Today’s classics

There’s no shortage of good design, but where are the truly great works? Adrian Shaughnessy names two projects that might make it into the canon.

Where has all the great work gone? I mean the really great work: the stuff that goes down in design history; the stuff that propels design along its evolutionary path.

Arguably, the overall standard of graphic design has never been higher. Yet in the cold wintry months of a new year, identifying recent work that we can say is truly great is a hapless task.

If we look back over the past three or four decades, graphic design can be viewed as a stately procession of landmark jobs. A time line of significant British graphic design might include Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper cover, Neville Brody’s The Face, Wolf Olins’ identities for Bovis and Orange, and the pioneering on-line work of Digit and Hi-Res!.

Most of us could compile our own list, and no two lists would be the same.

In my list I’d have to include Michael Peters and Partners’ packaging for Windsor & Newton inks. I was a fledgling designer when I first saw it (more interested in illustration than design) and the inspired use of the fashionable illustrators of the day caused me to wilt with pleasure.

In fact, the packaging was so successful that it increased the size of the ink market; in other words, it was bought by people who didn’t normally buy ink – an argument I use to this day when confronted with clients unconvinced about the power of design.

We can leave the compiling of the canon to the design historians, but one thing’s certain: there would be no shortage of candidates.

This begs the question, are we still producing candidates today? Can we look back over the past two or three years and say that we’ve added to the list?

The perspective of history might prove me wrong, but I think the answer is no.

Only two jobs from the past couple of years have struck me as worthy of consideration.

The first is the redesign of The Guardian. This is a triumph of intelligent functionality fused with elegant aesthetics. When you throw in the paper’s considered use of illustration and photography, it shapes up as a real contender.

The same goes for Channel 4’s current idents. Compared with BBC One’s dull offerings, they are masterpieces of TV graphics.

After two years of exposure to them they haven’t palled, and the clever way they avoid resolving to a fixed position is an object lesson to brand owners who think that brand identity is something that needs to be rammed down the public’s throat.

But does either of these projects merit inclusion in the canon? And a more important question is, what else is there?

Well, the cupboard looks bare. Even the on-line world, which promised so much at the end of the 1990s, now seems to have abandoned visual flair in favour of extreme functionality (which is essential when ordering train tickets, but less so when it comes to looking for rewarding visual expression in a still young medium).

Graphic design is only as good as its clients. And producing enduring and expressive work has never been more difficult.

Persuading clients that there is an alternative to dull, formulaic, I-speak-your-weight design is a constant and often dispiriting struggle. But if we want to add to the canon of greatness, we are going to have to fight this short-sightedness.

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