A book about the visual identity of some of the world's main terrorist organizations wasn't going to remain unnoticed. When it was published by MERRELL last year, every single design blog and magazine wrote about it. Yet, i only discovered the existence of Branding Terror last month, when i had a ridiculously great time at the Graphic Design Festival in Breda (NL.)
In a similar way to what happens with consumer goods, the name, slogans, and visual codes of a terrorist group are not only key manifestations of its identity, they also contribute to the reach and influence of the organization. An anecdote that appears in Artur Beifuss' introduction to the book illustrates the importance and impact of this visual communication. A few years ago, an Italian amateur league football club adopted for its players' shirts the logo of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, changing its name to 'Zassbollah' (a combination of 'Hezbollah' and the name of the team's captain, Luigi Zasso) in the process.
The book is authored by graphic designer and creative director Francesco Trivini Bellini and by writer and (ex)counter-terrorism analyst Artur Beifuss. Which means that the publication is obviously carefully designed but also that the information about the history, imagery, attacks, ideologies and capabilities of each of the 65 organizations has been meticulously researched.
The authors of the book are conscious that they are dealing with a delicate topic. They approached it in an almost clinical way while acknowledging the suffering of the victims of terrorism.
In his foreword to the book, Steven Heller, a design writer and former Art Director at the New York Times, wrote: The extreme violence committed in the name of these logos makes writing about them in terms of aesthetics or production values seem silly and irrelevant. Yet these terrorist groups are all brands, and are given a certain viability through branding methods. Branding is a tool that has no conscience or morality - it can be used for good or bad, and sometimes for both in tandem.
I contacted Artur Beifuss as soon as i came back from Breda and he was kind enough to answer my questions:
Hi Artur! Are there logos that stand out from the others? Which ones do you think are the most imaginative, the most efficient (strictly from a design point of view of course)? and why?
Yes, there are some good ones, the Hezbollah logo for example. It perfectly reflects the organizations history and ideology. It is interesting to compare the Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards logo. Allegedly the Iranian's founded and trained the group that later became to be Hezbollah. Both logos use the same elements to convey its ideological message. I think the Hezbollah logo is very powerful because it is memorable and easily recognizable.
But more important than the logo is what people will do with this logo. In the digital age, logos can go viral modified and used for all kinds of contexts. It is not uncommon to see fashionably dressed women and men wearing t-shirt with Hezbollah logos. Just google 'hezbollah' and 'girls' to understand what I am talking about. Seeing the logo in such a context tells the recipient that Hezbollah's ideology is indeed applicable in contemporary society. At least more than watching bearded men talking to a camera somewhere in the mountains of Waziristan.
And on the opposite hand, which one do you think is the worst conveyor of ideology?
All of the logos analyzed in Branding Terror make some kind of ideological reference. None of them really misses the point. However, there are some logos that are completely overloaded with references and elements, the logo of the Islamic Organization of Uzbekistan is a good example. It has so much Arabic text in it that one does not know where to look first. Also, this particular logo would be lost on all recipients that can't understand Arabic.
Does branding a terrorist organization has to respond to the same rules and requirements than branding any commercial product? Or do you find that other 'laws' are playing?
In a way it has to respond to the same rules, yes. People have to know what you stand for, and the logo should be easily recognizable. However, terrorism means violence and death in most of the times. Even terrorist groups find it difficult to advertise for that. In the letters from Abbottabad for example Al-Qaeda media advisors recommended Bin Laden to keep a distance to the Al-Qaeda branch in Iraq because they started beheading people. This is not something that Al-Qaeda central - if you want to call it like this - wants to be associated with. They were losing followers over that.
You used to be a counter-terrorism analyst? Now that sounds really interesting. What did the work involve? And how did you use that background while working on the book? when did it come helpful?
My position involved searching and analyzing information about terrorism in five languages. Through this job I acquired a good understanding of transnational terrorism. This did help me to make the content of the book multilayered. Also, I knew how to find information that gets as close to the primarily source as possible and how to correctly assess them.
I read that you used the official lists of "designated foreign terrorist organisations" of five governments: Australia, India, Russia, United States and the European Union. First of all do the list overlap? Or do they have different definition of what a terrorist organization is?
The definitions slightly differ. And the lists overlap to some degree. But governments tend to put groups on their list that are of relevance to their own geopolitical position. For example many separatist groups from India you will not find on the list of the United States. Globally active groups like Al-Qaeda are listed as a terrorist organization on most of the lists.
After the book was finished, did you get emails from people sending you other logos? And do you now find yourself in front of a long list of logos you wish you could have included? Could you imagine publishing a second edition of the book for example or do you think that what had to be told has already been communicated in the book?
Yes, some people approached us with their own projects and ideas. And we are always happy to get in touch and exchange ideas. Branding Terror was exhaustive as it is at the time of publishing. All organizations that are on the designated foreign terrorist list of which it was possible to track down the logo are included in the book. Branding Terror was set out as an encyclopedia, a branding manual and a collectible item. We like to see it as a work in progress. There are always new groups emerging and designated as a terrorist organization. It would be nice to have the logos of these groups all in one place, preferably in a nicely designed book series.
Terrorism is a bit of a tricky subject. It is associated with subversion and violence and that often get people's attention. And it must be difficult not to pass any judgment, political or moral when dealing with the topic of terrorism. How did you approach the topic? Did you struggle to stay neutral? How did you manage that?
Branding Terror is based on information found in Open Sources. It is a technical analysis of the visual communication of terrorist and insurgent groups. The logo is the unit of analysis. Of course many so-called facts can be considered biased since they were collected and collated by people with a certain political and moral agenda in mind. These people can be ELN members in Colombia or Analysts in a Washington think tank. I used analytical techniques I learned in my profession to approach the topic. But of course it is not easy to read over hundreds of dead bodies every day. But I was not there to judge, just to simply collect, collate and analyze the information.
Have you ever received any feedback from any of the organizations you mention in the book?
No, I have not received such feedback.
What are you both working on now? Any new projects you could share with us?
Francesco is taking a creative break at the moment. In the meantime I speak on conferences, in design schools and advice marketing companies about what can be learned from Branding Terror. And yes, coming back to your questions earlier, I do systematically collect logos on the side. The next project is trend research, especially analyzing countercultures of the future.
Views inside the book:
HOLO - a magazine about emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology.
Published twice per year, and weighing in at more than 200 pages, each issue of HOLO provides intimate views into fascinating studios, workshops, and institutions around the world, as seen through the eyes of stellar photographers and talented writers. The pace, depth, and sensibility of print allows us to invest heavily in each story, and draw on months of travel, research, and conversation to craft nuanced portraits that you won't find anywhere else.
HOLO is what happens when enthusiastic minds meet and decide they'd like to use a paper publication to share their passion about creativity and digital technology. The magazine is ambitious, elegantly curated, impeccably illustrated and intelligent. It also manages to convey a feeling of warmth. HOLO opens the door to artists and designer's studios for in-depth conversations and intimate moments. I loved seeing a photo of some of the trophies won by David O'Reilly, dozens of them are casually crammed up on a closet shelf in his L.A. flat. And HOLO is full of little, human touches like that. The content and tone of the interviews in HOLO are not the ones you'd find in your run-of-the-mill interviews. They are incredible conversations between people who have a lot of respect and understanding for each other's work. I love reading about the working life and ideas of David O'Reilly (who wouldn't?), Semiconductor, Zimoun, Philip Beesley, Raquel Meyers. And Wolf Lieser! The founder of DAM, a Berlin gallery selling and championing digital art, has quite a few eye-opening comments on the relationship between digital artworks & the art market.
HOLO also contains essays, called 'Perspectives', that look at the 'emerging representational and perceptual paradigms'. I particularly enjoyed reading an essay on surveillance by James Bridle who manage to give a new twist on an already much discussed issue, and a text in which Greog Borenstein details 'debug view art'.
HOLO closes its over 200 pages on a brilliant and witty "Stream' that charts the most interesting moments of the Summer/Fall 2013, reminding us in the process that we're so absorbed by the now and the next that we've forgotten how exciting our near past has been. The time line mentions lab-grown burgers, discussion on conservation in the computer age, royal pardon for Alan Turing, a robotic petting zoo, etc.
So there you are! HOLO is a beautiful world inhabited by talented and enthusiastic people and I spent a great time immersed into HOLO but it's not my world. Which is both criticism and praise...
I'm obviously interested in "emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology" (i've been writing about it for 10 years after all) and it is stimulating to see that other people are covering the same areas of creativity from a radically different perspective.
I like everything i find in HOLO: the splendid photos and design, the dense texts, the people involved in the project. I could go on and on. But i do feel that HOLO could engage a bit more with the broader cultural context, it could develop a more critical voice while maintaining much of its contagious enthusiasm for all things digital and interactive. But maybe that's just me, maybe i should stop looking for the potentially worrying political, ethical and social impacts of technology everywhere. We are living maddening times and publications like HOLO allow us to think of something else than crisis, social inequalities, the NSA, speculation on the future of the planet, etc. Both criticism and praise, thus.
I need to add that i did feel a bit uncomfortable when i realized that very few women had been involved in the mag. Gender balance has never been a big concern of mine but i couldn't help but notice that only a handful of women are featured as artists/designers or are part of the editorial team. It would also be good to get outside of our comfortable Northern America/Europe/Japan media art bubble but i guess we all struggle with this.
Anyway, do get a copy. Really. It's ridiculously affordable, smart and entertaining. You'll cherish it for years to come.
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guest in the studio will be James Auger, a designer, researcher and lecturer operating at the intersection of art and industrial design. He is a tutor at the RCA: Design Interactions and visiting professor at the Haute école d'art et de design (HEAD) in Geneva. Together with Jimmy Loizeau, James runs Auger-Loizeau, a design studio that explores what it means to exist in a technology rich environment both today and in the near future.
In this episodes we're going to talk about James' PHD thesis Why Robots? which uses the robot as a vehicle to study how technology be domesticated. But the designer will also discuss preferable futures and electronic devices that know more about your partner's emotional state than you do.
The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 12 March at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.
Check out also James Auger's essay in the Journal of Human-Robot Interaction: Living With Robots: A Speculative Design Approach.
The Phillips Hydraulic Computer (known as Monetary National Income Analogue Computer or MONIAC in the U.S.) was an hydro-mechanical computer created in 1949 by Professor Bill Phillips to model the economic processes of the United Kingdom. The 2 metres tall analogue computer used the movement of coloured water around a system of tanks, pipes, sluices and valves to represent the stocks and flows of a national economy. The flow of water (which symbolized money) between the tanks (which stood for specific national expenses, such as health or education) was determined by economic principles and the settings for various parameters. Different economic parameters, such as tax rates and investment rates, could be entered by setting the valves which controlled the flow of water about the computer. Users could experiment with different settings and note the effect on the model.
Phillips demoed his machine at the London School of Economics in 1949. Copies of the machine were built and sold to universities, companies and banks across the world. A few of them remain but it seems that the only one still working is located at the Faculty of Economics and Politics at Cambridge University.
Economic theories have grown in scale and complexity in the last half a century but many models are still founded on newtonian physics. Inspired by this hubris of correlating human behavior to mechanical equations, Design Interactions student Neil Thomson is attempting to create a Phillips machine based on modern economic models.
The current prototype is the first iteration of this attempt. based on the Euler Equation which describes a consumer's propensity to save or spend in relation to the present and predicted interest rate, it attempts to find a pattern in the movement of the double pendulum that matches the designer's personal economic data.
Neil Thomson was showing the first prototype of the Economic Computer last month during the work in progress exhibition at the Royal College of Art. I contacted him recently to get more details about his project:
Hi Neil! The description of your project says that the machine was created to 'demystify money'? What does it mean 'demystify money'? why would money need to be demystified?
Money systems and economies are a mystery to me and I think most people would say the same. Economists might say otherwise and certainly in politics you have to make categorical claims. I think this is fascinating, this open secret that there's a level of complexity beyond which we can't understand (let alone predict) but I think we need someone who believes they can. I've been told by an economist at the Bank of England that being caretaker of the nation's finances is akin to piloting an oil tanker in total darkness.
Whilst researching economic theory you find that there is in fact a lot of debate within the field about the usefulness of economic models. Why these berated systems are still here, despite all the flaws I think is not only interesting but an urgent question for us all.
The best answer I found to that question so far suggests the things we would think of as flaws - over simplification and generalisation - are in fact the very reason these models are still here: economic equations take numerous (but measurable) variables, process it with seemingly objective mathematics and give a finite answer that is given with certainty. Other fields can't or won't make such claims.
I think it's part of our nature to study systems and look for patterns - that's why I think these systems, especially physical representations of them (such as the Phillips Machine), are so seductive.
Would your own version serve the same demystifying purpose?
That would be the intention but its success is going to be purposefully questionable. What I would like my project to achieve is simply that people think about how and why these systems are conceived and what impact they have. Often they start as diagnosis tools but quickly evolve into a template that then becomes prescriptive and self-fullfilling until the inevitable black swan event comes along and tips everything over the edge.
So what will your machine look like?
I'm still very much in the design process at this stage but I'm going to look at analog mechanisms as Phillip's did which i think is interesting in two ways. Firstly, it exposes the mechanical mathematics behind these models that generalise human behaviour. Secondly, they help to correlate the claimed objectivity of these systems to aesthetic subjectivities, allowing us to see them as questionable.
And how are you going to build it?
Instead of taking on the entire economy I'm going to look at my own finances. I will analyse my personal economic data and look for patterns in my spending behaviour, such as most data analysts and economists would do. Similarly I will have to gloss over or generalise when faced with missing data that may explain my behaviour. I will then try to isolate some of these patterns and develop a device for each creating several smaller machines. These will then combine (and possibly conflict) to create a whole - an economic algorithm of me.
Is your machine really going to focus on the global economy?
Once I have an algorithm that predicts my economic behaviour I can then use it as a 'microfoundation' in a larger economic model. Microfoundations are the name for a relatively recent development in economics; instead of an equation that describes an entire economy, they use algorithms for parts in that economy (e.g. a business or household) and these individual agents are then multiplied and interact in a simulation. Eventually I would like to get to this level to see what en entire economy of me would be like.
How does the Euler Equation come into play here?
An economic Euler Equation (the same name is given to a whole class of general maths equations) describes how much a household or individual will spend / save given the interest rate, their credit limit and current balance. Its based on the idea that people act rationally to maximise their profit. I am basically creating my own version of this equation.
Are you planning to push the project further?
Absolutely, this is the very first step!
Previous posts about this year's RCA work in progress show:
The new episode of #A.I.L - artists in laboratories, the weekly radio programme about art and science i present on Resonance104.4fm, London's favourite radio art station, is aired tomorrow Wednesday afternoon at 4pm.
My guests in the studio will be Anab Jain and Jon Ardern from Superflux. Superflux is an Anglo-Indian design practice: they are based in London, but have roots and contacts in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad.
Superflux is looking at the ways emerging technologies interface with the environment and everyday life and the result of their research is a rather extraordinary portfolio which explores deviant economies for India's elastic cities, climate change, political engagement, desertification, human enhancement, etc.
The radio show will be aired this Wednesday 26 February at 16:00, London time. Early risers can catch the repeat next Tuesday at 6.30 am. If you don't live in London, you can listen to the online stream or wait till we upload the episodes on soundcloud one day.
Image on the homepage: 5th Dimensional Camera.
In 1948, behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner published Walden Two, a utopian novel set in an experimental community of about one thousand people who all live, eat and raise their family in common.
The functioning of the Walden Two community is guided by behaviorist principles, and its members are conditioned to be productive, creative and happy. If there is evidence that a new social practice (not saying "thank you", for example) will make people happier, it is implemented and its consequences are monitored.
There is no real governing body but members subscribe to the Walden Code of self-control techniques. Community counselors supervise behaviour and provide assistance to members who experience problems in following the Walden Code.
In Walden Two, people work for maximum four hours, they don't receive any salary but then nothing at Walden Two costs money*.
Austin Houldsworth imagined a monetary system within the cultural context of Walden Two. The payment system would challenge the established monetary function of 'a store of value', creating a new method of exchange that encourages people to actively destroy their money during a transaction. The process positively reinforces the behavior through the creation of music produced from the burning of money inside a transaction machine that doubles as a pipe organ.
Walden coins are made from potassium nitrate and sugar to produce smoke.
Austin was showing the Walden Note money project at the Work In Progress show of the design school of the Royal College of Art a couple of weeks ago. I knew about Skinner but had no idea he had written a utopian novel and was intrigued by the designer's intervention in the novel (destroy your money during the transaction?!?) So i had a little Q&A with him:
Hi Austin! Walden Note money is a monetary system designed within the cultural context of Walden Two, an utopian novel written by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner. How did you apply the utopian novel to a monetary system?
Whilst reading the novel, I asked myself the question; how would money function within this society? What would it look like? My initial ideas were depressingly similar to monetary systems in use today, echoing the established system that I've used throughout my life. To overcome my natural tendency to design within the world I know, I decided to accept Skinners proposed utopia as a real place and accept that his behaviour modification techniques could create selfless individuals - and increase co-operation rather than competition.
Imagining a society made-up from selfless individuals means the traditional functions of money might start to change. For example; why would a long-term store of value be need if no one desires more than what is required? Who would create this money? Would security features be necessary if people were trustworthy, or could money be used as a way to measure the stability of the society?
What is a transaction like and why would people accept to destroy money?
During every transaction the seller is obliged to aid the buyer in the destruction of their money equal to the cost of the service or object he/she is purchasing. Through the destruction of money, musical notes are created which are linked to the coins denomination. For example a C is 1 Walden-note, a D is 2, an E is 3 and so on; these notes have two main functions. Firstly the pleasant sounds created help to positively reinforce this behaviour and secondly the burning money communicates the economic state of the society to the 'managers and planners'.
Regarding the creation of the money; every individual within Walden has the right to create money. The planners within the society give guidelines of an average workers pay, but the responsibility of how much was earnt lay with the worker.
The work is about the future, yet the prototype doesn't have the typical futuristic sleek aesthetics. In fact (and please don't get offended) it looks a bit rustic. Why this choice? Does it hint that people will be able to DIY their own?
I suppose the work has been created within a paleofuture, as Skinner wrote the novel in 1948. So I see this monetary system as simply one of a million alternatives rather than a single vision. Regarding the aesthetics; the people within Walden Two were encouraged to live a relatively simple rural life but also a life full of experimentation, encouraged to create new objects which may lead to a better society. So that's where the DIY look comes in; each person creates their own individual music creating money incinerator.
This project is part of a 3-year research investigation into counter-fictional design. What is counter-fictional design?
Counter-fictional design is a term I use to communicate the method that I'm developing within my research project. It borrows aspects from 'Counterfactual' history; which was originally used as a form of historiography in an attempt to determine the significance of historical events by proposing 'what if' scenarios. This method has recently been employed by designers to imagine how ideologies of different timelines, might alter the cultural constraints surrounding design.
Although counterfactual history offers the creative mind freedom, (which would otherwise be difficult to achieve), its' scope is still limited to historical events. Therefore I started to develop a method that moves beyond designing 'alternative histories', to designing within 'alternative worlds.' By using a design methodology I call Counter-fictional design; which uses past social science fiction novels as a framework to design radically different socially dependent technologies. This Counter-fictional methodology aims to both highlight the importance of the impact of fiction upon the real world, and also offer a new playground for designers to imagine radically different systems.
What is next in your exploration of alternative monetary payment systems?
Fortunately there are no shortage of social science fictions that are absent of monetary systems. The next alternative payment systems will be designed within the context of Aldous Huxleys' 'Brave New World.' During this research my aim is to create at least ten monetary payment systems within a broad array of utopian / dystopian novels.