DO/DESIGN — Why beauty is key to everything’ by Alan Moore

In the appendix to this timely little book by designer Alan Moore, he tells the story of the Swedish axe-maker Gränsfors Bruk, a company that few may of heard of, but which has profound lessons about the connection of business to its people, products, society and the environment.

Moore explains that when the current CEO, Gabriel Brånby, purchased Gränsfors Bruk it was in financial crisis, with a demotivated workforce turning out a product that didn’t do justice to the company’s over one hundred year history.

Brånby turned the company around by focusing on restoring the quality of the product, stripping it down to its base materials, with durability rather than obsolescence the primary objective of innovation. No axe goes on sale until the smith is happy with their work, a direct connection to the quality and long-term sustainability of the product that is reinforced by their own initials appearing next to the company logo on the axe head.

It seems odd that a product as simple as an axe, something with such a specific, tactile, municipal purpose could be stripped back any further, that it could be invested with a meaning beyond what it is able to achieve with each swing at the unsuspecting bark. But in taking responsibility for what Brånby calls ‘The Total’, he and his company have managed to do just that — to give an ancient tool renewed meaning, an enduring story beyond the factory floor, which in turn has ensured that Gränsfors Bruk’s employees have a vested interest in the quality of their craft and in the success of their company. It’s in that meaning, that endurance, the purity of the form, the pride involved in the creation of the axe that Moore perceives its inherent beauty.

Why is this book timely?

The British comedian Stephen Fry is credited with reminding us of a quote by Oscar Wilde. On his first visit to America, Wilde was asked “Why, Mr Wilde, do you think America is such a violent country?” “I can tell you why,” he said. “America is such a violent country because your wallpaper is so ugly.”

Bad home furnishings alone cannot be blamed for the easy availability of semi-automatic weapons in American shopping malls — even Wilde might be rendered speechless by contemporary levels of violence in the US — but the point still stands. Beauty matters, design matters, aesthetics matter. I live near the former home of William Morris (now the William Morris Gallery), so perhaps I am biased. Indeed, as you might expect Morris’ famous dictum is quoted in Moore’s book:

“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

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These things matter because the pursuit of such universal ideals suggests that the process of both production and consumption can be invested with a deeper purpose — and also implies the corollary that ugliness, wastefulness, tolerated decline and decay have deeper social and political implications.

Morris, as with Wilde, understood the connection between beauty, utility and politics that continues to this day. Consider the optics of fly-tipped white goods left rusting on housing estates and what message it sends to the people who live there or those who may (or may not) desire to live there. The obsolescence with which we litter the world is both physically ugly and shows contempt for those who are forced to live with its social and environmental impacts (typically the poorest and most vulnerable).

The book is also timely because it coincides with a debate about ‘purpose’ in our economic lives, with a close correlation to a debate about the ‘purpose’ of business. With flash-points in issues like taxation, online privacy, human rights and pollution, for example, we are witnessing a deep scrutiny of the responsibilities of business to society. This scrutiny is aligned with a wider desire to re-contextualise our economy as something that should be subordinate to the biosphere, first and foremost, and thereafter to people, nature, rights, justice, equity, fulfilment, happiness, all and much more before the personal enrichment of a vanishingly small elite.

The purposeful company

In May 2016 the Big Innovation Centre published The Purposeful Company. This interim report considers the conditions required for UK business to focus once more on long-term value creation (for all stakeholders), rather than the short-term shareholder returns that are held at least partly responsible for the twin crises in our economy and in our environment.

The Purposeful Company report concluded that the lack of clear corporate purpose, the failure of all stakeholders to coalesce behind common goals and values, is effectively costing the UK economy around £130bn per year, such is the impact on productivity, innovation, R+D, and the misallocation of capital amongst other concerns. Will Hutton’s Observer column from Sunday 15 May provides a helpful summary of the chief lessons from the report (‘British business needs investment and vision. But most of all it needs purpose’).

The Purposeful Company coincided with the launch at the RSA in May of Purpose in Practice by PR and digital communications agency Claremont Communications. Purpose in Practice gathers together a set of interviews with opinion formers, charity leaders, academics, journalists and others commenting on the recent upsurge in corporates attempting to inject some purpose into their business.

Businesses are clearly conscious that consumers and employees expect them to be more ethical, more meaningful and more socially responsible, that social media ensures bad practice cannot be hidden for long and that failure to perform better has serious bottom line consequences. This is in part what has given rise to the social enterprise movement, B Corps, impact investing, CSR and a myriad other attempts to triangulate profit with purpose. However, the jury is out on whether the business equivalent of a Damascene conversion is ‘authentic’ or whether so-called ‘purpose wash’ is the latest attempt to beguile the public whilst the bad stuff happens elsewhere.

Transcending the generations

This questioning — the search for purpose, in ourselves and in business — cannot only be the preserve of those who are, like me, nudging 40, wondering whether they should get that tattoo and suddenly questioning the purpose of an economic life that cuts us off from a creative one, or one that inhibits our ability to spend time with family, friends, nature, ideas even. Neither is it the preserve of the so-called Millennials with their pesky demands for work/life balance and something called ‘meaning’ in the workplace.

We all know, no matter our age, the things that restore us, that give us meaning, that give us pause, a moment to breathe, even if we don’t always have the language to articulate why. We know that they constitute the manifestation of beauty in our lives because our judgement about them simply cannot be challenged. Our reaction is unmediated by convention. It runs too deep. My mum is beautiful because she is my mum. End of. It’s my judgement here that matters.

Where else in our anxious, fretful, economic lives can we be so absolutist, so uncompromising and so certain of our judgement? Should we not seek out more opportunities for such certainty, such contained belief, such purpose, and what impact might that have on our mental health?

Why beauty is the key to everything

Moore’s book can be read in a day — a thing of beauty in itself. It comprises a series of vignettes, exploring the work of artists, philosophers, designers or those who just have something particular to say about beauty — from photographer Sebastião Salgado to poet Seamus Heaney or the astronauts who were privileged to observe the Earth from beyond its fragile atmosphere and realise that this particular beauty is in need of some serious protection. These perspectives are used to underpin the lessons we might draw from the principles of Shaker design (‘the outward appearance of all things reveals their inner spirit’) to the stand up comedy of Bill Bailey (‘I start with a laugh and work backwards from there. What do I need to do to create this amount of laughter?’).

Moore goes on to offer a set of practices that we might deploy in our daily lives to both identify and nurture beauty. Fostering great design, achieving a craft takes time, effort and practice, but adopting these behaviours will, in and of itself, help us to get closer to that pride in our work and lives exemplified by the axe-makers. These include being curious, working back from the longer term objective (remember Bill Bailey), being adaptive, making an effort to explore relatable business models or ways of working (what Moore calls a ‘Go See’), being open, collaborating with others (‘people embrace what they create’), recognising no boundaries to our creativity, and, my favourite, ‘Let Go of Fear’ where Moore concludes:

‘I have travelled six continents, overseen some £1.5bn of creative business innovation. I’ve had my personal work shown and displayed from London to New Zealand. And I’ve written a few books. I am dyslexic and I hate flying.’

Some may be tempted to read this as so much motherhood and apple pie, the kind of creative hokum to be met by a brief, withering look from a cynical CFO with both eyes fixed firmly on the next quarter’s results. It could be so if it were not for the case that the pursuit of beauty and the pursuit of purpose have deep philosophical connections (I should know, I failed to complete my first Masters degree in the subject!) and, seriously, what do we have to lose — both personally and commercially — from carving out a bit of time to explore those connections anew?

Clearly not everyone is in the business of making axes or artisanal bread or restoring old motorcycles, and this is not to suggest that people cannot and should not be motivated by mainstream commercial objectives, by good old fashioned drive. However, the present context — a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, distrust in business and institutions, an environment on its knees, a crisis in mental health — suggests that we might all benefit from applying Moore’s design principles to our own unique setting, whether personal or professional.

Thinking long term, considering durability, being open to collaboration, expanding our depth of field, exploring ideas from diverse sources — if these are practices that can inform our approach to craft, to creating things that are both beautiful and durable, where we are fully cognisant of our wider impact, then it seems to me that they are also practices that might inform a renewed quest for corporate purpose.

Alan Moore can be reached @alansmlxl. His book is available from http://thedobook.co/ 

Header image: Courtesy of Joe Nestlerode licensed under Creative Commons (2.0)
Image 1: William Morris Gallery, courtesy of Matt Brown licensed under Creative Commons (2.0)
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