For more than a decade, Dan Fern has been a driving force in communication design at the Royal College of Art. Adrian Shaughnessy speaks to a selection of his former students - renowned for their self-reliance and autonomy - about the lasting impact that this commanding teacher has had on them
You can spot them. They’re different. They have a steely self-belief that is almost Jesuitical. Who am I talking about? Old Etonians? Graduates from the madrassas of northern Pakistan? No, I’m talking about former students from the Royal College of Art’s Communication Art & Design course, which for the past decade or so has been run by Dan Fern.
Fern is retiring and the search is on to find his replacement. Whoever gets the job will have to contend with their predecessor’s considerable legacy. But opinion is divided over that legacy. Some say that he has presided over the creation of an elite corps of smart thinkers and super-designers, while others point out that he has produced unworldly dreamers who live in a playground between art and design, not quite making it in either.
He saw my qualities and gently pushed my development by asking questions and listening, which, to me, is the essence of a great teacher Henrik Kubel, A2/SW/HK
I’m a long-time fan of Fern’s postgraduate course. When I used to run a studio, the RCA degree show was the only one I never missed - and the only one where I hired a graduate on the spot. On occasions I tried to hire other designers from the course, but snaring them was difficult, because under Fern’s regime, with its emphasis on self-reliance and autonomy, many of the best students went straight into self-employment after graduation.
Fern’s critics hope that his successor will push the course towards creating graduates with ’real world’ skills in branding and digital communication. That’s the safe option.
I’d prefer to see someone who could update Fern’s vision of a course that produces creative people capable of exploring new ways of thinking from a perspective of craft informed by artistic vision, for a world where commercial imperatives are no longer the only benchmarks for success. It will be a brave person who can pull that one off.
Henrik Kubel A2/SW/HK
Henrik Kubel of A2/SW/HK is a typical Dan Fern RCA graduate - independent, talented and resourceful. It’s hard to imagine him working for anyone other than himself.
Kubel is fulsome in his praise of Fern. ’He saw my qualities and gently pushed my development by asking questions and listening, which, to me, is the essence of a great teacher,’ he says.
Fern’s roots in illustration did not prevent him from recognising and nurturing Kubel’s ability as a typographer. ’I was at all times greatly encouraged by Dan and my other tutors to explore and indulge in the qualities of the handmade - I spent almost a year in the letterpress department away from the computers. Great memories,’ says Kubel.
Sara Fanelli Illustrator and author
The artist Sara Fanelli is the archetypal RCA graduate. She has a distinctive, non-formulaic style. She is also a published author, and occupies the terrain that exists between art and commercial illustration.
Fanelli is certainly unequivocal in her praise for Dan Fern. ’Dan has been a special person for me ever since I met him during my interview for the course,’ she says. ’I admire the way that he has led the course with such dedication and integrity.
We can all imagine how hard it must be to please everyone when you’re in such a position, and so I really respect him for making decisions, for staying faithful to his beliefs, and for not taking compromising paths which might have been easier.’
James Jarvis Illustrator and toymaker
James Jarvis, illustrator and toymaker, is at first glance not a typical Dan Fern RCA product. He has reservations about his time on the course.
I felt the kind of vernacular art I make wasn’t really understood, or greatly valued,’ he says. ’Perhaps Dan had an agenda to expand the remit of what illustration could be, and in embracing different forms, my vision felt a bit swept under the carpet. But I did find one-to-one tutorials with Dan rewarding.’
Yet with hindsight, Jarvis has come to place a higher value on his time at the college. ’I think the RCA might have been more influential than I realised at the time. The most important thing I got from Dan and the course was an academic approach to, and awareness of, image-making, which has informed everything I’ve done since.’
Andy Altmann Why Not Associates
I have always believed that Dan Fern’s sophisticated fusion of graphic design craft and pragmatism with the fluid expressiveness of illustration is the main reason why his course has produced so many remarkable practitioners.
It is a factor recognised by Andy Altmann of Why Not Associates, a graduate of the RCA in the pre-merged era. While at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, Fern set Altmann a project. ’He brought in lots of stencils, rubber stamps and so on,’ recalls Altman, ’to show how you could create type instantly without reverting to specifying to a typesetter (no Macs in those days). He was very enthusiastic and made me look at typography in a new light.’