Autumn 1993

Are you sure you need that new logo?

Graphic designers fill the world with a Babel of signs. Is it time we took them away again? By Ken Garland

Item: One day a friend of mine who was holidaying in Lindos, on the Greek island of Rhodes, wanted to visit the nearby Acropolis. Seeing no signs, he asked a local for directions. ‘Just follow the donkey shit,’ he was told. So he did. Sure enough, the trail led him through the maze of narrow streets to the end of town, then on a winding path up the hill to his destination. No worries. Graphic signs would have been superfluous and intrusive.

Item: Last year, in the remote town of Sylhet, in the north-east corner of Bangladesh, I hailed a cycle-ricksha and asked to be taken to the house of my friend Abdul Khaled Kayed in the district of Ambar Khana. I didn’t even know the street he lived in, let alone the number of the house. ‘No problem,’ said the ricksha driver, though he had never heard of my friend and was not familiar with the district. We proceeded by means of a series of encounters with shopkeepers, cafe waiters and fellow ricksha drivers, each one taking us a little closer to our destination. It was a leisurely, somewhat erratic journey. Each conversation was interesting and enjoyable, including invitations to take tea, to describe my house in Camden Town and to discuss the meaning of life; I was almost sorry when we finally arrived at my friend’s house. If there were any street signs to be seen during the journey I didn’t notice them, nor did my driver consult them.

Item: In her book New Lives, New Landscapes (1970), the late Nan Fairbrother showed two photographs of the main street of Suffolk village of Lavenham. The first is of the street festooned with telephone wires and power cables. The second shows exactly the same viewpoint, taken after a successful campaign to remove the overhead wires. The improvement is startling. The Civic Trust Award, so often given to commemorate the application of lettering to shopfronts and offices, or the addition of suitably designed concrete tubs with suitable plants to enhance the village square, was here given to a scheme whose sole purpose was subtraction.

Item: During the 1980s there appeared in downtown Houston a glittering array of skyscrapers in such a variety and richness of styles that by the end of the decade they presented visitors to the city with one of the finest skylines in North America. But alongside this architectural splendour appeared a most unsavoury intrusion: as you swept around the urban flyover portion of Route 45 (‘The Gulf Freeway’), which offered the best view of the skyline, you were confronted by a profusion of elaborate constructions supported on vast monopods that rose from the ground to a height of some 80 to 100 feet. Equipped with access stairways, maintenance platforms and complete lighting systems, and bearing a strong resemblance to offshore oil rigs, their sole purpose was to interrupt the view to inform you of the virtues of ‘K-Lite FM: Lite Rocks, Less Talk’ or ‘Menthol Marlboro.’ Worst of all, a sequence of these horrors proclaimed: ‘Your McDonald is one mile ahead’, ‘Your McDonald is one half-mile ahead’ and ‘Your McDonald is Next Exit Right’, in gaudy lettering twelve feet high. The cost of constructing and maintaining just one of these giant signs would have equipped and stocked a large restaurant.

Item: In a contribution to Perspectives quarterly (1955) entitled ‘Technics and the future of Western Civilisation’, the American cultural historian Lewis Mumford wrote: ‘Why should we gratuitously assume, as we so constantly do, that the mere existence of a mechanism for manifolding or mass production carries with it an obligation to use it to the fullest capacity? … to achieve control, we shall even, I suspect, have to re-consider and perhaps abandon the whole notion of periodical production … we cannot continue inertly to accept a burdensome technique of over-production without inventing a social discipline for handling it.’

Item: On a remote lake in Caribou Country, British Columbia, in the summer of 1991, some people were putting about in a small outboard motor boat. As they rounded a thickly wooden island about the size of two football pitches, one of them noticed a discreet sign secured to a tree at the water’s edge. The lettering on it said ‘For Sale’ and gave the name of the agent handling the property. The unobtrusiveness of the message was due not only to its size, but also to the subdued brown and green colour scheme. This was, perhaps, a more than usually heart-warming example of low-key marketing; but as it happens, not so untypical of North America. Throughout Canada and in most states of the US, estate agents’ (‘realtors’) signs are firmly regulated by planning authorities. The maximum size permitted is considerably smaller than most such signs in the UK, and only one per property is allowed. As for the effectiveness of such relatively small signs, I can offer positive feedback on at least one of them: my family were the occupants of the outboard motor boat, and we have now bought the island.

Item: When I set up my Graphic Design business 30 years ago, one of our first clients was a prestigious furniture maker who wanted a complete graphic styling job: stationery range, information sheets, showroom graphics, vehicle livery and promotional pieces. When we presented our proposals, the managing director was duly impressed and gave us an immediate go-ahead. Then he said, ‘I particularly like the name style for the company, but perhaps we’ll hold on to that until you come up with your proposal for the symbol to go with it.’ When I told him we considered the name style to be quite adequate as an identity device and had no plans for including a symbol, he was much taken aback. ‘But we’ve always had a symbol,’ he said, ‘and anyway, I thought you would insist on us having one.’ After some to-ing and fro-ing we agreed he would think about it. At the end of a nail-biting week, he phoned back to say he was entirely reconciled to not having a symbol. ‘A much more elegant solution,’ he said. ‘And it kills two birds with one stone. We won’t have to bother about all the problems of symbols – when to use them and when not, how small can they be without becoming mere blobs, how big without looking bloated. And we save the sizeable fee you’d be charging us if you did design it.’

There’s the rub. How do we charge for convincing our clients not to have some graphic indulgence they have set their hearts on? And even more difficult, how do we get them to remove something that is unhelpful, or intrusive, or superfluous, or downright misleading? Who is going to pay for something they are not going to get? And who is going to pay for having something they do not need taken from them?

Since so much of the superfluous graphics I am concerned with here is in the public domain – on the highway, part of the townscape, inside public buildings – removing it would require only an act of public will. The Russians could tell PepsiCo they no longer wanted an array of logotypes festooning the square in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The Chinese could instruct Esso Petroleum to reduce the size and number of the ostentatious name panels over its filling stations in the new Special Economic Zones (how about one per station, along the lines of realtors’ boards in the US?). The Yemenis could inform the American tobacco company that erected twenty-foot high replicas of its cigarette packs on the streets of the ancient capital city of Sana’a that they are now surplus to requirements. And in case anyone thinks this is a diatribe aimed solely at the advertising and marketing business, what about stripping off the Paolozzi-designed mosaic encrustations on the walls of London’s Tottenham Court Road underground stations so that travellers, free of their unwelcome distraction, may once more enjoy the changing display of advertisements which is the true glory of subterranean journeys?

All this may sound like wishful thinking. But if we can decide, as we have been doing recently, that some of the awful tower blocks put up in the 1960s have to come down, regardless of cost, why can we not also decide to get rid of some of our equally frightful graphic excrescences and replace them with more restrained alternatives:?

Whether the public will can be energised to take on the vested interests in this matter remains to be seen. Assuming it can, what should be the designer’s response? Quite simply: restraint. Simple, but not easy. On the whole we have not been trained to perform in that particular mode, but if we are to lay claim to professional status, then we will have to learn restraint and persuade our paymasters to accept it, too. Of course, professional status does not ensure restraint – as evidence the scandals of unnecessary hysterectomy operations are reckless breast implants – but at least the medical profession has an ethical position on restraint. What do we have?

From time to time, fellow designers say to me, ‘What do you mean, “ethical position”? My only ethical position is to give my client honest value for money.’ Ah, but who is the real client? Surely, when the graphic designer is working in the public domain, his / her primary client is the public. And if, in the matter of restraint, our responsibility to the public conflicts with the wishes of our paymasters: well, that is what professionalism is all about, isn’t it?

Ken Garland, graphic designer, London

First published in Eye no. 10 vol. 3, 1993

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