British graphic design has dominated the world for decades and the maverick designers of its peak periods still hold influence. Tom Dennis celebrates the best of British.
Over the last 50 years British graphic design has established itself as the most influential and widely spoken visual language on the planet. From the post-war modernist movement onwards, this small isle has sucked in influences from Swiss modernism to Dadaism, from the Bauhaus to situationism, and whittled and etched at each before spitting back a truly idiosyncratic body of work.
British design is unique in both its approach and its executions, managing to balance a mass-market line of attack with design classics such as Penguin Books and Routemaster bus posters, to the unrivalled energy and attitude of Jamie Reid's punk aesthetic.
From Alan Fletcher's modernist fusing of European and US design to Neville Brody's decade-defining visual work during the 1980s, graphic design in the UK has infused, shaped and ultimately inspired contemporary graphic design across the globe. From Barnbrook to Brody, Calvert to Garrett, and from Alan Fletcher to Barney Bubbles, Britain has produced some of the most important designers of all time. "All these figures have one thing in common," attests renowned design commentator and author Adrian Shaughnessy. "None fit into the notion of cosy British traditionalism."
From Post War to Post Punk 1950-1979
In May 1951, the Festival of Britain ushered in a bold new vision for UK design and culture. Looking sternly to the future following the desolation of the Second World War, the Festival of Britain celebrated a modernist outlook, reflected in everything from the exhibition's posters to the commemorative stamps created in celebration of the event.
Among the 10 million visitors to the six main exhibitions was a young Alan Fletcher, who two years later would meet Colin Forbes, Theo Crosby, Derek Birdsall and Ken Garland at the Royal College of Art. Upon his return from studying graphic art in the US under the legendary Paul Rand, Fletcher formed Fletcher/Forbes/ Gill, which, after several incarnations, morphed into Pentagram - one of the most significant design agencies of all time.
"Alan Fletcher was very influenced by American design," says Shaughnessy, who cites Fletcher as a vital - if at times tame - catalyst of modern UK design. "The use of visual puns and visual jokes has meant that a lot of his work is just a sharper version of cosy Brit tradism. His co-establishment of Pentagram stands as a great achievement in British design, though."
While Fletcher, Forbes and Gill worked on era-defining campaigns for the likes of Pirelli, drawing upon a combination of US and European design, the UK's infrastructural design was going through a revolution.
The Ministry of Transport, concerned about the irregular nature of the UK's road signs, wanted to mimic the success of London Transport's consistent branding and identity. Jock Kinneir and his assistant Margaret Calvert were tasked with creating a uniform look for all motorway and road signs. These new blue and white signs were - according to Calvert - the absolute essence of graphic design; clearly labelled, direct information stripped of all clutter. Kinneir and Calvert's signs quickly became as identifiably British as London buses and black cabs, and went on to shape infrastructure design across the world. They remain an influence on navigation systems online.
In contrast to the visual efficiency of Kinneir and Calvert's radical sign system was the ocular explosion of the late 1960s. From Alan Aldridge's record sleeves for Cream and The Who, to Oz magazine - founded by illustrator (and Australian ex-pat) Martin Sharp - there was an outburst of colour and energy from the underground press and music business, which spread like wildfire to the US and Europe.
"The counter culture of the 1960s was vital to the development of British graphic design," Shaughnessy believes. "Not stylistically, perhaps, but in showing how imagery could be used for subversive or transgressive purposes. I think it showed that 'graphic design' could be art, and made to deliver messages and codes. It was the first time that graphic design departed from the old British tradition of good taste and good manners."
Under Italian art director Germano Facetti, Penguin had begun to set out changing the face of its classic branding. Facetti commissioned a host of up-and-coming British illustrators and designers, including Alan Aldridge, to work experimental imagery into the rigid, classic framework of the covers conceived by Swiss designer Jan Tschichold. This combination was a masterstroke - at once elevating Penguin's contemporary standing on the bookshelf, while keeping the brand uniquely identifiable. This approach remains a solid design convention to this day, and can still be seen in examples including Time magazine's template-driven covers.
Yet while the explosion of psychedelic artwork and influence in the 1960s collided in music and fashion, it quickly became dated and sedate. Anathema to this - and to the free love culture in general - came at the hands of the punk movement.
"[Punk] threw out the formal tradition of graphic design and replaced it with free anti-formalist modes of expression," explains Shaughnessy. "It showed everyone that graphic design could be used for more than delivering clients' commercial messages."
In fact, the messages delivered by the punk movement were post-modern, surrealist-tinged revolutionary calls-to-arms - from Jamie Reid's now famous work for the Sex Pistols, to the DIY aesthetic delivered by fanzines such as Sniffin' Glue. These were undoubtedly formative, underground works. But what they would go on to inspire would reshape the appreciation of British graphic design the world over.
From Thatcherism to the Web 1980-1995
In May 1980 a small publishing house, set up by a one-time NME editor, launched The Face. Over the next 20 years it would become a style beacon for fashion, music and youth culture. Yet its legacy as a piece of design shines brighter than its cultural light, acting as a template for the world's fashion and style magazines.
At the helm of the magazine's ultra-modern style was Neville Brody - now one of the UK's most celebrated designers following his work for The Face, Arena, and in recent years his redesigns of The Times and Guardian newspapers at Research Studios. Brody's use of unconventional and typographically bold layouts paired with intimate portrait photography was a revelation, and went on to shape editorial design.
"Prior to the 1980s, British design had been about traditional style - heraldic emblems, decorative typography and academic illustration. But graphic design caught up with pop music and fashion, and embraced radical, street and anti-establishment style," says Shaughnessy. "But this obsession with style went hand in hand with the Thatcher 'loadsa money' culture, and today radical style and commercial style are nearly identical. What once seemed revolutionary in the pages of The Face now looks like standard commercial culture."
Many of the bands early issues of The Face featured were themselves undergoing a visual renovation. In Manchester, Factory Records was merging Dadaism and situationist theory with a heavily industrialised aesthetic. Directing the visual style of bands including Joy Division, A Certain Ratio and The Duretti Column was Peter Saville, a young designer whose legacy is imprinted upon Manchester. He's the city's creative director and responsible for the city of Manchester's signage and visual identity - while 1980s-style graphical packaging for recent Nike and Reebok campaigns, as well as a raft of bands including La Roux, continue to mimic Saville's trope-driven minimalism.
Like Saville, Malcolm Garrett had studied graphic design at Manchester Polytechnic, and had begun work in his early 20s for the Manchester-based post-punk bands exploding from the city. Garrett's artwork for Buzzcocks fused an underground punk aesthetic with challenging, intelligent sloganeering. He went on to create imagery for bands including Magazine, Boy George and Simple Minds, but it is his work for Duran Duran album covers that to this day acts as a visual emblem of 1980s graphic design, with contemporary designers including Chrissie Abbott drawing heavily on Garrett's aesthetic.
Also featured in The Face - as well as the myriad music and style titles that followed - were musicians including Elvis Costello and other Stiff Records artists who Barney Bubbles had continued to work on. Bubble's late 1970s pop art-inspired style had matured into a purer graphic form. His album artwork, including Elvis Costello's My Aim is True was a huge influence on the US design scene (and continues to be so - just look to westcoast pop-punk outfits such as Green Day for examples). Bubbles' promotional work for the release, meanwhile - including a collectable six-part poster delivered in three UK music papers - tapped into punk's underground approach from a commercial standpoint, much like Penguin had managed 15 years before.
"Saville, Brody and Garrett were influenced not by the styles and tropes of the counterculture, but by radical European modernism, with its formal use of grids, typographic theory and the controlled use of imagery and colour," says Shaughnessy. The legacy this design revolution left wasn't so radical, he adds - a point picked up by design writer Rick Poyner, who recently wrote a chapter on contemporary British design for Design in Britain, a new Design Museum book.
"In both the 1960s and 1980s, the commercial and cultural demand for graphic design was driven by a growing economy," says Poyner. "In the 1980s, this was even dubbed a 'design boom'. The idea of having an image expressed through carefully contrived visual signals was already important by the early 1960s. By the 1980s, the concern with image as an expression of identity had become a national obsession, especially among the young. 'Style' was everything in this highly competitive decade, and design, including graphic design, was seen as the magical device through which a person or an enterprise might acquire it." This was a cultural and commercial obsession with style and identity that Britain exported around the globe.
But this commercial gerrymandering of pop culture came to epitomise 1980s and 1990s design. While underground movements continued to influence design - most notably the late 1980s and early 1990s acid house culture - the underground was now exposed, and the situationist stance taken by Saville, Garrett and Brody had been assimilated into the mainstream. It would take another revolution to stamp Britain's independent design authority back upon the world, and as the digital dawn broke, a new breed of designers were ready to take on the torch.
The digital revolution 1995-present
"The radicalisation of British design that started with Saville and Brody came to a crescendo with groups like Why Not Associates, Fuel, Cartlidge Levene and Tomato, and represented a wave of graphic expression that can compare favourably with what had happened in Holland, Switzerland, Japan, Germany and the USA - places that already had a radical approach to graphic design," says Shaughnessy when asked to pick a golden period of British design. Though still too near to fully appreciate, the early digital design revolution reinstated Britain as a global leader after the lull of the US-driven grunge aesthetic of David Carson, Carlos Segura and Jim Marcus.
Design outfits like FUEL, Why Not Associates and Graphic Thought Facility sprang forth from Britain's art and design colleges, merging Saville and Brody's artistically involved approach to design work for fashion, music and film.
Tomato pushed things even further, fusing the link between British graphic design and music with artwork for the band Underworld - a side project by two of the members. This laid the blueprints for Lemon Jelly/Airside and other dual design and music outfits.
From this new breed of designers, one studio stood out. Shaughnessy and Poyner both declare that The Designers Republic (tDR) will be seen as one of the most influential design studios to come from Britain - both in terms of its creative output and stance: "Ian Anderson ran tDR like a pop group, and in doing so he took graphic design out of the professional realm into the wider word of music, style and fashion," argues Shaughnessy. "We take this for granted now, but it used to be so different."
tDR's work for clients as broad in their needs as Faberge and the V&A Museum to Marlboro and kids' toy firm Hasbro, showed the diversity of the studio's talent. But clients knew they were coming to tDR for direct creative input rather than to fulfil a marketing and advertising brief; tDR didn't have a house style, but it certainly had a house ethos.
"Design was by then seen as an essential aspect of everyday popular culture," says Poyner. "It became a highly desirable career choice. Graphic designers felt a growing conviction that design was vital to every kind of effective contemporary communication, and that their time had come. Work of great assurance, visual invention and variety ensued. These were the years when the world really started to take notice of British graphic design."
Between the dot-com bust and the present day, a handful of British designers have made a reputation for themselves by combining political and cultural influences with commercial design. Jonathan Barnbrook's part-protest, part-art driven works continue to inspire a generation of ethically aware designers, while cutting-edge web and interactive design studios such as Brendan Dawes' magneticNorth and video super-studio Mainframe have blended classical graphic design with technically advanced motion and interactive work.
In these new spheres, British design remains as influential as it was 40 years ago. And though lone guns may have been replaced by collaborative enterprises and the growth of the studio, individuals can still make their mark. Illustrators such as Kate Moross continue to fuse fashion, music and illustrative art into design work for global brands such as Cadbury and Nike, while studios like Form, Attik and Studio Output weave cultural reference points between fashion and a pure graphic design aesthetic.
But style has to spring from somewhere, and while London might be seen as the music and design capital of the world, it's the UK's altruistic and artistic attitude to design work that continues to be its most exportable commodity. "Interestingly, as a consequence of the current financial crisis, those pre-consumerist ideas of design are making a comeback, especially in the USA," Shaughnessy believes. If he's right, it could be furtive ground for the next generation of British designers to make their mark on the world.