Spring 1994

Reputations: Malcolm Garrett

‘I figure it’s my job to be this kind of blinkered believer. You know: I am the new futurist, I will live in the technological world.’

Malcolm Garrett was born in Northwich, England in 1956. He studied typography at Reading University from 1974-75, and graphic design at Manchester Polytechnic from 1975-78. In 1977, he produced his first professional work and made an immediate impact with his designs for Manchester punk rock group Buzzcocks. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Garrett was rapidly identified, along with colleagues Peter Saville and Neville Brody, as one of the most influential designers working for youth culture clients such as the music business and style magazines. In 1983, with partner Kasper de Graaf, he incorporated the multidisciplinary consultancy Assorted images (Ai). In projects for Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Culture Club, Garrett applied his ideas about corporate identity to pop groups. Other work in the entertainment industry followed, including television graphics. Ai was an early advocate of computer graphics and in the late 1980s Garrett’s focus shifted decisively in the direction of new technology. He has experimented with interactive databases and digital magazines, and published a series of manifestos in the magazine Graphics World, Baseline and 26 in which he outlined his ideas about the implications of digital technology for graphic design and the future of media.

Rick Poynor: For a long time you complained about typecasting, and from around the mid 1980s you said you wanted to do a broader range of work. Have you achieved this?

Malcolm Garrett: I think so, yes, though it’s still early days. I like the look of my work on screen and I sometimes get frustrated that it’s got to come out and go on to paper. It’s a combination of my fascination with technology plus boredom at having done print for paper for fifteen years.

RP: What about corporate projects - the identities you dreamed of doing at one point?

MG: They’re beginning to happen on a smallish scale. I think I was just expressing a frustration with always working for pop groups or friends. One of our clients is The Computer Film Company, which does digital effects for the movie industry. A lot of our work is still linked to entertainment in some way. I still think there’s a lot I could do that I haven’t been asked to do yet. I’m not a very good career planner if left to my own devices. I tend just to react to things coming through the door: well, that’s an interesting project, I’ll do that. There are challenges, things I haven’t done that I’d like to try. Doing another record sleeve is not really a challenge.

RP: But you are still doing record sleeves.

MG: I still work with Peter Gabriel and Real World. We’ve just done the packaging for his CD-ROM. I wish I’d been more involved with the actual programme, not just the package. I was involved at the beginning, trying to ensure the Real World identity was properly represented on screen, but for geographical and software reasons that’s as far as it went. Even though earlier we had separately proposed doing just such a project with Real World, it was a full year before they started work on this one – with somebody else. We were too early. But that’s also, I think, part of my problem. Sometimes I’m too early with my thinking and I seem to be unable to be around at the right time to do the job.

RP: You’ve expressed a lot of scepticism about the design profession’s notions of ‘quality’. Do you really believe that the visual qualities of a piece of work are irrelevant?

MG: It’s not really a scepticism about quality. I’m as seduced by beauty as the next man, but I question what quality means. What I was trying to get designers to address was this 1980s notion of the ‘designer’ look – if you made it discreet and black then it was good design. Of course, the visual qualities of a piece of work are highly relevant, but they should not be presupposed. Good typography may well be just the scrawled price stuck on a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop window. You know, it communicates: £1 a pound, I can read that, I’ll go and buy it. That is good design in the sense that it has communicated in a seamless way and the ‘quality’ of the letterform doing the job didn’t actually come into it, not in a formal way.

I was trying to say that our sophisticated notions of aesthetic quality aren’t necessarily the most important thing in a job. But I was also trying to qualify that by saying you can’t make global judgements on quality because everything has to be judged within its own context. And I think that’s something that Assorted images has always tried to express: who knows what the job I’m asked to do tomorrow will look like because I don’t yet know the context, the message or the medium. Those are so important in governing what something should look like. I was despairing about the kind of design where you say, oh Joe Bloggs did that, because you see his way of doing it before you see what it’s about. I’ve always fought against that.

RP: Let’s talk about one of the examples you give in your Baseline manifesto, the British Post Office’s Parcel Force Identity. You say ‘it’s awful on paper, great on vans’. Some might think this kind of commercialism is crass and inappropriate on Post Office vans, too.

MG: I was being deliberately antagonistic. Crass commercialism has produced some of the design graphic designers love best. We love trash. I compared Parcel Force with the rail freight identity because the British design profession loves rail freight. It’s beautiful, but I’ve taken a train from London to Manchester, gone by the yards in Crewe and thought, what the hell do the guys who work for the rail freight think of this? Because I can’t understand it, what job is it supposed to be doing? The books the designers make about it look brilliant, but I don’t think those coloured squares really sit happily on the sides of trains. They’re somehow at odds with one another. The Parcel Force logo is crass and horrible, but it actually works on the van. It feels quite at home there and people know what it’s all about. It’s populist design, and we purists may never want to see it, but you can’t deny it works. That’s what I was trying to get people to look at: one is ‘horrible’ but it communicates and one is ‘beautiful’ but it doesn’t communicate. So maybe neither of them really works from a standpoint of moving design forward.

RP: What is your definition of good design – the definition you live by?

MG: Does it do its job? It’s the only possible definition of good design. Did message A get communicated to audience B? There can’t be any other definition. If you don’t speak to an audience in a language it can understand then communication of a specific kind is unlikely to take place. This either means that you educate an audience in the nuances of your own personal language, or you explore the languages that exist, which can be efficient yet conceptually restrictive. My work often seems to adopt a vernacular approach, but I hope it is not constrained by convention. I try to familiarise myself with rules and structural detail in order to bring together disparate ideas and motifs.

RP: Would you say that the end always justifies the means? Because if you would, the Parcel Force identity is all right isn’t it?

MG: Well, that’s the question I was asking. Because yes, my view is always tempered by my personal taste: it’s not to my taste, but it does its job, so is it good? I don’t know. This is where I sit on the fence. I’ll always see the other view. I will argue and argue for a particular situation, a particular viewpoint, and when people come round to that way of thinking I’ll say, yeah but … and I’ll go back again. Peter Saville always says, ‘Malcolm, you insist on shooting yourself in the foot,’ and that’s part of me. I want to destroy it. I have this stupid inbuilt quality not to be able to be dogmatic about anything.

RP: Does all this mean that when it comes to your own design process you respond to situations pragmatically?

MG: Yes, that is definitely what I try to do. I used to see myself as a pragmatic anarchist. As time goes on, one is tempered by reality. You know there are projects where you can’t afford the time or the effort completely to reinvent the wheel, so you do have to apply a formula sometimes. But in an ideal world, yes, you rethink your position with every job, within the constraints of the job. But wouldn’t any designer say that?

RP: Why the love affair with technology? It has become such a strong theme of what you say and of people’s perception of you.

MG: I’ve always loved technology. I’ve always been a science fiction fan from when I was this big [gestures]. All the TV programmes, all the books I read – everything was science fiction, visions of the future, things that haven’t happened yet. I’ve grown up with it and that’s what fascinates me.

On a practical level, I’ve tried to analyse my own shortcomings and find what it is that I’m good at and what I’m able to market about myself. To be crassly commercial, if you’re going to succeed and move forward, you do have to be pigeonholed. So despite calling myself Assorted imagines in any early idealistic vision of never being pigeonholed, I figured, well, I’ll be pigeonholed anyway so it will be for computers, technology, something I’m good at, something I’ve got involved in early on, something I have a view about. For so long Malcolm Garrett has been that guy who did record sleeves, so putting on my brutal commercial hat, I decided it was time perhaps to have people reappraise what they think I’m about. I would much rather be known as Malcolm Garrett, the guy who plays with computers, than Malcom Garrett, the guy who designs record sleeves.

I’m genuinely excited by the things that are happening now and things that haven’t happened yet. I figure it’s my job to be this kind of blinkered believer. You know: I am the new futurist, I will live in the technological world. That appeals to me and I will ignore the current technical problems because somebody else will sort out the technology. That’s the Japanese approach. You go to Japan and everybody is positive and optimistic and you look at what Japan’s done in the last 50 years. If it can happen it should. Is that irresponsible?

RP: Your statement in another manifesto published in Graphics World that ‘the book is dead’ has become a common refrain among designers. But you only need to walk into a bookshop, or talk to someone who enjoys reading books, to see it is far from being the case. So why say it?

MG: My statement was made in order to question the role the book plays in the rapid dissemination of information in today’s society. Television, computer, telephone and satellite are much better tools for getting your message quickly to an international audience. It’s sad to cling to such traditional icons of learning. No one questions that the printed word is a tried and trusted way of recording thoughts and ideas, but it seemed to me that books are increasingly becoming marginalised as objects for entertainment and worship. So I wrote the article blatantly - the book is dead question mark – just to open up the debate, because a lot of communication in the future will take place on electronic media. That’s a fact. And I felt that it was the duty of graphic design to address that in some way. If there are graphic design problems being thrown up by this new media, then graphic designers should address them rather than just saying, no, that’s an awful scenario and it shouldn’t happen.

RP: In an earlier profile in Graphis [no. 258 Nov / Dec 1988] you are quite insistent about this. You say ‘I firmly believe that the book is now an invalid form of communication … as a form of communication it is finished.’

MG: Maybe it was premature to say that, but the writing’s on the wall. For some things it is now an invalid form of communication. And one of those is The Oxford English Dictionary. I think it’s very hard to argue against the fact that the best way of accessing the information in The Oxford English Dictionary is in electronic form. What I was not saying – and history will bear me out – was that new media will completely replace old media. The two will exist side by side. But history also proves that once something is invented you can’t make it go away again. Those were the issues I was trying to deal with. If I’ve been misinterpreted, it’s because I’m not a good enough writer, or I’m not good enough at expressing myself in an interview. That’s why I tried to clear it up with the Graphics World article. I wasn’t saying this is the end of print, too bad. I was saying this is the start of something else as well. The best way of getting people to pay attention is to make an outrageous statement. I’m not trying to make everybody become an interactive designer. But just take note, even if you choose to go in a different direction. Look at what’s happening because – this is my favourite saying – there’s no substitute for knowing everything.

RP: Recently you said that the choice of communication medium is not a designer’s problem, and that your job is simply to ensure that the medium is used to its full potential. Many designers would say that it was also their job to advise the client about the most appropriate medium.

MG: I’m talking here on a global scale. It’s not really the designer’s choice to advise a print solution when commissioned by CNN to produce a news programme. Similarly, we can’t force the public to read newspapers when they want to watch News at Ten. The whole world watches television and gets most of what it knows from television and two sad things occur: (1) Most television is crap. (2) Because most television is crap the design profession either ignores it, or has been excluded from it. We’ve got this situation where the world’s most important communication medium is only partially addressed by responsible designers. What I feel is happening, which is good from my point of view, is that as computers begin to infiltrate TV, the technology is finally allowing designers to address the medium rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s not for us as designers to say print is obviously much better than the screen and we’re just going to design for print come what may. The screen is there and it’s really important. Don’t we have a duty to improve both the quality of the information and the quality of the communication of that information?

RP: Can you give me an example of a programme that might benefit from the involvement of graphic designers in the way you describe?

MG: With broadcast TV, you sit in front of it and it comes at you. So most of it is story-telling. It’s linear and it’s photography-led. There’s a full-screen picture and a time-based piece of photography going on, and what has graphic design got to do with that? But as computer technology becomes more a part of the way that stuff is presented, so the consumer will be able to say, I don’t want to watch that now, or, I want to expand this bit and see this bit as well, or download some text to give me a back-up for this piece of information. As the capability of the hardware platform diversifies, a lot of the problems that will be thrown up about how to present or access the information will be graphic design problems. It’s a bit like merging being a film director with being the designer of a signposting system for an airport. But in reality the multimedia world that we’re all anticipating is still a mystery to us. We don’t know how kids who are now three and four years old, being brought up with Nintendo and video cameras and digital information, we don’t know how their brains are going to work when they’re 16 and beginning to create stuff for a global market.

RP: Why do you say that this is necessarily the job of graphic designers rather than people who are thinking about information design from a more editorial direction?

MG: Thinking about information design from an editorial direction is part of graphic design. That’s the point. But so many designers don’t read the text. They’re just interested in how the words look, not what they say. Of all the professions I can think of that are involved in visual media or information media, graphic design seems to be the most capable of being all-encompassing, being both creative and anonymous and putting it all together. Co-ordinating disciplines is one of the things graphic design is about.

RP: The training will have to be much more detailed. There will be many more skills to master. People who come into graphics for primarily aesthetic reasons are not necessarily going to have the kind of structuring abilities you’re talking about.

MG: Absolutely. But then people should not come into graphics for primarily aesthetic reasons. Developing those kinds of structuring abilities should be part of any worthwhile graphic design education, and to that end I have no problem with graphic design training becoming more stringent.

Students come to me and say, well, what am I going to do when I leave college? There are no jobs for me. And I say, there’s this big world opening up and you are perfectly placed. We don’t need any more magazine designers, but we need some good interactive TV designers. Actually, I think that magazines as print will probably survive longer than most other print forms because of the way they are produced and the way they are used. I read masses of magazines and I don’t read enough books. Books have become art objects. I love them, and buy too many of them, but I can’t read them all. As a means of recording much of the information generated today, they are no longer practical. So much in the world is now televisual and digital in origin that to attempt to document it with paper is not realistic.

RP: Why don’t you read books that much?

MG: I don’t get the time. I don’t give myself the time to spend with them, basically, I just look at the pictures.

RP: Would it be any different, though, if there on the wall you have a library of wonderful interactive programmes offering all this potential knowledge? After all, it’s still time-based and time-consuming. It’s still going to require motivation.

MG: OK, you’ve got me. I give up. There’s already too much information, so why create more? All I’m saying is that this thing is happening, don’t hide your head in the sand. It’s throwing up all these problems that we’re discussing and they are problems for graphic designers as much as anybody to think about and address. I do worry that when there is so much information and we can access all of it, will we want any of it? And maybe when you only had access to a bit of information, you got more out of it. One of the advantages of digital media, though, is the intuitive path of retrieval, where tangential information can be linked. With an efficient method of searching, specific information can be accessed quickly, but without destroying the ability you have with print to browse and come across things by chance.

Something important that hasn’t ever come out in any of the interviews or writing I’ve done is that I am very anti-video games because I just see them as things that take up your brain power without taking you anywhere. They’re closed environments, dead ends. But I am pro-computers, because with networking and information access they are platforms to expand your brain. That’s why I never play computer games. I won’t have them on any of the computers in the office. I will not buy Nintendo. I think that the dangerous part of the technology world is this proliferation of machines designed to stop you going anywhere.

RP: In what ways would you say that the Macintosh has changed your approach to design, or your thinking about design?

MG: It probably hasn’t changed my approach to design in the classical sense. Design is about communication. It has made me think about publishing rather than design. And it’s made me think about the best platform to use to communicate a particular piece of information. I’m excited by the fact that domestic TV equipment and computing capabilities are moving inexorably towards one another. Invisible computing is becoming real. Let’s face it, only techies like computers. The rest of us just want their benefits. The ultimate outcome is that the vehicle with which you generate information is also the vehicle by which you can publish that information or receive information published by others. It’s no wonder that nationalists are so concerned with preserving their arcane traditions. What is developing is a world where boundaries are dissolved by the communication networks encircling the planet.

On a more basic personal level, the Macintosh has expanded my creative capabilities and it has also expanded my capabilities. It wouldn’t have been as easy before for me to experiment with animating typography, for example. I would have waited for a commission to try something out, whereas now I’ve got simple cheap software that would enable me to experiment with stuff – if I had the time. I can experiment, I can fail and I can build on my failures in order to learn and show potential clients what I can do.

RP: In Baseline you said the ‘anonymity of designer is crucial to the strength of the design’. Much of the most interesting and influential recent design is in fact highly personal. Is this kind of work invalid according to your definition?

MG: Let’s talk about Typography Now. Typography Now causes me great confusion because it’s a fabulous book and almost everything in it is aesthetically wonderful, but I have a problem with it that I can’t quite put my finger on. I don’t know whether it’s this part of me that’s just deliberately contrary, or what. There’s a poster behind you [on the wall of Garrett’s office] which I love, not just because of the way it looks, but because of the way it was done. The designer wanted to produce a poster about a talk by the artist Peter Blake, and given the subject matter of Peter Blake’s early work, he thought that a boxing poster would be a good metaphor. But rather than do a pastiche of a boxing poster, he just found a phone number of maybe the last surviving vernacular boxing poster printer in the country, phoned them up, gave them the information over the phone and said to make me a poster. Here’s a case of the designer making a decision about what information he wanted and the way it was to be presented, yet having no personal hand in crafting it.

So much of the work in Typography Now seems to come from the other end of the scale, endlessly saying this type could be a little bigger, this bit is going to be a bit smaller and the hand of the designer is so obviously a crucial part of the work. I guess my view is that if you’re making your own statements and you are the author of the message, then you should be looking for your own way of expressing that message. If you are not the author, then you should be looking at a way of presenting the message so that the identity of the author is clearly understood at the outset. That’s what worries me when you look at some leading edge design. You wonder who is the author of the information. And that’s the question it boils down to: when are we as designers justified in putting our own personality and name before those of the information’s author?

RP: Let me turn the question back on you. In recent years you’ve often talked about this issue in the light of your own work – the fact that you haven’t got a personal style and how this has possibly held back recognition. Two or three years ago you seemed to be saying that you would work towards a personal style.

MG: Or I would work towards only taking on projects which suited my personal style. For at least ten years, I’ve been finding out about myself at the expense of my clients, bit by bit, via the work they ask me to do. I’ve been experimenting – inevitably, you have to – but I’ve always put the client or the information first rather than just using it to perfect what it is I’m good at. Some of the things I tried to do because I thought they would be the correct starting place for a solution, but I wasn’t able to make as good a job of it as I thought. My concept outweighed my talent. I should maybe have found a different way of doing it, or commissioned by somebody else to do what we needed. But in recent years I think I’ve found something that I’m good at doing and realistically narrowed my objectives.

RP: I think your best work has come when you’ve believed in your material most and has something of your own to say about it.

MG: What I need to do is be more selective in the work I take on so that I give myself the kind of material I believe in to work with. That’s what I feel about computers and interactive media. I believe in the technology, so I will hopefully be able to do good work. I just have to get smarter, and if there are things I want to do professionally, I must make myself do them. I take on too many things that aren’t getting me anywhere and aren’t paying properly, favours for friends and whatever, and I never do enough of what I need to move me forward. So often in the past I've not felt confident that I knew anything, or that I was good at anything. I finally feel quite happy that I’m good at something and I’ve got some thoughts about it that I’m prepared to stand by. So maybe the time is right for me to build on what I’ve learned and try to produce something of real merit.

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can also browse visual samples of recent issues at Eye before You Buy.


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