Ideas must form the basis of great design

There were a couple of rare treats for the London design set last week. First, there was British Design and Art Direction’s President’s Lecture by the inimitable Bob Gill, who made the event into more of an assault on the audience than a cosy chat show. Then, mid-week, Pentagram threw a star-studded bash to celebrate the launch of its latest publishing epic, Pentagram Book Five.

There is, of course, a tenuous historical link between the two events. Gill was a partner with Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes in the legendary Sixties group Fletcher Forbes and Gill before quitting to return to the US. Fletcher and Forbes went on to found Pentagram.

But a bigger link is the legacy Gill and Pentagram have given design. Both base their work on ideas and innovation, rather than pure craft skills. Both, intentionally or not, have given us models for practising as designers.

Gill is a sole practitioner and renowned teacher – not least of D&AD president Richard Seymour when graphics was his thing. Gill’s battling style and tendency to denounce clients who don’t accept his ideas as “philistine bastards” might account for his lone status and relatively small projects – and possibly why Seymour eventually quit graphics for product design. But his cross-over early on from straight graphics into Broadway shows and other areas sets an example for those overly keen on specialisation.

More importantly, everyone can learn from Gill’s belief that the idea comes first. The work he showed last week – party invitations and one-off posters mainly – is smaller scale than that of most leading UK groups, which have to juggle the client’s needs with those of its staff and external audience. But with so many key players focusing on strategic skills or trading purely on graphic tricks, the idea is often obscured. Gill’s view that “design comes after the original statement” and in the importance of “not knowing the answer” when you start a project is worth heeding.

You get the impression looking at Pentagram’s latest tome that the Anglo-American group’s 16 partners live by this approach, though Gill was never one of them and Fletcher and Forbes are no longer in the line-up. The work is about ideas, blending art with commerce.

Though last week’s Top 100 consultancy survey showed Pentagram’s UK fee-income remaining static at around 3.8m from 1997 to 1998, it is still the model most high-profile start-ups aspire to. Why, therefore, don’t more follow the example through, putting together the best people to create great work from good ideas?

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