take care, always read the label

Stevenage street sign

The 1950s new town dream: envisioned, achieved, forgotten.

“Everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance” (Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus). 

Some of us avoid ruining clothes by checking washing instructions. Fogeys young and old appreciate looking after a good pair of shoes. Some humans may have read a few pages of the user manual that came with their car / TV / computer. But most of us pay scant attention to looking after stuff. Our high expectations and short attention spans have made ‘care’ a tiresome inconvenience. 

Architects, designers and other creators are blamed when their enduring work ‘fails’ in the long run. Poorly maintained 70s buildings routinely get torn down where a little care might have preserved the optimistic social statements they once made. The City of London’s Barbican Estate is a rare exception to the rule.

Barbican estate, City of London

Beloved, Ballardian brutalism: the Barbican Estate.

Towns need care instructions too. I grew up in a once-visionary social environment, my parents having established a family home in the affordable utopian dream of new town Stevenage (intermittently amusing 1971 promo here) – an escape from the grime / bombsites of 1953 East London to the future. It had modern housing estates separated from industry, colour-coded street signs and an innovative cycle track system – everything you could possibly want for a bright new tomorrow (apart from jetpacks, but my father worked in aerospace so probably thought he’d be making those himself).

By the 1970s that dream was curdling. You can’t create community overnight and tens of thousands of migrants in an artificial landscape without history or landmarks takes some while to gel. Listless by day, at night the youth (um, hello) could be found Watney’s Red Barrelled, bleary and belligerent, unsuccessfully attempting homeward navigation through the town’s miles of identikit estates. When the planning authority was disbanded the town similarly lost its vision and its way in the world and even now its reputation remains iffy, despite famous sons (an England soccer winger; an F1 World Champion, a Guardian correspondent…). Piecemeal improvement schemes only diluted the town’s original style, making things worse, and even the footie team’s improving fortunes have failed to restore 1960s levels of civic pride.

My father ended his engineering career as a technical writer (jetpacks unforthcoming, sadly), producing specification documents and assembly manuals for communications satellites – ironically the very infrastructure that enables the modern distractions we demand but which make us so casual about the physical world. Despite a career path running in the opposite direction to his, instructions must be in my DNA as in part my workload involves designing / writing design standards or brand manuals of one kind or another. I am no stranger to either the quick graphic fix or the well-managed long-term design programme.


© Haynes Manuals

Possessions, buildings, towns – all things, the planet included – readily succumb to entropy without care. The bigger the thing, the greater the need to formalise care in strategies, plans, advice and instructions that might outlive the attention spans, if not the lives, of the user. Creativity is a hard act to follow and visionary leaps rarely achieve their full potential unsupported. Unfortunately strategy, management and maintenance all sound really dull, even if they are about cost-effective conservation of resources. Sustainability in building and product design is at least entertained now (more thanks to economic stress than genuine eco-care) but strategy and maintenance in the context of ‘ephemeral’ graphic design looks at first sight a bit… expensive, if you look no further than first use.

Looking After Things makes for user relationships of quality and a better return on creative investment. Despite the popularity of Haynes Manuals and the entertaining zen humour of IKEA assembly instructions, barely any manufacturers believe consumers want proper product advice. From electricals to environments it is assumed that our investment in things begins and ends with purchase. Nobody likes being told what to do, but plans and instructions help us get value from things.

Always read the label. If there isn’t one, it means the manufacturer expects you to buy another shortly. Can we afford to keep on putting up with that?




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