It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that random swing

There they were, crouching in showcases, watches like monstrous toads with warty knobs

DID YOU see the feature in this paper recently on some things which looked at first sight like German mines fished out of the North Sea, all encrusted with knobs and dials and barnacles? And which turned out on inspection to be wristwatches?

These technological wonders are not just designer's fantasies. They really exist. I recently went into a watch shop to look for a birthday present for my 11-year-old son and there they all were, crouching in showcases, looking at me threateningly, watches like monstrous toads with warty knobs. But their opposites were there too. At the other extreme there were watches so slim and so understated that they looked like extra strong peppermints with hands stuck on. In other words, at one end of the scale you got watches with all the works hanging out, like the walls of what the French call the Beaubourg and we still call the Pompidou Centre, and at the other end of the scale watches which hardly revealed anything, not even the time.

It represents a simultaneous swing to both ends on the old public pendulum of taste.

I heard this best expressed years ago when I was working on Punch magazine and somebody noticed that the circulation figures were going down. I don't know why he was surprised. Circulation had been going down since the late 1940s, from the peak figures produced by the Second World War. There was nothing new about it.

But every now and again someone thought something should be done, and instead of doing the obvious thing (fire the editor, or, at the very least, promote another World War) they quite often hired a man to redesign the magazine. So a designer would come in and do things and we would be given a new look and the designer would go away and the circulation would go on declining gracefully...

"It's always the same thing," the Art Editor, Bill Hewison said to me one day. "Whatever changes a designer thinks he is going to make, he basically only does one thing. He changes the rules."

(By "rules", Bill meant the long black dividing lines which separate articles in a newspaper, or which can be used, four at a time, to make a box. In fact, now I come to look at the box round this piece, they can be used eight at a time. )

"If a designer finds that the pages he is redesigning are full of rules," continued Bill, "he says, `Let's get rid of all these rules cluttering up the place and have lots of lovely white space!' But if there aren't any rules, he'll say "There's too much emptiness and everything is running into each other - we'll put in some nice rules to make things neat and divide them up to help the eye...' But all they're doing, really, is the opposite of what the last guy did. Then they pocket their fee and stroll off."

(Have a look at the current Radio Times, if you don't believe this. They're going through a bit of a rules-OK phase at the moment. Every column is divided from the next by a rule, sometimes two, sometimes red, sometimes black... Indeed, every page has a black line running along the top before you even get to the day's date.)

And now it's happening to watches, too. Somebody thought they looked too clean and featureless and decided to put lots of lovely bumps on. It happens to lots of things, this swing of taste. It happens to car design. It happens to clothes design. It happens to office design. ("Too much empty space! Let's put in lots of dividers and corners... Too many dividers! Let's have some space...") It happens even to popular music - do you remember when everyone got a bit tired of electronic clutter and went unplugged and acoustic? For a while.

I do believe it's happening to wine labels as well. Wine labels are tending to get less cluttered and less fiddly, more "well-designed". This is partly done by removing less essential information. But the information reappears at the back of the bottle on another secondary or even tertiary label which has recently come into being to accommodate all the stuff removed by the designer from the front label.

Frankly, the labels I prefer are the ones which have never been redesigned, the labels of things like aperitifs and vermouths and liqueurs which still show tiny pictures of the original factory, and signatures of the original maker, and replicas of the gold medals won at the Great Exhibition of 1901...

That's a thought. Whatever happened to all those gold and silver medals given in open contest at every Expo to things you could eat and drink, which were so treasured they stayed on the label for a hundred years? Why aren't they being awarded any more? Haven't we missed a trick at the Millennium 2000 celebrations?

Over to you, Mr Mandelson.

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