Worth a sideways look

David Bernstein discusses ‘the book of the century’ – Alan Fletcher’s insightful philosophy of design

The design book of the century may already have been written. Its author, Alan Fletcher, after Central St Martins College of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, studied at Yale under Paul Rand, met Lubalin, Chermayeff, Geismar, Brownjohn. He met Bob Gill in London, when they and Colin Forbes started their seminal partnership and fused two graphic styles – American wit and ideas with a European, mainly Swiss-inspired craft.

All these influences are honoured in The Art of Looking Sideways. A brief scan may create an impression that this is no more than a vast collection of other peoples’ observations and that Fletcher, who indeed calls himself a ‘visual jackdaw’, is merely a curator. Not true. It is an assembly of anecdotes, images, quotations, facts, curiosities and so on, but the insights make the book invaluable, not simply as a stimulating read but as a creative tool. More importantly, so much of the text is Fletcher’s own.

He is a thinker and his thoughts find expression in words and images. He quotes George Lois: ‘The verbal and visual elements of modern communication are as indivisible as lyrics and music in a song’.

When we worked together I envied his facility with words and knew that I needed to be on top form or find myself redundant. His writing has the sharpness and sparseness of his images. One of his one-liners reads, ‘Thinking is drawing in your head.’

Here he is on the difficulties of explaining design to suits, ‘Unfortunately, a good design defies simple explanations, because it is often something that hasn’t been done before. Trying to explain that is like commenting on a meal that hasn’t been cooked.’

Later in the same essay he calls for a ‘respect for function’. ‘Designers who produce striking ideas that don’t work are not good designers. Take a look at the current crop of new products and new buildings and you will find, with depressing ease, examples of function coming a poor second, and “design” coming an even worse first.’

He describes design as ‘an intuitive process involving search, discovery, recognition, evaluation, rejection or development. There are no specific rules or recipes’Ķ [but] some essential conditions. A capacity for cerebral acrobatics so the mind can juggle while freewheeling around the possibilities. A mindset which has the credulity of a child, the dedication of an evangelist and the spadework of a navvy.’

The relationship between the verbal and the visual pervades the book in the form of intuitive insights – a phrase, a sentence or a playful interplay of word and image. Many appear inside Phaidon’s, 100 Maverick Postcards.

You’ll find The Wave, a drawing of a hand waving hello and goodbye, or the red and black gouache of lips and teeth, Cocktail Party, or the watercolour Hysterical Sunset or Tower of Pisa solution, a drawing of an erect tower atop an angled strip of green tape.

Fletcher’s An Aphorism warns: ‘Beware of the man who says he has 20 years’ experience when what he should be saying is he has one year’s experience repeated 20 times’.

That could never be said of Alan Fletcher. And besides, it’s 50 years.

The Art of Looking Sideways, by Alan Fletcher, was published by Phaidon Press in 2001

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