Light my fire

It seems inconceivable that Bob Gill has not worked in Britain for 24 years. It was here, after all, that his career took off, where he became a partner in Fletcher Forbes and Gill, the business that became Pentagram, and where he taught his very individual way of thinking at the St Martins School of Art (now Central St Martins College of Art and Design) and the Royal College of Art to so many who have become major figures in today’s design industry.

“He is one of the purest and most lucid communicators of the 20th century,” says Richard Seymour, a former student of Gill’s and president of British Design and Art Direction.

Seymour has brought Gill to the UK for a President’s Lecture next Monday evening. “He fearlessly crosses the barriers of advertising and design,” continues Seymour, “cutting away everything with this marvellous economy of thinking. I’ve never been in the presence of such an incisive thinker in all my life.”

In the current design environment, where you hear much talk about commercial pressures and what clients will accept, Gill’s forthright views will be delightfully controversial.

“There is no such thing as a bad client, only bad work,” says Gill. “I teach students that everything in their heads is put there by their culture. If they want to have an original thought, it’s not going to come from inside because it’s all been put there by TV shows and dopey magazines. Where can you go?” His view is that you go to the site of the problem.

“If the new problem is about dry cleaning, you can’t look at back issues of Graphis, have a coffee and think. The only place to go is the dry cleaning store – forget all the preconceptions put in your head by the culture. You cannot make an original image unless you have something original to say,” he says.

“You have to sit in that dry cleaning store until you have something interesting to say about dry cleaning – I don’t know how you do it, which is good, because if I did it becomes a method. It could come from talking to a customer, walking in the back, watching them work or the smell of it. Then, only then, when you have something new to say about dry cleaning, do you listen to that statement and it tells you what it should look like.”

Other former students still talk glowingly, if a little fearfully of Gill’s classes. Ray Gregory, now a senior lecturer at Norwich School of Art, studied under him at the RCA. “He’d say ‘I’m Bob Gill and I’m here every Tuesday at 10am. If you’re here, then fine. If not, don’t bother at all’. Everyone was terribly scared of him, but he was such a great teacher. Very witty, one gesture would make you die laughing, but he was also impatient and sarcastic, the way he picked up a piece of paper you’d know how he felt about it.”

Gill had a pretty tough upbringing, which probably explains why as a lecturer he is such a hard taskmaster. He was born in 1931 in Brooklyn. His father departed after his birth and he and his mother moved around from relative to relative. She made a living teaching piano and he was her first pupil. Hating the lessons at the time, the piano stood him in good stead later when, as a student, he earned his tuition playing in bars at the weekend.

His elementary art school teacher encouraged him to apply to the High School of Music and Art, which led to college in Philadelphia, chosen because “it was 90 miles away”.

“I was anxious to leave home. It was an amazing place, it turned my life around,” he says. But he did not graduate, quitting after two years, going back to New York and single-mindedly pursuing every book publisher and magazine.

These were difficult years as a freelance, but he gradually built himself a reputation as an illustrator. In 1960 he saw an ad for an art director working for an English consultancy. He got the job and joined Charles Hobson – later to become Grey. “It was great. There was so much work, it was like shooting fish in a barrel… but after a while I realised that I was working for a hack group – they didn’t want me and I certainly didn’t want them, even though I was earning more than the Prime Minister. I met Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes and there was instant chemistry.” They set up Fletcher Forbes and Gill on April Fools Day 1961.

“London was a backwater in the early Sixties,” he says. “If you wanted a telephone, you had to wait six months. If you wanted to buy a stick of furniture it took three months. Everything was so provincial and so slow. Fletcher and Forbes were wonderful typographers and designers influenced by the Swiss and I was of American orientation – very aggressive and ideas-driven. The combination was a killer – we ate everyone for breakfast. We had amazing fusion, so as Fletcher and I looked at what Forbes was doing we would offer criticism, so too Fletcher and Forbes would look at my work and comment. If the same two always criticised the third it wouldn’t be a good partnership – but that wasn’t the way it happened.”

He’s not sure why, but after five years, Gill quit. “Forbes enjoyed the idea of building a big company. Fletcher was more ambivalent, but Forbes wanted to go all the way and I didn’t want to grow. I had been asked to direct a movie and to write and design Beatlemania – (a multimedia history of the Sixties with a live band on stage) which became an enormous success on Broadway,” he says. So he moved back to the US, where he lives with his family in New York.

Since returning, he runs what he describes as “a very wide general client base – not different to most other designers – not huge corporate work. I do pretty fast things.” He has stopped teaching regularly. “I think it’s all part of the dumbing of America. Students have smaller and smaller frames of reference and I’m just not interested any more,” he says. “Since the computer an extraordinary thing has happened – every design student is computer-literate and to get jobs designers are asked if they can work QuarkXPress and Photoshop. Everything they do comes out looking professional. It was difficult enough to get them to think before the computer, now it’s impossible. I am not putting the computer down – I use it every single day and I can’t imagine how I would survive without it – but it doesn’t help me get an idea.

“I think it has decimated the education world. I don’t have many fantasies left, but my design fantasy centres on rethinking the curriculum of design students together with a computer expert. Anybody who reads this who is interested in getting the curriculum changed with a computer expert, to put the computer in context, please get in touch. Graphic design education needs to be completely transformed from the ground up,” he says.

Gill enlarges on this theme in his next book Unspecial Effects for Graphic Designers, an extract from which follows: “Designers must recognise that before computers the production of printed matter was in the hands of designers and printers. Most clients had only the vaguest idea how it was produced and they were prepared to pay well for their logos, annual reports, newsletters, brochures and other business printed matter. Now for $99.99 (61) you can buy a computer program which allows anyone who can type and who has a computer/printer and scanner to produce a logo, newsletter and most of the print needs of the average business.

“The mystique has finally gone out of ordinary design and print. These computer programs fit words and images into professional looking formats and even throw in special effects – for low-end commercial needs these programmes are adequate. So if a typist can do a lot of what was previously done by a well-paid specialist, what’s left for the designer? Designers have to do things that computer programs can’t do – they have to be more ambitious whether they like it or not. Most designers before computers were technicians with aesthetic pretensions, now they must be thinkers with aesthetic pretensions and, unfortunately, thinking is not the designers first love.”

“When I lecture I like to light a fire under people’s asses,” he says. Having spoken to the great man, my advice to attendees of next week’s D&AD lecture will be to slip on a pair of asbestos trousers.

Bob Gill will give the (sold out) D&AD President’s Lecture on 22 March at Logan Hall, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1

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