Autumn 1996

Reputations: Dan Fern

‘A lot of illustration sits very awkwardly alongside the contemporary digital typography scene. It can look naive, almost folksy’

Dan Fern was born in Eastbourne, England in 1945. He studied for diploma in graphic design from 1964-67, then took an MA in illustration at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1970. From 1970-73, he lived and worked in Amsterdam, where he encountered work by Zwart, Werkman and the De Stijl typographers that was to have a lasting influence on his own aesthetic concerns. Returning to London, he began a freelance career as an illustrator for Nova, The Sunday Times Magazine and other publications. In 1974, he was invited to teach in the illustration department at the RCA and his increasing involvement led, in 1986, to his appointment as full-time professor of illustration. In 1994, the RCA was restructured into eight schools and Fern became head of the School of Communication Design, with responsibility for graphic design, illustration and interactive multimedia. In parallel with his educational commitments, he has continued to work as a freelance illustrator and image-maker in a variety of contexts. His clients include many British design groups and the advertising agencies Doyle Dane Bernach, J. Walter Thompson and Young & Rubicam. Publishing and music business clients include Penguin, Faber & Faber, A&M Virgin, Decca, Building, New Scientist, design and Radio Times. He has exhibited in many one-man shows and group exhibitions in Europe, the US and Japan and. in 1988, was the curator of ‘Breakthrough’, a retrospective exhibition of RCA illustration. Recently, he has turned to the moving image, with commissions from London’s South Bank Centre and Goethe Institute to create non-narrative films to accompany live performances of works by the contemporary composers Detlev Glanert and Harrison Birtwistle.

Rick Poynor: Has there been any inclination from the Royal College of Art’s incoming rector Christopher Frayling of what his policy towards the School of Communication will be?

Dan Fern: There’s nothing specific yet. I’ve been involved for the past three or four years in a number of different areas where we’ve been talking about the future direction of the college. The college’s first academic plan was put into operation three years ago with the formation of the schools instead of the old Faculty Boards. We’re talking about part two of that plan at the moment and Chris, as chairman of the heads of schools committee, is leading those discussions.

Communication design is an area that we haven’t come to specifically yet, but if we had to look for signs of what he thinks about it, and about the relationship between graphics and illustration, I suppose the fact that he was largely instrumental in appointing me two years ago to run graphic design shows that he thinks my general approach to illustration could also be applied to graphics - and thereby the whole of the School of Communication Design.

RP: What was the purpose of restructuring and forming the new schools?

DF: It was partly a way to regroup courses that have philosophical similarities and links in a professional sense, and to make them more autonomous than they have been in the past. It was part of a gradual devolution of the administrative processes out from the centre of the college and into the schools. The heads of schools have a considerable amount of control over the areas they administer - over staffing, budget allocation, research policy, proposals for the future developments and so on. Obviously, it’s very much guided by parameters established elsewhere, in the Academic Standards Committee and the Academic Boards and so on.

The restructuring was a way of giving clusters of disciplines a greater sense of identity. There was a danger that we’d start to lose the collegiate sense of being part of a unique multi-disciplinary polytechnic. But that hasn’t happened. It’s working very well.

RP: How would you define the purpose of studying communication design at MA level?

DF: Well, I think it enables the very best people, who come to us from the undergraduate sector, to develop their talents in an experimental and, I hope, encouraging environment - to be a sort of hothouse, if you like. The school is geared towards individual progress; there isn’t a set programme. The accent is on the development of an individual’s talents and interests and obsessions to encourage a very strong personal aesthetic, which then hopefully carries them into which ever area of commercial or professional life they choose to follow. But to do that from a position of strength, knowing what their work is about and what their roots are and what their precedents are. So it’s very much to do with developing that sort of atmosphere. But also, since we’re a university, we must work within an intellectual framework as well.

That’s what the situation has been and until comparatively recently it was enough. The RCA could be a goal for people in the undergraduate sector because we were literally the only place of this type. Now we’re starting to have competition - nationally and internationally - and it will increase, which frees us to move on to different things altogether. At the moment we are working on part two of the academic plan, which is what the function of a place like the RCA should be over the next ten years, and how its role in the future might be different from its role in the past. All sorts of models are starting to emerge from that: I have my own ideas about it and so do other people here and we’re in the process of debating all of that at the moment.

RP: What are the key differences between what the RCA aims to offer communications designers and what some of those rival institutions now offer? How would you position the college?

DF: There are some very physical things. We’re the only post-graduate polytechnic of art and design, and the scope and range of work that happens within these few hundred square metres is fantastic. I know of no other place that has such a wide range of postgraduate courses or where the inter-relationship between those courses is as great as it is here.

As far as communication design itself goes, it’s difficult to put a finger on exactly what makes us different from other institutions. My own feeling is that one thing characterises us is a relationship between the fine arts and the applied arts. In my own teaching and personal work, that’s very important. I am as likely, in a tutorial with a graphic design student, to talk about Richard Serra or Donald Judd or Robert Racine or Barbara Kruger as I am to talk about another designer. I find the wider cultural knowledge of a lot of designers rather - so much of graphics is self-referential and inward-looking. We need to encourage designers to look beyond what other designers are doing, to film and music and the fine arts.

RP: With responsibility for both graphic design and illustration, you must have strong views about the way in which they interact – or don’t – in the 1990s. Has illustration lost ground?

DF: The traditional relationships between designers and illustrators are changing rapidly. Illustration is going through a very difficult phase for a range of reasons. One is that the traditional role of the illustrator was at the end of a complex chain of events which was completed by the illustrator’s phone ringing. They would be commissioned to do a piece of work based on a series of decisions which had already been made: they were recipients of work. Designers, on the other hand, were the people who managed the work and directed it, who commissioned it and sold it to the client and then worked with the printer. Those roles have changed dramatically now that computer technology has enabled designers to carry out the whole process. They can scan images, generate images, fuse them with typography and send them off for repro in one seamless electronic process, without having to complicate the process by bringing in an illustrator. A whole area of illustration that was a very active in the 1970s and the 1980s has dried up within a period of five years.

RP: And your illustration students know this.

DF: And they’re concerned about it. But it’s been obvious for a long time that the situation was going to arise. I could see it coming back in the mid-1980s and the team of people I built up in Illustration was designed to start to address it. In a period when work isn’t being commissioned, illustrators or illustrator/designers have to be far more self-motivated. They have to be able to present their work in a more vigorous and almost aggressive way, to generate their own projects, to publish and distribute themselves. Among those I hired into Illustration from the mid-1980s onwards - and now it’s paying off into Graphic Design as well – were people like Jake Tilson, Russell Mills, David Blamey and John Wozencroft, who have found a personally-tailored route into the communications industry.

RP: Are graduating students succeeding in making these outlets for themselves?

DF: I think they are. I think that the type of illustrator we produce here can go out and make their own way. But it’s not easy. A lot of illustration – particular types of painting, drawing, and printmaking techniques – sites very awkwardly alongside the contemporary digital photography scene. It can look garish and naïve by comparison, almost folksy. Many designers don’t want to work with illustrators because they don’t have the right “look,” frankly. They prefer photography. To a certain extent, it’s cyclical: these things go in waves, in fashions. But this time, it’s much more fundamental and there are some thing which will never quite be the same again.

RP: Given these changes, how would you define illustration today?

DF: It’s one of those words I almost wish we could dispense with because a lot of what goes on here, and what I do myself professionally, isn’t illustration. It’s the provision of images to an enormous variety of contexts. Traditionally, it was narrative-orientated, related very much to narrative or to text. But, increasingly, it might be for music, or it might be to set dancework in context, or it might be to design stage-sets for theatres – the remit is endless. But of course there you start immediately to overlap with quite a lot of fine art work because that’s what many fine artists do as well. I think the applied provision of images is as near as you’re going to come to it.

RP: Can you foresee a time in the near future when you have to rename the Illustration department?

DF: There have been all sorts of attempts at it. In other universities and colleges they call it New Media, or Media and Communications, or Communications Media. The reason we’ve hung on to “Illustration” here is because it is a terrific department and it’s almost a trade name for us. It would be a pity to lose it because it has produced some very interesting people and ideas over a long period of time. But as a way of defining what we do…I could take you into the studios and show you twenty pieces of work right now that don’t have anything to do with illustration in its traditional definition. But that’s how it should be.

The hallmark of a successful school, or even a department, is that it should be a microcosm of, first, the college and then the whole of art and design in the UK, or even internationally. There should be an area where you really don’t know what you’re doing. There should be some people in the department who are virtually impossible to define or to categorise in terms of where they will end up professionally. Some are clearly mainstream illustrators or designers; some are working in new media, some in traditional media; some will go on to work mainly in fine art; others will become successful applied artists. To a certain extent that’s the sign of a healthy school: you have a very wide range of input and ideas which all feed from and inspire each other.

RP: How have you found the transition from being professor of illustration to having responsibility for graphic design, and how have you gone about easing yourself into the wider sense of the communication arts which you must now have?

DF: I’ve never had a problem with the traditional borders between disciplines. They do exist, of course, but can and should be crossed constantly, especially in a place like the RCA. In my own work, I’ve tried to develop a graphic language that enables me to move easily between illustration and graphics, and for that matter, between applied and fine art. So the notion of “communication arts” as a broad spectrum of activity is one that I’m very much at home with. On the other hand, it’s also important that we should retain a sense of the special skills and traditions that lie at the heart of disciplines like illustration and graphic design, and support and encourage “purist” practitioners in both.

The idea of overlapping disciplines or “convergence” is enticing, but it’s also leading to a good deal of confusion, especially in education. A virtually limitless level of flexibility is difficult to direct and resource and the sheer range of options open to students at undergraduate level can be bewildering.

RP: Viewed historically, the RCA’s graphic design department has always had its critics, who complain that graphic design at the college has never been rigorous enough. In the post-war years the department was slow to embrace Modernism. In the Pop period it was accused of producing lightweight fashion graphics. In more recent years the department has never achieved a strong, consistent identity. What’s your response?

DF: One of the things which is good about this place, and which in a way precludes a strong sense of identity, is that we try to tackle a huge range of different approaches and to enable progress on a very broad front. A typical degree show here has a fantastic range of work and approaches. I would say that makes for an interesting educational experience for the people who come here, and that it is also a fundamentally useful place for the communication industry to have. A sort of research center.

In the places that spring to mind when you talk about a strong sense of identity, Basel and Cranbrook and so on, that identity tends to have come out of a period when a particular in-house way of thinking dominated, and when the people who worked through that period had a very similar approach to that of their teachers and each other. In design history terms it’s really useful to have those places. You can say, “Oh, at this point they were doing that and at that point this came out of that place.” But I’m rather skeptical of it as an approach because it seems to me that it encourages a certain type of in-bred thinking, which I’m against. Of course, the negative side of that argument is that you end up with a rather diffuse institution which lacks a clear identity. That would be the danger of the approach we take here.

RP: Isn’t it also true that the kind of concentration you’re talking about creates debates between the participants that are the very stuff of progress, of new ideas and new approaches? There’s a critical mass of intelligences working on a problem, clashing with each other, and new ideas are formed in that combustion.

DF: I agree, and it is something that doesn’t happen here in quite that way. I must say, I don’t think it happens in the UK. It’s not really part of the tradition of either illustration or graphics in the UK for this sort of critical debate to take place on the studio floor. We tend to do our exploring through making and process rather than through theorising and debating. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, though in a university it’s clearly something that we should be doing. One of the models I think we need to move towards in the future would be one that addresses issues more, but not within the confines of a particular discipline. To do that, it’s my own view that the RCA needs to move on to a completely different type of structure which is project-based as opposed to discipline-based.

Leap ahead ten or fifteen years and imagine an institution within which there are twenty, 30, or 40 research projects taking place involving different teams of people: project managers, research fellows, MPhils, PhDs, some MA students. Those projects would be based around an idea or a philosophy or a particular interest which united them rather than around a discipline. There’s an example in place here already, Design Age, a multidisciplinary research project looking at design for an ageing population. In it there are people from graphics, from industrial design, from transport design and so on. I would foresee – and certainly advocate – the establishment here of that kind of institute that would have the effect eventually of eroding, in a quite natural and organic way, the old boundaries between disciplines.

At the moment we’re still structured in quite a traditional way: graphic design, illustration, film, architecture, industrial design, and so on. What I can foresee is a series of elliptically-shaped projects which would cut across all of those disciplines, and within which designers and industrial designers and fine artists would come together. This is what I think we should do, though it’s not RCA policy.

RP: How important do you believe theory, history and cultural studies approaches are to communication design teaching at MA level?

DF: I think they’re very important indeed and one of the things that we’ve been working quite hard on over the last couple of years is to restructure our relationship with the Humanities department – now the School of Humanities. One of the effects has been to involve humanities tutors far more in the day-to-day life of the school than before, when they were imported one day a week to give a talk on some aspect of art history. That was very useful, but they came and did their slot and went away again. It shouldn’t be like that, of course. It should be part of the very fabric of what we do. Appointing Katherine McCoy as a visiting professor was part of that strategy.

So we’re working quite hard at building that side of the school’s activities. At the same time for about ten years we’ve been very active in building a body of research students studying at MPhil and PhD level in an enormous range of subjects. We have a school policy on research which is to concentrate as far as possible on issue-based, rather than process- or medium-based research.

Research project students are recruited because their work has some sort of social, political, or cultural significance. What they have brought to the school has been a much greater range of age, experience, and expertise than we’ve ever had before. They’re doing projects that range from black entrepreneurship in the British music industry to transpersonal psychology and its implications for art and design teaching, from post-modern gender identity to the effectiveness of AIDS-awareness campaigns. Environmental and ecological awareness issues are also an important part of what we do here.

RP: What is a degree by project and what are the academic precedents?

DF: Well, this has been the problem. There are no precedents and it’s been difficult, but we’re slowing building up a body of practice now so we can relate research in the studio disciplines to other university models of research. Broadly speaking a degree by project is a detailed investigation into a specific aspect of art or design, which takes mainly visual form and which is augmented by a written thesis. A PhD by project might take the form of an exhibition or book or television programme. We’re looking at the possibility of doing one which is presented in the form of a Website. The bottom line has to be that it’s thoroughly researched, scholarly, authoritative, and that’s it’s a brilliant piece of art or design. But one of the things that we’re not doing sufficiently well at the moment is integrating these projects into the everyday discussion of the MA programmes. Research students tend to have a rather more arm’s-length relationship with the college. They have outside lives.

RP: Despite the attempts you mentioned to improve the humanities component of the MA, it is still an obligatory requirement rather than an integral part of the course. Real integration could only come about if it were acknowledged by the college that critical studies was an essential part of MA level design education for all students. To what degree do you think you’ve succeeded?

DF: Certainly we haven’t succeeded yet. It is difficult because it isn’t part of the working culture here and I’m not sure of the extent to which it should be, or of the extent to which British students in particular would want it to be. I’m increasingly of the opinion that it should be because I’m impressed by the level of debate that occurs elsewhere – at the Domus Academy in Milan, for instance, or the Jan van ‘Eyck Academy in Maastrict. My intention, for as long as I’m running this school, is to try to build that side. But it doesn’t come naturally to me personally and it isn’t naturally part of the on-going work of the school, although the issues which arise out of individual projects or collaborations between groups of students are constantly throwing up critical debate.

RP: Those types of debate arise from the work itself and the designer’s working practice. But what about the critical approaches that attempt to relate the designer’s or image-maker’s practice to the wider culture?

DF: One of the things that we need to address in a more concerted way is this whole issue of looking at our work in a wider context and publishing in a more organised way. I would love publishing to play a more fundamental part here and I know Chris Frayling would, too. In this school we’ll soon be launching our limited batch publications which are called Salvo. We are steeped in the tradition of exploring through making and our ideas are generated and researched, if you like, through a more or less intuitive process of using materials and developing them into whatever form they take. I think that is very much part of what goes on in art schools in the UK. I’m not saying it’s right, although I think it has led to some interesting and beautiful work, but on the whole we’ve relied on the cultural context within which that work has been made to be looked at and decided by other people, by art historians and theorists.

RP: You were a practitioner before you were an educator but are you now, as head of school, becoming more educator than practitioner?

DF: My style of teaching is very much through doing my own work, and I don’t want to become one of those people in education who don’t make work anymore. There are quite a lot of them around. I’m not saying that they don’t make good teachers, but it’s not my approach: I am a maker, not a theorist. I find that my own personal explorations, in whatever form they take, inform and underpin my discussions with students and, as a maker myself, I understand the mental processes they have to go through to make their own work. So I think I have quite a deep understanding of what motivates students, and where they think they’re going.

RP: There’s a real sense of resurgence in London art circles. How does it touch your life at the college?

DF: There’s a terrific atmosphere at the moment. One of the reasons I find it exciting to be involved in a place where you’re dealing with that on a day-to-day basis is the feeling of danger and the unknown. It’s frightening, but invigorating. There are so many different areas of opportunity with technologies changing and developing rapidly and markets rising and falling, disappearing and appearing almost overnight. In education it’s difficult because we’re still in the middle of quite a deep recession. The market has contracted a lot, but the education system is producing far more artists and designers than ever before.

RP: Is that such a good thing?

DF: No, I don’t think it is a good thing because a lot of them will find that they’ve been trained in the wrong sort of way. The current education policy was set in the 1980s when there was a lot of work and the people who will feel the effect of that are now leaving college and finding themselves in a situation which was completely changed from ten years ago. As a postgraduate institution, we can only select from the people who come from the undergraduate sector and, while the ones who come here are as good as ever, the majority are worse than they’ve ever been. They’re not nearly so well trained, or skilled and they don’t have the strengths of commitment or aesthetic judgment that students used to have. An education system which fails its majority is clearly not working.

But to be an artist in an age of safety and security and plenty is not nearly as interesting as being one in a period of unpredictability. There is a sense at the moment that there’s nothing there and so there’s nothing we can’t do. There is a sense of not quite knowing where we are going and for an artist that’s really exciting.

First published in Eye no. 22 vol. 6, 1996