Get back to basics again to inspire great designs

Mike Dempsey’s Heroes series of profiles has attracted quite an avid following. Through it, Dempsey has unearthed seminal folk who are relatively unknown though their work is outstanding, so enriching the history of graphic design and advertising, as well as taking a deeper, more personal look at familiar figures such as Pentagram partner John McConnell (DW 11 July) and this week’s subject, Derek Birdsall.

Though Dempsey’s choice is to an extent subjective, heroes is the right title for these designers, whose work is inspiring even now. As the series continues, we aim to broaden its scope to reflect the way that graphics has developed and to add a few relative youngsters to the collection – a second generation, whose careers possibly built on the experiences of the pioneers who laid the foundations of today’s design.

Each ‘hero’ has his own story – sadly, in the print arena the trail-blazers have largely been men. One thing that links them though is the excellence of their work and their dedication to their craft. Ideas are vitally important to the likes of Michael Wolff (DW 28 February) and advertising writer David Abbott (DW 18 April), but so too is the quality of execution.

Most of Dempsey’s subjects show a fascination for the sheer mechanics of design. Take McConnell’s early interest in carpentry on the one hand and the printing process on the other, both of which undoubtedly informed his work. And it is from this that today’s budding ‘heroes’ can learn. Good craft skills can give rigour to a design and provoke an emotional response to the work that underpins most design classics.

Many consultancies have introduced ways to broaden the outlook of their staff. Smith & Milton and Design Bridge are among those that have run life-drawing classes, while others arrange visits to art shows or appropriate lectures. But how many are encouraging their teams to develop craft skills, from typography, in which Birdsall, among others, excels, to photography or computer animation? How many designers see illustrators and printers, say, as collaborators in the overall design – and learn from their input – rather than as mere suppliers?

It’s worth considering British Design & Art Direction’s craft-based workshops, planned for the autumn (Comment, DW 30 May). Dempsey’s Design Week series and D&AD’s excellent tome The Graphics Book by Jane Austin, are meanwhile great for inspiration. It’s worth making a start on developing an interest in a craft aspect, particularly if you’ve time on your hands over the summer. If everyone opted for self-improvement, it could herald a return to really great design.

Latest articles