Intriguingly, graphic designer and illustrator David Gaskarth does not really practise what he preaches. His mantra is visual clarity, his idols such practitioners of Swiss Modernist typography as Josef Müller-Brockmann. Müller-Brockmann’s socialist ideals also greatly appeal to Gaskarth, who did a BA in illustration at Bristol University, followed by an MA on ‘graphic propaganda’ at Birmingham University. In 2005, he co-founded the collective Cyrk – the name Gaskarth, who grew up in Birmingham, also trades under as a freelance. His work ranges from promoting film and music events to animation, Web and snowboard design.
When I ask if there’s a thread running through his projects – for example, designing a poster which folded into a brochure for Shrewsbury’s 2009 Shift Time festival marking Charles Darwin’s bicentenary, or creating all the visual material for Birmingham’s annual experimental film and moving image festival Flatpack (which runs from 23-28 March) – he suggests it’s a combination of grids, geometry, composition and clarity. ‘Swiss-influenced grid systems underpin everything I make, even collages which might appear intuitively constructed,’ he explains. For Gaskarth, Helvetica represents the acme of typographic excellence – ‘It is as ubiquitous today as when it was created,’ he says.
There is also a chromatic austerity to London-based Gaskarth’s output. His logo, typefaces, illustrations, flyers and fanzine-like brochures for Flatpack are two-colour/ graphic black and red. Yet if all this sounds dry and puritanical, his work has a playful, surprisingly whimsical streak. His graphics for Flatpack flirt with all sorts of visual languages: on one circus-themed page, balanced one on top of each other, are acrobats, elephants and horses, in the style of an Edwardian woodcut. On another, with a 1960s/1970s vibe, he jumbles graphics from old Kodak instruction manuals with pop clouds and rainbows and Op Art targets. Seemingly haphazard, these collages recall the rough-and-ready use of Letraset in Punk and Post-punk graphics.
His influences are pretty catholic. Explaining his love of two-colour, he says, ‘I’ve tended to use two colours – generally black and red – because they reflect the movements that initially drew me towards graphic design: Constructivism, Concrete poetry, underground art and Punk.’ Another hero of Gaskarth’s is the Dada-inspired Kurt Schwitters.
Does this eclecticism make him a Postmodernist? ‘I’m not a fan of the term but, yes, those ideas apply to me,’ he concedes, grudgingly. ‘I love juxtaposing imagery from different eras and ideologies on the same page. I like the tension created between those opposing languages.’
Of course, the funkiness of Gaskarth’s graphics mirrors and celebrates the leftfield character of the events they promote: in 2004 he designed the print for the Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Centre, a concert series of experimental music within a classical music context; and over the past five years he has designed the graphics for Birmingham’s Seven Inch Cinema, an initiative which screens long-forgotten or new films in unorthodox venues such as pubs, churches and warehouses. He has also created posters for the Moseley Folk Festival in Birmingham which, he says, ‘explore my interest in 1960s psychedelic poster art, particularly that of Victor Moscoso and Martin Sharp’.
Yet despite the playfulness of his graphics, Gaskarth prizes clarity above all. Nowhere is this more neglected, he feels, than in Web design. ‘Typography online is generally dreadful,’ he complains. ‘Web designers need to be as aware of legibility as they are of developments in technology.’
Although much of his work has a retro flavour, Gaskarth admits that computers are essential to his work, partly because of cost pressures. ‘I’d love to work with letterpress, but time and resources won’t permit that,’ he says.
He sets great store on thorough research. ‘I try to engage as deeply as possible in the subject matter with which I’m dealing,’ he explains. ‘Handset type from the 19th century is as much of an influence as 1990s Web art. I can spend hours looking through 1960s and 1970s camera manuals for references. There’s an uncanny quality to them that’s difficult to explain.’
Gaskarth might well be in awe of the ‘Swiss Style’, but his mercurial approach means his work is never as rational as that of his Modernist idols. And this gives it its individuality.