Spring 1997

Ken Garland’s life in politics

Ken Garland: a restrospective

University of Reading
25 November 1996 to 20 January 1997

“In youth, we clothe ourselves with rainbows, and go as brave as the zodiac.”

With these thoughts from Emerson’s The conduct of life, and a dedication to young friends, Ken Garland opens a word in your eye, a gathering of “opinions, observations and conjectures” that document three-and-a-half decades of design and the design profession he has done much to define and foster in Britain. To mark the book’s publication, the University of Reading mounted a retrospective exhibition of work produced by Ken Garland and Associates. Now 36 years old, it is one of the longest-running design consultancies in Britain.

The variety, energy and unequivocal politics of the subjects and themes brought together in a word in your eye distinguish Garland from many other designers who have written on the subject. Garland rarely restricts his discussions to aesthetic pronouncements. In many of the essays, visual artefacts serve as signals for wider considerations. His writing voice, while forceful, ranges widely. For those who have listened to him teach and lecture over the years, the live wire of words – polemical, colloquial, emotional – will be sharply familiar. Both Garland’s words and work exhibit the influences of European Modernism, from the lyrical fanaticism of Marinetti to the languages articulated by Moholy-Nagy and Gyorgy Kepes. Not surprisingly, a word in your eye’s opening selection from 1962, “Structure and Substance,” builds upon influences Garland found at the Central School of Arts & Crafts under such continentalists as Froshaug, Spencer and Wright. The essay is a thorough inventory of the Modernist arsenal and a gathering of functionalist forces for a young British profession largely left out of the European crusades.

Garland has pursued these functionalist ideals throughout his career, perhaps to most distilled effect in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he was art editor for Design, the trade journal of the Society of Industrial Arts. Design was then engaged in a proto-critical approach to deign disciplines. Spreads on show at the exhibition in Reading demonstrated the magazine’s extensive blend of editorial and visual structures. The covers, designed or art-directed by Garland, employ bold colour groupings overprinted on photography and photomontage. Here was a Modern order writ large for British graphic designers, many of whom had remained anchored in post-Festival-of Britain Victorian fussiness.

Contentment in an ordered visual universe has never distracted Garland from larger concerns. Though his work had remained steadfast in a well-defined palette of visual invention, a restless questioning marks nearly all his written output. Prominent throughout a word in your eye are themes that detail a greater complexity in the designer’s role beyond the immediate concerns of client, product and form. Garland’s 1964 “First Things First” manifesto is a challenge to re-order priorities in favour of what he and his 21 co-signatories called “more useful and more lasting forms of communication” that would resist the pervasive banality of mainstream advertising.

In “Here are some things we must do” of 1967, Garland makes a full-throated call to counter the authoritarian tendency of mass media and the disregard for content implied in McLuhan’s slogan “the medium is the message.” Garland made no mystery of the platform’s implications.” Those of us who believe in an egalitarian society will not bring it nearer by scorning the political instruments by which it will be attained.”

In the 1980s, he turned upon what he saw as the self-destructive diversion of the design profession into the dirty business of the Thatcherite boom. In selections such as “Where do we go from here?”, “What shall it profit…?” and “A long, long trail a-winding,” Garland condemns the lost free-marketeers of design: “God rot their stinking, heartless climate and its market-ridden obsessions. The world does not begin and end with their stocks and shares, their profit-and-loss equations and their bloated, self-congratulatory company reports. There are other things we can be about, other methods, other ends. Let’s find out about how we can get on with them now.”

In a related point of attack, his warnings of the designer’s impact on the built environment find full expression when he lambasts the indulgences of corporate identity. In his 1991 essay “The Rise and Fall of Corporate Identity,” he singles out a sycophantic design profession as largely to blame for the sheer volume of corporate cacophony.

These examples of Garland at his most outspoken should not be taken to imply that there is only one (political) impulse to his arguments. The many causes and concerns Garland feels compelled to discuss include his rejection of received wisdom (the “evils” of graffiti in “Horrible, Horrible?”), defence of the individual vision (H.C. Beck’s London Underground Diagram and Alfred Wainwright’s walker’s guides), evocation of past heroes (four obituaries), and vilification of typographic excess (and related computer viruses).

These selected views are not intended to suggest an artificially direct and consistent correlation between published positions and practice. His foreboding images created for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or the imploding cover of photographer Fay Godwin’s Our Forbidden Land may epitomise the politicised designer, but these direct links seem exceptional rather than typical. Instead, though his words might imply a political position that would limit him professionally, his consultancy has gathered a diverse client list.

His views have not inhibited his success or his delight in designing for children or for government agencies, big publishers or museums. And they have, no doubt, enhanced his appeal to educational establishments, to which he has devoted much of his career.

In his exhibition notes, Garland downplays “professional” judgements on his work, treating them “as mementoes and tokens of the transactions they were part of” and preferring his work to be judged by those to whom it was addressed. But this disingenuous position is countered by extensive explanations, as though the background were needed (it is) to make judgements on whether it is good form, good practice or both. Here lies a paradox: for Garland, debate within the profession is vital – in studio, lecture hall or the press – and yet he wants his work to stand outside discussions about worthwhile design practice.

To go bravely with the burden of experience and age is the least we can expect from Garland, an energetic campaigner for whom more than three decades of difficult issues have been grist for the mill. Now such issues have new impulses: advertising that blends with content on-line; corporate identity powered by clean-burning cultural injections, for example; or typography evolving in new digital environments. Positions restricted to the visual fallout of corporate identity, or to the view that the computer is an enslaving tool (opinions Garland espouses), are inadequate to generate sophisticated discussion on design concerns. Yet the intelligent confrontation of old issues in new disguises might gain from the wisdom of one who has practised, criticised, shaped and celebrated graphic design education and industry in the post-war era.

First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6, 1997

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