What a wind-up! Four decades of problems and ‘style’
Rewind: 40 Years of Design & AdvertisingBy Jeremy Myerson and Graham Vickers. Phaidon, £45.00
British Design & Art Direction – D&AD – is 40 years old and, like many a person who feels the arrival of the fifth decade to be a milestone, it has been looking back nostalgically and celebrating in style, with an exhibition at the V&A in London and one of those huge, wrist-buckling tomes from Phaidon.
For anyone with an interest in the development of visual communication in Britain, the book is unmissable. There is, to date, no history of British graphic design, so any volume that dusts off so much fine work from the archive is bound to have great inspirational value. Rewind has larger, more contradictory ambitions, though. According to foreword writer Michael Johnson – incoming D&AD president and a driving force behind the project (he co-curated the exhibition with Jeremy Myerson and his company, Johnson Banks, designed the book) – D&AD is nothing less than ‘the glue that holds the world’s communication businesses together … the pre-eminent global standard-setter’. So if this book really is the ‘history’ it purports to be, it is history in the service of the promotional needs of an organisation making the most grandiose and questionable claims about its own importance. What the book cannot be is a detached piece of historical writing.
This presents its co-authors, Jeremy Myerson and Graham Vickers, with some unenviable problems. Myerson, now professor of design studies at the Royal College of Art, is a former editor of Creative Review and founder editor of Design Week, and a regular collaborator on D&AD projects – in short, a safe pair of hands. Vickers is a freelance design writer and longstanding contributor to Creative Review. Their role is to contrive, decade by decade, a narrative thread that links the book’s mass of D&AD pencil-winning projects. There is some opportunity to set the scene and offer broader analysis, but not much. Most spreads have little more than a brief paragraph or two of text. Too often Myerson and Vickers resort to trite journalese: ‘one of the defining music biz images of the eighties’; ‘the flagship graphic style project of the decade’.
Rewind’s most basic problem as history is that it can only feature work that has been entered for – and triumphed in – the awards. ‘Sometimes’, concede the authors, ‘the most significant designs and campaigns were not entered’. That ‘sometimes’ should more accurately be an ‘often’. The 1960s chapter shows us Robert Freeman’s unexceptional cover for Beatles for Sale, but not With the Beatles (an iconic Freeman image) or Sgt Pepper.
By the end of the 1970s, this problem is becoming acute. Neville Brody only appears once and there is nothing from Barney Bubbles (in design historian Richard Hollis’s estimation, the most original talent of the period), Malcolm Garrett, Vaughan Oliver, 8vo, Why Not Associates, Phil Baines, The Designers Republic or Graphic Thought Facility, to name only a few. Peter Saville entered several pieces with some success, but receives a tut-tutting for never participating again after 1989. On the other hand, the authors overrate Mark Farrow, seemingly because he repeatedly entered, and sometimes won. A truly probing study would want to know why these designers, who really did have influence overseas in their day (unlike plenty of these trophy-winners), chose to bypass the awards.
There is an even more awkward oversight. In a 500-page, self-admiring tome that finds space for reminiscences by the likes of Alan Fletcher and ad-man John Webster, one might have expected a few thousand words on the history and aims of D&AD itself. There is a brief discussion of its founding, but then almost nothing. For 27 of its 40 years, D&AD’s chairman was Edward Booth-Clibborn, who ran it, according to two fleeting, coded mentions he receives here, in an ‘idiosyncratic fashion’. As the book doesn’t say, Booth-Clibborn departed in bad odour in 1992; D&AD’s finances were in disarray, but the full story has never been disclosed. While this is clearly a sensitive matter for D&AD and its real interest with Rewind is to promote the last decade of rebuilding, Booth-Clibborn has played a crucial role in its history. Any serious attempt to assess D&AD’s significance or shortcomings needs to consider this.
At times one suspects that Rewind’s real auteur is D&AD’s president elect, who lays claim to the book in his opening sentence: ‘This project began in the late eighties when I sat at the back of a ballroom on Park Lane … trying to watch some event called the D&AD Awards.’ Johnson, unlike many designers of his generation, has always wanted to be involved in and celebrated by D&AD and he appears to have pursued this aim assiduously. Johnson sees the awards as the ultimate sign of graphic worth and anything outside them cannot be as good, even if it didn’t seek to participate in the first place.
The book’s editorial assessments of value scrupulously follow this non-logic. In this view of graphic design, the practice always was, and evermore shall be, about ‘problem-solving’; anything that doesn’t seem to fit the mould of ‘ideas-based’ design is belittled as ‘style’. Johnson’s new book, polemically titled Problem Solved (see pp.82-83), appears to have been timed to arrive at the same moment as Rewind. In it, he attempts to assimilate just about every kind of design approach to this over-arching, self-legitimating terminology, as if to say ‘I was right all along’. In Rewind, Myerson and Vickers posit a split between a group of ephemeralists they dub the ‘style counsellors’ – not a term that ever had any currency – and ‘the “problem solvers” whose penchant for witty and timeless ideas could have belonged to any period in D&AD’s history’. If these dated distinctions are worth reviving at all, one might think it a critic or historian’s job to reconsider the received wisdom. Is it really this clear-cut? What does ‘style’ actually mean here? Is all style problematic, or only certain kinds in certain contexts?
Rewind is a visual feast, but it presents an often misleading view of events. Even on basic details, it can be unreliable. Gert Dumbar’s Rijksmuseum poster campaign, a silver winner in 1982, does not ‘prefigure’ the Californian graphics of April Greiman; she was already creating this kind of work in the late 1970s. Dumbar did not employ ‘stage’ photography in his designs; he used ‘staged’ photography. Nor did he ‘pioneer’ this approach;
Piet Zwart was doing it in the 1930s. There might be a case for describing Dumbar as the ‘outstanding’ graphic designer of the 1980s, but is the main reason for saying this that he happened to win a lot of D&AD awards at a time when few foreign designers bothered to enter them? The authors appear not to notice that Dumbar’s flamboyantly expressive work makes a nonsense of their style / idea divide.
What emerges at moments like these, despite D&AD’s huffing pretensions to international leadership, is the British design business’s ingrained parochialism. The notion that a set of awards, which designers must pay to enter, can adequately describe, shape and even regulate global design practice is deeply misguided. Anyone with experience of judging these beauty pageants knows how arbitrary, superficial, unreflective and biased by hidden factors the selection process can be. In recent years, there have been some penetrating critiques of design competitions, but Rewind betrays no sign that D&AD, as a self-appointed ‘standard-setter’ for everyone, is aware of, let alone trying to address, any of these problems.