Big issues

Local designers are highlighting provocative topics on billboards to promote The Scottish Show – and some are bound to cause a stir, discovers Richard Clayton

Amateur thespians can rest easy – The Scottish Show is not a retrospective of set designs from Macbeth. Instead, of course, it is a pick of the best design from north of the border, organised as part of the Six Cities Design Festival. However, one of the billboards commissioned to promote the event certainly tries to put the wind up the good burghers of Glasgow.

An ad for a western extension to the M8 motorway, it portrays traffic boring through Kelvingrove Park between the Kelvingrove Museum and Glasgow University. Its bold branding talks the fatuous talk of civic renewal – much to the horror, no doubt, of those with houses in the vicinity. But that’s just the reaction Glasgow group After the News wants to provoke. The poster is a prank, designed to let the gas-guzzling classes know what it’s like when the boot – or rather the accelerator – is on the other foot.

‘It relates,’ says After the News director Neil McGuire, ‘to an all-too-real motorway that’s about to be built through the less-affluent southside of the city, against informed advice and local opinion. I feel strongly that this should be highlighted: while the Scottish Executive pays lip-service to “good design”, it is undertaking significant projects that are anything but. My hope is that people will be rightly outraged and they will transfer their outrage to the real M74 extension.’

All the cities have their own billboards, though not the same campaigning zeal. Apart from reflecting their location’s festival theme, the designers – all of whom appear in the exhibition – were allowed a free hand. Timorous Beasties brings its celebrated brand of subversion to Edinburgh’s Waverley station. The consultancy’s twisted toile has spread from Glasgow to encompass the capital and the other four cities. Versions of its designs are also printed on souvenir mugs.

Another Glasgow group, O Street, approaches the Nessie myth with the mindset of The Wombles – making good use of what Inverness leaves behind – to convey the local council’s household recycling targets. ‘We wanted to create as much impact as the classic VW “Lemon” ad [from the 1980s],’ says partner David Freer. ‘Instead of fuelling consumer lust, it’s something on that scale that actually asks people to be more responsible with the stuff they already have.’ Isn’t it slightly curious, then, that O Street also has a range of bathroom tiles for sale at the Scottish Show?

Let’s let that issue ride, as three talented illustrators leaven the mix. Self-consciously ‘prolific sketcher’ Nigel Peake (see just how prolific at draws each city’s landmarks in near-fairytale urban jumbles, reminiscent of artist Paul Noble’s Nobson Newtown project. His designs are available as six separate posters, and three pairs of them form a revolving billboard for Aberdeen.

Annabel Wright’s gentle, painterly style is applied to the subject of ‘designing for, by and with young people’. The clambering toddler refers to the mass game of musical chairs being held in Stirling. Wright’s colour scheme possibly echoes the fact she used to play bass with the Pastels. Finally, Lucy MacLeod’s hand-drawn image reworks Celtic symbols to explore ‘fertility, breastfeeding, relationships and balance’ – a personal slant on Dundee’s ‘new worlds’ theme. But how Scottish design grows after the show is a moot point.

‘The Scottish Arts Council is out of touch with the design world, which works differently from its fine-art cousin, and there is currently no funding or advice for young designers who want to be commercially viable,’ says MacLeod. ‘After we finish congratulating ourselves, there remains a critical lack of commissioners of graphic art and illustration in Scotland.’

Perhaps these billboards will go some way towards drumming up local business.

The Scottish Show runs at The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow G1 3NU until 12 August

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