The year: 1978
This is what was happening:
James Callaghan was Prime Minister of a minority in the House of Commons and under great pressure from Margaret Thatcher to call a general election.
One of my all-time favourite singers, Sandy Denny, died following an injury sustained after she fell down a staircase and hit her head on concrete.
Keith Moon, drummer of The Who, died from an overdose in Curzon Place, Mayfair.
The advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi was recruited by Margaret Thatcher to revamp the Conservative Party’s image.
The first South Bank Show was aired with Melvyn Bragg.
James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small was screened for the first time.
Roman Polanski skipped bail and fled to France, after pleading guilty to charges of engaging in sex with a 13-year-old girl.
A poison-filled pellet was injected into Georgi Markov using an umbrella, on orders of the Bulgarian intelligence service; he died four days later.
This was to be my final year in a decade working in the world of publishing: a decade that I had adored. Thanks to Mark Collins, I’d even been allowed to work a four-day week at Fontana, giving me one free day at home to ‘think’ – crazy but true, that’s how wonderful it was.
But by 1978, the writing was on the wall. Publishing was in a state of turmoil. Many of the long-standing independent firms were being gobbled up or were amalgamating with large American firms. Penguin Books, which I very much looked up to in terms of design and literary integrity, had announced the appointment of a new ‘Chief Executive Officer’ (an unfamiliar title in UK publishing at that time) in the shape of Peter Mayer, who was coming from Avon Books in New York.
Mayer’s initial relationship with Penguin’s then Art Director David Pelham was seemingly good (as recounted in a joint interview between Mayer and Pelham in AOI’s Illustrator magazine at the time). It would appear that Penguin’s covers would not change that much. But, away from Penguin, rumours of major changes were rampant. Soon all became clear, with wholesale swathes of the Penguin list jettisoned: education, poetry and much of the Pelican list. So-called blockbusters (above) started to appear on the Penguin list, and there was a noticeable change in cover quality. It was sad to see the extremely talented David Pelham having to endure the new heavy-handed regime. Pelham resigned in frustration in 1979, saying at the time…
“The art department… became the whipping boys… if a book didn’t sell.”
From Penguin by Design, published in 2005.
So ended the heritage of considered cover design, which went back to the mid-1930s, and with it the loss of Penguin’s heart. All part of Mayer’s plan to turn Penguin around, which had been running at a loss when he joined. But in the process of his radicalisation, much of Penguin’s integrity as a publisher was being lost to a loyal readership. Something that has taken many decades to rebuild.
Meanwhile, back in my own Fontana camp, I was also being pressured to be even more ‘commercially’ minded in the presentation of covers. The way I coped with this was to design in a hard-hitting way without losing my design integrity. It didn’t always work out, of course, but I tried. It was like a mini war.
Even when a non-fiction cover had to be commercial I would try to find a way to make it acceptable. This being a cover on a cover.
There were also boardroom battles going on within the Collins family and whispers of selling the company. In between all that, I had got Mark Collins to agree to my producing three large-format illustrated books that I had devised and designed. Two were on advertising history: Bubbles (the history of Pears soap advertising) and Pipe Dreams (advertising from the tobacco industry). The third was The Magical Paintings of Justin Todd; Justin Todd was an illustrator whom I had commissioned a lot and was a big fan of. I collaborated with Tim Shackleton, one of Fontana’s editors, to help out on the text side.
Francine Lawrence and Ashted Dastor were still with me and a new secretary joined, Francis Magill: an expensively educated Scot with no trace of a Scottish accent, just like the entire Collins family. They were also Scots but sported cut-glass public school accents.
Above a classic John Gorham cover complete with his own illustration. Gorham would often collaborate with others as in the above two where he got Graham Percy to produce these delightful illustrations.
John Gorham and Ken Carroll were still my most regular and often used external graphic designers. By this time, Ken and I were pretty much inseparable. We had graduated from eating at Pizza Express and The Chicago Pizza Pie Factory to the more refined environment of Mon Plaisir in Monmouth Street, Covent Garden (still there), where we would continue to drink copious amounts of wine.
I was still young enough to take it, but this was pretty stupid as I had a long daily drive back home to Essex and a young family.
Francine Lawrence assures me that I fired her around this time. I have no idea why and would love to know the circumstances, as I liked her so much. As the year progressed, I became increasingly concerned about my future with the rapidly changing firm. I realised I would have to find another job outside of publishing. I had thought that, having had a lot of work published in various design annuals (particularly D&AD, which had featured 12 Fontana covers that year),
I would be able to pick up work outside the publishing world; I had already forged relationships with David Puttnam, Alan Parker and Ridley Scott.
Over one weekend, I did some deep thinking. By this time, I had three growing children to feed and educate. I looked at them and started to panic. My first wife was a wonderfully clear thinker and would always calm me down in my moments of panic.
I decided that I would put it to Ken Carroll that we should start a design consultancy together. The next day, I phoned him to suggest we have a booze-free lunch. I arranged for some sandwiches and fruit and set up a table and chairs in the one-time ballroom of Collins’ elegant Georgian house. Over that light lunch, we agreed to start a company. We were both completely void of any experience of running one, but the die was cast and we were about to plan our journey not just into the unknown but seemingly blind to the fact that 1978 Britain was engulfed in what was called ‘The Winter of Discontent’ – an ongoing saga of strikes as a result of the Labour government’s attempt to control inflation by imposing rules on the public sector, on top of an economic downturn. But that didn’t faze us. We were excited and pretty gung-ho with the idea.
In October 1978, I gave three months’ notice to Mark Collins and continued to work with an increasing sense of fear, anticipation and excitement at the prospect of being in control of my own destiny. Those last months slipped by as the evenings drew darker and the temperature dropped to what was to be a bitterly cold winter.
My leaving the firm coincided with the Christmas break. I recall farewell drinks, some hand shaking and walking down the stairs from my top-floor studio along the chequered tiled corridor that opened out into the elegant, warmly lit reception area of Collins. It had an arrangement of friendly, rust-coloured sofas set against hessian-covered walls and an array of rich, oriental rugs, with a runner that ran down the entrance hall to the front door. Looking back, I realise why they were called publishing ‘houses’ – they really were in those days, unlike the clinical, corporate spaces they are today, with security barriers and identity ribbons. As I left Collins for the last time, stepping out onto the darkened street, snowflakes were flurrying down past the glowing street lamp. I was on my own, out in the cold. And so ended my decade in publishing.
My Films for 1978:
The Deer Hunter directed by Michael Cimino an audacious beginning and end to his film career.
Days of Heaven directed by Terrence Malick proving that he is the new Lean/Kubrick
Interiors directed by Woody Allen. An underated masterpiece by Wood in Bergman mode.
Superman directed by Richard Donner with a touching cameo performance by Glenn Ford as Pa Kent
The remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers directed by Philip Kaufman
My Album for 1978: While visiting the Design Council, when it was in the Haymarket and had free exhibitions open to the public, I was looking at one about the British Airport Authority. It a multi-screen carousel projector presentation, there was also mesmerising sound track that I instantly liked. I found out that it was appropriately called Music for Airports by Brian Eno. I have been a fan ever since.
My Project for 1978:
Post Script 1979:
I designed the above spoof cover on a cover for Illustrators in 1979 as a satire on the direction of paperback cover design at the time. Inside it featured a damming piece by me on the publishing industry and the strangle hold that sales departments was having on the art directors. In the following issue of the magazine, Patrick Mortimer, the art director who took over from me at Fontana Books, heavily criticised me. He said that I was naive and should have stayed in the industry to fight the good fight. However I never saw anything remarkable come out of Fontana ever again. So, the fight was clearly lost.
The story continues:
I hope you have enjoyed this part of the journey and found it of interest.
You can pick up on what happened next in my history of Carroll & Dempsey and later Carroll, Dempsey & Thirkell (CDT). HERE.
A rare opportunity to see the personal work of one of America’s (in fact, he was born in London) great graphic designers, Ivan Chermayeff. Like the late Alan Fletcher, Chermayeff is a passionate lover of the low-tech art form of collages and has been producing them for the past half century, scavenging from packaging, envelopes and found goodies from here and there.
You can hear a recorded interview between Ivan Chermayeff and me click here.
For more on the The De La Warr exhibition click here.
Director Richard Linklater shot Boyhood over 12 consecutive years and used a similar fragmented technique in his Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, which spanned 18 years.
But this new film, at almost three hours long, gives total emersion into the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), along with the lives of his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and estranged father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). We literally see Manson transform in real time during the course of the film from a 6-year-old, chubby-faced boy starting school through to an 18-year-old, lanky, monosyllabic college freshman and everything in between.
Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane
For any parent, it has many poignant moments of recollection from pain to tenderness. It is shot with terrific sensitivity void of any sentimentality and without the normal clunky “four years later” sign posting. Here, you are left to let the film reveal itself, and it works perfectly. It is a beautiful example of assured filmmaking from a director who gets very close to reality in a fictional form.
Many have linked Boyhood to the great British social documentary series Seven Up! (directed by Michael Apted) and François Truffaut’s 400 Blows. But no one has mentioned The Wonder Years: the 1980s American television series beautifully penned by Neal Marlens and Carol Black. It features main protagonist Kevin Arnold immersed in the social and family life of a typical 1960's American suburb. Made in 1988 to 1993, spanning Arnold's age from 12 to 17. This was a far more commercial, family orientated proposition, but we witness a similar onscreen coming of age. The last episode was aired in 1993 with the final narration…
“Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day you’re in diapers, the next day you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul. I remember a place, a town, a house like a lot of houses. A yard like a lot of other yards. On a street like a lot of other streets. And the thing is, after all these years, I still look back... with wonder.”
I think this quote fits perfectly with Linklater’s beautiful film on the complexities of family life and growing up.
Long, long before Bob and Roberta Smith started to glorify fairground lettering in his graffiti, graphic designer John Gorham was celebrating it as an art form back in 1967…
Also, from the same year this starkly simple book jacket designed by Nicholas Thirkell for Macmillan incorporates the most sort after typeface of the period, Schmalfette Grotesk a beautiful condensed sans designed by Walter Hattenschweiler in 1954 and widely used by Willy Fleckhaus in Twen magazine in the early 1960s.
I make a three-hour car journey each week from Dorset to London. I use it as my thinking space. My phone is off and no one can get at me. Sometimes I seem to disappear into a trance-like state and become oblivious to the motorway signs that flash by until – hey presto – I have arrived. But, more often than not, I solve design problems or think about getting older, what may lie ahead or what I have been doing for the past half century in this funny old business called graphic design. Under normal circumstances, I am very much a ‘here and now in the moment’ sort of person, but when cosseted alone in a car on an open road, my mind seems to want to open up in sympathy. This is what was going on in my head during a recent M3 journey back to Dorset, why not join me...
A decade ago, I gave a speech at the Royal Society of Arts. It was called From Caveman to Spray Can. It was 40 minutes long and I’d thought about it deeply (if you’ve got the time to spare, click on the link at the foot of this post and it will take you to it, but make a coffee first).
Why am I thinking about this? Well, last week you might have heard about the new advice given by the World Health Organization on the hidden sugar levels in everyday food and drinks. They have advised that we should halve our intake – talk about bolting the stable door… We all know that, with the rapid increase in obesity, especially in children, we are on a collision course for many unpleasant medical issues down the line, the key one being diabetes.
So where does graphic design fit into all this?
All will become clear after you read this extract from my speech back in 2004…
“The abundance of alcohol, dressed up in fun, funky packaging, has also been targeted directly at the young, inexperienced drinker. Before you can turn around, it could be your own son or daughter who has transformed into one of the many marauding late-night drinkers who are making so many of our town centres no-go areas after 10 pm. And scenes like this are commonplace...
And here we are during the very month that the licensing laws are being extended, which will – I have no doubt – contribute to making matters even worse.
It is the same designers who make attractive to innocent eyes products filled with sugar, fat, salt and artificial additives that can heighten a child’s activity to such an extent that some have to be prescribed tranquilisers. A far better use of the graphic designers’ talents would be to devise a universal, clear labelling policy imposed on all food retailers so that concerned parents can see at a glance what these products really contain and the harm they can cause.
It is the same designers who decorate the packaging of McDonald’s and Burger King with free promotional merchandising gifts, in order to lure our children to the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the local multiplex cinemas, where they will be fed yet more sugar, fat and salt in vast buckets while watching movies that mostly dull the mind.
And it is the same designers who create staggeringly complex interactive software games, but many so unbelievably violent that they are given an 18 certificate. But still they fall into the hands of eight-year-olds, with their parents often oblivious to what their young are viewing on their computers or what it is doing to their impressionable minds.
All of the areas that I have mentioned come into direct contact with the graphic designer.They are ‘designed’ but, in my view, without any or very little sense of social responsibility.”
Well, that was ten years ago, and I think you’ll agree that little has changed.
We may all be in love with our profession as graphic designers, obsessing over kerning, the quality of paper, the craft of letterpress or some new-fangled form of digital printing or binding. We may be happy awarding each other prizes for our work in a back-slapping, mutual admiration society. But, let’s face it: in the overall scheme of things, we don’t amount to much when compared to a doctor, a policeman/woman, a nurse, care worker, a teacher, an overseas aid worker or a research scientist. No, we can’t measure up to that group.
But what we can do with what skill we have is put it to good use. Use that can benefit society rather that harm it, as described in the quote from my speech above. If you are a designer, ask yourself: am I colluding with a food or drinks manufacture in minimising the bad points of a product though a designed subterfuge to make the product look enticing to children? If the answer is yes, you have some serious thinking to do. A design ‘strategy’ is often little more than a plan of action to hoodwink customers into thinking that a product is good and safe for them and their children when it is not. Or you might be colluding on promotional material to divert attention from the many levels (with still more coming out of the woodwork) of criminal activities of the banking fraternity. There have been a plethora of insultingly patronising promotions in recent months attempting to paint a ‘caring’ banking picture when we all know that they don’t give a shit and all that matters are their profit margins and the ever-increasing ‘compensation’ for the very people who plotted and planned the criminal strategy in the first place but never ended up in prison. They are still there briefing their advertising agencies to come up with yet more condescending white wash like this...
Just one on the many ads spewed out of the bank to deflect our attention from their wrong doings.
As you can tell, being with me here in the car, I’m on a bit of a rant. But, to be serious for a moment, I have been fortunate during my 50 years as a designer in attaching myself to things I love and have a passion for: literature, cinema, theatre, dance and music. All of these are areas that best reflect and comment on our existence; they make us think and they inspire us. When it comes to work, I have always believed that if you exude enthusiasm about something you love, it communicates powerfully to a client and they know you will give so much more to a project.
The truth is that the graphic design community can do so much in bringing beauty, intelligence and integrity to our society. But it can also collaborate in helping to degrade life to an increasingly depressing level. So please use your talent wisely.
Here's something that might suprise you: every designer’s favourite, an Innocent smoothie. We all love their witty, charming, conversationally crafted copy and their unconventional style. But what they never tell you is...
that some of their smoothies contain the equivalent of 3.5 Krispy Kreme sugar-glazed donuts.
The other designer favourite is Vitaminwater, with its pseudo-pharmaceutical packaging looking brimming with health benefits. Not a bit of it.
Every time you down a bottle, 13 tablespoons of sugar go down with it.
Interestingly, both of these companies were bought by Coca Cola – now we’re talking sugar. For more surprises, look here.
And to read the full From Caveman to Spray Can speech from 2004, click here.
Tony Palladino, 1930-2014
“Having talent isn’t worth much unless you know what to do with it… It isn’t the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light from within.”- Tony Palladino.
Tony Palladino was one of those muscular American graphic designers who surfaced in New York in the late 1950’s along with contemporaries, Bob Gill, Robert Brownjohn, Ivan Chermayeff, and George Lois.
Palladino died on May 14 in Manhattan. He was 84.
Still from A House in Bayswater
One of Ken Russell’s early documentary films, A House in Bayswater 1960, is being screened on 26th June for the inaugural KPH Film Club outing.
Both written and directed by Russell it centres on the tenants of a house in London’s Bayswater, under imminent threat of demolition. It is a fascinating premonition of what Russell would later develop in his dramatised work.
On hand for the evening will be Russell’s daughter, costume designer Vicki Russell, who will give a unique and personal insight into her father’s work and his love of the Notting Hill area.
And if that were not enough you can have a great meal too. For more information and booking details click here.
Ken Russell in his heyday
More on Ken Russell here.
Here is another letter from Michael Wolff. Originally published for the readers of Kyoorius magazine in Mumbai. But his words and wisdom are universal and worth sharing with everyone.
I’m starting with an apology. I promised to write you an autobiographical letter about the things and images that have inspired me and still inspire me in what I do. But writing this has overwhelmed me and I’m still working on it for you. Please be patient with me.
At the same time as writing the letter I promised, I’ve been distracted by a quote. It’s a quote that’s caused me to reflect and think. It relates to our behavior as designers and in particular to the magazines that serve our business.
I think you know by now that I’ve always thrived on distractions.
I don’t always arrive at destinations that I intend to reach. I let distractions take me on extraordinary journeys. I think not knowing where you’ll arrive is the essence of creativity. If you already know you won’t be surprised by the magic of what you can create. I hope you’ll find these reflections useful, and that maybe they’ll become thoughts you’ll want to reflect on too.
Finding this distracting and insightful quote was a surprise. I wish I’d seen it many years ago. It was by a man called Norman Vincent Peale. He was born in the USA during 1898 and died twenty years ago. I’d never heard of him. He was best known for being the champion of ‘the power of positive thinking’. I think he coined the phrase.
He said many inspirational things including this. “The way to happiness: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry. Live simply, expect little, give much. Scatter sunshine, forget self, think of others. Try this for a week and you’ll be surprised.”
But the quote that’s caused me to stop in my tracks was this:
“The trouble with most of us
is that we'd rather be ruined by praise
than saved by criticism.”
I’ve always valued criticism. I’ve never done flawless work. Criticism is nourishment. It’s the sharpener without which our blades grow blunt.
But I think craving praise, the way it seems to me that we often do, is ruinous. I think many designers are easily seduced into self-adulation. We seem to be too easily herded into mutual admiration, ceremonies and awards that focus entirely on praise. How many doctors compete for ‘the annual kidney transplant of the year’ awards? Yes, the Nobel
Prize gives honour to work of great distinction. But for an ad or a piece of graphic design, come on.
It seems as if awards or being published in a magazine have come to be the most important measure of the quality of a designer’s work - less banal than “was it effective”, “did it sell more stuff” or “how much money did we make out of this client”.
Despite those feelings, “Congratulations” has always been the first thing I want to say to anyone whose work is honoured by winning an award. Of course it’s an achievement to win recognition for the quality of your work from juries or judges made up of people whose work you may admire.
In the past I was always excited to have my work and my name included with respect, and sometimes even envy, in any selection of excellence by my peers. It always felt like having climbed to some sort of summit – my head clearly seen above the sea of normality. But, and there’s always a ‘but’ for me, the chosen work always had flaws – flaws that taunted me and always insisted on being noticed. They still taunt me today.
I don’t think flawless work exists any more than flawless people. In life – with a little humility – there’s always the possibility of addressing flaws and correcting them. With work, it’s usually too late. By the time you see the flaws, the work’s been produced. Even a car as sublime as the Citroen DS had flaws, and like every other car, or ad, or brand identity or any piece of work from the world of design, flaws are usually there.
Occasionally something like the Red Cross appears – more or less flawless. Or a poster by a ‘master’, a timeless piece of architecture, a fantastic ad, a breath-taking product or a perfect piece of writing by a great copywriter. These iconic pieces are rare. Why so, when there are so many brilliant and talented people in our wide world of design?
I think there are two main reasons. The first is vanity – a deadly state of mind that settles for substituting a craving for credit and recognition for simply doing a service. That’s a personal issue. Most people can recognise when they’re drinking from the intoxicating chalice of recognition.
The second reason is more serious and profound. I think it’s a flaw in how the design industry has expanded. The design industry has slid relatively unnoticed into the clothes of mediocre and conventional business. Wanting recognition and wealth has been the basis for this evolution.
As the design business was born out of the design profession, we believed that being like our clients and being reasonable would somehow validate our efforts and we would glide into business life like lawyers and management consultants. What happened then was that we were swept up into the world of process, deadlines and project management. Serious time for thought, reflection and criticism was eroded and design became a day-rate affair.
In the early days of Wolff Olins we were free to introduce six-week holidays to encourage an input mentality over an entirely output one and an appetite for curiosity beyond just reading magazines, to balance what was sometimes an atmosphere of stressed output. We encouraged someone to take a three-year course in anthropology, on full pay, so that through this person’s evolution we too would learn more about how people behave in groups.
We collaborated with writers because an obsession with the visual aspects of design often ignored the power of language. Almost endless criticism was not seen as disloyalty, time wasting or sabotage, it was integral to honing a good solution. And it took time, because it often meant, ‘throw it out and start again’.
We all know that creativity can take minutes, even seconds, and it can take weeks and months. A moment of insight turned into a creative idea can change the world. Months of mediocre process can produce the Emperor’s new clothes – and it often does. Project management and pressure to deliver in a conventional, unquestioned time frame, can often blind us to opportunities we need to see.
How can we reclaim the creative, artistic, expressive, original and intuitive initiatives that define us as designers, from the grinding, boring, greedy and uninspiring businesses that are subsuming so many of us? Just as with energy and how we use it, and architecture and how we live in it, and money and how we think of it and use it, we always have to start all over again. A maxim of mine is ‘Always be starting’.
Although awards deserve congratulations, don’t be seduced by them into thinking everything is fine and rosy. It isn’t. The world needs our insights, our imagination, our thinking and our inspiration to a higher purpose for our clients more that it ever did. Too often, we’re still more pre-occupied with useful things for ourselves – recognition, growing our companies and gaining material wealth – than useful things for the world we live in.
Hopefully this worn out old paradigm is dying.
Long live a new and more fruitful one.
Read more from Michael Wolff here