Dan McCabe


Experiment #11 / A Call to Arms

The purpose of this experiment was to find a way to use graphic design to engage the public in the subject of heraldry and challenge issues related to societal perceptions and misconceptions of quasi-heraldry.

The initial phase of the experiment took place over two days at Southsea Castle, a small and well-preserved fortification situated in Portsmouth on the South coast of England. Visitors to the castle were visually and verbally encouraged to take part in the experiment by filling in a questionnaire. The structure of the questionnaire was as follows; firstly, it asked the participant to provide some basic personal details such as their surname, age, sex, occupation and contact email or postal address. It then asked the participant to select the following elements: one of ten common shield divisions, one of five heraldic colours, and one of two armorial metals. The remaining questions then required the participant to start to think more openly and to give both an animal and an object that they felt best represented their interests, personality or profession. Finally they were asked if they would prefer these chosen elements to appear once, twice or three times on the shield.

One hundred visitors took part in the experiment, and their participation resulted in the generation of a unique shield of arms. It also provided a fantastic opportunity to send the participant some additional supporting information to try and redress heraldic misconceptions.

The resulting arms can be seen presented with in a large format book. They are organised in alphabetical order of surname, and where surnames are the same either through family connection or coincidence, the arms are organised from youngest to oldest participant. The stylistic treatment of these arms is informed and influenced by three key factors: The first is through following the strict rules of heraldic design. The second is taking inspiration from the Norwegian heraldic artist Hallvard Traetteberg. Applying his theory allowed for the production of an aesthetically clean and balanced design, and produced what could be considered as a modern graphic style that can easily be digested and understood by a contemporary audience. The third and final factor is that the arms themselves are an intriguing mix of ancient heraldic symbolic conventions and modern popular cultural motifs. As in modern brand identity design, the use of such a simple graphic language can bring these elements together in a convincing way; logotype with lion, pictogram with panther.

Each shield of arms is coupled with a small block of textual information, and this text serves two specific functions. The first is to contrast the personal details of the participant with the visual interpretation of the choices the participants have made. It presents a game in which the profile of the individual can be compared to the elements they have chosen to represent themselves. The second function is to Blazon the design. Whether real or imagined, the words used can be translated from a glossary at the back of the book.

The book itself is designed to the same dimensions of a British museum archive book (roughly A2), and the hard cover and gold foil detail is intended to give it a sense of quality and permanence. The paper is 118gsm Mohawk Superfine Eggshell white and its feel is luxurious with an aged quality. It is evocative of the papers used in the herald’s notebooks in the College of Arms’ library.