99% right

Earlier this week, I was walking along a Tube station platform when my eyes alighted on a poster featuring a striking red 9/9. Logos from the Mayor of London and Transport for London, together with some highlighted red copy saying ‘DO NOT COMMIT’, gave the piece an official stamp, and I initially thought it was a preemptive telling-off related to putting your feet on seats, eating in public or not showering enough. Beneath the 9/9 it said simply ‘99percent.org.uk’, which was something new to me. The body copy then read: ‘99% of young Londoners do not commit serious youth violence’.

I have to admit, my next observation was both pedantic and, as it turned out, wrong. I thought they’d made a simple mistake in representing ninety-nine percent as a fraction. In other words, 9/9 = 100%, so why are they using 9/9 to represent 99%?

99% Campaign logo by Harry Barlow

I mulled  for a few seconds, and then it struck me that the designer had got it dead right, and had in fact managed to create a brilliant and meaningful level of compressed double meaning. While the 9/9 shouts out 99, seen as a fraction it points to the 1% who have been involved in serious youth violence. Working with that one is an important part of what the campaign does, along with telling people about the many. And the ultimate goal of the campaign is to end violence, so we all become one. Or as they capture it on their website:

‘Help us tell the story of the 99% who are not involved in committing Serious Youth Violence and show how the 1% can also be challenged and changed to be positive members of their communities.’

It’s very difficult to get a logo to start telling the story of a brand or campaign, but I think the people behind this communication have cracked it. I’ve looked at the 99% Campaign website in some detail and it continues the narrative in a clear and interesting way, making good use of Local Government Association (*), Metropolitan Police (**) and Greater London Authority (***) figures:

‘ “There is a tendency for the public to overestimate the scale of youth crime, the numbers of young offenders, the proportion of overall crimes committed by young people, and the seriousness (especially in terms of violence) of youth crime”*

In London, the total number of people under 20 accused of Serious Youth Violence in 2009 was 1336**. The under 20 London population in 2009 was 1, 868 457***, this means an actual percentage of 0.07%.’

So the 99% name is a memorable counterblast to contemporary scaremongering and crippling community anxiety around young people. Of course serious crime and anti-social behaviour happen in London, but too often members of the public and journalists lump all young people into the mad, bad and dangerous to encounter category. You could even read the / of the logo as suggesting a big, bold barrier between ‘them’ and ‘us’.

Having said that, it’s difficult to see which individuals or organisations are behind this campaign – a failing of ‘transparency’, in modern-speak. My guess is that it’s a friendly front for a coalition of public agencies. The term ‘challenged and changed’ sounds civil service-slick, for example. Indeed, much of the vocabulary in the website body copy is too smoothly correct in theory and tone to have come from a group of young people or concerned citizens, unless they’re doing a good job of impersonating public sector jargon (which is possible). Here’s an example:

‘The ‘We back the 99 per cent’ Pledge initiative aims to bring together organisations and groups to celebrate the 99 per cent of young people who are making a real and positive contribution to London and its diverse communities.’

99% Campaign website

‘Celebrate’; ‘initiative’; ‘positive contribution’; ‘diverse communities’; it’s soft, contemporary bureaucrat-speak. The giveaway is ‘real’, the use of which speaks volumes about a separation between writer and subject. Copywriters reach for ‘real’ when they’ve failed to penetrate to the specific quality of something. But such a ‘real’ lacks substance because it has nothing to push against. What would an ‘unreal’ contribution be like?

Of course, there really are lots of questions that need to be answered as the campaign unfolds into action. Exactly how will young offenders be challenged and changed, for example? What’s going to be different? Are there practical resources being put in place to support this work? How will the politics of austerity affect youth violence? Can the justice system be improved to help disrupt the cyclical process of marginalisation, crime, imprisonment and marginalisation? Why does marginalisation happen at all, and what can we do about it?

Putting concerns around politics, methods and vocabulary aside for one moment, the campaign seems sound, with a clear rationale and an optimistic agenda. While most government and quango-led campaigns try to scare us into adjusting our thinking and behaviour, with a nudge-nudge here and a heavy shove there, The 99% Campaign is attempting to counterbalance fear and loathing. Good idea, good design, good website; I hope the methods employed to address the issues match the sophistication of the logo.


PS While we’re talking crime, I can’t resist adding this snap, taken today. Looks like police have got to the bottom of this matter:

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