The Idea Of Design
Alan Fletcher (Fletcher/Forbes/Gill)


Alan Fletcher

©Monica Pidgeon

When I was at school I didn't know what I wanted to do. I had absolutely no idea. All I was really interested in, and I wasn't all that passionately interested in it, was in drawing. And maybe it's because I was an only child and my father died when I was very young so I was thrown a lot on my own resources and I think that may be one reason why I used to draw a lot and do that kind of thing. Anyway, I went to an art school in the early 50s and I guess, looking back on it, it probably wasn't a very good art school, but nevertheless it was a good introduction to a completely different way of life. And it gradually dawned on me that I wasn't perhaps as good as perhaps I thought I was, because I was at a period at the school when a lot of people came out of the army or the navy and they had grants to take up their studies again. And so I was in a class with a lot of people of eighteen and a lot of people of twenty five to thirty. And I remember the first day I was there, I was totally staggered because I was sitting between two thirty year-olds and they sat down and they did a drawing that I thought was the most amazing drawing I'd ever seen, and I practically left that day because I thought I could never aspire to anything as fantastic as they'd done. But gradually I began to see that they had much more experience than I did and I had a lot to learn. I then moved to the Central School of Art which, at that period of time, was a school where there were a lot of people who have since done extremely well; very lively, a lot of intelligent students. And I learned probably more off the other students than I did off the staff. And it occurred to me that really what I should be was an illustrator, and so I studied illustration. And when I left the school at the end of the two year course and went out into the world, I discovered that at that time in England, and probably anywhere except perhaps New York, an illustrator couldn't even get a job. There was no such thing as a job for an illustrator. And there was no work. The situation now, some decades later, is quite different because now there's a lot of work for illustrators and they do very well indeed. However, since I couldn't get any work doing illustration, I was really back to square one. This was compounded by the fact that the Korean War had started and there was vast unemployment and I couldn't even get a job doing quite menial things such as washing-up and one or two things like that. But by a stroke of luck I met somebody who knew somebody in Spain, who was looking for people to go and teach English, and the requirement of the job was that whoever taught English in Spain shouldn't speak Spanish, and it was for Berlitz. So I went to Spain, I did that for a year and whilst I was doing that I realised that I didn't want to end up my life in Spain teaching English to waiters or waitresses, and I put in an application to go to the Royal College of Art, and I went there for three years, which was a very valuable period for me because, having been out in the world and having to do something else for a year, meant my enthusiasm and, in a sense, my view of the world had grown up a lot by being out of the hothouse of an art school. And I spent three years at the RCA and by this time I'd been so severely unnerved by the fact I could never get any work when I left art school, I thought I would keep my grant rolling over as long as humanly possible. At least I could buy bread and a bed. And at that time very few people had been to America. And whereas Britain was grey and dreary, America was full of bright lights, cars and movie stars and New York and the Stork Club and all sorts of exciting things, so I thought that's where I should be, and I applied for a scholarship to Yale University, the Yale school of design and architecture, which I also luckily got. And I went to America and studied for a further nine months, and found myself moving away from being an illustrator to being a designer, in fact using typography and graphics more than just pen and ink if you like. And that was possibly the biggest break I ever had because the school, Yale, had some marvellous famous teachers - Paul Rand, Herbert Matter, to mention two of them - and it was an immediate introduction into a different kind of world which had many more opportunities. And I left and did a temporary job with The Container Corporation of America which was a very design-conscious company in Chicago. And from there I ended up at Fortune Magazine where I worked for a year and assembled a portfolio with a lot of examples, lots of colours, exotic papers, everything you couldn't get in England. So that when I returned to England, all my contemporaries were still walking around with portfolios with one typeface, in black and white, for nuts and bolts catalogues, and I'd managed to acquire this portfolio full of full colour and lots of glamorous subjects, and one thing and another. And I guess from that moment I didn't look back. When I came back to England I was very lucky because Fortune is part of the Time Life Group and they were looking for a design consultant to do work in London. So I was able to come back with a guarantee of two days work for Time Life in London which took the immediate edge off problems of having to earn a living straight away. It was during this period that I used to meet a lot with a friend of mine called Colin Forbes and an American who had just arrived in London called Bob Gill. And we decided that we'd try and do something which didn't exist in London which was to set up a small design group, and we were in our late twenties. Certainly Bob Gill's energy and American way of looking at things, and my experience in America, gave us probably an edge over a lot of the other English designers of the same age group, and we began Fletcher Forbes and Gill which was a design group which had a fairly fast meteoric success. I think it may be of interest to know how these developments happen, because often I think things happen by accident. For example, we were asked by Shell to do a corporate identity and they gave us some drawings of all their petrol stations which were at that time pretty awful. They were concrete boxes, and we thought it would be a brilliant idea to redesign the petrol stations as the corporate identity. So that we designed these letters S.H.E.L.L. and the idea was you drove in between the 2 LL's, filled up from the back of the E and you drove out under the letter H. And we wanted to present this to Shell and we happened to meet Theo Crosby one evening at a party and asked him how we could design these letters so they would stand up, because Theo's an architect. And it was in the subject of that conversation that Theo joined us. Kenneth Grange as a product designer joined us in a similar way. Another petroleum company asked us to do a corporate identity and they wanted us to do self-service stations and we were talking with Kenneth Grange to see how he could help us design hand-held pumps and all that kind of thing, and it was also through that coincidence that Kenneth joined us. Bob Gill left and we reached a point when we had to move our studios and we found new premises which were very large, and it was at that point that Kenneth Grange joined the rest of us and we changed the name to Pentagram because otherwise the name of the company would have been much too large. Pentagram is a design office, has several disciplines - graphics, product design, architecture and interiors. I'd quite like to show some examples of the graphics - I'm showing the graphics because I feel easier talking about that as I'm a graphic designer myself - because all the graphics partners at Pentagram certainly share a common ethic of what graphic design is about. Ideas on design is the subject of a book which Pentagram have just produced and is concerned with taking the essential idea of a piece of graphics out of context. So that we're just talking about the idea and not the vehicle for which the idea was designed, and the slides you'll see therefore show some examples of these. By the idea of design, what I really mean is that graphics, as one of the design activities, is somewhat different than other forms of design in that it's concerned with getting thoughts across to people, it's concerned with communications, basically communications.


Poster For Designers' Saturday


Let me talk about this job, because this is one I think which really demonstrates what I'm trying to say very clearly. I was asked to do a poster for Designers' Saturday, which is an event held in London and originated from New York in fact, which is when you get classy furniture manufacturers, have an open day on a Saturday and people come from all over the country to see their furniture; and the brief for the poster to announce this event was I could do anything I liked, which is the worst kind of brief you can have because it literally means you can do anything you like and therefore there are no constraints, and without constraints you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. So the first thing I did, I gave myself some constraints. I took the three most basic boring shapes you can imagine - square, circle and triangle - and I then picked the three most boring colours you can imagine which are red, blue and yellow, and I decided that somehow or another I'd try to make a poster, suitable for the event, out of these three elements. As you can see, just by adding a scribble to each of these shapes I managed to transform them into something quite different. I transformed them into symbols of a party, and in a way you could say that Designers' Saturday is a party because people actually go to enjoy themselves, it's such a big commercial event. So that is one way of showing how you can transform something just by adding something to turn it into something else.

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