The Container Principle

How a Box Changes the Way We Think

We live in a world organized around the container. Standardized twenty- and forty-foot shipping containers carry material goods across oceans and over land; provide shelter, office space, and storage capacity; inspire films, novels, metaphors, and paradigms. Today, TEU (Twenty Foot Equivalent Unit, the measurement for shipping containers) has become something like a global currency. A container ship, sailing under the flag of one country but owned by a corporation headquartered in another, carrying auto parts from Japan, frozen fish from Vietnam, and rubber ducks from China, offers a vivid representation of the increasing international economy. In The Container Principle, by Alexander Klose investigates the principle of the container and its effect on the way we live and think.

Klose explores a series of “container situations” in their historical, political, and cultural contexts. He examines the container as a time capsule, sometimes breaking loose and washing up onshore to display an inventory of artifacts of our culture. He explains the “Matryoshka principle,” explores the history of land-water transport,
and charts the three phases of container history. He examines the rise of logistics, the containerization of computing in the form of modularization and standardization, the architecture of container-like housing (citing both Le Corbusier and Malvina Reynolds’s “Little Boxes”), and a range of artistic projects inspired by containers. Containerization, spreading from physical storage to organizational metaphors, Klose argues, signals a change in the fundamental order of thinking and things. It has become a principle.

99% invisible episode 254, along with Pathe News Reels that informs the project 45mins.

Project Brief

Responding broadly to the concept of the shipping container, its history and impact, we would like you to develop a situation/experience/exhibition that can be housed within a container of given dimensions. In theory, this will make your work portable due to the standardisation described above. As a dockside campus we share a story with the shipping industry. We have a local history that is important to London’s present. We are also a forward facing institution and are interested in the future of our global activities. All of this provides potential grounding for your responses. Remember – the first shipping container was invented and patented in 1956 – that’s just over 60 years to effect global change.

You will need to visualise your proposals using AR/VR 3D mock-up in UNITY. This will allow you to communicate your spatial thinking prior to implementation.


We would like your designed response to fit inside a container. The container represents a unit, a unit which can be moved around, shipped to different locations.

Container size

Standard ISO shipping containers are 8ft (2.43m) wide, 8.5ft (2.59m) high and come in two lengths; 20ft (6.06m) and 40ft (12.2m).
A standard ISO 20ft shipping container has a capacity of 33.1m3 – enough room for almost 100 household washing machines!

Key Dates

  • Thursday 9th November 2017 - Introduction to the Project - Introduce and Listen to 99% invisible Podcast and watch Pathe News reels.

  • Tuesday 14th November 2017 - Interim seminar and discussion of your ideas and directions. As third years we expect you to present every time we meet, this way we can give you feedback and forward your project.

  • Tuesday 21st November 2017 - All day workshop with the Enterprise Team

  • Tracking Week - Lv 6 tracking Friday 1st December

  • Tuesday 5th December 2017 - TBC

  • Tuesday 12th December 2017 - TBC

Booking of the UEL Container can be arranged through Rob Reed (

Stretch Objectives
STEaM Collaborative Artwork Competition
Deadline for submissions 19th November 2017

What I would do
In this section we will explain some possible outcomes for the project that we might follow.

During the Project Briefing presentation of the Podcast and Pathe footage I took the following notes:

  • We are denied the opportunity to see trade. We are hidden from the cost of consumerism.
  • I sketched Lego blocks and shipping containers.
  • I noted, Smell of products - Tate & Lyle, Animal Hides, Coffee and Spices.
  • Characters / People / Stories / Narratives
  • 8-10 Billion of losses world wide.
  • Cost of Consumerism?
  • Sustainability? - Who is paying for our products?
  • what happens if we pay the true cost of shipping?
  • Balance?
  • Exchange of goods, Our Exports one way, Electronics back.
  • Info-graphics - hand animated.
  • 'Falling of the back of a lorry' - language.

From that I might take:

  • The theme of 'hidden from the cost of consumerism' and do some more research.
  • Lego as a medium. I might build a CGI version of the landscape now and then using Lego blocks. This could express the changing landscape.
  • I might interview a cross section of people from the dockland area. That could turn into presenting those interviews somehow, but also it might lead to narratives or other avenues for film/audio or other.
  • I could look at trying to explain trade routes using mapping and info-graphics.
  • I could investigate trying to create a multi sensory environment where smells, sounds and vision tell a story.
  • World wide trade has allowed China to get rich. Now investing in the very Docklands that Container Trade put into decline. I might be inclined to investigate why China is interested in investing in our dockside next to UEL. From that investigation there could be a number of outputs.

We hope that helps. Graphic Designers should be inquisitive, look for opportunities to express themselves. The projects we set are that opportunity. Where will your inquisitiveness take you?


This Project was inspired by:

Alexander Klose’s book ‘The Container Principle’
The Container Principle by Alexander Klose ISBN-13: 978-0262028578 MIT Press, 2015

99 Percent Invisible's Podcast Episode 256
Containers: The Ships, the Tugs and the Port

Containers is an 8-part audio documentary about how global trade has transformed the economy and ourselves
Host and correspondent Alexis Madrigal leads you through the world of ships and sailors, technology and tugboats, warehouses and cranes. At a time when Donald Trump is threatening to toss out the global economic order, Containers provides an illuminating, deep, and weird look at how capitalism actually works now.


Shipping Containers
Invented and patented in 1956 by an American named Malcolm McLean

The largest Crane ever used in London. Its counterbalance is made from waste rubble from the demolition put into shipping containers

One Bitcoin Transaction Now Uses as Much Energy as Your House in a Week


Cap Palliser
Live Tracking of the Container Ship featured in the Podcast.

Chinese investment in London
Chinese investment in London property is booming despite Brexit