West Jet is a Canadian low-cost airline. And I give them no merits whatsoever for their graphics or brand identity – it is dire, as is most of their competition.
No, I am not praising them for that. What I do like about them is the way they are creating awareness for the company. You’ll find none of the predictable, super-slick, over-the-top airline advertising here. They root themselves firmly in real stories.
In November last year, they launched a series of films entitled Above & Beyond, celebrating Canadians who go ‘above and beyond’ the call of duty in their daily lives. West Jet says they are doing this because “the people that make a difference never ask for anything in return. They do it for no other reason than that’s who they are. And they inspire all those around them, including us.” That is great.
And the more I read about the company, the more I like the sound of them. Twice a year, they share a portion of their profits with staff and seem to have a great dialogue with their customers, who write nice stuff about them. When have you ever heard that about Ryanair?
The Above & Beyond films are beautifully made and run for about three to six minutes each. And the interesting thing is, you won’t see them on expensive TV commercial slots but on their own website or uploaded to YouTube, where they have found a big audience and get direct feedback from those viewers. Some of these little gems have got up to five million hits.
This kind of promotional film-making is known as ‘content’ in the advertising world and often rather sneered at by the more sort-after directors who want to make their mark in the world of TV commercials – a little like feature film directors who used to feel the same about TV drama. But, as we know, all that has changed. Even Woody Allen is now directing a TV series.
Slowly, things are changing – there are now far more people surfing the internet than those sitting loyally in front of TV sets watching the ad breaks. And, frankly, these days you have to look really hard to find an original commercial. Most are shouty, gaudy and downright insulting. But the world of ‘content’ is becoming far more interesting. It is a longer form for the director, giving time and space to tell a story with more freedom and less obvious selling. I am sold.
Over the past two decades, the design world has mushroomed out of all proportion. Through digital technology, any designer can produce something looking half decent (I say ‘produce’ rather than ‘create’), and a very high percentage of our design industry does just that: produce half decent work. It is often no more than decorative and visually seductive.
Much of what we do is about style – a set of givens to replicate the prevailing ‘look’. And the look comes from stealing from others or sampling from various design eras, remixed for the 21st century. With the help of software like Photoshop, illustrators and designers can sample textures, hues and the feel of a bygone era and blend them into their work at the click of a mouse, giving an immediate sense of history. Others doggedly embrace stripped-back modernism with its grids, typographical restrictions and space-to-image rules in order to achieve a clinical look. But somewhere in the middle of this mire of styles, techniques and quantity, something has been lost. The title of this post, “The benefits of limitation”, coined by the actor Mark Rylance (thank you Mark) in a recent Desert Island Discs, fits perfectly.
Many designers, and a number of them very notable designers at that, have cast aspersions on the notion of ‘idea’-based design. They see it as old hat and a thing of the past, like being able to draw (another of their bête noires). I have often thought it is because they are embedded in a particular style that they lack the ability to produce an ‘idea’. But, actually, when you see limitation in action, it is pure magic. Stripping everything back to a simple essence opens up the mind to wonderful possibilities.
Here are some great exponents of the art of limitation…
Designed by Pierre Mendell 1969
Designed by Saul Steinberg 1954
Designed byDavid Gentleman 1969
Illustrated by Bob Gill 1966
Designed by Arnold Schwartzman 1963
Designed by David Pelham 1975
Illustrated by Peter Brookes 1970
Designed by Herb Lubalin 1966
Illustrated by R.O.Blechman 1968
Designed by Saul Bass 1959
Illustrated by Bob Gill 1962
Designed by Robert Brownjohn 1970
See what I mean? Pure thinking and simple execution equals brilliance.
Hailed by TheGuardian’s Jordan Hoffman (the very same man who gave five stars to my most loathed film of 2014, Exhibition) with no fewer than four stars, The Duke of Burgundy has also been described by another Guardian reviewer, Steve Rose, who said: “Fifty Shades of Grey looks positively beige compared to this.”
And, what’s more, all the reviews seem to be glowing…
“One of the most incisive, penetrating,
and empathetic films ever made”
Having not seen or read Fifty Shades and giving TheGuardian a second chance, I went along to the Curzon Soho to see The Duke of Burgundy.
Big mistake (and not just the £27 for two tickets). It is the dullest, most unerotic, repetitious, overhyped, woodenly acted, badly photographed (a kind of pastiche of a ’70s Swedish sex movie and Claude Lelouch’s ’60s A Man and a Woman look, complete with overly large wobbly titles) and derivative film so far this year. It also features the most unappealingly dreadful underwear, sported by Sidse Babett Knudsen (who played the prime minister in the TV series Borgen). What was she thinking?
The basic story centres on two lesbians who live in an enormous house. When not reading, writing or lecturing on butterflies – the film’s title is taken from the name of a butterfly – they spend their time playing out sadomasochistic sexual fantasies in various changes of outfits. They re-enact these over and over and over and over. Then the film ends abruptly in true continental cinema fashion to give it a more ‘arty’ feel.
Jordan Hoffman also pointed out that “this is not just a filthy movie. It’s a considerable work of art, and one that touches on a rarely discussed side of human sexuality completely free of judgement.” It did none of this for me, and this comment says a lot more about Hoffman’s view.
The only saving grace was a couple of visually psychedelic moments accompanied by an ascending ambient sound track, which was rather mesmerising, or it could have been the effect of my losing the will to live. But the effects have been handled far better in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (which Strickland must clearly like) and Lars von Trier’s wonderful Melancholia.
Peter Strickland also made Berberian Sound Studio, which, although better, had its moments of tedium. I sometime wonder if the folks at the BFI and Channel 4 (the backers) produce this sort of film to annoy or torture the audience? To top it all, I picked up TheTelegraph and critic Robbie Collins had given the film five stars. I give up.
As a bit of light relief, the film is said not to feature a single male actor. But if you look closely, there is one scene set in a lecture theatre where, tucked in the back row, there is a man. If you keep looking, there are two seated manikins for no apparent reason. Or perhaps they were an ironic gesture to symbolise boredom. That really did work.
If you are going to see this film for its erotic charge, you will be bitterly disappointed. Save your money, stay home and watch Wolf Hall.
I dropped by to Morley College over at Southwark, London last week having been told that I would find a set of 3 murals by Edward Bawden. But more importantly for me another one by Justin Todd. And sure enough there tucked away at the back of the college refectory (nice old fashioned cosy word that) was this delightful piece.
Justin Todd's full mural that spans about 3 metres
Detail from left hand centre of the mural.
Painted in 1961 it depicts scenes from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Unfortunately the lighting was pretty bad so this is the best that I could do, but it clearly shows Todd’s wonderful skill and style which, in my view, is far superior to that of the more lorded Bawden work which, in my view, was rather wooden and lacking the wit, heart and charm of Todd’s.
Detail from one of Edward Bawden's murals at Morley.
The murals replaced and earlier one painted by Eric Ravilious, completed in 1930 and unveiled by the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Sadly it was destroyed in a bombing raid during the 1940 Blitz.
Walter Haettenschweiler at his home with one of his paintings.
Three months ago this rarely mentioned Swiss designer died. He not only had a prolific life in the world of graphics, producing many postage stamp designs for the Swiss post office,
but he was also an illustrator and successful painter.
But for me he will be remembered for his type design and in particular, the face he created in 1954. It was tall, dark and handsome and called Schmalfette Grotesk. It graced the pages of the highly influential German magazine Twen art directed by the wonderful Willy Fleckhaus from the late 1950’s.
Schmalfette Grotesk in action on a spread from Twen.
WalterHaettenschweiler co-authored 3 volumes of Lettera an annual book created for lovers of all things type.
Walter holding a copy of Lettera featuring his eponymous Schmelfette Grotesk on the right.
What is clear from the 1950s was the continual fruitful connection made between graphic designers and fine artists, with the former often producing posters and catalogues and the latter giving a different visual take on the world, fuelling the minds of the graphic designers.
In 1960, a group of former RCA students (Alan Fletcher, Romek Marber, John Sewell, Denis Bailey and David Collins) were part of an exhibition called Twelve Graphic Designers. It was staged at the Time & Life Building off Bond Street and was the first time that a new British sensibility in graphics had been seriously exhibited. It was the catalyst of what was to become D&AD a couple of years later.
John Lewis long-term tutor at the RCA was resistant to modernist typography in the 1950’s but he embraced it later with the book below on typographic trends in 1963.
By 1961, Guyatt had relaxed his tight grip on tutors and had sanctioned FKH Henrion, Anthony Froshaug, the younger George Daulby and Larry Carter, among others, who brought with them a modernist approach to graphics. By this time, even Darwin’s pet hate, photography, had been embraced, with Geoffrey Ireland heading up a new department. There was also a television design department, run by George Haslam.
Darwin’s collection of friends within the industry meant that many students were often snapped up on graduation or found commissions. Ex-RCA students found their way into the BBC (John Sewell was the first graphic designer to be employed by the BBC to take charge of on-screen graphics, followed by Bernard Lodge and Douglas Merritt).
The title sequence for Dr Who designed by Bernard Lodge in 1963.
Cover for ARK 16 designed by Douglas Merritt 1956.
Another port of call for RCA graduates was with Shell’s Jack Beddlington, who was in charge of commissioning advertisements and posters. He was part of Darwin’s clan and another Tory anti-modernist. He regularly drew on the talents of John Betjeman and Nikolaus Pevsner, both dedicated lovers of Victoriana and thus proponents of Darwin’s view of the world.
One of a number of David Gentleman’s projects that he illustrated for Shell
But Beddlington was a good prospect for both students and graduates to earn money, as was Penguin Books. An astonishing number of 1960s RCA graphic designers and illustrators were commissioned by Penguin Books: David Gentleman, Dennis Bailey, Alan Fletcher, Quentin Blake, Len Deighton, John Sewell, Peter Blake, Ken Sequin, Larry Carter, Michael Foreman and Romek Marber.
Ane arly Alan Fletcher Penguin cover left and right with Fletcher/Forbes/Gill 1961/63.
Designed by Len Deighton 1960.
Designed by RCA tutor Larry Carter 1962.
Designed by Quentin Blake 1964
Outside of ARK, there were many sought-after posters to design for the various RCA clubs, like the drama society, the film club and the jazz club. In addition, there were lectures and exhibitions to be publicised. It is through these posters that one can get a real sense of the stylistic struggles that permeated the college throughout the 1950s. But designers Gordon Moore, Michael Foreman, Stephen Abis, Ken Sequin, Freire Wright, Neil Godfrey, Bryan Denyer, John Fenton Brown, Bryan Haynes, Billy Apple and Wendy Coates-Smith demonstrated their prowess in projecting the college in a more modernist light, often with a perfect fusion of American style and Swiss typographical crispness.
Spread from Michael Foreman’s award winning illustrated children’s book The General 1961.
Poster for the RCA Film Society designed by John Fenton Brown 1963
Poster for the RCA Film Society designed by Brian Denyer 1963
Poster celebrating 15 years of graphics at RCA designed by Thelma Roscoe 1963.
By 1960, the old stranglehold had been broken: Britain was changing, and many ex-RCA students were now spreading to the outside world of advertising, magazines and television. Through graphics, they were expressing the beginnings of what was to become the Swinging Sixties. By 1963, graphic design in London was becoming so good that the impact of ARK magazine was subsiding, whereas it had led the way a little earlier. Darwin commented on the magazine towards the end of his reign: “What is significant is that the more generally unintelligible ARK becomes… the better it sells. Vitality is indeed an attraction in itself!”
The last batch of students to enter the RCA in 1963 covered in this introduction had a significant impact on the newly formed graphic design scene, represented by the growing influence of D&AD. In 1966, when those last students graduated, 11 pieces of work appeared in the first three very slim and monotone D&AD annuals. Among the RCA alumni were John Fenton Brown, Barrington Smith, Geoff Fowle, Derek Coutts, Charles Riddell, Robert McAulay, Freire Wright, John Tomlinson, David Chaston, Stephen Abis and Derek Holmes.
Poster for a British painting exhibition at the RCA designed by Stephen Abis and Peter Blake 1963.
DerekHolmes formed Churchill/Holmes/Kitley. This book jacket from 1965 designed by the group had lenticular device of lips opening and closing adhered to each cover.
I would single out three design collectives that were formed after leaving the college at this time. Abis/Stribley/Sida produced some wonderfully clean and inventive graphic work very much on par with Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, but they split within a year. Stephen Abis joined Panther Books as its art director, where he had a considerable impact on the publishing scene, commissioning masses of the very best British creative talent. Derek Holmes formed Churchill/Holmes/Kitley, another highly creative design group that lasted only a few years but in that time produced some stunningly original work, especially in the publishing arena. Lastly, George Daulby (who was a tutor at the college in 1959–60), along with Derek Birdsall, George Mayhew and Peter Wildbur, formed BDMW Associates. This was another short-lived but wonderful design collective that was responsible for some sublimely timeless work.
One more 1963 RCA student graduating in 1966 was Gert Dumbar. He returned to Holland and was to resurface in the 1980s as Studio Dunbar with work that had a major impact on the graphic scene and echoed around the globe.
Poster to celebrate the RCA's move to Kensington Gore (above) in 1963.
By 1963, the Swinging Sixties had arrived, along with music from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks and The Who. Young documentary-style photographers David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan surfaced (proving Darwin wrong in his assessment of the power of photography). The leading models were Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Pattie Boyd and Celia Hammond.Fashionistas Mary Quant and Ossie Clark and tonsorial supremo Vidal Sassoon were having a great impact. Pirate radio challenged the BBC’s airwaves; satire mocked the political circles, with Gerald Scarfe viciously scratching his wicked caricatures at Private Eye.
Poster for RCA Convocation Ball designed by Neil Godfrey 1960. Godfrey went on to become a major creative force at the advertising agency Collett Dickens Pearce.
Peter Blake's The Beatles1963
Robyn Denny's graphic style painting from 1960 Baby is Three
David Hockney (centre) and friends outside the RCA in 1963.
Pop and op art was led by ex-RCA students Peter Blake, David Hockney, Robyn Denny, Richard Smith, Bridget Riley and Allen Jones, and there was an explosion in creative British advertising and graphics. The design scene in London had transformed into brilliant Technicolor. A great deal of this transformation was down to the many RCA students who doggedly pushed against the status quo during the 1950s to create a new graphic landscape that has endured ever since.