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What Can Design Learn From The Sex Pistols

With little to no discernible talent or musical ability, The Sex Pistols became one of the most powerful forces in modern popular culture. No ads, no radio play, no major media – and only a working band for two years. They galvanised the fury of their Monarch-hating, Thatcher-loathing generation and lead the anarchist crusade with a spikey-headed army of passionate disciples in their wake. When was the last time design made you feel like that?

  • The Sex Pistols, live at Cain's Ballroom Tulsa US tour, Original Photo: Lynn Goldsmith, 1978

  • Famed self-destructive couple, Nancy Spungeon and Sex Pistols bass player Sid Vicious, Original Photo: Steve Emberton, late 1970s

  • Sex Pistols' God Save The Queen single cover, original artwork by Jamie Reid, 1977

Armed with nothing more than three basic chords and a guitar stolen from the New York Dolls, four obscure adolescents assailed a queen, brought a nation down to its knees and generations up on their feet. As creatives and branding mavens not dissimilar to a new generation of architects and designers, we’d be remiss to underestimate their genius.

Never Mind The Bollocks (1977) – The Sex Pistols’ first (and arguably only album) created outrage in the UK and launched the most defining cultural epoch of the 20th and 21st Centuries without so much as a millisecond of radio airtime as well as retail bans, Royal Commission litigation and blank-outs in the charts. And that was the whole point – they turned their presumed weaknesses into their personal brand, and ultimately their greatest strength: defiance.

The Sex Pistols were a marketing-cum-design-cum-music revolution that, 40 years later, garners a combined net worth of over £232 million. But how did four vagrant Londoners become one of the most celebrated creative forces of all time?

Lesson One: develop equity through a common enemy.

Look, the Pistols lasted only two and a bit years. But, due to an uncanny marketing ability, their single studio album landed them in the rock hall of fame. Why? A legion of active fans.

Hated by an established majority, they instead attracted a small but die-hard group of punks and geared all market activities solely for their pleasure. Reducing the reach of their prospect market, the Pistols instead appealed for long-term dividend yields that to this day every disaffected 13-year-old is willing to cough up.

It’s a stroke of genius that (to be fair, probably falls to manager Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop SEX on Kings Road) created a target market, clothed them all alike and recruited them into an army of groupies and leeches. Perhaps the most important point is that the Pistols made those who bought the records, attended gigs or mutilated their own flesh in amity, the ultimate heroes – an end-user-first rationale (#usercentreddesign) – that allowed us to feel ‘part of it all’.

Here is the world’s most beautiful example of building a fan base as an exercise in brand equity. And here ‘best practice’ is evidenced by all those leather-clad evangelists being drawn further and further down the punk underground to engender a loyalty (and/or return on investment) no Bond Street banker could match.

Shared agendas, shared experiences. Repeat business. That’s something the future of design sorely needs: to realise that you can’t please everyone, but speak the language of the people who are actually listening.

Operating outside the system began to attract a kind of mordant glamour that supplied audiences with a vicarious high: even if for just 150 seconds of blistering 6/8 beats, we are all Pistols – unbridled and boundless, freed from every authority figure we ever had. As a designer or architect, ask yourself: what’s your unifying act of defiance? What’s your “fascist regime” to rage against?

And that brings us to lesson two: shoot Bambi.

Safety pins, up-dos, fetish wear, Chelsea Hotel corpses: it’s all part of a holistic [dis]organised bedlam of branding. The Pistols stand out in a crowded market not with polished and expensive advertising activities, but with disruptive content costing little more than two fags and a can of beer.

Take their largest ‘selling’ concert: a publicity stunt to promote their hit track God Save The Queen on the day of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee (6 February 1977). Borrowing a barge, they sailed up and down the Thames and played the single over and over until arrested (all those column inches!)

The Pistols took their personal brand/identity and shoved it in everyone’s face in a way that spoke to the core of their market most – through anarchy. They took them loud and proud. Take for example, Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten: a rodent-eyed pariah with a mouthful of putrefying teeth; Steve Jones, the heavy-set kleptomaniac; Glen Matlock, perturbingly expressionless save for a set of malicious bedroom eyes; and of course infamous bass-player Sid Vicious, a weak, skag-ravaged rag doll with a corrosive wit and nether region to match.

The Pistols were uniquely clever in understanding the best selling features of their product, and more importantly, how to package it.

Forget ‘all’ features of your product, what’s your best, and what’s your packaging strategy?

Finally, and maybe the most significant lesson: start a revolution.

In the cold, uncaring Thatcher years, The Sex Pistols were something new, something exciting (to some) and terrifying (to many more).

Meanwhile, in the last 30 years of architecture and design, the cubicle came in and out and then in again while we were all spun ‘round and ‘round on that same Aeron chair (or its innumerable knock-offs) being shoehorned into offices that, if an inch smaller, we’d all be adulterers. Sometimes this bizarre Groundhog Day approach of our industry feels like the end of cultural history. Nothing is old and nothing is new; we’ve been there and done that and continue to wear the t-shirt with neither compunction nor irony.

Throw a stick and I guarantee you’ll hit some puritanically Nordic pastel and blonde timber abomination. The Sex Pistols were openly defiant of complacency; of Thatcher; the Queen; the accepted injustice in the establishment. But design has an establishment to rebel against, too, and the revolution is already beginning!

We are seeing more and more designers working to disrupt, choke, suffocate and reimagine the accepted concepts of agility, activity-based working and open-plan. What’s your role in the revolution against design’s false security? What are you doing to change the system?

After all, the political state of 1970s England is not so dissimilar to our current state of affairs. Don’t forget that post-war Britain was in turmoil facing the grisly decay of a centuries-old empire, the glory of wartime victory had passed, economic depression, political uncertainty and seething class and race tensions were on the brink of internecine national strife. Sound familiar? Old dogmas, new tricks. It’s time for design to stop minding about the bollocks.

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