Friday, 2 March 2012

Chalke Valley History Festival: A Manifesto of Fun.


I love graphic design more now than I ever did before. I love the Mac and its universe of essential tools, the software that enables me to do so much that was inconceivable when I started in the early 70s.

Now I can set type, import images and retouch them without having to wait for a courier, or a type rep from Apex or Conways, or the airbrush salesman (one of whom, a true gent from DeVilbiss, found himself fretting, in his shirtsleeves, trying to help me create a silver plate on a Procol Harum in-store display – he left at eight, telling me to eat properly and sleep well, otherwise I'd get an ulcer. But I was, and remain, an overtime glutton). 

When the Mac first started hushing-up the graphics studios, an air of thoughtful creativity took over. Gone were the days (before mine, even) of the jovial, post-pub lunch pranks from the pissed paste-up artists, blowing perfect smoke rings out of Cow-gum tins and Christ knows what else... In New York, in Mad Men days, a bored Madison Avenue agency art crew apparently enjoyed fishing for pigeons from its corner of a sky high playpen... What larks.

The cool studios like Pentagram, of course, were famously creative and quiet; but not as hushed and thoughtful as the ubiquitous flat screen makes everyone today. I know that fun has left a lot of studios, like it's left a lot of things. You can tell by simply looking at what's going on in posters, shopfronts. You can see that designers aren't looking at each other over a pile of markers ("Who's got the Barely Beige?" you'd shout at least twice a day; that hue being the one for flesh. Flesh itself being far too orange for, er, a real flesh look.)
I worked with John Bonis, who was the only person in London capable of holding a light to Barney Bubbles, of Stiff Records fame. His Island posters were legendary; witty, well designed fun. We did ads by the ton, too. If he couldn't think of an idea he'd just start drawing and one morning held up a huge cartoon of a man running with fish for feet.  "What am I going to put for the headline?" he asked; the client having just arrived. "Put your skates on?" I said hopefully, looking up, probably, from a badly airbrushed platter. All smiles, he lettered it in; infallibly; in his perfect rendition of Franklin Gothic. Demi Bold Condensed.
So, now I'm working on the Chalke Valley History Festival programme and I'm loving it. Loving making the images work with the titles and having fun (yep, that word again) against the rather serious but adaptable Univers. Clients often confuse wit with a lack of gravitas, but humour used properly, shows confidence. One of the 80s most brilliant designers, David Stuart, co-wrote a book, A Smile In The Mind, that showed examples of this elusive magic being caught and used properly. Er, hem. My design partner at the time, Paul Rodger, and myself, both featured, albeit modestly.

So, thanks to my Mac I'm writing this in the vague hope that it will be read and understood, and people the world over will think, "That was funny. He's very clever, he'd be great for..." But then you have to join the weird, awkward virtual parties of the social media, like the wel cul Facebook, like the dreary Linkedin, or the glossy, designery one like Google+ (Facebook for professionals) where most people who talk loudly about nothing much still get high-fives from others who want to be their friends. I'm with him. He's like so fun. Mmmm. But he's actually not. He's got a cat. Oh, it's fallen asleep...

We'll just wait and see if there's somebody... maybe a Barney Bubbles; a quiet genius, biding his time and just waiting for someone to hear their laconic, wry aperçus. 

Someone like me, or you, but we're never going to take over that party, but we never wanted to, really. Now where's that Barely Beige? Anyone?


  1. wonderful art work, love the images you have chosen, too.
    It would be fascinating to know what you use on your Apple: supposing it is all highly 'PRO' but are there scaled down versions for creative use for the rest of us?

  2. Yup, the boy tells the truth. I went to a D&AD President's lecture on Monday; Tom Sutcliffe in conversation with Sir Alan Parker, Lord David Puttnam and the Venerable Bob Gill. They were wheeled on to tell us about the genesis of D&AD 50 years ago and how the early sixties saw the revolution in advertising from mere styling to ideas. How ads like "Think small" for the VW beetle from DDB changed everything, and how, once that influence came to London, advertising became the coolest thing in the world to do. I got all misty eyed because that's kind of the reason why Johnny and I got into this game in the first place, and it's great to see that he's still as enthusiastic, although it is a shame that we have no Cow Gum and Magic Markers to sniff when the afternoon starts to flag a bit...

  3. How true; if not the coolest, then certainly the second coolest. After music I suppose. And since we worked so hard to make life easier for the flakey little twerps who filled that business, I think in hindsight we were in the hipper industry, until all those arseholes in Charlotte Street started driving their Tory Aston Martin Lagondas to work. He's still going, that Thatcherite muppet Tim Bell. Wtf for?