“Artists are the astronauts of our cultural world”

Una Meistere

An interview with a British designer, artist and business innovator Alan Moore


Alan Moore is a British designer, artist and business innovator who calls himself a citizen of the world. He has worked on six continents and collaborated with and consulted companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Google, H&M and others. As a book designer, he has created catalogues for many well-known artists, including Anselm Kiefer. He has taught at the MIT Sloan School of Management, INSEAD and other business schools. And he has written several books: Communities Dominate Brands: Business and Marketing Challenges for the 21st Century (2005), No Straight Lines: Making Sense of Our Non-linear World (2011) and Do Design: Why Beauty is Key to Everything (2016).

This last book has become a bestseller and was also published in the United States this year. It is an ode to beauty as an instrument and an informative and inspiring guide to creating better and more meaningful things, at the same time weighing in – at the personal as well as corporate level – on what it is that each of us contributes to the world, how we do so and why. “We need more beautiful businesses in this world. We have climate change and we have all sorts of other things, because we have not really gone into the pursuit of beauty,” Moore says. The book was inspired by his own arrival at an existential crossroads of creativity, and, in a sense, writing it changed his life. At the moment, Moore is travelling the world with a series of lectures about inspiration; he has also created a training programme that addresses current global trends in developing new ways of seeing to understand beauty in all its incarnations.

We met at the Ham Yard Hotel in London, whose artistically eclectic and bohemian yet homey interior serves as confirmation of design written in the language of beauty. The day after our conversation, Moore sent me one of his poems via email:

Gathering Language for a Symphony

Walk out into the natural world

Gather the light

Feel the wind's texture

Capture vowels of trees

Watch silver rhythms

Of flowing rivers

Notice geometric patterns

Of kites overhead

Find the weave of interconnecting paths

Below your feet

Your lens is beauty

Then write your symphony

Alan Moore. Courtesy of Alan Moore

When I read your book, there was one quote that stuck with me. On the one hand, it’s very simple, but at the same time it’s not always so easy to make it happen. You wrote: “If you can’t describe a new destination, you will never get there.” I’d like to ask you why you wrote this book about beauty. As we all know, beauty is surrounded by many stereotypes, and it’s a word that is in some ways quite a cliché.

It is and it isn't. So, the true story is that in 2015 I sat down to write a book. Leading up to that, I had not been in a really good place at all. I’d had a massive nervous breakdown, and on top of that, I was really at odds with myself in the sense of what my purpose was and what I was doing. I had had an early career as an artist and had worked with all of these amazing galleries. Later, I got into advertising, and I was known as someone who was incredibly innovative in how I saw and was able to create solutions, plans and ways to make businesses and brands more successful. And then I had a real “Road to Damascus” experience with that.

I saw this world where happiness is defined by material consumption. And I felt like I’m in the engine room of the Titanic, stripped to my waist, shovelling coal into the furnace to make this ship go faster...and the outcome, it’s not a happy ending. And I don’t want to be doing this anymore. I was really in an acute crisis. In a way, it was probably the darkest time of my life. At that moment, I felt like I was a really long way from home, and I needed to get back in here, into my life.

That’s happened to me a few times in my life, where I really go into myself – I’m not looking at the outside world, and I’m really asking what is calling me. And two memories come up. One is being a young boy and playing on a beach in Cornwall with my family. We were on a family holiday, and my mum was very relaxed, which was very unusual, simply because she just worried so much about putting food on the table and the rest of it. I think we had a quite intense relationship, so I was very sensitive to other people. So for me, I had great joy watching her being happy. My father was always a beautiful and happy man. I was playing with my brother and sister, playing with my toys on the beach, which I loved. And what that memory said to me was that this is my integral view of beauty – at one with myself, at one with the ones I love and at one with the natural world.

And the other memory that I turned to was being in the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. My parents used to take us to museums a lot as kids. I remember standing in front of some really big, religious painting, I suppose being wowed by its scale or size and looking at the incredible blue of this man’s cloak. And at the age of ten I didn’t have the language to get back in the car and say, “Oh, by the way, you know that beautiful blue cloak.” But what that said to me was that there’s supposedly another kind of beauty.

Beauty can lend its immortality to things. Everything in this world is human-designed, so, you know, religion is a form of design as well. The myths, the narratives, the constructs and the environments we sit in. And on top of that, beauty for me is about healing, and it’s about nurture. And it’s about a life that feels it could be worthwhile. And that’s what I wrote the book about. I thought that, in a sense, all of my work has been geared around trying to bring beautiful things into this world. Initially as a book designer, because as a book designer you’re always in service to somebody else, and I think that also embedded this idea of craftsmanship in me. So, the craftsman is the bringer of peace and the maker of civilisation. And in many respects, actually what we’ve done is we’ve lost the language of beauty.

At which point do you think our civilization lost this language?

You know, there’s a saying – what gets measured gets made. I feel that there’s this real disconnect, because usually we talk about human beings having five senses, but actually those senses are constantly working in multiples and in combinations. So, it’s more like we have 32 senses, or even more. And all of those are qualitative, not quantitative. We don’t experience the world through a quantitative lens; it’s a qualitative one. And yet it’s bizarre that actually everything in this world is quantified.

There’s a great book called The Alphabet Versus The Goddess by Leonard Shlain, who makes the claim that once we invented the 26-character alphabet, it really changed the world from being female-centric to male-centric, with all of the things that entails. So, in all the major religions up until that point, all the deities were female. And then there’s a shift where everything became male-oriented.

We’ve fallen out of nature because we’re not connected to it in the same way that we once were. And yeah, I suppose now’s the point where I say that there’s a business case for beauty. Actually, the best business case in the world is beauty, because the laws of the universe – at the cosmic level as well as the atomic level – they’re said to be beautiful. Einstein’s theory of relativity, or Paul Dirac’s theories about how particles of atoms interact with each other – both are the beautiful descriptions of how the universe works symmetrically. And, you know, not a single atom is wasted in there. Beauty can work on a cosmic scale or beauty can work on a micro scale. It’s about regeneration. Beauty is about our integral experience of those things in the world. If we can be more beautiful in our thoughts or more beautiful in our actions, we will only get more beauty in the world.

Lots of studies show that our DNA is wired to love the natural world, because it speaks to us about fertility. You know flowers, even cut flowers, are talking. Not to our eyes, but to our neural programming they say that this is a fertile land. This is where we can flourish. This is where we can thrive. So, on the surface there’s a lot of misunderstanding about beauty. There’s a great quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American philosopher and poet, who said, “Beauty gets us out of the surfaces and into the foundations of things.”

Umberto Eco once wrote that, in some ways, beauty is boring because it’s very predictable, while ugliness isn’t.

I think that’s debatable. But the reality is, you can’t have Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader. You can’t have night without day. Without ugliness in the world, we can’t have beauty.

But the reality is that all of the things that become important breakthroughs in this world are created through perseverance and optimism. And the quality of questioning. Every day we have a choice in terms of how we turn up. Do you turn up with hate in your heart? Which actually starts with do you turn up with hate for yourself? Because, in a way, that’s where a lot of this stuff happens, in terms of what you bring into the world. And I suppose you could reflect on the work of religion and whatever, too. They’re all saying the same thing, they just have different interpretations. But, you know, mankind realised a long, long time ago that we could be pretty ugly as a species. And I’ve always said that we’re 51 percent good and 49 percent bad. Very bad. And that’s the perpetual struggle, you know. Good versus evil and all the rest of it.

I don’t think it’s a weakness to bring greater beauty to this world; actually, it’s an extraordinary strength. And I do believe the idea that beauty is what gives things immortality. But it’s very hard work. Ugly for me is easy. In a way, every book that I write, every piece of art someone makes, is almost like giving birth, so to say. And it sometimes carries risk.

Well, when we’re talking about legacy and ethics, there’s also a risk in writing a book and adding something to the universe, because it could all be a complete waste. In some cases, a book could be considered a waste product.

Yeah, that’s right. The book I wrote before this one was called No Straight Lines: Making Sense of Our Non-linear World, and I spent seven years working on it in amongst all sorts of other things. I really spent a long time researching. I think we sold maybe 5000 copies, it wasn’t bad. But I mean, I really invested myself in the book but didn’t really get out of it what I wanted. And it was interesting, because the way I wrote it, I wasn’t really true to myself. And this is again a question regarding artistic or creative approach.

When I wrote Do Design: Why Beauty is Key to Everything, I decided there were three things that were really important regarding the writing of the book. The first one was that there would not be a single negative idea in the book. That’s not to say I’m not angry. You know I’m frustrated with the world; I mean, in a way, that’s part of the modus operandi to write this book. But what I do know is that if you hang around the Dalai Lama, something kind of nice happens. And I thought there’s got to be something in this book that I need to work towards. I could not define it, but I wanted to work towards it. The second thing was that there would be no jargon. It would be written in a way in which everyone who picked up the book could hopefully be able to understand what it was that I was trying to say. And the last decision I made was that if it only took 50 words to say what I wanted to say, then those would be the best 50 words I could write. Basically, to try and give some more poetry to the work. And that was also kind of interesting. I do like poetry, but this was reconnecting to the idea of what poetry actually does. To me, poetry is one of the highest forms of articulation. With it you can get to the essence of the truth, and this connection between truth and beauty was also really important to me.

And these are also terms that, again, people don’t give themselves permission to really talk about. They think truth has to be scientific fact or whatever, but the reality is that beauty is, in a sense, mysterious. But we all feel it, we all know it. And it’s not a thought thought; it’s a felt feeling. And everybody knows that to be true.

Do Design. Why beauty is key to everything by Alan Moore

How did you feel when you finished the book? Did you let go of your previous burden, or were you still carrying something around with you?

I think it’s a work in progress. I mean, it’s kind of like a therapy session where I get down on the couch. But for me, I think it was in large part about a professional sense of failure. I set my bar incredibly high, and when I couldn’t get there, I really turned it on myself. Complicated family history, you know, all of that kind of stuff. So, interestingly for me, I think I got this sort of four-stage progress and growth process now, which is actually...there’s an argument for beauty. Then there’s actually work we need to put in to become a better human. Then there’s work we need to do to become a better leader. And then there’s work we need to do to become a better maker.

By maker I mean, you could be an artist, you could be a ceramist, you could be running a small business, etc., but the act of bringing good into this world is what’s important. We write a narrative about ourselves. This is who I am, this is where I come from, this is what happened to me. That’s the ego. And it’s really hard work to let that stuff go.

And in a way, I’m really drawn to that. There’s a lady whom I’ve become quite intrigued by. Her name is Jeong Kwan, and she’s a South Korean Zen Buddhist nun who cooks temple cuisine. There’s a Netflix series called “Chef’s Table” and one episode is about her, her life, the way she cooks. It’s really amazing. The way she’s introduced at the beginning of show is:  “Jeong Kwan is a nun. She’s very advanced in Buddhism. She’s incredibly compassionate, and she happens to be a very good cook.” I say to people that when they watch this show, they have to watch it three times. The first time you just watch it. And then, because it has subtitles, the second time through you just read what she says – turn the sound down and just read the text. I sat there and even wrote out everything she said. And the third time you just watch how she moves. Only someone at real peace with themselves could move with that level of grace and precision. And that really spoke to me. In the show she says, “With food, what we’re really eating is the mindset of sharing.” She’s given me insight into thinking about all of these things.

But there’s also something about how Kwan prepares the food. The nuns in the monastery are not allowed to use garlic, shallots or leeks, because they’re not good for the spiritual karma. A renowned New York food critic who came to visit her says that he’s amazed how it’s possible, without using our traditional means to flavour our food, to bring out these incredibly subtle and intense flavours in Kwan’s vegetarian cooking. So, that whole journey just fascinates me deeply. You know, the vast majority of us just live on the surface. We don’t slip below. Sure, we use alcohol, we use prescription drugs, whatever. But we’re not going into the depths about who we could be.

Have you ever tried ayahuasca? The ancient traditional medicine that South American Indians have used for centuries to help them not lose the connection with nature and the deeper layers of existence is becoming more and more popular in the Western world.

No, but I’m interested in trying it; I’d like to do something like that. I’ve done quite a lot of yoga. And meditation, to which I’ve kind of fallen in and fallen out with. In the book I write about the Tibetan calligrapher Tashi Mannox. He became a Tibetan monk at the age of 22 and spent 17 years in Tibetan monasteries. He talked about how, if he had any emotion in his body, it would travel through his arm, down his hand, into his pen and to the tip of the brush. As far as he was concerned, he left his emotions on paper.

You can use anger and all of those other emotions as the raw material for your motivation to create. But I think that the act of creation is in fact a form of meditation. You really have to kind of be in a different place. I recently started making posters with wood blocks. And, you know, it’s just the whole process of figuring it all out, inking up the wood block, putting it on the paper, and all of a sudden you’re in a meditative state.

You know, there was this famous discussion between David Hume and Immanuel Kant about their different standpoints on the subjectivity or objectivity of beauty. Hume agreed that beauty is “in the eye of the beholder”, but Kant said that it’s based on personal experience, although, in a way, that presumes that others will agree.

Yeah, I mean, obviously, we can line up everyone in this room and point to the ones we think are attractive. So, there is an element of attraction to it, for whatever reason. But I agree with you – I think there’s something deeper there, too. Another way of exploring that relates to the language of beauty.

So, in my workshops I get people to do a little exercise – what is the language of beauty? And that brings us back to the question of how do I behold the world? How do I see myself in it? And that’s a really hard question to answer. But it starts to reveal something very interesting. So, it’s about layers. Moving into Shrek territory here, when the donkey asks Shrek, “What’s it like being an ogre?” And he says that ogres are like onions. And the donkey doesn’t get it. So Shrek has to point out that ogres, like onions, have layers. There’s layer underneath layer, and so on.

But I think the language of beauty is the language of compassion. The language of empathy. As the great Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado once said, “Reality is full of depth of field.” He spent his life taking mind-blowing photographs of genocide, gold mines and oil fields, and then he turned his lens on the Earth’s last undamaged, unmodernised places and the people who live there. His works show the most profound truth. And for me, they’re also stories about this incredible empathy he has with the people he photographs. There’s a film called The Salt of the Earth (2014) by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, which is a documentary devoted to Salgado the photographer. And when you listen to him speaking, there’s no hate, no judgment in his voice. And I say to people, “My challenge for you, for the next hour, is not to judge anything.” And they realise that their lives are completely run by judgment. The Buddhist principle of nirvana is actually that judgment is a form of suffering.

And I think that beauty is actually infinite. Back to the universe theme, there’s an infinity there. Whereas anger and hate is highly toxic. And yes, you could say that they burn with much greater intensity. Anger and hate can bring huge energy into something, but they’re ultimately extremely destructive. So if you look at what’s happening with our politics around the world, that’s not the language of people. That’s not the language of empathy. That’s not the language of compassion. You know, it’s the language of the other. It’s the language of victims. If I was being kind, I would say that what’s actually happening is that people are bewildered by the world they live in. They don’t really understand what’s going on. And other people have rather cynically taken advantage of that situation.

So, every day on Twitter or Instagram I post something that’s related to beauty. I could be tweeting 100 times a day how ugly the things around us are, but the reality is “What are you bringing into the world?” A high level of empathy and compassion is an extraordinary form of leadership, but the language of hate just gets more and more intense. And I don’t really want to see another war acting as some kind of reset for human beings to suddenly think about what we’re doing to each other.

Do you see how art could play a role in the process of rediscovering beauty again?

Funnily enough, I think there could be a multiplicity of ways. For example, Ai Weiwei’s film Human Flow was really powerful. Because having worked heavily in the world of media, I understand that everything is mediated. The day that really dawned on me was about 25 years ago. I'd gone to Cape Town to do a TV commercial for Diet Coke. And of course, I’d grown up watching broadcasts about the black population resisting and fighting apartheid – Cape Town on fire, bombs, tear gas, dead bodies in the streets or in a restaurant. So, we arrived at Cape Town, and the first thing I saw was the incredibly beautiful Table Mountain.

And then we were driving through the shanty towns, and we actually went into some of them for the filming. And, oh my God. You know, I realised I’d only seen five percent of what this was all about. Because if the film is mediated, I can’t get to the essence of what the experience is really like. So I think that visceral experience is very important.

There’s the Kettle’s Yard art gallery in Cambridge, which was founded by the late British art collector Jim Ede. He had fought in the First World War and was gassed. He had seen a lot of horror and a lot of ugliness, and so his purpose in forming Kettle's Yard was to curate, to collect and to commission cultural works and artefacts that in their own way would be beautiful. His wife, Helen, played the piano, and they used to have musical events at the gallery, too. So it became a cultural meeting point, because he said that beauty is a way of healing.

In a way, I think that artists are really the astronauts of our cultural world. They were exploring LGBT issues twenty years ago, before it was even close to the type of mainstream agenda we have now. Body transformation, identity and so on. In that sense, not all art is beautiful. Because actually it’s doing something else, which is asking very profound questions about our role as human beings in this world. But art definitely does play a very important role in getting us to rethink our interests and lifestyles. It’s a question of how do we make it more accessible. And there’s really no easy answer to that, which does seem to me a tragedy. Especially in this Britain that we’re living in today, where culture, art, music, etc. is seen as increasingly superfluous to the necessary importance of science facts, the English language, you know, whatever. And I think it’s all terribly the wrong way around. There’s a great saying: “When every civilisation falls, the only thing left is art.”

Surely, we want people to be their most creative selves. Actually, there was a study that showed that scientists who had won the Nobel Prize are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or craft hobby.

Show me something beautiful. Courtesy of Alan Moore

People nowadays are quite pragmatic and always looking for the right tools. What would be the most crucial tools to return to beauty?

I once met a lady called Fiona Reynolds. She was the director of the National Trust (until 2012 – Ed.), and now she’s a Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. She has been a campaigner for natural beauty in the environment all her life. She wrote the book The Fight for Beauty: Our Path to a Better Future (2017), which is her story about trying to protect Britain’s national environment from the worst excesses of capitalism. And she’s got this great line in her book, in which she says that the human spirit needs beauty, and it strives to get more of it given half the chance. Now connect that with Frank Wilczek, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who wrote the book A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature’s Deep Design. He says, “Having tested beauty at the heart of the world, we hunger for more.” I think beauty’s just there. People just need to reconnect to it and be given permission to do so.

And that kind of connects me back to the world of crafts. And making. And feeling that your work is important and valued. A friend of mine did an MSE on edumonia and creativity. She did a lot of interviews with a whole range of different people and explored that whole thing around creativity and identity and making, well-being and mental health. In a way, I think when you look at, say, the return to craft-based work, a lot of that is based in the human psyche. It’s just saying “I have to make”.

Every day we keep adding new things to our world, and the great majority of them are not made with functionality, beauty and the essence of craftsmanship in mind. Many of them are just another product. They enter the world and our lives, and then they go away. Like fast fashion.

It would take a while for all of that to stop. In a way, of course, the whole economy is based on the idea that we just continue to consume. At the same time, many interesting things are going on. For example, there are all of these new zero-waste shops popping up. You know, when I was a young man, vegetarianism was still seen as weird. Now people are vegan. So I think it’s coming.

And I wonder, if you look at, you know, the hard men of Europe and, of course, North America. The ones who seem to represent the fear and worry and whatever. But they’re all of a certain age. I wonder whether younger kids actually see the world the same way as those men do. If you look at the young New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts senator Ed Markey, who wants to bring in the Green New Deal – a plan focused on eliminating U.S. carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuels while also revitalising the American economy. You know, those kids want a different world. So I hope that in 10-15 years’ time there will just be this whole other thing that happens, a recalibration of the world that we want to live in.

In your book you mention a seemingly very simple but essential thing. You write that you’ve never stopped being curious, because that’s the most important thing in life.

I think curiosity has always been a part of my journey. I can remember being in a hardware shop with my father as a really young boy. There was a mousetrap, and my father said, whatever you do, don’t put your finger in there. But of course, I had to do it. (Laughs.) And it really hurt. Luckily it didn’t break my finger. But that curiosity, being prepared to change your mind, being open to seeing the world differently... In that sense, you know, I suppose I was fortunate to do an extraordinary amount of travelling through the world. And I really enjoyed that. On one level, seeing that the world is different, and yet, on another level, that human beings have this universal need to be loved. You know, as Tashi Mannox says: “Everybody wants to be happy and everybody wants to be free. But how to be happy and how to be free are the greatest challenges.”

When I was reading the introduction to your book, I kept wondering will it go deep, or will it stay more like on the coaching side.

I wanted to illuminate a path for people to walk instead of giving them exact directions on what to do. There had to be something that people could put themselves in.

Another interesting question is at what point does beauty end and ugliness begin. The line is very thin.

When I do my talks, I usually tell the story about my background. My nervous breakdown and whatever. And then I say, well, where do we start with beauty? It’s a big topic, people have different points of view. But this is where I think we need to start. I ask everyone in the room to shut their eyes and imagine that they’re in a spaceship, sitting next to lunar pilot Edgar Mitchell, and he’s asking them to look out the window. And out of the window they see the sun, the moon and the earth hanging in the vast and endless void, and Mitchell is telling them that when he sees that for the first time, he’s absolutely overwhelmed by the beauty that he sees. I’ve done it a few times, and it really works. Each and every person’s spaceship is completely different, and they really embody it. It’s like this threshold that they always go over, and then they kind of connect that into the laws of the universe. And if we’re a part of nature, then that’s why we instinctively understand that beauty is such a fundamental part of it.

Beauty is a verb. Courtesy of Alan Moore

Related articles