isIn November 1963, dressed in an Afghan sheepskin waistcoat and exuding his signature theatrical verve, Ken Garland stormed the front of a Society of Industrial Artists meeting with a fiery message to his colleagues. He was tired of graphic designers wasting their talents selling cat food, toothpaste, cigarettes and slimming powder. This visual incontinence had reached “a point of saturation”, he said, adding that “the shrill cry of consumer sales is nothing but noise”. Designers, he implored, had a duty to devote their energy to more worthy ends.
His impromptu speech was met with enthusiastic applause and later published as the First Things First manifesto, a call to arms that will cement Garland as a moral conscience of graphic design for decades to come. “We are proposing a reversal of priorities,” said the manifesto, which had 22 signatories. “We hope our society grows tired of gadget dealers, status sellers, and hidden persuaders.” The few short paragraphs, published in The Guardian at the time, took on a life of their own, becoming a touchstone for successive generations of designers.
Over 50 years later, what does Garland think now? “I got pretty bored with that,” the 91-year-old recounts from his home in Camden Town, London, where he has always had his studio, a room full of prints, the walls covered with his colorful designs. “I had had enough after 10 years, but it just went on and on, being revived and rewritten. I have never been against publicity. But I thought some of the stuff the designers had been hired to promote was completely absurd.
Next week, in a virtual ceremony, Garland will receive the Lifetime Achievement Medal from the London Design Festival in recognition of his impact and influence over the years, tirelessly teaching, writing, speaking, photographing and creating some of the most powerful and playful designs. of the time. Its customers range from Galt Toys to CND, including movie giant Paramount Pictures, Which? magazine and the Labor Party, each memoir has met ruthless clarity.
Not that his style is always easy to spot. “Basic but elegant,” is how Adrian Shaughnessy defined Garland’s no-frills, no-frills approach in his 2012 study of the prolific designer. Strongly inspired by visits to Switzerland, Garland combines Swiss typographical rigor with a freer sensibility acquired from American designers like Saul Bass. Garland’s work has always been “straightforward, categorical, and as thin as a whippet,” Shaughnessy wrote. “Content has been brought to the fore and unnecessary decoration has been eliminated.”
It’s an attitude encapsulated in his designs for CND, for which he redesigned the famous peace symbol into the clean-lined graphic familiar around the world today. The circular emblem was originally created by textile designer Gerald Holtom in 1958 as an abstraction of the semaphore letters N (uclear) and D (isarmament), each of the lines widening at the end, as if the logo carried flares. Garland brought his sharp scalpel to Switzerland at the symbol, cutting off the flares to give it graphic clarity with hard edges for maximum readability on posters, pins and signs. His famous black-and-white poster for the 1962 Aldermaston March placed repeats of his drawing in a procession, one in front of the other. The result is a startling illusion, the signs appearing to be walking towards you.
“I still think protests are where designers should turn,” says Garland, who is still a CND member. In 2011, he could be found wandering the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, starting heated discussions with protesters over their signs. “Non-designers can be very, very inventive. Many things are much more interesting than what we professionals do.
Born in Southampton in 1929, Garland grew up in the market town of Barnstaple in North Devon, next to a farm, which he loved to explore as a child. If he hadn’t got into art, he reminded himself once, he probably would have become a farmer. When he was an established designer, creating campaign messages for disarmament, Garland was also working on one of his most fun and enduring commissions, reinventing James Galt and Company as Galt Toys, a client who ‘he would keep for 20 years. “I was determined this wouldn’t be one of those sad logos that will stay the same forever,” he says. “So we designed it to be disjointed.”
By selecting a clean sans-serif font, he set out to design an identity in which the letters could be mixed, layered and manipulated, as if toys themselves. On a catalog cover, one child lowers a T, while another supports a Y, rearranging the logo to form the words “Galy Tots.” He and his associates also found themselves designing some of the actual toys, including one of the most successful lines, Connect, which is still in production today (now sold as Rivers, Roads & Rails, with decidedly more sophisticated graphics).
Garland’s careless treatment would become a theme throughout his career. In her eyes, brands are there to be adapted and manipulated according to context and purpose – and, most importantly, to keep things fresh and interesting. “I think a lot of corporate identities become a straitjacket,” he says. “Designers write extensive manuals with rules for exactly what size everything should be. They believe it should consume everything, but I find that utter nonsense. I think it’s terribly unimaginative that we still live with the same Coca-Cola logo. My God, it’s boring now.
Instead, he says, an identity must be a “starting point” for successive designers to evolve. And they should know when to say no. “You have to understand that the role of a graphic designer as a consultant is to be able to say to a client, ‘I think we had a little too much graphic design. Let’s go for a bit and let things rest. Things should be able to unfold at their own pace. “
If Garland seems good at expressing his wisdom, he’s had a good practice. He has taught almost continuously since graduating from the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London (now Central St Martins) in 1954 and has been a regular feature of the lecture circuit, giving energetic performances, bearing still one of his embroidered hats. He once fired a starting pistol in the middle of a conference. He also dropped his pants and smashed a cell phone – all to prove that the role of the creator is primarily to get your attention.
“He has a disarming ability to surprise,” Shaughnessy tells me. “I remember a round table where designer after designer simply complained about their clients. At the end, Ken said some of the best experiences of his life have been with his clients. Indeed, some of them had become his closest friends.
Speaking with the charismatic Garland, it’s not hard to see why. “I was incredibly lucky,” he says. “I never had to go looking for clients. They came to me one way or another. Luck had little to do with it, however. This seems to be more due to his willingness to listen. As graphic designer Richard Hollis puts it, “He engaged with the client and made sure the design was appropriate for that client, and not some sort of reflection of his own style. He was more interested in communication than in creating a beautiful image.
Garland would like to point out that his company has always been Ken Garland and associates, of whom he’s never had more than two or three, working in his home studio, and that all the work has been teamwork. His colleagues held the fort while he was busy teaching, writing, and photographing, the latter passion that led to a series of exhibitions and self-published books, featuring closely watched studies of everything from landmarks to stone fire. “I think other graphic designers always thought I was stretching thin enough,” he laughs, “but I really had fun.”