Monday, 28 August 2017

On brand: how Australia's apartment frenzy echoes the 1870s cattle boom



Melbourne skyscrapers.

Stephen Banham
, RMIT University

Imagine in the years ahead that you were to come across a photograph of the Melbourne streetscape from 2017. Two things would immediately signify it as being from today – the number of cranes across the skyline and at street level, the construction hoardings glistening with glamourous promise.
Melbourne is now experiencing the most dramatic real estate boom in living history – this feverish development has seen 13,000 new apartments constructed each year for the past two years with plans for another 22,000 over the next few years.

And like that photograph of the 2017 streetscape, one can also take another kind of record, a typographic snapshot. Fonts can tell us something about a time and a place. Within the real estate industry, this is centred around branding – and more specifically those ubiquitous logos weaved throughout our urban landscape.

In an age when each individual building demands a logo as much as an address, and often these congeal (8 Breese, 85 Spring Street) or fill us with an aspiration to be somewhere else (West Village, Haus), the end result is a seemingly never-ending array of marks all jostling to dazzle us with their glamour and aspiration. But is this massive explosion of logos a new thing?

The clearest way to see any of these connections is to look across other periods of economic boom. The oversupply of livestock in the 1870s is one such time. During this period the plentiful supply of cattle necessitated that the ownership of herds be strongly signified and differentiated in the marketplace. At that time the most effective way to do this was through branding – quite literally, a hot iron branded seared into the rumps of the livestock.


Cattle branding, 1864. S. T. G./State Library of Victoria
By the latter half of the 19th century the simpler alphabetical brands had all been used up so the designs became increasingly complex and idiosyncratic. These plentiful livestock brands began to do odd things – letters would be turned upside down or flipped, there would be strange little icons of hats, anchors, fish, shields, glasses and other even more abstract shapes.

When placed alongside the embellished brands extolling the contemporary real estate boom, some strong design similarities become clear. It seems that the imperative to produce a distinct identity seems to bridge 140 years with ease. These design similarities hint at the underlying economic cycle, boom followed by bust.

The top line are real estate brands from 2016 whilst the bottom line are cattle brands from 1870. Apartment brands from left to right: Nest at the Hill (Doncaster); Queens Place (CBD); Reflections (North Melbourne); Capital Grand (South Yarra) Author provided


Who we are and want we want

The logos that festoon the hoardings across our streets tell us a great deal about who we are, and more specifically, what we want. Script typefaces (those based on handwriting) tell us that we are in an age where people yearn for the authentic, the handmade, a personal connection. The use of fonts, patterns and symbols as well as specific colours may offer us an insight into what cultural shorthand is being used to speak to many prospective buyers.

It is that supreme marker of modernity – sans serif fonts - that above all others expresses our shared contemporary notions of style and urbane aspiration. These fonts, such as “helvetica”, do not use the ornamental ends of letters that serif fonts, like the one you are reading on, include. We take in and process all of these factors in the split second that we consume a logo.

Logos, and the typefaces from which they are composed, have always spoken of the times we live in – including the reflection of economic and social patterns. The mechanised efficiencies of the early 20th century were met by a geometric simplicity in letterforms, whilst the 1970s sexual revolution coincidentally saw spacing between letterforms become very intimate, coupled as it was with the advent of phototypesetting, a process soon superseded by computers.

Booms have a habit of producing an oversupply. And this oversupply calls for some kind of unique differentiation. Differentiation calls for creativity. This is where branding comes in. Trying to tell a herd of cows apart in the 1870s is perhaps no easier than trying to differentiate the often generic architectural forms of apartment developments built today.



Brands of the cattle boom (black) contrasted with contemporary real estate (white)Author provided

The old marketing adage “the more generic the product, the more you differentiate by brand” certainly appears to be at work here. This is but one comparison across two localised economic booms but the same pattern could be expected to appear whenever there is an “over stimulation” in a highly crowded marketplace.

What this frenzy of logos does show us is that despite the world of brands being fixated on the “now” it too has a “then” – one that I am sure we will see again some time soon.

Stephen Banham, Lecturer in Typography, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Lack of internet affordability may worsen Australia’s digital divide: new report


Julian Thomas, RMIT University


We often think of the internet as a levelling, democratising technology – one that extends access to knowledge, education, cultural resources and markets.

But the net also reflects the social and economic divides we find offline.

Released this week, the second report of the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) reports on data covering four years of local online participation across three dimensions: online access, digital ability and affordability. Together, the three dimensions produce a digital inclusion score.

Since 2014, when data was first collected, Australia’s overall digital inclusion score has improved by 3.8 points, from 52.7 to 56.5. In 2016–2017 alone, Australia’s score rose by 2.0 points, from 54.5 to 56.5.

But there is still a “digital divide” between richer and poorer Australians. In 2017, people in our lowest income households (less than A$35,000 per year) have a digital inclusion score of 41.1, which is 27 points lower than those in the highest income households (above A$150,000) at 68.1.


Read more: Three charts on the NBN and Australia’s digital divide


When the three dimensions are considered separately, the measures of access and digital ability show consistent improvement from 2014 to 2017. However, the affordability measure has registered a decline since the 2014 national baseline (despite a slight bump in the past 12 months).


Online access and digital ability have increased since 2014, but affordability has dropped. Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2017, Author provided


The cost of being connected


Affordability is a key dimension of digital inclusion.

Internet connectivity is important for accessing a wide range of education, government, health and business services. A decline in internet affordability means Australians on fixed or low incomes risk missing out on the benefits of digital technologies, and falling further behind more connected Australians.

The ADII shows that the cost of data — for both fixed and mobile internet — has declined over 2014-2017. These findings are in line with the ACCC’s ongoing monitoring of prices for telecommunications services, which indicate an average decline in real terms of 3.1% since 2006.
However, when we measure affordability, we are not only looking at the cost of data; we are also interested in what proportion of household income is being dedicated to this service.

The affordability problem with the internet is different from other key household services where there are price pressures, such as electricity and water. The residential consumption of energy has grown very slowly over the last decade, but prices have increased sharply.

With the internet, while we are now getting more data for our dollar, our demand for data has dramatically increased.

A recent report from the Commonwealth Bureau of Communications and Arts Research (BCAR) tracks the affordability of phone and internet use since 2006.

The BCAR report finds that, overall, phone and internet affordability has improved since 2006. However, their data also shows that almost all the gains occurred before 2013, and that, since then, affordability has declined or flat-lined. Further, BCAR’s data suggests that the lowest income households in Australia are now spending almost 10% of their incomes on internet and communications services. In contrast, middle income households are spending around 4% of their disposable income on these services, and for wealthier households, the figure is less than 2%.

Increasing reliance on mobile


Some recent and far-reaching changes in our use of technology are evident here: the extent to which the internet has become an integral part of everyday life, the fact that we are spending more time online, and we are doing an increasing range of activities online. In many households, we are also connecting with more devices.

However, the problem of affordability also reflects another recent development that the ADII highlights: one-in-five Australians now only accesses the internet through a mobile device — and we know that mobile data is considerably more expensive than fixed broadband on a per gigabyte basis.
Mobile-only use is correlated with a range of socioeconomic factors. The ADII data shows that people in low income households, those who are not employed, and those with low levels of education, are all more likely to be mobile-only.

Despite the benefits of mobile internet, this group is characterised by a relatively high degree of digital exclusion. In 2017, mobile-only users have an overall ADII score of 42.3, 14.2 points below the national average (56.5).


Digital inclusion is unequal


In the 2017 report, the ACT, followed by Victoria and New South Wales, are the highest scoring states in the overall digital inclusion score, as they were in 2016. Tasmania remains the lowest scoring, followed by South Australia.


Australia’s national digital inclusion score in 2017 is 56.5, but varies from state to state. Australian Digital Inclusion Index, Author provided

The lowest scoring socio-demographic groups in 2017 were households earning less than A$35,000 per year (overall score of 41.1), Australians aged over 65 (overall score of 42.9) and those with a disability (overall score of 47.0).


Read more: Regional Australia is crying out for equitable access to broadband


The ADII uses data derived from Roy Morgan Research’s ongoing, weekly Single Source survey of 50,000 Australians. These are extensive, face-to-face interviews, dealing with information and technology, internet services, attitudes, and demographics.

Calculations for the ADII are based on a sub-sample of 16,000 responses in each 12 month period. The index is a score out of 100: the higher the overall score, the higher the level of digital inclusion. An ADII score of 100 represents a hypothetically perfect level of access, affordability, and digital ability. A score of 65 or over is regarded as high; one below 45 as low.

A focus on improvement


An increasing number of Australians are online, but although the costs of data and devices are falling, there is a risk that issues of affordability will leave some of our most vulnerable behind.

Australians with low levels of income, education and employment are consistently less connected than the rest of the population, with consequences that will become increasingly serious as the digital transformation of government and the economy proceeds.

As an increasing number of essential services and communications move online, the challenge to make the Australian internet more inclusive is becoming more urgent. Affordability is a key area for attention, but so is improving Australians’ digital ability.

The issue of affordability suggests a range of possible areas for useful policy intervention. If we think it important to subsidise essential utilities such as electricity for low-income Australians, we may need to consider whether an allowance for internet access for essential services might also be necessary.

For the large number of lower-income Australians who rely entirely on mobile devices for internet connections, we will also need to consider new ways to support digital inclusion. These could include unmetered access to essential health and social services, and the further development of secure, public access wi-fi.

Julian Thomas, Director, Social Change Enabling Capability Platform, RMIT University
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.