If you had to name one man who’s been the major force in British graphic design, there’s a good chance that it would be Alan Fletcher. He’s studied with all the top names, at all the best schools, won dozens of awards, worked for all the best clients and started one of the most prestigious companies, Pentagram. He was even instrumental in setting up British Design & Art Direction more than 30 years ago.
Since he left Pentagram in 1992 he’s been working for a small and prestigious client list, at his own pace, working on his terms. By his own admission, he’s also had time to work on his books. His long-term book project, A Word in Your Eye, is still in development, but Beware Wet Paint has just hit the bookstands. It is a fascinating record of 40 years in design. And as we talked about the book, our discussion turned to other things…
MJ: I guess this book was a labour of love. Did you make any money out of it?
AF: Make money out of it? I should think I lost about a year’s income on it.
MJ: It’s not a marketing tool then, it’s just a book.
AF: No, I don’t know what I’d do with a marketing tool. I’m not running an organisation.
MJ: But weren’t all the books you did before, either as Fletcher Forbes Gill or Pentagram, done to get work?
AF: They were done because I wanted to do them and hoped that potential clients would come to me because they liked the same thing.
MJ: When I first saw your design for the cover of The Art Book it was immediately obvious to me that it was Alan Fletcher.
AF: I’m quite surprised, because I would have thought it’s about as anonymous as you can get.
MJ: No, I thought that it was either Alan Fletcher or a very good copy.
AF: You ought to see the real copies. There are about a dozen different copies in other countries in different languages and they’ve obviously been delegated to secretaries to do.
MJ: Do you see the designer as the client’s problem-solver or as an artist who tailors what he does for that particular project?
AF: An artist or a painter solves his own problems. A designer solves his clients’ problems. I guess I’m solving my clients’ problems, but there’s also an element for me in there of solving aesthetic problems.
MJ: You went to four separate art colleges in all. Why?
AF: Well it was the only way I could get any money – if you went to art college you got a grant, and I couldn’t get work.
MJ: In your book there are lots of references to the Swiss style. Do you think that a modernist grounding was important to you?
AF: Oh yeah, that’s grammar. It’s very sound grammar. You can only muck around with language if you know what you’re mucking around with. Otherwise you’re just being sloppy.
MJ: A lot of designers don’t get schooled in any of the “isms” anymore…
AF: Perhaps they don’t care, haven’t been curious enough to find out about them.
MJ: The early work from the Fifties at the back of your book is very interesting, maybe because I’ve never seen it before. It looks very contemporary, quite American-influenced.
AF: That was a period of greats. No other city had so many great designers, all at the same time, as New York did then.
MJ: So that period of late-Fifties American work had quite an effect on you?
AF: Oh yes, that was magic. You just can’t imagine how England was then, how grey it was.
MJ: When you came back to England, did you think it was a stupid thing to do?
AF: Yeah, I did. But I came back because I thought things would move faster, there would be a Common Market, which just took 25 years longer than I thought. But I came back just at the right time when it all started to take off.
MJ: Do you think the balance of graphic “power” swings across the Atlantic at all?
AF: I think it does swing back and forth. But I don’t think the power’s ever been here, actually. I think there was that very exciting period in the Sixties which was also fired by the Americans who were here, you know, Brownjohn and Bob Gill. We’ve never had the figures of American design.
MJ: Why do you think that is?
AF: Lou Dorfsman, Herb Lubalin, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Thomas Geismar, Ivan Chermayeff; in London you can never raise more than three people on one hand. The London community only thinks about itself, it doesn’t have an international sense, it’s very parochial. The trouble is, there’s no graphic design association over here.
MJ: Do you think one is needed?
AF: Yes, I do. And I don’t think it has to be contrary to what British Design and Art Direction does. The American Institute of Graphic Arts has different chapters in different cities. If you were going to have an exhibition of the state-of-the-art of graphics in the UK at the moment, D&AD isn’t going to do that for you, and the Chartered Society of Designers isn’t.
MJ: I remember hearing once in the Eighties: “Clients who know nothing about design go to Wolff Olins. Clients who know something about design go to Pentagram”. What do you think?
AF: It’s true. Those who felt it was good for their turnover went to Wolff Olins, those who went for stature went to Pentagram.
MJ: There’s a prevailing view that the acquisition of the three more recent partners in the US has been a masterstroke.
AF: I would tend to agree with that.
MJ: Who has been your greatest influence as a designer?
AF: I’ve actually been influenced by so many people. Maybe there is one person who was a real influence; a painter at Central School of Art called Roderick Barret. He was one of the first people who made me question myself and what I did. He said “why did you do that,” I said “because I like it”, he responded “well that’s not good enough”. He made me analyse and justify what I was doing. At that age, 19, I really learnt something. And obviously other people; Paul Rand, Muller Brockman, Anthony Froshaug.
MJ: Generally speaking, designers don’t like words, but there are a lot of words in this book.
AF: I think words are very important. It’s the most common symbol there is. A designer who isn’t interested in words has got a piece missing.
MJ: Do you think should people follow their instincts more?
AF: I think they should be happy and do what they want to do, if they can pull it off.
MJ: A lot of them are scared.
AF: Sure they are. People are afraid of losing things. It wouldn’t bother me if I lost everything.
MJ: It might irritate your wife.
AF: Well maybe, but we’re of a generation that thought we would never get anything anyway. Design is about courage. If you don’t have courage then you shouldn’t be a designer. You take as many risks as possible. It keeps you sharp. It’s like blunt razor blades, if you’re frightened to change the blade, well…
MJ: What are you driven by?
AF: Having a good time. I’m driven by enjoying myself. I’m quite good at it.
MJ: I’m jealous that you can’t use the computer.
AF: I deliberately can’t use it. The truth is I don’t use it because I can’t even make long distance phone calls. There is a benefit in not using it; it’s a sort of self-protection. And I intend to keep it that way.
MJ: Are there any great jobs you wished you’d done?
AF: Well, probably like you, at least 75 per cent of what we do never actually happens, and in that 75 per cent were some of the more interesting things. All that warmth generated by a project, leaking away because you weren’t smart enough to get a client to take it, that’s what really bugs me.
MJ: As regards a lot of modern design, if you flick through typography now, it almost looks like the work of one designer.
AF: Yes. They’re all using the same kind of abacus. If you’re a client, how do you tell the difference between one and another? You wouldn’t have the faintest idea. I think it was Rodney Fitch who said that if in the marketplace all things look the same, only one can be the cheapest.