Bob Gill, co-founder of Pentagram precursor Fletcher/Forbes/Gill and founding member of D&AD, has died at the age of 90.
Gill was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1931, where he was raised by his mother. He later studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before moving to New York.
Early professional work included illustrations for magazines such as Esquire and Seventeen. In 1960, he moved to London to work for ad agency Charles Hobson and two years later on April Fool’s Day, he set up Fletcher/Forbes/Gill along with British designers Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes.
According to one Pentagram legend, the designers decided to unite following advice Gill received from a fortune teller. The team worked from a mews house off Baker Street (alongside a receptionist and her dog) with clients including Penguin, Pirelli and Time Life. Fletcher later described those early days to Design Week, conveying an enthusiastic if somewhat chaotic atmosphere – the three designers once argued over a Penguin commission for a book cover for £30.
In 1967, Gill left the partnership to pursue other opportunities. Five years later, the remaining partners added more designers to the mix and Pentagram was formally created.
A brush with rock and roll history
Gill’s influence not only touched design but music too – his assistant during the early days of Fletcher/Forbes/Gill was Charlie Watts. As Gill would later tell the story, he advised Watts to quit graphic design and focus on drumming – a lesson Watts took to heart when he left to join the on-the-rise Rolling Stones. In a full-circle moment for the studio, Pentagram led the design on an immersive exhibition for the band at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2016.
Speaking to Design Week in 2012, Gill did not hold back. He recalls setting up D&AD in the 60s, partly in opposition to the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA was renamed Chartered Society of Designers in the 80s), a group Gill called “moribund and so old fashioned”. Gill refused the SIA’s invitation to become a member and instead suggested a debate so that the design and advertising sector could air their grievances. His suggested title for the debate? ‘The SIA is full of shit.’ “They liked the idea of a debate but were less happy with my suggestion of a name,” Gill said. “We ended up calling it, ‘Why join the SIA?’.”
Gill returned to New York in the 70s, where he began teaching at the School of Visual Arts. He also worked on the design of 1977 Broadway musical Beatlemania, which told the story of the 60s to the British rock band’s songs. He was also a prolific writer, writing 19 books in total. They have typically tongue-in-cheek titles like Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design, Including the Ones in This Book and Unspecial Effects for Graphic Designers.
“There’s no such thing as a bad client”
Gill was insistent with his beliefs – many developed over 50 years of teaching. In his 2012 Design Week interview, one“myth” he was keen to dispel was that “there’s no such thing as a bad client – there are only bad designers”. His argument was practical; if clients were as adept as designers in creativity, they wouldn’t need studios. Not one to overly romanticise the role of designer, he summed up their role succinctly: “Part of our function is to shove these things down people’s throats. If we can’t do that, we’re in the wrong field.”
“Your portfolio is worth its weight in gold,” Gill also said. But what if you were stuck in a dead-end job – at an uninspiring design studio or ad agency, for example? “That’s no reason to be represented by this mediocre work.” Instead, Gill advised spending “every waking hour” finding opportunities for designing – or redesigning. The covers at your local book store could be a fruitful place to start, he suggested.
At the heart of this advice is an embrace of technology, and how it could help aspiring designers – often through saving time with the more mundane aspects of the design process. It could also lend a side hustle some status. Technology allowed any designer with a computer and a printer to print samples, explained Gill. “There’s no way of telling whether it’s a sample or printed job.” The workaround was indicative of his approach. As he continued, “people are looking for problem solvers” – not designers who complain endlessly about a bad job.
Gill added a characteristically wry footnote at this point: “Incidentally, the young designer could read one of my 19 books if they wanted to know something about the process of getting a good idea.”
Gill died on 9 November 2021 in Brooklyn. He is survived by his wife Sara Fishko, son Jack and daughter Kate.