Summer 1994

I don’t use a Mac but I know a man who can

British design has split down the middle. Should its priority be art or analysis, and is the computer a new ‘language’ or simply a tool?
By Michael Horsham

If it has achieved nothing else, the rumbling American saga which has seen a vociferous and sometimes vitriolic old school attacking the output of younger designers – and the new guard responding in kind – has at least brought the debate out into the open. The scions of Modernism uphold the idea that ‘great’ graphic design solutions are synonymous with simple and direct visual communication. Looking down from what they had perhaps understandably assumed to be their unassailable position in the pantheon, they find their rules and verities questioned at every turn by a generation of disrespectful hotheads that has the audacity to inform them that everything must change.

A similar faultline runs through the centre of British graphic design. It may not yet be an unbridgeable divide, but it is widening by the year. The odd thing is that only those on the younger side of the divide are fully prepared to acknowledge its existence, and few on either side are keen to talk publicly about how it came to be there, or what it might portend for the future of British graphic design.

So what exactly do the rebels believe is wrong with earlier approaches? ‘The trouble with ideas-based graphics,’ says Phil Baines, a London-based typographer, ‘is that once you’ve understood it, it has no value. It’s like a snapshot. What we try to do is come up with stuff that is visually pleasing but which stands the test of being looked at.’

Baines’ own typography ranges from cool legibility to complex, layered juxtapositions, and while he acknowledges the central importance of communication, his work remains part of a subjective project. ‘What we understand by ideas graphics is a mental concept translated in a literal way,’ he says. ‘And it’s boring. The Partners and Pentagram typify the kind of thing we reacted against. Visually, what they were and are doing is dull. I’m not saying our work doesn’t have ideas in it – it does – but the approach is personal and expressive.’

Others reached the same liberating conclusions by a different route. Siobhan Keaney’s dissatisfaction with the ethos of the larger, commercially successful practices came from first-hand experience of working in London design companies and from her observations of the surrounding terrain. ‘The whole approach of the big design groups is about the market place,’ she says, ‘and never is the word culture used. Some of the bigger practices are like piranhas gobbling up clients. It’s alienating and I have nothing in common with them.’

The British equivalents of Paul Rand and Massimo Vignelli, whose ‘factory of garbage’ description of Emigre has entered graphic design legend, have for the most part kept quiet. While the earlier generation holds to its own well-established view of graphic design, there is a determined effort to appear even-handed about newer approaches. It is clear, though, that these designers feel underappreciated and misunderstood. Aziz Cami, senior partner at The Partners, chides the new generation for lacking the tolerance towards its predecessors that they are showing it. ‘There is an element that considers themselves exclusive,’ he says, ‘a group of talented designers who are incapable of understanding anything that isn’t like their own work. To dismiss other work because it’s different from your own is disruptive.’

John McConnell of Pentagram says the debate is ‘boring’. He sees the difference between old and new as a difference between commerce and art. ‘Should you use the money a client pays you for a job to solve their problem and help their business, or simply to show off? If you want to be an artist, then go and starve. I prefer to use the power of intellect to reduce things to their basic content – to keep it simple. In the end it’s wittier, it’s more direct.’

Pearce Marchbank, whose work for the underground magazine Oz and listings magazine Time Out in the 1970s is among the best of its time and type, is also a supporter of the clear-cut solution. ‘If you produce work that is like looking through a window with stickers all over it, or watching television with a fly crawling across the screen, then it’s a style that can get in the way of communication. To apply that style to everything doesn’t make sense.’ For Marchbank, the designer is first and foremost an analyst searching for universal solutions. ‘To me a designer is a problem-solver, like a doctor or car mechanic. But the newer designers – the graphic edge – are like a research science department working just off campus. Like haute couture, they make things that are unwearable.’ He concedes, though, that ‘the spin-offs still have an impact on the high street’.

The emergence of new languages in graphic design coincided with, and was then driven by, the arrival of new technology. The result has been a major cultural and aesthetic shift. Today, the Macintosh-based work of Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett, Cartlidge Levene, Why Not, 8vo, Tomato, Russell Warren-Fisher and others is part of a seemingly irreversible transformation in the nature and practice of British design. Yet the magnitude and full implications of the revolution seem to have passed the old school by. Differences in age, training and experience go some way to accounting for the gulf between the generations. The most fundamental differences, however, lie in polarised attitudes to the potential and use of the computer.

Old guard designers are quick enough to declare an allegiance to the Macintosh, but primarily as a tool for processing the ‘big idea’. The Partners and Pentagram readily admit to owning stacks of computer equipment – used by their own ‘Macintosh operators’ to translate and finish design ideas. For Marchbank, too, the computer is distinctly peripheral. ‘I will use it to get that stylistic computer look, but only it that’s the feeling I’m trying to communicate. Some of the new stuff shouts “computer!” as if they cant resist pressing all the buttons all the time.’

Nicholas Jenkins, chairman of corporate identity specialists The Jenkins Group, takes a similar stance. ‘I have people working in my offices who were brought up on Neville Brody, with Macintoshes coming out of their ears. I am Mac-illiterate, but I know what it can do and I employ people to make it do it.’ For Jenkins, the design process will always be about pencil and paper, ‘The Macintosh enables the idea to be translated into a clear communicative graphic design. But the thinking behind it has nothing to do with that process.’

Having the workers push the keys to achieve a representation of the big idea is an understandable procedure in a set-up where the creative leaders do not have time to immerse themselves in the culture of possibilities offered by regular Macintosh experimentation. But this way of working fails to exploit the technology’s full potential; used in this way, computers merely put the techno-gloss on the idea, and the final product has no intrinsic relation to the design process.

In the recently published catalogue of the American Center for Design’s ‘100 Show’, which usually shows only ‘winners’, Neville Brody takes the unusual step of singling out for criticism a poster by Pentagram’s New York office – and carries the British fight to American shores in the process. At first glance, John Kiotnia and James Biber’s announcement for the Pentagram Prize 1993 looks nothing like a Pentagram design. The clutter of inverted and jumbled sans serif letterforms crowding in on each other’s ‘boundaries’ (the competition’s theme) is an image more usually associated with Macland. But what keeps the poster firmly in the Pentagram mode is that a style of typographic organisation made easy by the computer is used here solely in the service of the idea.

‘This is, to me, a perfect example of getting it totally wrong,’ Brody writes. ‘This is unoriginal. I’m surprised by Pentagram for doing this. This is something that we were working on in England … around 1987. I don’t think they’ve added anything to the form … Pentagram should be out there pushing things, not taking the easy road.’

It could be argued that Brody’s critique overvalues innovation at the expense of application and that he misunderstands the ways in which graphic styles have always developed and spread. Does it really matter who got there first? But his commentary highlights a deeper concern. To Brody, Pentagram were lazy in using a pastiche of an already dated graphic language to illustrate a simple idea. To Pentagram, the design was a witty solution to a communication problem with an accessible contemporary slant. In a small way, the poster could be seen as an attempt by the old school to annex new visual language with a view to preserving the status quo.

By insisting that any visual code can be appropriated in the service of the idea, Pentagram are championing the superiority of ideas graphics over any other modus operandi. In Brody’s view, however, they are missing the point – both the organisational implications of the technology and the aesthetic ones. ‘The design industry has not kept in touch with the language and the market,’ he says. ‘They haven’t yet realised that in the future people are not going to need big agencies because these companies are often based on a high-profit, fast-turnaround ethic that doesn’t leave room to explore new ideas and technologies. They haven’t yet realised that the computer isn’t just a tool – it’s a language in itself.’

Published in Eye no. 13 vol. 4 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.