, whoever is behind the government’s visual imagery, they speak more truth than they realise.