The Subtle Art of the Bomb

Two weeks ago the UK parliament voted to commence airstrikes over Syria.

Within hours of the vote media outlets were publishing pro- or anti-bombing articles, and ‘experts’ were debating the repercussions of this military action, both on the ordinary people of Syria and on domestic security.

During this period of media hyperactivity and gross political self-congratulation (the latter acknowledged and scorned by both Frankie Boyle and David Mitchell) something more sinister briefly appeared in print media. Media outlets such as the Daily Mail published pieces describing the Brimstone missile, one of several weapons to be deployed by the RAF in the UK bombing campaign. Superficially commenting on the relative cost of these weapons, these media outlets used graphics and illustrations to describe in detail the appearance, capability, and range of the missiles.

Over the last 15 years of Western military engagement, these illustrations have appeared repeatedly in the press; sometimes flashy, high-tech depictions of aircraft carriers or fighter jets; sometimes elaborating on the destructive capability of missile systems and bombs. On this occasion I asked myself: who needs these illustrations? How does a cartoon-like illustration of a Brimstone missile contribute to a report on our impending military action? And what type of psychopath needs to know the technical specifications of such weapons to sway their opinion on the choices of the UK government? Surely, a pretty picture describing the guidance system of an air-to-ground missile contributes little to the debate over the practical and moral outcomes of the strikes?

And yet, there has always been a weird interest in tools of destruction. You only have to look at the racks of magazines focused on guns and ammo to realise that there is a healthy interest in the design and use of weaponry. Who prepared these graphics and illustrations? Do art departments in major newspapers that have the ability and creative will to knock up these pictures of ‘bunker-buster’ missiles and SAS assaults on IS strongholds? This raises the worrying possibility that the media is being supplied with these technical specs by the government or weapons manufacturers themselves. How else could we know the dimensions, range and destructive power of the latest high-tech bomb? These illustrations are at best propaganda, at worst, a way of numbing us to the reality of these weapons by transforming them into cartoons.

It is, perhaps, a subtle way of gaining subconscious support (or at least acquiescence) from a gaming generation who respond to these kind of images. You can begin to make a connection between the increase in popularity and realism of these games, and how people might become receptive to information from the media, presented in a similar manner.

Perhaps, at least, we can be confident that in the case of weapons, form follows function. These illustrations assure us that our tax money has not been wasted on unnecessary frills or plush coverings. Paul Smith does not tailor our missiles with flashy silk lining. Vivienne Westwood does not encrust tracer bullets with precious stones.

Whilst I still cannot understand the purpose of these illustrations, nor the motivation of the agencies that create them, I’ll be sure to scrutinize them more carefully in the future and continue to question their existence.

Enough already! Balancing complexity in nature and design.

I’ve been thinking about how complexity influences form, function, and aesthetic appeal.

Part of this has involved considering how nature balances complexity with efficiency, and how evolution and selection are constantly refining living systems in response to their environment. Fortunately for us, this results in some pretty interesting and attractive results that we can consider as part of our creative efforts.

We can all think of examples of art and design that are complex in their form or appearance; for example the works of Pointillist artists such as Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, and those that are superficially simple, like the flowing sculptures of Henry Moore. In both these examples the superficial complexity of the work is an intrinsic part of their power. Deep thought, meaning and purpose can underlie apparently ‘simple’ design, just as technically or visually complicated work may be trying to transmit a simple message.

We might not even notice the complexity of the work; fine brush strokes viewed up close, disappear upon viewing the whole picture, forming a highlight here or the suggestion of a smile there. Conversely, simple lines and curves dashed off in a quick sketch can convey the essence of the subject matter, which we can recognize instantly without the need for further detail.

Nature seems to follow reductionist principals, with every adaption evolving to be as simple as possible whilst maintaining efficiency of purpose. The number and spacing of petals on a flower are optimized to maximize their packing and improve their ability to attract pollinators. The seedpods of many trees evolve fins, blades, and wing-shapes that allow the seeds to drift on the breeze as far from the tree as possible to reseed new territories. Reverse-engineering these natural adaptations to fulfil the needs of humans is a very difficult process, but one that often yields success. However, many simple, natural entities operate within highly complex larger systems. A single ant may be a simple functional unit, but an ant colony is a complex, dynamic thing.

It should be pointed out that in nature or in art, quantity does not equal complexity. In biology, the C-value paradox proposed in the 1940s asked why the complexity of an organism did not relate to the size of its genome – some salamanders have 40 times more DNA in their genome that do humans, yet we are undoubtedly the more complex animal. This was resolved by discovering that much of the salamander DNA was redundant – serving no obvious biological role, and unimportant for the animal to be able to develop and live. In humans, a recent study in Science revealed that only 10% of our 20,000 or so human genes are required for cells to survive and divide in the laboratory.


Some salamanders have 40 times more DNA than humans. Does this make them more complex?

I wonder if there might be such a thing as a ‘complexity threshold’ in art and in nature; a point at which adding more stuff just produces diminishing returns, or even detracts from the whole? Too heavy a brush stroke here or too much colour there… Perhaps, in the case of creativity and design, there are points at either end of the complexity spectrum that are just right to produce an emotional response?

So maybe it’s worth keeping mind when we are creating, when to be complex, and when to be simple. Understanding how and why we do this will allow us to convey our message more deliberately and effectively, and hopefully, more successfully.