Sunday, November 15, 2009

Image is everything

Thanks to an outbreak of flaky, head-to-toe eczema as a baby I missed out on being christened. I can only imagine my parents thought there was a danger I’d dissolve in the font. Or one of my limbs would break off like an over-dunked Hobnob. As a result I’m not a particularly religious man. But I do love a good church. I just think they’re amazing places; the stonework, the stained glass, the tapestries, the carpentry, the big organ thing with the giant set of panpipes sticking out the top. From nave to pulpit churches are flippin’ impressive. But if churches are still capable of wowing our 21st century eyes, imagine how mind-bendingly impressive they must have been to our ancestors, who in all probability would have never seen an IKEA, like we have. For the average medieval peasant, the local church would have been as sexy as hell. A bit like Harvey Nichols is to us now. In the wattle and daub landscape churches would have added a touch of glitz and glamour. The church knew how to create a good image. All that gold and stained glass was there to seduce us. And I guess over the centuries it worked.

What’s the matter with the truth? Everything comes in packages. If it’s in a package you can bring the devil in the house. People rely on packages. If you will wrap it up, they will take it.
Saul Bellow, ‘The Victim’

But as church congregations dwindle it seems more people are turning to the self-help section of their local bookshops for spiritual enlightenment. I don’t think this is any more right or wrong than being fed a Pringle by a middle-aged man wearing a purple dress. As John Lennon sang, ‘Whatever gets you thru the night, s’alright.’

Regular readers of Number Twos will know that recently I have been exploring alternative therapies in an attempt to rid myself of ulcerative colitis. This has taken me deep into the murky world of self-help. And whilst it continues to be a fascinating, and I think, a rewarding journey, one thing concerns me. Self-help has an image problem. It looks naff.

A majority of the books, websites and DVDs I’ve come across look cheap, tacky and poorly produced. It’s like Del Boy has twigged there might be a few quid to be made in the self-help business and has got Rodney to knock something up on his ‘puter.

Self-help looks low-rent. The moment I see faux-Michelangelo illustrations, techy brainwavey icons or dodgy quasi-religious scrolls I start to get suspicious. Much of the design and imagery is so heavy-handed and desperate to be taken seriously, for me it actually has the opposite effect. And the music in some of the films I’ve watched on youtube sounds like it’s being played on Casio keyboards rescued from the rubble of a Tandy store after a gas explosion. I assume the filmmakers were aiming for ethereal and soothing, but again, it just comes across as cheesy and bargain-basement. Sigh.

In my opinion these low production values undermine the message. Sometimes how you present something is just as important as what you present. Personally I think there are some really worthwhile ideas that fall under the umbrella of self-help, that do deserve a wider audience, but until the writers, filmmakers and designers start to consider how they package their message, many people will continue to be put off. As the church understood, get the image right and people will take notice.