After a spell abroad Malcolm Garrett, a true personality in design, is back in London, where he is pioneering a new way of working, collaborating with a variety of clients, says Lynda Relph-Knight

Malcolm Garrett

Since teamwork took centre stage in the 1990s, design has missed its ‘rock stars’. Where once the acolytes served at the feet of the creative master so now we’ve hit a blander period in terms of personality as consultancies become more sophisticated and the industry more business-minded.

But it doesn’t have to be so and one of the icons of the industry is showing that collaboration needn’t kill personality in design.

Malcolm Garrett, a seminal graphic designer in the 1970s, since described as the father of digital design in the UK, has returned to London after a couple of years in Toronto. And he is unwittingly pioneering a new way of working.

Garrett is renowned for his work for Factory Records in the 1970s. That culminated in Assorted Images, the group he set up with Kasper de Graaf in 1981. But seeing the potential of digital design, Garrett left to set up AMX with Alasdair Scott in 1994.

But in 1998 AMX hit the skids and was taken over by French conglomerate Havas. It was set alongside what has become EHSBrann within Havas, but regained independence within the group as Arnold Interactive. Garrett quit long before the business was sold off to Media Square last year to become Ai London.

‘I’d reached a plateau at Havas. It was not an easy period,’ says Garrett. ‘I moved on from a situation where I wasn’t able to fulfill myself.’ Quitting was ‘traumatic’, he says. ‘It was like leaving home. It was the only thing I’d done since leaving college in 1978.’

Garrett was at a low ebb, but a call from Apple Computer reaffirmed that there was life outside AMX. The Apple job never materialised, but it did restore Garrett’s confidence.

Tim Fendley, who had recently started Applied Information Group, was one of the people who helped him, as was Alex Morrison at Cognitive Applications. But it was Immersion Studios in Toronto that gave Garrett the chance to ‘get his head together’.

He had worked with Immersion, creator of cinemas ‘in the round’, on the Sizewell B visitors’ centre, thanks to an introduction by Roger Mann of Casson Mann, lead designer on the project. Immersion boasts expertise in ‘social computing’ and, as Garrett strives to humanise digital design, the fit was good.

His biggest job at Immersion was the Canadian pavilion for the 2005 World Expo in Japan, which involved presenting the people of Canada via real-time interfaces in English, French and Japanese. This built on CyberExplorer, set up by Immersion to create a ‘debating environment’ that allowed real time exchange between the University of Quebec and Montreal and a Paris school to celebrate the 400-year link between France and Canada.

Then there was an interactive cinema for Florida’s Marine Research Laboratory and, finally, Immersion’s own identity.

Garrett says the deal with Immersion ‘allowed me to focus on creativity in a technically driven company’. For the first time since leaving college, he didn’t have a business to run. ‘It was great having solitude,’ he adds, but he’s had none of that since he came back to the UK. Collaborative by nature, he’d kept in contact with people who’d touched his life over time and it all came together.

Fendley had offered him desk space at AIG in London when he quit AMX, and that has now transformed into a role as associate creative director of the consultancy. Garrett, meanwhile, introduced AIG to Dublin group X Communications, run by Marie Redmond who he met in the mid 1990s, and technology-led Cognitive Applications, whose founders he’d known since 1990.

AIG ended up collaborating with X Communications and Cognitive Applications independent of Garrett. But Garrett is now creative director of both, redeveloping the Anglo-Irish Bank’s on-line presence with the one and the Icons exhibition for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport with the other.

Garrett, meanwhile, is still in touch with de Graaf. Garrett is back as executive creative director and AIG is in the equation.

Though Garrett sounds like he’s standing in Piccadilly Circus, the set up isn’t complex. He is employed by AIG and is ‘billed out’ to the others. He sees no conflict of interest in various deals.

He describes his role at AIG as ‘to stand alongside Tim and help him increase his capability’ rather than to rival him. For him it’s ‘making sense of who I am and what I’ve got and simply finding a straightforward route [to optimise that]’.

‘I feel as though I’ve come home,’ says Garrett, modestly.

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