Food for thought‘[...] do not think that good design can make a poor product good, whether the product be a machine, a building, a promotional brochure or a business man. But [...] good design can materially help make a good product reach its full potential. In short, [...] good design is good business.’
Thomas J. Watson Jr., IBM CEO

Mind Over Matter: Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways at the Kemistry Gallery

September 4, 2011, 10:27 PM

A simplistic way to describe Alan Fletcher would be to say he is the British Paul Rand.  And one would not be very far from the truth, as their work shows so many similarities, from the witty use of images, words or collages to the memorable handwriting style they both had. And it should be no surprise, as Paul Rand was indeed one of Alan Fletcher’s teachers during his studies at the Yale University, between 1956-1959. Still, as Paul Rand is arguably the most influential American graphic designer, so is Alan Fletcher for the British graphic design.

Alan's beautiful 'Mind over matter' is painted outside the gallery (you can also buy it as poster).

“The Art of Looking Sideways” is probably his most fascinating work, a book collecting thoughts and visuals that had sparked his imagination for almost three decades. The new exhibition at the Kemistry Gallery offers the chance of peeking behind the curtains, exhibiting some of Alan’s original notes, drawings and other materials he did for the book. The pages constantly surprise by their fun, witty or deep analogies made between apparently unrelated elements, making you reconsider the relationships between thinking and looking, telling and showing. The exhibition proves once more that Alan Fletcher’s work is as refreshing and inspiring today as ever.

Small, but you'll be amazed at how much you can see — and learn (click on image for larger size).

Alan's shadow watches over (click on image for larger size).

You’ll most likely lose track of time, reading the diverse notes, cut-out articles, trying to decipher Alan’s drawings, smiling at his puns or learning of his heroes.

Hundreds of stories, all enchanting (click on image for larger size).

His beautiful and distinctive handwriting is ever-present:

This page definitely caught my eye, reminding me yet again about Paul Rand and his eye-bee-M poster:

A wonderful pencil sculpture can be seen on the desk, while Alan’s shadow watches over hundreds of page thumbnails in the large photo that dominates the exhibition:

Plenty more to see, of course. The only gripe I have with the exhibition is that all those pages would’ve looked much better on a dark background, but I guess painting the walls or covering them completely are not easy options for a small gallery. The exhibition is open till October 1, so, if you’re in London, don’t miss it. You can find more details on the Kemistry Gallery’s website. I’d recommend several visits, for better results. And if you don’t have the book yet, get it, there’s no excuse not to.

RELATED LINKS:
— watch Alan Fletcher himself, talking about ‘The Art of Looking Sideways’;
— listen to Colin Forbes (one of the partners with whom Alan founded the famous Pentagram) and read about the Alan Fletcher: Fifty years of work (and play) exhibition, held at the Design Museum in 2006;
— keep an eye on www.alanfletcherdesign.co.uk, hopefully it will be just as good as www.paul-rand.com when it launches.

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Different ways of looking

March 4, 2011, 5:18 PM

Few days ago, I happened to walk past a beautiful scene: a bright-orange pot, holding a tiny, Little-Prince-like tree, caught up right in the never-ending battle between light & shadow. Obviously, I had to stop for a look and a quick shot:

Half an hour later, still thinking about the photo, I felt like putting more emphasis on the subject, closing the frame in and warming the whole scene even more — while I was quite skeptical about Instagram at the beginning, dismissing it as yet another ‘hipster-app’, I came to love it quite fast after giving it a try: it’s fast, it’s simple and it lets me focus on the subject and on the title — a great exercise for any creative person (true, some use it to share their breakfast menu to the world, but I guess that can’t be helped in the current no-privacy world). So here came the second, more focused treatment, titled ‘It’s mostly about being there at the right time, eyes opened.’

'It's mostly about being there at the right time, eyes opened.'

As my Instagram account publishes instantly to my Twitter account, one of my followers retweeted it. While it’s always nice when people ‘like’ your stuff, seeing the retweet made me look at the photo again. Oddly enough, there was something new, something I didn’t see the first time. Or, better said, I realised that, in spite of the title, my eyes haven’t been open enough.

Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons (1964), by Fletcher Forbes Gill

As a big fan of Pentagram, I have pretty much all the books they’ve ever made, starting with the above beauty, “Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons” (1964), written by Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Bob Gill before the official birth of Pentagram (the Fletcher Forbes Gill studio eventually became Pentagram in 1972). The simple drawing on the cover, depicting the book’s title, would’ve probably went just as well on the cover of Alan Fletcher’s later book, The Art of Looking Sideways (2001). So with these two  constantly roaming through the back of my mind, I saw an entirely different scene, where the orange pot was no longer the main subject, but where several other much more interesting ‘characters’ were ‘looking’ around in many different ways. The title this time, ‘… and there’s always more than just one way of looking.’

'... and there's always more than just one way of looking.'

After this, I started playing around some more, trying black & white versions of the photo, other crops and so on. None made me happier than the above one, but it really was a great to be reminded that one can look at things from so many different perspectives. Of course, the scene had quite a lot of things to play around with and focus on, but the same exercise can be done with almost anything, even just one single object. For example, I remember one of the assignments my high school design teacher told me about: you are given a single push pin — you have to come up with a complex pencil drawing composition on a large A1 paper, based only on that tack. Now, there’s a challenge, if you needed one.

And since I mentioned push pins, there’s no better way of concluding it than with this Milton Glaser poster:

Milton Glaser's "Looking is not Seeing" poster.

Further links and credits:
— thanks to Roxana for helping me see things differently;
— you’d probably enjoy my Instagrid photo collection (now over 100);
— you can buy Milton’s poster on his website.

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Hustling the greats — cheap bravado or a genuine “naked emperor” shout?

January 28, 2011, 12:41 PM

While reading Adrian Shaughnessy’s interesting review of Kenneth FitzGerald’s Volume: Writing on Graphic Design, Music, Art and Culture book (on the Design Observer), a paragraph caught my attention especially:

It’s not only his students FitzGerald wants to refrain from gazing admiringly at the great and the good of the design world. His own combative approach to criticism means that he doesn’t shy away from roughing up representatives of design’s elite: Alan Fletcher (“The Art of Looking Sideways … a formless data-dump of quotations, aphorisms, diagrams, reproductions, commentaries, and folderol”); John Maeda (“sterile, programmed ornamentation”); Paul Rand (… students will become even more marginalized and disenchanted with their work and status if they attempt to define themselves by Rand’s fallacies); and Stefan Sagmeister (“Made you Look … a fatiguing compendium of almost every optical, production, and advertising-creative artifice devised since Gutenberg”).

I don’t think I need to tell you that this is the design’s equivalent of whistling bare-assed inside the church on a Sunday morning. Does Mr FitzGerald really mean that? Or is he just saying it to shock and draw attention? What should we believe in then, if role models or mentors are over-rated? It’s easy to say “do your own thing”, but so few of us can actually do that.

It has always been one of the best ways to get fast on top (either in gang fights or in public opinion): pick someone bigger than you — hell, pick the biggest of them all — and make him bite the dust. Should you succeed, you’re the man (until another does it to you, of course). Should you loose, do it in style and at least you’ve made the news — more or less.

It seems these days that almost everybody worships individualism. You can see it in almost everything — large businesses are slowly fragmenting, everybody tries to be a “freelancer”, everybody wants to be their own boss — an understandable thing, after all, who likes to take orders all day?. Marriages are shorter and shorter, single parentage slowly gains ground and becomes the “normal” way of growing up a kid. It’s all fine-tuning as the ultimate self-centred society. A planet of “every man for himself only”. Well, to be more precise, a “western” civilisation of loners. And these days — go figure — most of them (us) seem so bewitched by iStuff.

Well, if Mr FitzGerald wanted attention, he’s surely got it. And maybe that’s a good thing. Shouting out that “the emperor is naked” might prove a lie, but it did make you look thoroughly, didn’t it? I still think that apprenticeship as a way of learning was one of the good things we lost during the last fifty years. Having role-models can be very useful, but only as long as we never forget that role-models are meant to be surpassed.

As post scriptum, the cover of the book looks rather nice:

And while we’re at it, here’s another quote from Mr FitzGerald’s book:

It is a delusion that the activity of fine artists is divorced from commercial considerations. It isn’t even a matter of degree. All that separates art and design is the kind of marketplace one chooses to operate in.

Now that’s something with which I totally agree.

Further reading & links:
• Adrian Shaughnessy’s review of the book on the Design Observer;
• Kenneth FitzGerald’s blog post about his book.

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Harry Pearce, “The Schizophrenic Road” — a lecture on keeping your soul alive

December 5, 2010, 8:41 PM

Even if it took place a little over a week ago, Pentagram-partner Harry Pearce‘s lecture titled “The Schizophrenic Road — Part 2: A design journey from a road in west London to a tree in Zanzibar” still echoes in my head, pushing me to launch some of my personal projects that I keep postponing constantly. But about that later.

Held at the Institute of Education’s Logan Hall (filled up to the last row) and hosted by Harry’s friend and D&AD president, Sanky, the lecture was divided in five parts:

  1. Look Both Ways
  2. Free the Word
  3. Little Sister
  4. Night Vision
  5. Street Alchemy

Sanky was first on stage, introducing his friend and telling a short story on how they met, waiting for an airplane to India, sharing their thoughts. The story was continued by Harry, saying how the sudden friendship between “two designers on free-fall” began in the airport’s waiting lounge and how he found enlightenment in India, while his partner, Paula Scher, only “got shit”, as she would later tell him.

Harry’s design journey started with a 440,000 year-old piece of stone, found on the bottom of the sea in one of his holidays. Thinking at first that it’s just an interesting-looking stone, he later realised, as the stone fit perfectly in hand, that it was actually an ancient tool, one of the early manifestations of design — and what an efficient design!

A 440,000 year-old axe.

1. LOOK BOTH WAYS

I bet that few were those in the hall that didn’t envy Harry for his friendship with Alan Fletcher. To have such a great mind as a mentor and close friend, what a blessing. Alan Fletcher was the one that encouraged Harry to keep collecting the occasional photos he took of signs all over the place. Starting from a road in West London to a tree in Zanzibar (hence lecture’s title — the sign on the tree said “Heaven Café & Restaurant”, pointing the direction, but as one nail was lost, the sign now humorously pointed towards the sky — too bad I didn’t take a picture of that), these signs later led to the creation of Harry’s “Conundrums” project and book (a long and intricate story for that as well). Funny thing here is that even though Alan advised Harry to keep taking the photos, he didn’t — he started only after Alan asked for the photos to put them in the “The Art of Looking Sideways” book. When Harry told him he didn’t have anymore, Alan replied that he had 3 weeks to get a double page spreads worth (story told in another presentation).

Road signs

"...looking at the world in a slightly off way."

The important thing to remember is that Alan Fletcher said this was Harry’s “looking at the world in a slightly off way”, something we all should try to achieve if we want to keep our creative spirit alive.

2. FREE THE WORD

The second part was about some of Harry’s projects, all of them based on typography as the chosen medium. The first ones were PEN International’s beautiful identity and “26 Exchanges“, both about “language bringing cultures together”, the last one presented during the Design Festival in 2009 (Sanky also being part of it). The main idea was to get 26 western writers together with 26 foreign ones and have them talk to each other, expressing their art emotionally rather than through translations.

Next were 52 Cards, typographic posters for Macbeth, Doll’s House, Modern British Sculpture, Roy Harper, Lippa Pearce (Harry and Domenic Lippa’s studio before they joined Pentagram — Domenic was in the audience as well). Another interesting project was the Dana Centre visual identity, where “typography [ended up] growing with the building”. All the projects proved once more how good typography can create powerful images. Few would forget the Macbeth poster, with it’s large title written in blood (you can view some of the other works at the end of the article).

3. LITTLE SISTER

The Haiti visual, yet another of Harry's striking works.

The big surprise of the evening was Harry inviting Peter Gabriel on stage. For almost twenty years, they have both been involved in humanitarian projects, namely Witness, the organisation that uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations, co-founded by Peter Gabriel. He talked about the organization’s goals, achievements, almost bringing the audience to tears (and Harry as well) through his moving, real-life stories. His modest, simple and direct way of speaking was admirable.

Peter Gabriel on stage.

Some of Harry’s most powerful works have been done for humanitarian purposes, like the Burma or Infantry posters (more than enough proof that design can help change the world):

The Burma poster was actually carried on the streets by the Burmese people during their protests.

Another project presented was The Hub, also part of Witness, the place to upload any videos showing human rights violations. Harry talked about how technology’s rapid development has helped people, being so easy these days to share videos with the help of a simple mobile phone. This part ended in a moment of silence, held in the memory of Natalya Estemirova, a Russian human rights activist and reporter shot and killed in 2009 because of her constant effort in telling the world of the atrocities happening in Chechnya. I guess the part’s title was also an homage to her, as initially this would’ve been called “Little Brother” (“Little brother turning the camera on Big Brother”, as Harry explains).

4. NIGHT VISION

The fourth part was about dreams, Harry mentioning “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” by C. G. Jung and talking about the journals documenting his dreams and how they have later influenced or actually developed in some of his work projects (one example being the Anish Kapoor exhibition in 2009). He talked about one of his friends, a musician, whose guitar singing tried to resemble “the flight of a butterfly”, Harry’s foretelling dream from a few nights before ending in the words “until the last butterfly”. He also mentioned Stefan Sagmeister‘s sabbatical year practice (Harry being good friends with him) and the benefits of taking time off, traveling — Harry being a huge fan of India and the East in general.

Stefan Sagmeister's poster on dreams

This fourth part ended with a humorous conclusion, showing Stefan Sagmeister’s “My Dreams have no meaning” work (part of his book/project “Things I have learned in my life so far“, also a magazine cover designed for the Centre Pompidou in Paris). Stefan sent this to Harry, to which he replied with a similarly-designed poster:
“But Harry’s do.”

5. STREET ALCHEMY

Harry Pearce and Alan Fletcher

The last part of the event returned to Alan Fletcher and Harry’s photographs again, on a more personal note, Harry telling of his last meetings with Alan before his death. Also touched during the Q&A, Harry reminded all of us how important is keeping a child-like openness of heart, one of the traits Alan Fletcher and his work so easily seemed to benefit from.

His presentation ended with this beautiful dedication from his mentor:

A PERSONAL CONCLUSION

All in all, a very inspiring event. I think the most important thing that I’ve (re)learned is that one must always keep feeding the creative soul, especially through personal projects. Maybe you like collecting old typewriters, maybe you enjoy photography, maybe you like to get your hands dirty with clay modelling, pottery, sculpture or even carpentry or maybe you simply enjoy some good old pencil drawing. It does not matter, just as long as you get away from your daily work (and I would definitely add getting away from the computer) and let your mind roam free. The Design Challenge project was born from a similar need, with the help of a few friends (hopefully, it’ll start again with the new year). I’ve also been thinking of a new project for weeks now, something more personal, more like a daily exercise to keep your muscles fit — Harry’s lecture really helped in pushing this project up to the top of my to do list.

Looking forward to more inspiring events. Thank you, Harry.


Main sources (besides my own notes and photos):
Pearcing Thoughts, on Design Week (subscription required);
Pentagram at the Design Museum on Noisy Decent Graphics;
— AIGA’s blog on Harry’s first lecture;
— AIGA Flickr slideshow with some of Harry’s works.


Later update: you can now watch Harry’s very similar presentation for Design Indaba. Got two clearer images as well, the first being the tree in Zanzibar with the witty sign, the second with Alan Fletcher’s drawing:

A witty sign from Zanzibar.

Alan Fletcher's drawing for Harry.

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