Remembering Colin Forbes: graphic designer and Pentagram co-founder

We look back on the life of British designer Colin Forbes, who worked on branding for D&AD and Nissan and helped to establish Pentagram.

Colin Forbes, the British graphic designer who was one of the founding members of design studio Pentagram, has died aged 94.

Forbes was born in London in 1928, and later studied in his home city at the Central School of Arts and Crafts (which is now Central Saint Martins). Between 1945-49, he served in the army.

In 1962, on April Fool’s Day, Forbes created Fletcher/Forbes/Gill with Alan Fletcher and American designer Bob Gill. According to one studio legend, the designers decided to come together following advice Gill received from a fortune teller. The team worked from a mews house off Baker Street, alongside a receptionist and her dog, for a typically eclectic client roster including Penguin, Pirelli and Time Life.

From left to right: Bob Gill, Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes in 1962. Courtesy of Pentagram

Fletcher described those early days to Design Week, conveying an energetic and somewhat studio atmosphere – the three designers once argued over a Penguin commission for a book cover for £30. Working with iconic British brands would become a hallmark for the design studio.

Gill later left and architect Theo Crosby joined, and the firm became Crosby/Fletcher/Forbes. In 1972, Kenneth Grange and graphic designer Mervyn Kurlansky joined, and it became Pentagram (taking the name of a five-pointed star to reflect the five designers). Though the original three founders have now died – Fletcher in 2006, Gill last November – the studio has flourished, with studios now in New York, Texas and Berlin. This year, the London branch turns 50.

Forbes’s design work covered many fields, and some are still in use today. D&AD, which Forbes co-founded in 1962, still uses Forbes’s three-dimensional logo. He designed a logo for Nissan. Other work in the industrial space included identities for BP, Lucas Industries and Toray.

His work was not only limited to corporate branding projects. His influential cover for George Nelson on Design neatly links the designer’s name with the subject matter, while his book A Sign Systems Manual hoped to pin down a “logical approach to signage systems”, explains Pentagram.

In the 70s, Forbes moved to America to help set up the New York office of Pentagram. It wasn’t easy-going for the US team at first. Pentagram partner Michael Bierut told Design Week a decade after the office was set up in 1999: “Colin admitted it was harder than he thought. He thought he could transfer the Pentagram name to New York, and at first they used the annual report industry as a teat to suckle on because it’s good money. But in this town that can be a real speciality and a dangerous one. The office wasn’t multi-disciplinary like in London.”

Shortly after its faltering start, Forbes managed to enlist Bierut, Paula Scher and Woody Pirtle, cementing the office’s success. Forbes was also an active industry spokesperson on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a Royal Designer for Industry and also a member of the British Design Council. The American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) bestowed him with its top honour, the AIGA medal.

Forbes’s design for George Nelson on Design, 1978

Crucially Forbes was responsible for setting up Pentagram’s structure, which allows its partners to work independently and also makes them responsible for the studio’s future. According to the studio, it’s one of the main reasons why Pentagram continues to work today.

Forbes made the case for the firm’s structure in the 1992 essay entitled Transition. In the lengthy essay, originally published in Californian magazine Communication Arts, Forbes discussed Pentagram’s legacy at a point when its founding partners were at a point of retirement.

Forbes contrasted the fate of design studios which closed down after their founders’ deaths – such as those run by George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames – with large-scale companies from other industries like management consultancy McKinsey. Though they were different in stature (and income), there was an opportunity to learn from their structure, Forbes believed. “The challenge is to run what we believe to be an excellent design-driven firm into a second generation,” he wrote.

Sign Systems Manual, 1970

For Forbes, the critical issues were the studio’s constitution, its “personalities” and critical mass. One issue he focused on was communication, and the ability to resolve internal conflict – a solution to which was setting up a number of chairman positions, biannual meetings and a steering committee. It’s often a revealing look into the workings of a major design studio, and an analysis of business and creative processes.

Perhaps most interesting are his criteria for Pentagram partners. A partner had to be able to generate business, he explained, as “other partners do not want to become salesmen”. They had to have a “national reputation as an outstanding professional in the chosen discipline”, and be able to manage their projects and contribute to the firm’s profits.

Forbes’s Nissan logo

His final point speaks to what may now be understood as company culture, the idea that a potential partner should be a good fit at Pentagram and invested in its future. As Forbes wrote, “We spend our working lives together; we should like each other.”

In a post remembering the designer, Pentagram wrote: “For those of us who had the opportunity to work with him, he offered a link to Pentagram’s formative past and the roots of an ethos and culture that believes good design can only be found in a good idea.”

Forbes died in North Carolina, US. He is survived by his wife Wendy, three children and three grandchildren.

The banner image shows Forbes’s Think Metric poster from 1968

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  • Patrick Michael Redmond, M.A.,, Saint Paul, Minnesota June 9, 2022 at 5:00 pm

    In memory of this leading and influential design exemplar, whose book “Graphic Design: Visual Comparisons” (Reinhold, 1964) was one of the influences on my own decision to pursue graphic design as a career more than 55 years ago.

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