It was a great honour to meet a man who has been so influential in my personal career and also in those of countless other designers over the years. I can honestly say he is as wise, gracious, humorous and intelligent as he appears on stage. He has firmly cemented himself into the graphic design hall of fame and has one of the most prolific careers of any living graphic designer to date. Here is the full Ken Garland interview from Typo London.
“I urge everyone to hunt down a copy of ‘The Practice of Design’ and look at it, it was hugely influential.”
What does Good Design mean to you?
Good Design means several things, it’s not possible to encapsulate it all into one phrase, so I’m going to have to tot about and think of everything! It’s design that meets its intention or aim effectively. This is easier than it sounds, you really only need focus on the objective that you’re given at the beginning. The trouble with all design is it seeks to go astray, by seeking I mean it doesn’t casually or by accident go astray. Often designers think what can I do with this one that will build up my own thing here, you know, I’m not really interested in this topic so what can I do with it? Good design can’t possibly be done under those kind of auspices, you really have to accept that the problem you’re given is a problem you’re out to solve. It sounds as if it’s so obvious but I do believe many designers go astray in that they are not interested in the thing that they’re given.
So first of all good design needs to be a correlation between or an identity between your skill that you’ve been called on to use and the objective that you have been given. The second thing is there are some principles of information which need to be absorbed and used before you can get to square one with handling information. They relate to the appropriate use of typefaces, use of space, appropriate use of medium. I mean for example if somebody said to me ‘design me this brochure for this purpose please’ and I thought, you don’t need a brochure what you need is something else, a set of posters for instance. I would be entitled to discuss with my potential client how I might vary his brief, so the varying of briefs is possible provided the person who is the designer is focused on the objective. If all she or he is thinking about is how am I gonna get my socks off on this one? How am I going to put in my gimmicks and try and make an award winning design out of it? No it doesn’t work that way! So I think funnily enough good design often doesn’t occur in spaces where good design is promoted.
Often what you see is somebody’s notion of good design that’s purely fantasy. So we live, many of us designers, in a fantasy world where we have objectives which are nothing to do with the true purpose of the thing we are given to do. We have our own private agenda and we go ahead and do it regardless and it rarely works. I suppose in theory there are some occasions where one might say ‘well this wasn’t what I was supposed to do but I always wanted to do this, so I managed to squeeze this in’. You can understand where they’re coming from and you can appreciate their passion to want to insert their particular notion into whatever job comes along, but it very rarely works. I suppose one could think of the occasional thing where that contrary pattern can be pursued, but it’s very rare.
Name a piece of design, or campaign that you think was particularly effective in delivering or has the potential to deliver positive social change.
This is going back an awfully long way, to my first years as a student. In my first year as a student I came across a book published I believe in 1946. It was published to coincide with an exhibition called ‘Britain can make it’, which was at the Victoria & Albert museum. The book was called ‘The Practice of Design’. It was a series of essays written by a body of designers called the ‘Body Research Unit’, but the essential thing about this book was its design. Now this is contrary to my own normal thinking on the matter, as usually I come to content first and only afterwards to treatment. Content comes first. However in this case the content was acceptable, well argued. In fact I believed it, but what excited me as a incipient designer was the design done by a man called Hans Schleger and whose pseudonym was ‘Zero’.
Hans Schleger was a man who had been a young designer in the 1930s in Germany, had fled Germany because of the onset of Nazism in 1933 to Britain, Chicago and then back to Britain to spend the rest of his life as a graphic designer. When he came back in 1946 one of his first jobs was to design ‘The Practice of Design’. This book was utterly, utterly out of its period. The period of design in 1946 was extremely tedious, it was a sort of re-hash of traditional English typographic styling. Awful, utterly purposeless, no style, no nothing. It thought itself pretty good, but it was nonsense! Hans Schleger brought to it some notions of the new typography of Germany, some of his own thoughts, some exciting treatment of material. For example for each of the articles he got hold of some amazing treatment of traditional steel and wood engravings – beautiful, beautiful work.
The book was hugely influential on me and on many other people. It did some extraordinary things, its headings weren’t headings, they were footings! He actually put the title to each article at the foot of the first page of the article. Now we accept this without thinking, but back then it was extraordinary. I urge everyone to hunt down a copy of ‘The Practice of Design’ and look at it, it was hugely influential. And I still think of it as being a prime example of graphic design brought to bear, splendidly meeting its requirements, introducing new modes of design and put together in a fashion that coheres. It all belongs and it all runs together from cover to cover through to even the indexing and the contents page, everything is beautifully considered. So that is my recommendation of a piece of good design. You won’t have heard that one before!