alistairwelch

Journalism portfolio of Alistair Welch

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Moving on

This site has now migrated to:

www.alistairwelch.com

Here you will be able to find a selection of my writing and info on my other projects.

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Photo by Sergi Ferrete on Unsplash

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Climate Change: Problem Solved

My look at innovative renewable energy technologies that could help to stall climate change appeared in the latest issue of BBC Focus magazine.

Picture 6

http://www.sciencefocus.com/issue/climate-change-problem-solved

Design’s Room 101

What makes design ‘bad’?

New Design 101 will address the question

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‘You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

(George Orwell, 1984)

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Firstly, I would like to extend my thanks to all those who took part in our ‘100/100’ promotion to mark New Design’s 100th issue.

Having celebrated the best in design, our mission in Issue 101 is to expose the worst – or, at least, examine work that splits opinion.

I am putting together a feature on ‘bad’ design: what makes it and how it can be avoided. I would like to receive your input.

The inflatable dartboard - the pinnacle of bad design?

The inflatable dartboard – the pinnacle of bad design?

We are looking for examples of design that make you shudder, design that niggles, design that makes you curse under your breath, or, perhaps, the complete absence of design where it is desperately needed.

It’s the fiddly lid of a ketchup bottle or an incomprehensible signage system. It’s the eye-catching packaging that endangers the planet or a gadget’s built-in obsolescence. It’s the rise of ‘free pitching’ or navigating intellectual property rights.

Of course, we are aware that good design is subjective and that one man’s Bugatti is another’s Sinclair C5: we are interested in what annoys you – work that might have been improved by better design; the irredeemably ugly; the near-misses; the over-rated; the ‘seemed-a-good-idea-at-the-time’; and the abject failures.

Is there any work from your own career in design that, although not successful, has taught you a valuable lesson?

Are there any business issues or client attitudes that make your blood simmer?

What would you find in design’s Room 101?

email: alistair@newdesignmagazine.co.uk / twitter: @alinewdesign

 

3D printing: Talkin’ bout a revolution

3D printing is the talk of the design world at the moment and has received significant coverage in the mainstream media (The Economist and Newsnight both carrying features).

Working in the design press, I have had my eye on additive manufacturing technologies for a number of years and find the current interest in the sector fascinating.

For New Design magazine, I visited the recent 3D Printshow to judge just how game-changing the technology might be.

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You can’t fault its timing: the inaugural 3D Printshow, which took place in London this October, came at a moment when 3D printing is enjoying an unprecedented level of public interest and national media exposure.

Close up of a 3D printed object

Close up of a 3D printed object

This excitement surrounding digital product development technology is exhilarating but also somewhat bewildering for the design community. After all, we have been using such rapid prototyping techniques for several years; what has happened in the last eighteen months such that, as The Economist would have us believe, 3D printing puts us on the verge of another industrial revolution?

Certainly, ‘desktop’ 3D printers, such as Makerbot’s Replicator 2, are now ‘affordable’ (starting at around $2,000 (£1240)) and a community of 3D file sharers has sprung up. However, does this really amount to a paradigm shift that will see a fundamental change in the mechanics of manufacture and economies of scale?

Desktop 3D printing (image courtesy of Form 1)

Desktop 3D printing (image courtesy of Form 1)

For the ladies and gentlemen of the press, the 3D Printshow began with a private view of a gallery space hosting a number of 3D printed art and sculpture pieces, including footwear, fashion pieces, and jewellery alongside fine art sculpture. Many of the objects on display were intricate and engaging works that were testament to the technological progress made in 3D printing systems over recent years, particularly in the range of materials, colours, and finishes that can successfully be printed.

Matthew Plummer-Fernandez was amongst the artists at the event to explain their work. His collection ‘Digital Natives’ uses 3D printing and scanning technology to, as he puts it, “disrupt” everyday objects and “examine the interplay between the real and digital world”.

'Digital Natives' by Matthew Plummer Fernandez

‘Digital Natives’ by Matthew Plummer Fernandez

The pertinent question, perhaps, is when will 3D printing break out of the gallery and make a real impact on everyday, ‘real-world’ products. Quirky works of art and high fashion are one thing; enabling consumers to print spare parts for a vacuum cleaner; medics to print patient-specific hip replacements; or agricultural communities in the developing world to print farming equipment is quite another.

On the main floor of the exhibition the well-established names of the digital design and 3D printing universe, the likes of Objet, Autodesk, and Ogle Models were present alongside a number of start-up businesses and companies targeting the ‘hobbyist’ market.

The fact that the 3D Printshow was open to the public (who came in their droves) gave the event the feel of an expo rather than a trade show. Visitors were invited to marvel at the potential of the technology with the show’s organisers happy to embrace a hyperbolic tone: “the internet changed the world in the 1990s – the world is about to change again” and “the Future starts here, so print the Legend” being two typical extracts from the show’s brochure.

One model that received a great deal of attention, perhaps because it appealed to futurists and sci-fi fans, was the Prototype for a 3D Printed House by the Softkill design studio. The work, according to its designers, is intended to investigate the architectural potential of the latest selective laser sintering technologies and to test the boundaries of large-scale 3D printing by designing using computer algorithms that micro-organize the printed material itself. The house moves away from heavy, compression based 3D printing, instead proposing lightweight, high-resolution, optimised structures that, at life scale, are manageable truck-sized pieces that can be printed off-site and then assembled on-site.

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Detail from Softkill’s concept for a 3D printed house

Also a crowd pleaser were the many companies showing off the potential of their desktop 3D printers to print various objects – typically toys, puzzles and trinkets – on demand.

A Makerbot Replicator 2 in action

A Makerbot Replicator 2 in action

UK software house Digital Forming were manning the ‘Digital Co-Design Bar’. Here visitors could test a collaborative design platform that would allow design-led companies to set up online customization businesses.

Designers import virtual product designs (using CAD software) and compose a ‘co-design’ experience by setting parameters within a 3D environment. In practice, this meant I could sit at a computer and play around customizing an iphone case with various textures and accessories. Once you are finished fiddling, your design is sent to one of the company’s network of 3D printers across the world for on-demand production and dispatch.

There are clearly the foundations of a vibrant community of amateur (or perhaps that should be ‘semi-professional’ considering the technology gives anyone the opportunity to design, manufacture and market) 3D printers in place. My question is to what extent this community will ever grow beyond a niche subculture.

Makerbot, whose recently launched Replicator 2 was undoubtedly the star of the show, already hosts ‘Thingiverse’ – an online platform for designers to upload and share printable 3D designs. Is this the stirrings of a model that will challenge the principle of volume manufacture?

At the moment the world of desktop 3D printing is, to an extent, a geeks’ subculture – but then haven’t geeks been responsible for some of the world’s most revolutionary ideas? Just look at the internet, Facebook and Star Trek conventions.

So many hopes

A taste of what goes on over at my other blog worthaspin.wordpress.com

Drizzle over London, a washed-out Edgabston, soggy royal sandwiches: this last week has been like living in a Morrissey song. But, don’t fear, the European Championships are just hours away and I’m sat here like a kid at Christmas. Well, a kid whose family has fallen on hard times so knows not to expect too much and besides, some of the better gifts were damaged in the post and it was too late to get any decent replacements.

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Pretournament odds

Looking at the fixed-odds market, it is clear that the bookies see it as one out of a group of four (Spain 11/4, Germany 3/1, Netherlands 6/1 and France 9/1). There’s then a subsequent group of four sides (England, Italy, Portugal and Russia) all available around 18/1. It’s 40/1 bar with Ukraine perhaps the pick of the outsiders; the bookies are generally going 60/1 and, considering home advantage, this seems a good price (although Ukraine’s progression to the knockout phases would likely be at the expense of England).

Of course tournament football is notoriously unpredictable and in the last 20 years two rank outsiders (namely Denmark and Greece) have lifted the title.

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Pretournament outright index

Naturally, the spread prices (Sporting Index allocates 100 ‘points’ to the winner down to 25 for losing quarter-finalists) are more even. Spain are still the favourites by some distance (51-54), but, interestingly, France (29-32) and England (26-29) are pretty much evenly priced. As much it pains me to say it, England are the stand out sell here – it’s easy to see Hodgson’s men drowning in the group and even a quarter final exit (the likely opposition Spain or Italy) is still a winner.

More to follow with the pick of Sporting Index’s myriad of Euro 2012 markets

UK:OK

My review of the V&A’s summer exhibition: British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the modern age. A preview of New Design 97.

Jamie Reid for The Sex Pistols
Image credit: V&A Museum

“Look, stranger, on this island now, this other Eden, workshop of the world, Cool Britannia! Us Brits, as a people, are obsessed with celebrating, and fretting about, our sense of national identity. In a boom year for flag-waving, an Olympics and a diamond jubilee no less, the V&A takes up the patriotic baton with its major summer exhibition British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age.”

Read full feature

Guy Nelson’s legacy

I recently attended the pre-launch of the Design Museum’s new site, the Commonwealth Institute in South Kensington (pictured below). As I walked around the building, which has stood unoccupied for the best part of a decade, I was transported back to Warwick School’s own 1960s behemoth, the Guy Nelson Hall (GNH).

Commonwealth Institute exterior

Commonwealth Institute interior

The Commonwealth Institute was completed in 1962 and with its low brickwork and paraboloid copper roof is regarded by English Heritage as one of the key examples of post-war British modernist architecture. However, this style is admired by few (typically only certain echelons of the architectural elite) and, before the Design Museum took on the building, many were lobbying for its demolition.

Our own GNH, commissioned in the late 1960s and operational by 1970, is a somewhat more humble building, yet in local architects Rayner and Fedeski’s combination of brickwork and building-height windows, alongside a cavernous central hall tapering towards a proscenium stage, we can sense the guiding hand of the Commonwealth Institute’s Brit modernism.

Now the future of the GNH hangs in the balance as whispers abound that it has reached the end of its useful life. Can a case be made for preserving the GNH as an example of a particular moment in British schools building? If it is to be flattened, how will it be remembered by Warwickians?

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The Guy Nelson Hall has always been an unpopular edifice. From its building, through its opening, to its current occupation, it has resisted affection.

For a Warwickian of my vintage (1993-2004) the GNH meant being corralled by prefects in advance of full school assembly, or, once one got the tie, doing the herding. It was no mean feat squeezing the entire school into the hall and, as numbers swelled, assembly became standing room only and, latterly, the foyer had to be utilized – albeit offering the occupants a restricted view of the headmaster’s platitudes.

I recall there to have been a certain amount of politics and social maneuvering associated with where one positioned oneself. Lower School oiks had no option but to occupy the front few rows beneath the watchful gaze of the be-gowned staff flanking the headmaster onstage.

Reaching upper school gave the conscious assembly-goer more options. You could opt for one of the rows elevated by the steps three-quarters of the way back in the hall; this gave you an uninterrupted view over hundreds of greasy scalps – a dress circle for would-be toffs and peacocks.

You might be tempted to mix it with those standing around the fringes, although, this was primarily the reserve of the sixth-form and the presence of an upstart 5th former could be unwelcome. Perhaps counter intuitively, to mill around the edges was an indication of status – a marker that one was too important or too bored by proceedings to bother sitting. This thinking extended to the staff, with left-leaning members of the common room preferring to slum it, gownless, with the hoi polloi.

Perhaps the only other position of note, which came into play only in my later years, was to find a seat in the foyer such that one was completely disguised from the main hall, allowing one to go about the important business of texting or cramming Latin vocab unnoticed.

I digress but it is interesting to note that, according to original correspondence, the GNH was intended to have a capacity of 1,000. To anyone who has sat, or stood, through an assembly the hopeless ambition of this figure is evident. The safe, comfortable seated capacity is probably closer to 600.

Even worse than assemblies, the GNH meant public exams. You knew revision time was limited when, returning for the summer term, the rows of stacker chairs were replaced by utilitarian exam desks. In place of the headmaster’s plinth came the green baize info boards and those strange clocks on stalks, frequently glanced up at in mild-panic mid-paper.

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If the GNH meant anxiety for me, it was source of considerable frustration for the bursar, school handymen and senior staff who oversaw its construction. Sadly, from its conception, it seems to be an edifice of which the school has never been truly proud.

The GNH was one of the school’s first status projects of the modern era and, costing £84,000 in 1969, represented a sizeable investment. Unlike the contemporary construction of other out buildings, which strived to mimic the school’s prevailing architecture, the GNH was to be staunchly 1960s in style. Perhaps one of the problems was that by the time construction began it was 1969 and, as Withnail and I has it, “the greatest decade in the history of mankind” was coming to a close; as such the GNH was anachronistic in its own time.

According to Gervald Fykman (Warwick School: A History, Frykman & Hadley, 2004) funds were raised following an appeal to old boys, governors and the FOWs. However, it seems there was some shortfall in moneys collected and the balance had to be covered by a loan. The consequence was that if a costly corner could be cut, it probably was. Even during construction, back-and-forth correspondence between the bursar (Major PB Waterman) and various contractors suggests that controlling cost was becoming a serious concern.

Evidence shows haggling over unsatisfactory furnishings, a debate as to the cheapest means of installing gas pipes, and the bursar accepting the services of a parent, Mr DJ Watkins, to manage the landscaping and gardens gratis.

Furthermore, a number of problems seem to have beset the building from its opening. Radiators malfunction, doors are stiff and the ladies W.C suffers from a number of “loose seats”. The bursar appears to be engaged in one trouble-shooting exercise after another.

We ask now whether the GNH is fit for purpose. Perhaps the question ought to be: was it ever?

I am indebted to the kindness of school archivist Gervald Frykman who shared with me a number of documents relating to the commissioning and building of the GNH.

Vegas or bust

The V&A’s beguiling Postmodernism exhibition runs until January 15. I urge you to get down to the South Ken museum if you can. For what to expect, see my review as featured in New Design 93:

Learning from postmodernism?

Tangerine dreams

Consultancy feature: Tangerine

“Based in Bermondsey – where old London rubs shoulders with new London, where pie’n’mash shops compete with Michelin stars and the latest White Cube gallery has opened next to railway-arch mechanics – Tangerine is one of the UK’s most highly regarded design consultancies…”

Featured in New Design 93

The kids are all right?

Review of New Designers 2011

“Selling exhibition? Recruitment fair? End-of-course jamboree? Launch pad for the next-big-things? Alistair Welch visits New Designers 2011 and ponders the function of the event…”

Featured in New Design 92