Archive | June, 2012

Old is the new Young

28 Jun

While London will soon be celebrating those sprightly young things called athletes at the height of their physical prowess, there’s a movement bubbling which lauds the powers of the slightly less nimble amongst us: the elderly. In a country where we’re only getting older and diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s are becoming more widely discussed there’s actually a lot of great stuff going on for the old. All of which recognizes how, despite the edicts of Hollywood, being old isn’t so bad. In fact, there’s a lot to be said for giving back to those whose beacons we are now carrying on.

Old Style (The Sartorialist)

One of our favourites is The Amazings, a scheme which connects London’s retirees with skill-seeking youth. Just as the name suggests it proudly shouts loud and clear how the Freedom Pass carrying generation are actually guardians of some nifty old skills – skills which can bring a new perspective to how the rest of us naïve springlings view and interact with the world.

It’s one of the first things we’ve seen which makes spending time with the elderly look just as cool as hanging out at the latest East London pop-up foraged food spot. It also reminds us of the upcoming Intelligence Squared event “The Elders”, which similarly hails the eminent elders of our culture for their wisdom. The event has sold out, a fact which disappointed us (we wanted tickets) and heartened us in equal measure.

This commendable movement, and the need for more of such events and initiatives, is nicely summed up at the Coming of Age exhibit just opened at GV Art. In collaboration with the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Ageing and Health, the show commissioned 10 artists to explore the beauty, frailty, and strength that comes with age. If forms part of the academic institute’s campaign Changing Age which is aimed specifically at challenging negative perceptions around those who are old.

Spots of Time is another nascent social enterprise that bridges the gulf between old and young. Its vision is an active effort to move forward the themes currently explored at GV Art. By connecting the fresh blood of London to people living with dementia in local care homes it makes it not only easy but actually fun to spend time with old people. Like the Amazings it’s a zingy new façade for an activity that has long been seen as a burden rather than anything else.

As our country gets older, we think we’ll see a lot more positive discourse  and interesting design for the elderly.  Dedicated innovations for geriatrics will boom, cultural institutes will turn not only to the young for their education and outreach programmes, the work force will shift to be totally age blind. Most of all, brands will talk not just to the trendsters to kick-start conversations and sales, but increasingly to the Baby Boomer retirees who have just as much influence as cash. Welcome to the fresh new face of the old.

A New Spin on Traditional Design

25 Jun

North of Shanghai’s Nanjing West shopping street filled with Western stores and Chinese knock offs lies a store which is truly original. Spin Ceramics was founded by Jeremy Kuo, a Japanese restaurateur in Shanghai who became so frustrated with the lack of quality design available in the city that – after a brief stint importing expensive ceramics from Japan – he decided to make his own.

Spin Ceramics, Shanghai

Head designer Gary Wang leads a team of young craftsmen to create the handmade pieces. The overall style has a Japanese influence, pared back, simple and organic but the real delight in the designs are the playful touches and imperfections. Squished vases, curled cup lips and drips of colour across the stark white porcelain. A very different aesthetic to the highly ornamental design so prevalent in China.

Spin Ceramics, Shanghai

What makes this store really special is the prices. For design in Shanghai which is so unique the low price tags will bowl you over. Chopstick holders and tea cups can go for 20RMB (divide by 10 for rough UK currency) large bowls and serving plates around 150-200RMB. When you compare this to prices in John Lewis you’ll soon find yourself buying up the whole store.

In haircare no one can hear you scream

13 Jun

L’Oreal’s new hair colour, Inoa, has taken an interesting stance on the science and technology often used to talk about beauty products. Their advert is reminiscent of sci-fi movie trailers – complete with glowing orbs, explosions, strobe lighting, threatening music and a naked woman curled in the foetal position as if she has been birthed from some otherworldly creature. It could almost be the trailer for Prometheus.


Inoa describes itself as “the hair colour of the future” and sells the fact that it is ammonia-free and odourless – this sci-fi aesthetic seems to us a pretty unconventional way to talk about a product being more natural, and it makes us cautious about putting it on our skin. We might go and see the movie though…


The Message in the Medium

11 Jun

Rcok Concent Audience Evolution (

This cartoon illustrates how gestures at concerts changed over the ages. It’s a funny cartoon and we laugh because, like with all funny cartoons, we see the truth in them. And this cartoon speaks a very interesting truth: the first three depictions of hands from the sixties to the nineties communicate unity and have value in as much as the group understands what they mean. Like prison tattoos or team jerseys they communicate unity – identifies one as part of a group and what that group stands for. The understanding and messages shift and change over geography and time, but in essence the signs have meaning and function: to unite.

But what does the smart phone hoisted up mean? In the concert context it becomes easy to tell which musicians are the favourites. People scream, jump and dance for an entire show but when the intro to a chart topper starts the phones come out and the crowd is lit by the dim light of cell phone screens.

In life, a street artist can gauge his public performance based on the amount of cell phones pointed at him, and we can pick up on interesting artifacts and happenings by looking out for people pointing their mobile phones. The cell phone has become a signifier for public interest.

What is more is that the publishing abilities of cell phones allow the individual to bring public interest to the event. Recorded footage and the connection capabilities of modern phones make time and space irrelevant.

The smart phone held up high has become shorthand for public notice and crowd reaction. In a connected, democratic world, it’s authority in the palm of your hand – quite literally. Maybe this is why Ralph Fiennes decided to make the cell phone so visible in his modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.


The Wonder of Brains

6 Jun

One look at the brain and it’s got to make you wonder. It’s nothing short of mind-boggling that from the ridged undulating pink walnut-shaped mass emerges the taste of a madeleine, the pain of a paper cut, or the happiness at the first day of spring. All from something that looks disturbingly like Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Thankfully, it’s not everyday that we get a peek.

Neuro drinks (

It’s no surprise that neuro is the buzzword of the moment. Neuromarketing. Neuroarchitecture. Neuroesthetics. Neurolinguistics. Neuroscience and the military is a whole battlefield in and of itself. There’s Neuromanagement and even a drink called Neuro.  It is easy to be swept away by the promise of an answer to the questions that have plagued philosophers and scientists for centuries. There is  magic in solving the mysteries and in the physiological complexity that underpins the everyday experiences.

At the Wellcome Collection’s Brains; The Mind as Matter exhibit we were intrigued by its focus on the brain as a physiological organ and nothing else. Implicit throughout is the realisation that however much we have desperately, painstakingly – and often painfully – attempted to understand how it works, we still can’t explain the genius of Einstein, what keeps a memory from disease, what really makes me me. Despite every surgical operation and every experiment, the brain is one of the few remaining parts of ourselves that is not quite fully within our reach.

Brains; The Mind as Matter at The Wellcome Collection (

When we go back to ‘neuro’ as a buzzword, this is why we worry. Popular science, whilst brilliant at talking to the layman and inspiring generations of budding scientists, can often fall into reductionism. As a culture, it makes it all too easy to design, dismiss, and decide on things purely from the results of a few EEG studies. In the not-so-distant future will advertising be solely based on firing cells in a few test subjects at the business lab? Will we choose future employees, friends or life partners based on compatible brainwaves? Will art and music be created to follow an optimal algorithm of neural creativity? Will we become immobile physical beings, experiencing the fullness of life through virtual interaction, active in our minds only?

Western culture’s obsession with control and logic pounces on any chance to drill down the complicated to a few simple truths, especially when it comes to understanding ourselves. The danger here is that tampering with, or tailoring directly for, the brain removes any chance for human error, spontaneity, or surprise. As homo sapiens we grow and learn by being exposed to novelty, it’s the exercise of our minds. It’s what creates culture; the result of subtle synergies and often chance. By pinning down, say, creativity, as Jonah Lehrer has not inelegantly achieved in his latest book Imagine, we worry that we put shackles to the freedom that lies at its very heart.

Of course, there is a flipside – in this case that the more we understand, the more we can treat disease, illness, even reassess the very definition of mental illness and make the most of what we have. The complexities, and ambiguities of the science need to be communicated and acknowledged, but not reduced, not simplified, and not confined to another buzzword.


1 Jun

Semiofest (








As the weather brightens, and the pasty population of London takes to the streets in pale droves a few of us here at Cultural Insight retreated back inside.  For good reason though.

Organized by Chris Arning, Founder and Director of Creative Semiotics Ltd., and his crack team, the inaugural Semiofest was the first of its kind gathering of commercial semioticians. With interests ranging from the meaning of colour to the art of the luxury counterfeit, the gathering was a veritable candy-shop for our kind.  Our teeth are rotten for all the food-for-thought (zing!).

Massimo Leone from the University of Turin offered this list of commandments for those looking to cut their teeth as semioticians.  We’ll let you have a look before you have to suffer through another dental metaphor.  Enjoy.

1. You shall study semiotics; choosing a good university course with a good teacher; reading books, articles, essays; going back to the classics, avoiding compendiums, readers, and also most online materials: they are not good (for the moment)
2. You shall practice semiotics; initially through purposeless analysis; through interpretation for the sake of interpretation; annoy your friends with semiotics
3. You shall befriend other semioticians; meeting them regularly not only on the web, but also in congresses, symposia, colloquia; remember to celebrate semio-festivities
4. You shall not turn semiotics into a rhetoric; semiotics’ purpose is to help other people to understand meaning, not to convince them that you understand it better than them
5. You shall not turn semiotics into magic; semiotics is a discipline, one should be disciplined in learning and in practicing it
6. You shall not turn semiotics into religion; semiotics is only one out of a multitude of options; respect other disciplines and ask respect from them
7. You shall not turn semiotics into science; let’s face it: semiotics is part of the humanities; thank god meaning will never be ruled by the laws of necessity
8. You shall not turn semiotics into mystery; if nobody understands you but other semioticians, you are a failure
9. You shall not turn semiotics into bar conversation; if everybody appreciates you except other semioticians, you are a failure too
10. You shall not be worried that your mother doesn’t understand what you do; most people who do new things have skeptical mothers