13 November 2006
Bob Gill
Bob Gill

Bob Gill: Self-portrait

The audience for graphic design is the same audience which will have seen the latest alien movie or the hottest music video or web site with special effects that are dazzling. How can graphic designers compete with this magic? We don't have the technology or the budgets, or the time.

And this is only the beginning. By the time you read this, the effects of the next generation of moving images will be even more amazing. And yet, our clients expect our static ads and logos and posters and other printed matter to be as exciting and entertaining and memorable as the animated images on film and video and on the web.

Don't be tempted to produce watered-down versions of special effects. Try going to the other extreme. Go to reality!

Have you ever noticed that when pictures that have been hanging on a wall for some time are removed, they leave marks? These marks can become a fresh way of communicating that an art gallery has moved.

We must take a careful look at the real world and, in effect, say to our audience, "look! have you ever noticed this before? Even though it was right under your nose?" That, to me, is more exciting than the most amazing special effects...showing people something that they never noticed before.

And there's another thing about the situation today that designers must recognize. Before computers, the production of printed matter was in the hands of designers and printers. Most clients had only the vaguest idea how it was produced. And they were prepared to pay well for their logos, posters, newsletters, brochures and other business papers. But that is not the way it is now.

Now, for $99.99, it is possible to buy a program which allows anyone who can type and who has a computer and a scanner and a desktop printer to produce most of the stuff of the average business.

The mystique has finally gone out of ordinary design and print. These programs fit words and images into professional looking formats. They even throw in some special effects. And for low end commercial needs, that's fine.

So, if a typist can do much of the work previously done by well paid specialists, what's left for the designer? Designers have to do things that a typist with a computer can't do. This means that they have to be more ambitious, whether they like it or not.

Most designers, B.C. (before computers) were technicians with aesthetic pretensions. And, unfortunately, thinking is not the designers' first love. They love choosing colours, pushing type and shapes around, drawing in a particular style and imposing the latest graphic tricks on their next job, regardless of whether they are appropriate or not.

They get these tricks from the culture.

The Culture
Neil Postman, in his brilliant book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, points out that when 1984 came, we boasted that the ominous prediction by Orwell in 1984, that we would all be enslaved by Big Brother, never happened. Postman also said that Aldous Huxley's prediction in Brave New World, that "people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think," did come true.

It is not Big Brother who's watching you, it's a few super-national mega-corporations.

The culture which they inflict on us, through their virtual monopoly of television, cable, radio, film, theatre, publishing, CD's etc., is designed, almost exclusively, to appeal to the lowest common denominator which, in turn, allows them to sell us the largest amount of stuff. Of course, they allow just enough high culture to sneak through, to show that they are not Philistines.

The Culture gives us preconceptions about what's exciting, what's interesting; and most designers spend their time trying to emulate what's supposed to be hot, what's current, what's trendy.

The Culture tells all of us the same thing.

But just think, if we want to do something the computer can't do, something that's original, how can we rely on what the culture tells us?

The problem is the problem.

How can we extricate ourselves from the mega-corporations' avalanche of white bread?

Assuming that you and your client have agreed upon what is to be communicated, the first step has nothing to do with design. Design has nothing to do with deciding what the problem is. Design has also nothing to do with taking the problem, which is invariably boring, and somehow redefining it, so that it is interesting. That's the second step.

Unless you can begin with an interesting problem, it is unlikely that you will end up with an interesting solution. It is only after you have changed a boring problem into an interesting one that thinking about design makes any sense. Here's an example of changing an ordinary problem into an interesting one.

Original problem: logo for AGM, a company that makes very small models. (The obvious boring solution to this boring problem is to think of a very small AGM.) Problem redefined: an AGM when very large, as on the side of their building or on their vans, still seems very small. Solution: regardless of how large the AGM, put it next to something which shows that it is small.

Purge your mind of as much cultural baggage as possible.

When you get a job, regardless of how familiar the subject, resist any temptation to think you know enough about it, and that you're ready to design. Assume that as all of the information and imagery was supplied by the Culture Mafia, none of the information or imagery is original with you.

If you're doing an ad, say, for a dry cleaner, don't sit in your studio thumbing through design collections, looking for inspiration. Go to a dry cleaner. And sit there. Ask questions. Keep your eyes open. Pay attention. Don't think about design. Think about dry cleaning. (Even if the job isn't about dry cleaning, I might go there anyway. The naphtha fumes are a trip.)

I don't know exactly what you should do. I don't have a system which will guarantee brilliant results. But that's good. If I had a system, then the process would become academic and I would get bored. It is because I don't have a fool-proof system that designing is as much fun for me today, as it was when I first started.

The thing is not to be impatient to formulate an interesting problem. Don't begin designing until you have something interesting to communicate.

Listen to your idea.

Once you have something interesting to say, let the statement tell you how it should look, regardless of your own visual prejudices. Remember, there are no absolutes in design. An image is good if it says what you want it to say. An image is bad, if it doesn't say what you want it to say.

Here are some examples of listening to the statement. Statement: "all women are whores - all men are sadists," according to the plot of a ballet. I photographed two dancers from the ballet in their costumes. I cut out the figures and mounted the photographs on cardboard so that they became two-dimensional standing figures. I then photographed the standing figures my way of saying that these characters were unreal that they were stereotypes. (All women are not whores and all men are not sadists.)

Original problem: Poster for a play about a father who goes berserk and murders his young child. Problem redefined: How can an image go berserk? Solution: I imitated the sort of drawing you would see in a children's colouring book and then I went berserk.

I know I said, "stick to reality." But I also said, "there are no absolutes in design."

Problem: illustration for an article about jazz. Statement: Jazz is improvised art. When I asked the director/choreographer what his musical was about, he told me it was nothing but pure dancing. I watched a few rehearsals and decided to combine a number of dances into one impossible image.

Here s another impossible image. Problem: Illustration for an article about how smoking a pipe gives you an elegant persona. Problem: A mailing piece announcing my return to New York, after fifteen years in London. Problem redefined: How do you say you re terrific without saying it?

Even I, with my very limited knowledge of science, know that everything in the universe is
related in some way. Therefore, no matter how unrelated two parts of a statement are, it should always be possible to incorporate both parts of the statement into a simple, single image.

Less is more! (On the other hand, more is also more, too.)

Problem: the client wanted their initials, TA (for Television Associates) incorporated into a logo. Problem redefined: How can TA also say TV?

Problem: poster for a film about a boy who runs back and forth between two lovers delivering secret messages. Problem redefined: how can the boy run in both directions at the same time? Solution: I cut the photograph of the running boy in half, and flopped the bottom half.

Problem: logo for a film production company with two directors. Problem redefined: How can two directors fit into one director's chair?

One other thing

No matter how many times your amazing, absolutely brilliant work is rejected by the client for whatever arbitrary, frivolous, dopey reason, there is always another brilliant, and amazing solution possible. Sometimes it's even better.

I promise you.

For more information, contact:

Bob Gill

About this article
This article was originally published in tipoGrafica 59: year XVII, December, January, February, March, 2003-2004, pp. 20 to 25. Translated in Spanish by Peggy Jones and Martin Schmoller.

About Bob Gill
Bob Gill is a designer, illustrator, copywriter, film-maker and teacher. After freelancing in New York, he went to London on a whim in 1960 and stayed 15 years. He started Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, a design office with the two brightest designers in England. F/F/G began with two assistants and a secretary. Today, it's called Pentagram, with offices everywhere except Tibet. Gill resigned in 1967 to work independently in London.

He returned to New York in 1975 to write and design Beatlemania, the largest multimedia musical up to that time on Broadway, with Robert Rabinowitz, the painter. He has had one-man shows in Europe, South America, the Far East and in the US. He was elected to the New York Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the Designers and Art Directors Association of London recently presented him with their Lifetime Achievement Award.

Although Gill has written a number of books about design and illustration, his latest one, Graphic Design as a Second Language, has the most complete description of his design process. He has also written and illustrated a number of children's books. Gill is now living in New York, is still teaching, still free-lancing, still making waves.