IN an essay entitled Political Shoemakers, Eric Hobsbawm and Joan W Scott attempt to explain "the remarkable reputation of shoemakers as political radicals". They argue that the light work of shoemaking was ideal for smaller, less physical men and that their workshops were quiet, encouraging reading and conversation. The shoemakers’ relative poverty nurtured a radicalism that they then transmitted across the countryside as they moved between the classes in towns and villages. Hobsbawm and Scott cite a mid-19th-century description of the shoemaker walking "from village to village with his kit in a basket on his back. On getting a job he would drop down on the doorstep, and while at work, he and his customer would strike up with a song, or talk politics".

The vital element of the shoemakers’ radicalism is rooted in conversation. The particular nature of their trade gave them a quiet, intimate moment to talk to their clients and to open up an informed discussion about politics.

This tactic is echoed today in the activity of groups such as The Haircut Before The Party (THBTP), a radical hairdressing collective that emerged from friendships forged in communal squatted housing. As part of an art project in 2012, THBTP set up a temporary salon structure in Toynbee Street near Petticoat Lane in London. The site became a meeting place where people were invited for free haircuts and political discussion. Open Barbers, a queer and trans-friendly hairdressing service, collaborated in the project.

From the shoemakers to the barbers, the point remains the same: face-to-face discussion is charged with political and transformative power. The slower rhythm of a process like shoemaking, cobbling or hairdressing can displace formalities and allow subversive thoughts to emerge freely.

In the digital world this probably seems old-fashioned. Twitter, Facebook, blogs and apps can convey information instantaneously, accumulating comments in minutes. In the National Library of Scotland a pioneering project is attempting to capture exactly that rush of data and its distribution. The Scottish Independence Referendum 2014 Collection archives tweets, blog entries, websites and Facebook activity that represents the public debate surrounding that event. This is truly the ephemera of the modern world, where data can disappear without trace. It’s also the material that best represents the daily ebb and flow of debate or campaign claims and counter-claims.

By collecting such a broad and elusive body of digital material, the National Library is providing an invaluable archive for the future. And though it acknowledges the importance of social media in contemporary politics, this new collection still underlines the basic lesson to be learned from the barbers and shoemakers: conversation is key.

If there were a second lesson it might be that print is not dead yet. The Library is establishing a parallel collection of analogue ephemera from the referendum, which complements the digital archive. It’s a smaller, more manageable, body of material that provides a good overview of the general characteristics of both Yes and No tactics in the run-up to the vote.

The word "tactics" might be better suited to the No campaign as there was a very deliberate strategy from the start which clearly determined the kind of material produced for campaigners. The strategy was negative: deliberately dull, stolid and unsensational. The thought of independence and the vote itself, was downplayed, thereby reinforcing the monolith of Union. Some of the spirit of this approach is summed up by David Torrance in a June 2014 entry in his campaign diary, 100 Days Of Hope And Fear. Blair McDougall, the Better Together campaign manager, remarked to Torrance that focus groups found Alistair Darling "reassuringly dull" and that "a combination of the World Cup/Commonwealth Games/Wimbledon would probably drown out the referendum until early August". Entropy was the first line of defence.

The Vote No campaign print material underlines that approach. One information leaflet was produced in multiple versions declaring in each that "we can have the best of both worlds". The same slogan was modified in each version by the addition of a different sample voter eg, "Elgin student says we can have the best of both worlds" or "Paisley parents say we can have the best of both worlds". In every other respect the pamphlet's design and production was identical, clearly produced in the same central office. The leaflet itself is designed with all the charm of a generic energy information pamphlet. This is a common trait in Vote No material – design quality is skewed towards the everyday, the inoffensive, and the unimaginative. The visual qualities are mundane enough to render the material almost invisible and yet, with their low-wattage residue, capable of transmitting a near subliminal message linking universal security to a No vote.

This is not to disparage the design of the No campaign print – it was a deliberate and visually astute tactic to ally Better Together with the comforting reliability of keeping life the same as ever. It’s noticeable in the National Library’s collection to date that there is less diversity in the Vote No material and that it is significantly less interesting to the eye. This is underlined by the occasional No flier that edges towards vibrancy. David Mundell’s flier, for instance, flirts with the phoniness of marketing print which industrially reproduces a hand-written note (in this case an apology: "Sorry I missed you when I called today"). There is also the example of the momentarily notorious leaflet that provides "5 easy steps to filling in your postal vote ballot paper" and gives the following advice: "To ensure that Scotland remains in the United Kingdom mark an ‘x’ next to NO."

Both examples still veer towards the subliminal end of the scale. For desperate archival researchers, however, the Orange Order provide signs of life, betraying passion and enthusiasm in fliers evoking Lord Kitchener or imperial maps topped with a star, bible and crown. In the overall context of the campaigns for a No vote these pieces are dangerously interesting and therefore relegate themselves to niche items. Likewise a piece entitled "READ B4U VOTE" breaks ranks entirely with the oppressive spirit of the No designs. Handwritten printed text on poor A4 photocopy outlines the dangers of independence and concludes: "THIS LEAFLET IS NOT PRODUCED BY 'BETTER TOGETHER'."

Perhaps the flier demonstrates the frustration among some committed No voters who saw the lassitude of the official campaign as dangerously complacent. Looking back on the strategy, David Torrance notes that "in retrospect, Better Together – like Yes Scotland – was much too reticent in prosecuting its core case … articulate proponents of the Union often seemed in short supply". The No campaign itself seemed to realise the dangers it faced late in the game and finally understood that it had underestimated the lack of Unionist commitment in the 20% of floating voters still to be won over. One senior Better Together tactician admitted after the event that when the danger was finally comprehended they ramped up the campaign with a new emphasis: “We actually needed to frighten them … We scared them on the basis that if people didn’t understand the consequences they would vote Yes and we would be sitting in a Scotland that was negotiating for independence.”

Even so, the rawer "fear" campaign relied on the same conservative design features that characterised so much of the No print material. If the READ B4U VOTE author appears to be a lone maverick this was only because he or she was on the side of Better Together. In the Yes camp that rebellious yell would have barely stood out in design terms.

It’s true that the official Yes campaign literature was as dull and bureaucratic as that of their No opponents. But the Yes vote had mutated from a call for nationalism into an untamed flood of voices that railed against Westminister’s austerity policies, the bedroom tax, homophobia, discrimination against women, unwanted wars, Islamophobia, unregulated banks, the erosion of the NHS and xenophobic attacks on the presence of migrants.

Within this broad coalition every cause seemed to have its own printing press. The diversity of designs, formats and approaches that characterised the Yes campaign are clearly evident in the range of material being gathered by the National Library. The spectrum runs from Citizens For A Yes Vote through Labour For Independence, Women For Independence, Arts Inspired By The Independence Referendum, English Scots For Yes, Yestival, Yes Alba, Tak, Africans For An Independent Scotland and Wee Wumin Looks At The referendum: a rambling poem-like thing by Patsy Mason. That list is simply the tip of an iceberg.

What it signals is the release of a new kind of campaign, one that is no longer willing to accept the professionalised career politics that has come to dominate government. The diversity of voices and the willingness to employ all of the new and old technologies now at everyone’s disposal underlines the frustration at opinion being handed down from above and a growing realisation that power could be, at least temporarily, radically decentralised. Importantly it also signalled a loss of trust in traditional media as alternative routes of transmission wrong-footed older channels of communication which suddenly looked out of touch and heavy-handed (a lesson the same media are painfully slow to learn as the Jeremy Corbyn campaign proved a year later).

What the diversity of print in the Yes campaign also emphasises is the force of conversation. The multiplicity of voices generated an unexpected momentum. And in plainer terms, the sheer volume of individually produced fliers and leaflets for the Yes campaign points to their use on the ground. Most of that material was not generated for mass mailouts from a centralised office. It was for grassroots one-to-one exchange on the street, on marches, in public squares or halls. The liveliness of the print material was designed to open a conversation, to grab attention as the first step to pressing home a point.

Aside from all those fliers and leaflets, there was the inevitable colonisation of lamp posts and wall-space but the most public battle happened in the windows of tenements and houses. On the whole it was the Yes voters who took to the windows and they took to them with glee: there were official Yes posters but also that same explosion of personal expression seen in the fliers. No voters were less visible, with more cautious displays that often seemed reluctant or defensive. Much was made of the intimidation of No voters in the run-up to the referendum and certainly, in Glasgow at least, it seemed to be a brave supporter of Better Together that dressed their windows in streets peppered with Saltires and Yes posters.

These manifestations – the window-dressing, the stickers and other paraphernalia – went deeper than "virtue signalling", a term coined to describe the need to be seen to be on the right side and to demonstrate support for a "good" cause without doing anything tangible to help that cause. In the case of the referendum, the stickers and posters seemed to translate into acts of public congregation and the remarkable mix of people likely to turn up for a rally. The window-posters, stickers and buttons made visible a restless population, helping individuals to recognise others that were dissatisfied with the status quo and to realise they were not alone in their desire for change.

The placards and street decor do seem to point to two different aims of Yes and No voters. Better Together’s message was much simpler on the whole – "things are best left as they are". The Yes campaign mushroomed into an incredibly broad alliance of interests that went far beyond nationalism: "Scotland" became synonymous with "society under a neoliberal austerity programme". One placard in Glasgow's George Square read: "A better Scotland is possible."

This is why the print collection of the National Library’s project remains important alongside the blogs, websites and tweets. The physical manifestation of Yes voters in public spaces was a vital factor in the relative success of the campaign and the circulating fliers and leaflets played a key role in that act of congregation. If the unexpectedly high number of Yes voters is to be analysed and explained with any degree of subtlety then this collection offers an invaluable starting point.

Hobsbawm and Scott’s shoemakers would have certainly understood the power behind the Yes campaign’s one-to-one success and the intimacy and comradeship instilled through conversation. The energy and diversity of the Yes campaigners was much more seductive visually and physically than the cautious, low-visibility tactics of the Better Together camp. Much of the struggle between the two forces was fought through design values, the Utopian style of one matched against the reliable grey consistency of the other. The fright tactics of the No campaigners must have also played a decisive role in the eventual result. The Utopian forces unleashed by the Yes campaign can now be seen in the wider context of all sorts of uprisings across the globe where populations have clearly lost faith in old political structures but have yet to move beyond that first step where many different voices come together for a moment.

Francis McKee is director of the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA), Glasgow, which is currently holding The Shock Of Victory: a series of events marking the anniversary of the Scottish referendum on independence. An exhibition linked the territory covered in this essay runs at the CCA until November 1. Full details: