This type of quick-witted, self-effacing humour seems typical of the late graphic designer, as a film shown at this year’s Point conference delineates.
In the introduction by Fletcher’s friend and former Pentagram senior designer Quentin Newark, we’re given a touching portrait of the designer as an incredibly smart, quick witted man – one whose work changed the face of British graphic design.
‘There’s no way you could meet Alan Fletcher and not be affected by him,’ says Newark. ‘Alan had better claim to embodying what graphic design is and should be than anyone.’
Fletcher, who was born in 1931 and died in 2006, studied at the Central School of Art and later at the RCA. He formed Fletcher/Forbes/Gill with Colin Forbes and Bob Gill in 1962, left in 1965 and went on to form Pentagram in 1972 with Theo Crosby, Colin Forbes, Kenneth Grange and Mervyn Kurlansky.
Fletcher can be credited with producing some of the most iconic, clever graphic design of the 20th century, working on projects including identities for the V&A and Reuters, and designing the cover of Phaidon’s instantly recognisable tome, The Art Book.
The low-fi, hand-shot footage screened at Point shows Fletcher mooching about in the rigorously ordered eccentricity of his studio. It was filmed in 2005 – a year before his death – once friends learnt of his illness.
As Newark says in his introduction, the striking thing the film shows us is Fletcher’s seamless approach to design. All of life’s problems, he shows us, are design problems – there’s no compartmentalisation of ‘design’ and ‘non design’ thinking.
Fletcher is filmed answering a number of questions, all dealt with in an unblinking, dryly hilarious and typically sideways looking manner. ‘What’s your most well-used piece of equipment?’, he’s asked. ‘My head’, he responds.
We see the designer’s magpie-like mind transform his studio into a supremely tidy, organised Aladdin’s cave of inspiration, oddments and work drawn from the most disparate of places.
When advised by his doctor take daily walks, for instance, he turns this into a sort of aesthetic pilgrimage, pilfering discarded letters from cardboard boxes and packaging to form gorgeous typographic collages. Rubbish becomes colourfully painted creatures, pencils are painted green to form a large tree.
At times, he’s very much a normal ‘granddad’, offering the cameraman a mint, proudly showing the menagerie of wonderful animals he created from rubbish for his grandson. Well, they were for his grandson, until he realised the damage a small, enthusiastic boy’s hands might do.
‘So we came to an agreement that he could name them and make the noises’, says Fletcher. ‘He seemed happy with that.’
For Alan Fletcher, design wasn’t just producing something sharp and effective for a client. It wasn’t a job, but an approach to life. Want a way to hear the studio door opening? Easy, use a washing-up drainer, feather duster and some Peruvian bells, attached to a curtain rail.
Asked if design is a necessity or both, he responds that it’s a ‘habit’.
Every problem is a design problem, he shows us, and when he solved them, he did so in the typically sideways, canny and bafflingly effective way that it’s highly unlikely anyone else could have conceived of.