An interview with
alcolm Garrett was born in Northwich, England in 1956. He studied typography at Reading University from 1974-75, and graphic design at Manchester Polytechnic from 1975-78. In 1977, he produced his first professional work and made an immediate impact with his designs for Manchester punk rock group Buzzcocks. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Garrett was rapidly identified. Along with colleagues Peter Saville and Neville Brody, as one of the most influential designers working for youth culture clients such as the music business and style magazines. In 1983, twith partner Kasper de Graaf, he incorporated the multidisciplinary consultancy Assorted images (Ai). In projects for Simple Minds, Duran Duran and Culture Club, Garrett applied his ideas about corporate identity to pop groups. Other work in the entertainment industry followed, including television graphics. Ai was an early advocate of computer graphics and in the late 1980s Garrett’s focus shifted decisively in the direction of new technology. He has experimented with interactive databases and digital magazines, and published a series of manifestos in the magazine Graphis World, Baseline and 26 in which he outlined his ideas about the implications of digital technology for the graphic design and the future of media. Rick Poynor: For a long time you complained about typecasting, and from around the mid-1980s you said you wanted to do a broader range of work. Have you achieved this? Malcolm Garrett: I think so, yes, though it’s still early days. I like the look of my work on screen and I sometimes get frustrated that it’s got to come out and go on to paper. It’s a combination of my fascination with technology plus boredom at having done print for paper for fifteen years. RP: What about corporate projects - the identities you dreamed of doing at one point? MG: They’re beginning to happen on a smallish scale. I think I was just expressing a frustration with always working for pop groups or friends. One of our clients is The Computer Film Company, which does digital effects for the movie industry.
A lot of our work is still linked to entertainment in some way. I still think there’s a lot I could do that I haven’t been asked to do yet. I’m not a very good career planner if left to my own devices. I tend just to react to things coming through the door: well, that’s an interesting project, I’ll do that. There are challenges, things I haven’t done that I’d like to try. Doing another record sleeve is not really a challenge. RP: But you are still doing record sleeves. MG: I still work with Peter Gabriel and Real World. We’ve just done the packaging for his CD-ROM. I wish I’d been more involved with the actual programme, not just the package. I was involved at the beginning, trying to ensure the Real World identity was properly represented on screen, but for geographical and software reasons that’s as far as it went. Even though earlier we had separately proposed doing just such a project with Real World, it was a full year before they started work on this one - with somebody else. We were too early. But that’s also, I think, part of my problem. Sometimes I’m too early with my thinking and I seem to be unable to be around at the right time to do the job. RP: You’ve expressed a lot of scepticism about the design profession’s notions of “quality”. Do you really believe that the visual qualities of a piece of work are irrelevant? MG: It’s not really a scepticism about quality. I’m as seduced by beauty as the next man, but I question that quality means. What I was trying to get designers to address was this 1980s notion of the “designer” look - if you made it discreet and black then it was good design. Of course, the visual qualities of a piece of work are highly relevant, but they should not be presupposed. Good typography may well be just the scrawled price stuck on a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop window. You know, it communicates: £1 - a pound, I can read that, I’ll go and buy it. That is good design in the sense that it communicated in a seamless way and the “quality” of the letterform doing the job didn’t actually come into it, not in a formal way. I was trying to say that our sophisticated notions of aesthetic quality aren’t necessarily the most important thing in a job. But I was also trying to qualify that by saying you can’t make global judgements on quality because everything has to be judged within its own context. And I think that’s something that Assorted images has always tired to express: who knows what the job I’m asked to do tomorrow will look like because I don’t yet know the context, the message, or the medium. Those are so important in governing what something should look like. >>
“I’ve collected all sorts of things.” -Malcolm Garrett
“Enrolling on a typography course straight from school was a happy accident” >> CA: How have these influences changed? Do your peers inspire you? MG: Actually, I don’t like to check on the work of my peers, as I’m then less likely to be influenced by them, or become jealous of their accomplishments. I’ve often tried deliberately to be unlike my contemporaries, and have been wilfully unfashionable in my approach to design. I like things to stand out. Perhaps more than anything, I’m inspired by conversation and dialogue. I’m interested in thought processes and intellectual stimuli. When I am stirred to activity, I tend to be project-driven - motivated by a commitment to someone else’s need. I’m not sure whether that’s altruism or more of a guilt complex; I need to ensure that I do what I say I’ll do. CA: Did studying typography steer your work in a particular direction? MG: Enrolling on a typography course straight from school was a happy accident, informed by my limited educational possibilities. But it proved to be a powerful entry point to develop the ideas that remain at the core of my work.
At school, my paintings always had words and lettering in them. I was interested in Pop Art and, just as Pop absorbed the iconography of advertising from the ‘50s and ‘60s, I felt that I should work with words and letterforms in order to remain contemporary. My desire to be relevant to my time was to find expression sooner than I imagined, when a few lads with spiky hair and narrow-legged trousers called for cultural revolution in a way that demanded my participation. Another happy accident was that a friend of mine was a friend of some of these lads with spiky hair. And these Buzzcocks made music that focused my work in a way that made perfect sense. CA: Your work for Buzzcocks was arguably your first big break. Is the music industry still a great incubator for design talent? MG: It was definitely a break, although it didn’t seem so big at the time. It felt natural this was my music; these were my friends. My interests and capabilities coincided with the interests and needs of a group of musicians on a similar mission. There was a sense of collaborative purpose, and above all it was about passion and belief.
I don’t think today’s music inspires the same revolutionary passion, as there aren’t the same barriers to creating, performing or expressing yourself. Youth culture has become contemporary culture in a way that we could never have contemplated in the mid-’70s. That’s not to say that you can’t find similar motivators today; I just don’t think they’re centred on music in quite the same way. Look to where societal issues inspire irrepressible expression, and that’s where the energy associated with youthful resistance will be generated. CA: You’ve said before that the original punk aesthetic was defined by its attention to detail - an overall ‘image’ within a wider cultural context. What parallels can you draw with modern brand development? MG: Punk was about self-expression and doing it yourself. The aesthetic wasn’t intended to be rough or amateurish, but it certainly accommodated that. It also accommodated intelligence and sophistication. The punk view was that the stage was just an extension of daily life. Visual expression had to be constant and consistent: integrity was sacrosanct. If any image were to be imposed from outside, this would not feel genuine. My task was to become a visual mouthpiece from the inside. Parallels with commercial brand development are clear, but as they seldom concern themselves with that level of self-expression, nor demand the same kind of passion, they don’t tend to resonate so much. The hopes, dreams and struggles of daily life are represented, and championed, by the musicians you identify with in your youth. Music is tribal. It’s impossible to feel the same way about a bar of chocolate, a car or even the sexiest of mobile phones. Typeradio: So, you’re first choice of music would be punk music? MG: Nope, my first choice of music would be the music I was listening to before punk music and that embraces what used to be called ‘progressive music’ and what is still called ‘Krautrock’. It’s the music that was once called underground, which became heavy metal when somebody coined the term ‘heavy metal’, although where heavy metal sort of went became not very interesting at all. So, I suppose my first love of music would probably be early German experimental electronic music – that’s the music I keep coming back to and that sort of inspires me and I find quite remarkable, and I suppose now it has a sort of nostalgic attachment to it. >>
â€œI think the graphic design physche does embody this need to exploreâ€?
>> TR: Are we talking music like Kraftwerk or even before that? MG: Yes, early Kraftwerk. Around ‘73/’74 various bands were springing up in various cities around Germany – there was Can in Cologne, there was Neu! and Kraftwerk in Dusseldorf, there was Tangerine Dream in Berlin, there was Klaus Schuzle in Berlin. There was a whole slew of different bands all doing something different from one another, and equally different from what we’d come to expect from American bluesbased rock and roll. I found that very exciting. TR: But, why the hell German bands? Why did you like them? MG: I don’t know! I’ve always had a fascination for German things; I’ve always admired the German technologies and German graphic aesthetic. I’m thinking about the engineering developments that went part and parcel with World War II and it seemed to be that German planes were cooler looking than English planes, and certainly American planes. It’s very weird how national characteristics seem to be embodied in aeronautical design at that time; the Spitfire is kind of quirky and English, the Boeing B-27 bomber is big and brash and American, and the ME-262 is a sleek, cool looking jet fighter – they just seem to feel right for those countries, it’s very strange. I also love German tanks as well, the Tiger tank and Panther tank. TR: In what way could you say that your love with these German bands influenced your design, your style, or way of thinking? MG: Well initially, when I was way back at college and beginning to be interested in typography, I began to be interested in the shapes of letterforms and I liked the shapes of German words. The fact that I couldn’t understand them allowed me to do typographic experiments that were based more around the shapes of letters and the way things looked, rather than what they were saying or the message or the language of what was trying to be conveyed by the typography. TR: Okay, what is your dearest possession? MG: That’s kind of a difficult one, as you catch me at a time where I’m questioning the value of my possessions, having spent most of my life amassing them. I have collected all sorts of things that I’m now trying to decide whether they are junk or not and what their real value is. For a long, long time I really placed great value in a jacket I bought
from Seditionaries – the clothing store run by Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren – back in 1977 and I’ve treasured that for years. TR: So, do you collect? MG: Yes I collect all sorts of stuff. I’ve tried to stop collecting things, but I still do collect – I collect memorabilia from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. TR: Why that particular time and event? MG: Because, graphically, the material looks really strong – that was the reason I first bought it, I bought something from a junk shop in New York the first time I visited in 1980 or something. That was the first I knew of it and I was taken by the symbols for the whole exhibition – the Trylon and Perisphere, which was a very tall cylindrical needle, adjacent to a very large spherical globe that you could go inside and it was huge. So, I was taken by this symbol and the corporate colours, which were orange and blue. I just started buying more and more pieces from flea markets and junk shops in New York. So, I was taken by the graphic look by the various pieces of memorabilia. TR: A lot of graphic designers seem to collect one thing or another, so do you think it’s a necessity for designers to gather all this stuff? MG: I don’t think necessity is the right word, but certainly there is something in it, I think the graphic design physche does embody this need to explore the ever-expanding interest of books, posters, leaflets, memorabilia and collections of other things – it does seem to be a very graphic designer trait. CA: What’s your take on the revival of the ‘80s aesthetic in design? MG: The idea of revisiting the past and reconstructing it in some slightly modified form is nothing new. It was arguably Roxy Music, with Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno at the helm, who first recognised that pop music already had a history that could be dipped into, with astonishingly innovative results. This kind of retro aesthetic, combined with a taste for the unknown, has always appealed. I like the idea of creating a new colour from a radical mix of old colours from various palettes, rather than a simple remix of some boring beige from the same tin >>
>> as before. I am not at all moved by the current fixation with the ‘80s, however. I may have been in the midst of it, but I think it is best left there. CA: When did interactive media first capture your imagination? MG: In 1990, the Design Museum commissioned me to create information graphics for Sport90, an exhibition of sports equipment. This included a Mac-based interactive guide. We were a long way from ubiquitous computing - the internet browser was still a few years away - but instinctively I already knew that this was where the action would take place. Ben Rubinstein at Cogapp patiently introduced me to Apple’s interactive media development software, HyperCard, and set me firmly on the road of interactive enquiry. Together we created the interactive gallery guide, and the lessons I learnt then are still relevant to my work today. CA: After founding AMX Digital in 1994, interactive TV became a particular passion of yours. What role can design play in this medium nowadays? MG: My view was that interactive media would ultimately combine the full-screen motion graphics of film and TV with the global connectivity of the internet. There were dozens of companies exploring all things internet, but not many working in the broadband space. So, of course, that’s where I wanted to be. The sophisticated 3D game environments on Xbox and PlayStation, the popularity of the BBC iPlayer, augmented reality, and the fluidity and spatial intelligence of the iPhone, are beginning to prove that a rich, interactive but totally televisual experience is an absolute must for future consumers. CA: Bringing us to the present, part of AIG’s mission statement is to “avoid being seduced by the originality of our ideas.” Could you explain? MG: There are no inherently good ideas, nor fundamentally bad ideas, nor even any original ideas. But there are always appropriate solutions. The audience’s ability to understand and the context in which communication takes place are the fundamentals - all else is negotiable.
It seems that it takes a certain level of professional experience before that really sinks in. At my university interview I was asked of my portfolio, ‘Would you call this graphic design?’ That threw me a little, but I’ve been asking that same question of each piece of work since. CA: Finally, what project on your current slate are you most excited about? MG: I’m working with the Helen Hamlyn Trust on an online learning community for its Open Futures programme. It has four strands - growit, cookit, filmit and askit - which encourage primary school children to learn practical skills as a platform for intellectual enquiry. Our goal is for the website to become an interactive component in a suite of learning tools. I’m interested in the ways in which interactive media can play an active part in people’s day-to-day lives. Computers are becoming useful in all sorts of hitherto unexpected ways, as they throw off the constraints of the desktop.