Summer 1999

Revolutionary language

“A revolutionary graphic language must seek to expose the meaning by presenting a chain of ideas, images, structures in as much of their complexity as is economically feasible.” Robin Fior in The Designer, journal of the society of industrial artists and designers, London, May 1972.

Throughout his career, Robin Fior has maintained that design is a political activity. His recent work is less obviously political than that of previous decades, but in its emphasis on language and structure it has lost none of his radical attitudes. Nor are his critical insights any less penetrating. As a politically committed designer in London in the 1960s, Fior tried to find a graphic idiom that suited radical messages. Self-taught, he was uninhibited in his eclectic experiments. In 1972 he moved to Lisbon. A year later, the Portuguese revolution made his expertise and critical intelligence suddenly in demand. Since then, he has remained a significant figure in the Portuguese cultural community, both as a designer and as a critical presence.

Robin Fior’s design idioms are marked by his unusual route to graphic design. Born in London in 1935, at school he developed an interest in calligraphy and learned to set metal type by hand (an experience that gave him a lasting aversion to Eric Gill’s Perpetua). After Oxford, where he studied English but did little work, he joined the law firm of his father and, as he prepared for law exams, immersed himself in left-wing politics.

Through his association with various socialist groups, Fior drifted into the world of print. The layout of Cab News, a journal for London taxi drivers, gave him the first chance to combine political and typographic activity. Radical organisations and trade unions began to ask for his advice. With no formal training in art or design, Fior decided to learn about printing by joining the now legendary evening classes at the Central School run by Edward Wright in 1955 (see Eye no. 10, vol. 3). Mainly improvising with large sizes of type inked up in colour on a proofing press, this was in no sense a professional education. Fior learnt more from the anarchist printer Desmond Jeffery, whose workshop was near his father’s office. Jeffery was then one of the very few in Britain who designed in a modern, Tschichold-inspired idiom, importing type from Continental foundries (he was the sole user of Akzidenz in Britain, for example). Jeffery taught in the Design department of the London School of Printing and Graphic Arts, where Fior – one of a handful of young Modernist typographers available – began teaching, half a day each week, in 1958.

At the end of the 1950s British politics and society were changing rapidly. However the reactionary Conservative government, identified with cold-war militarism, did not reflect the new mood. Apart from party politics, the most intensely supported movement was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Fior became a member of the CND’s Committee of 100, and was among those arrested for sedition. The Campaign’s views were publicised by demonstrations, by direct action – invading military installations – and in printed propaganda. Designers contributed by producing posters and banners to be carried on marches and at meetings. (Fior persuaded Ken Garland to design a poster for the Easter 1962 anti-nuclear march from Aldermaston to London, which led to Garland’s continued work for CND over the next four years).

Fior became art editor of the independent left-wing Pluto Press. He designed its symbol and a series of books and their jackets. Connected to a variety of socialist groups, he art-edited several magazines, and his design of the weekly Peace News had lasting influence – notably on The Guardian two decades later. He was one of the 22 signatories (along with Germano Facetti, the Architectural Review’s William Slack, Wright and Garland) to the original “First things first” manifesto, published in 1964 in CND Journal, The Guardian, Design and Ark.

By May 1968 high hopes were raised for the radical left. The student riots in Paris that almost brought down the government were echoed in London, where the enthusiasm was reflected in the short-lived, crudely produced newsprint weekly, Black Dwarf, designed by Fior. He also designed covers for International Socialism.

The peace movement’s activities focussed on opposition to the war in Vietnam, where it found itself allied with the underground press, whose breadth and graphic language Fior vividly and brilliantly described (in an article for The Designer, which took visual references from their original sources) as “a spray-on soft-edge mirror surface defined by electric rock music, drugs, communes, plug-in, sex, sexism, geodesics, mysticism, orgasms, macrobiotics, ecology, doing one’s own thing, improvisation, astrology and – Revolution…” With the sexual revolution of the 1960s and continuing student militancy, it was not completely absurd that along with many others John Lennon could sing that we were “talkin’ ‘bout a revolution” or that there should be a Revolution night club with a blow-torched letterhead.

In this atmosphere, Fior was bound to ask himself what a “revolutionary” typography might be. An obvious precedent was the practice of early Soviet designers, and the left-wing European pioneers of the 1920s such as Paul Schuitema, whose work was brought to British designers’ attention by Typographica (Eye no. 31, vol. 8) and by the Swiss magazine Die neue Graphik. Many of the founding fathers of the tradition of Modernist typography in Switzerland, such as Richard Paul Lohse and Max Bill, were left-wing. In 1960 Fior travelled to Zurich to see Swiss design at first hand. The formal qualities of its graphics represented the objectivity to which Fior aspired, and from a political standpoint he identified its three-column grid – giving equal value to French, German and Italian – as expressing a tolerance of the country’s linguistic, religious and cultural communities.

At the same time as Britain’s outlook in the 1960s became less insular, designers were drawn to American culture, high and low. Fior, an insatiable reader of magazines from around the world, was attracted by the New Advertising in the US. He admired its intellectual and technical brilliance: every word of the copy was considered and integrated into a graphic ensemble, aided by the craftsmanship of a service industry of typographers, photographers and photoengravers.

To meet the people who made New York advertising, Fior had no need to go there. In the early 1960s, a group of brilliant young American designers arrived in London. Of these gurus, Fior came to know Robert Brownjohn (see Eye no. 4, vol. 1), persuading him to lecture at the London College of Printing, and also Bob Gill. Apart from their ideas, Fior admired the informality – and hence the accessibility – of Gill’s illustration. An anti-apartheid poster denouncing a tour by the white South African cricket team in 1970 is Fior’s homage to this approach.

That New York advertising might have “revolutionary” application is a nuance that only Fior’s reasoning can explain: its refinement was not what he was aiming for in his own work, often produced on the kitchen table. He aspired to something less finished, that was open for response, that would allow more to be said.

Fior’s print advertisements for the Becker company, which supplied chemicals to the papermaking industry, borrowed the sharpness of their headlines and their visual ingenuity from New York. But Fior claims that the copy is typeset in a way more typical of the (lower) standards of the British print trade. Poor technical standards had the effect of making a grafica povera – an image of amateurishness implying solid conviction, whereas a more polished result might suggest power, money and authority. On the contrary, the effect of printing on cheap, off-white paper, on wrapping paper or on the wrong side of tinted paper using worn wood type, was aesthetic, merely betraying the influence of the Dutch typographer Willem Sandberg (see Eye no. 25, vol. 7). This “roughness,” a solution to which Fior returned over three decades in trying to make messages “open” and accessible, was common internationally. In Paris it was developed expertly in the neo-Polish Communist Party work of Grapus. For Marxist designers – even in Switzerland – the gloss of technically perfect print reflected the human and material waste of capitalism. They reacted with often coarse, graphic imprecision.

Technology was moving print rapidly in the direction of flawless reproduction, with full colour printing on impeccable surfaces. Letterpress was giving way to offset lithography, and text composition moving from metal to film. The design process was changing, and so was the thinking behind it. Letterpress required typographic layouts, made by tracing each letter (often even in the smallest sizes) and this had two effects. First, the laboriousness of the process engraved the shape of letters on the designer’s unconscious mind. Second, it necessitated the rough layout of the words before this task began. The shape of the message was determined first. The choice of typeface came later. This is not a common procedure in screen-based design. As Fior suggested to Icograda delegates in Lisbon (1995) “Mac™anization Takes Command.” For him, an analysis of the grammatical structure of the message will determine its graphic form. The structure into which the message is integrated can engage the reader actively in revealing the message – or parts of it – in a sequence, as shown by his recent work (see pages 74 and 75).

In his Designer article, Fior asserted that if the art director “pretends he is selecting and assembling at random, that he sees all images as equally ‘great’ – or value-free, if he claims therefore to be non-political or apolitical, he lies.” His own professional activity extended beyond radical politics: his “revolutionary graphic language” also had a place in a design practice apparently at odds with London’s “Swinging Sixties.” His practice RFDO [Robin Fior Design Office] – was a few yards from Carnaby Street, down a side street, above architects’ offices. With only an occasional part-timer for assistance, Fior took on whatever commissions came his way. These jobs included signage, catalogues for museums and television titles. Designing advertisements, such as those for Becker, was unusual, and he used his position on the committee of the Design and Art Directors Association (D&AD) to defend the interests of design against the advertising agency lobby. At the time he notoriously asked the newly formed Pentagram why they didn’t call themselves “Pentecost”: then clients would know they’d have to pay five times what they expected. For a time in the late 1960s he was art director for educational publishers Nelsons and worked on The Guardian newspaper’s feature pages while continuing to teach at least one day a week.

After a chance meeting with Portuguese students – and some trouble with the tax authorities – Robin Fior moved to Lisbon in 1973. In doing so he was not leaving his politics behind. At Praxis, the design co-operative where he took up a salaried post, one member, as a communist, had spent 13 years in jail.

A year after Fior’s arrival in the country, an army coup ended Salazar’s national dictatorship, establishing Portugal as western European democracy. From an observer of the revolution, Fior became an active participant. A liberal Catholic group, supporting the drive to independence for the country’s African colonies, commissioned Fior to design posters as a stimulus to government action. His British experience with similar jobs gave him the confidence to produce dramatic but startlingly simple designs based on the national flags.

In the period before the first elections in 1975, Fior was in demand for all kinds of political propaganda. For the Movimiento de Esquerda Socialista he designed the emblem and laid out a weekly broadsheet magazine, “thrown together” – from four o’clock in the afternoon to four in the morning – as “camera-ready” to be printed on a newspaper’s presses. Several of Fior’s political friends won government positions. His practice grew. He remained an independent designer, working on his own, but was active in Lisbon’s design community. He was a founding member of the Portuguese Association of Designers and helped with the establishment of the Centro de Arte e Comunicaçao visual (AR.CO), the school where he has taught for 25 years and designed many of their publications and announcements.

The most significant aspect of Fior’s work in Portugal has been his further engagement with the role of language in graphics. Thinking in both English and Portuguese has emphasised this concern, and bilingual jobs have given him the opportunity of interlocking two languages so that what is common to each forms the basis of a typographic idea.

When he was in London Robin Fior had regularly designed catalogues for exhibitions. Invitation cards and announcements have been almost a specialty: inviting, in a literal sense, to open and unfold. This tactile and dynamic involvement plays as large a part as reading in the communication, which is exposed in a series of revelations. Their physical structure, not merely the typography it carries, is a means of articulating the message. As a result, much of Fior’s work – elements such as the impression of type in clay for the whole range of stationery and advertising for a ceramics conference, or the feel of the rough papers he likes to use – is not easily reproducible in a magazine article.

Until recently, Fior has written only occasionally. When he was first in Lisbon, he repeated the critical technique of his Designer essay in his critique of the journalists’ poster (see page 71). Now he has a regular column about design in the monthly Arte Iberica. Yet Fior’s critical voice is not heard enough. He asks: “Do we need theory… how can we make it work for us?” (He jokingly quotes a British designer saying that “You can always recognise theory because it gives you a headache”). He persists with questions about graphic design. At the Icograda conference in 1995 he asked how the profession could absorb shifting frontiers – political, economic, in the arts, sciences and technology. “How do we redefine he engineering and poetry of visual language?” Theory may be one side of Robin Fior’s activity, but on the other is the engineering and poetry of his work.

First published in Eye no. 32 vol. 8, 1999