You are a designer, critic, curator, and design educator.
Is that the correct order?
I would prefer to avoid writing them as a list which automatically involves placing them in order. I like to see myself as all of these things, constantly moving between them. I also wouldn't use the term critic, I'd prefer to use the word writer even if I don't write as much as I'd like.
What characterises your 'personal view' as a designer.
I'd start by expressing the conviction that graphic design is a process that begins first and foremost with the organisation of ideas, and culminates in the way the visual narratives that flow from this are absorbed into our visual culture – with a lot in between. Design doesn't begin when you receive a brief, because as a designer you don't invent the the values, meanings, codes, references and forms that are your tools. They arrive to you already worked upon and you rework them and pass them on again, sometimes with new insight and innovation and sometimes not. And it doesn't end when the job is delivered to the client because the work will create resonance that radiates beyond its source either by reinforcing expectations, norms and dialogues or by initiating new ones. This is a description of design as a collective social project, whether that dimension is recognised by its practitioners or not. It's a description that is intended to combat notions of individual genius whilst reenforcing the idea of social practice. But design is also fundamentally a form-giving process and as Marshall McLuhan once wrote, societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.
Things do not look the way they do simply as a result of free will and individual choice but because of the collaborations and negotiations involved in their conception and construction, the methods of production available, the materials at hand and the objectives that they were designed to pursue. Above all visual forms are not just empty vessels, they are in themselves reflections of the content they were designed to carry. It's here that the significance of McLuhan's comment becomes apparent.
The social relations contained within the practice of graphic design are most usually expressed as a commercial exchange between a service provider and a client. It's a social relation of demand and service, of commission and execution. Jan van Toorn suggests that the profession has had to make an ideological accommodation which has prevented it from retaining a wider social and political perspective. Not questioning social responsibilities, he argues, implies that you surrender to that sector of society, that because it possesses all our means of survival, manoeuvres design in the role of entrepreneurial aesthetics.
Viewing graphic design as a process – a form of intellectual organisation expressed through visual forms rather than a particular form of exchange – allows us to embrace many forms of graphic communication regardless of the social relations and aspirations that gave rise to them.
How does someone with your background decide to come and live and work in Porto? What reality did you encounter here?
I first visited Portugal in 1987. I was invited by the Gulbenkian Foundation to run a two-week course for teachers about creative work with children and local communities. This was when I was still a member of a multi-media collective in London and the invitation was the result of the work the collective had developed over the years in the field of what was known as community arts. It's difficult to explain the nature of this collective to a Portuguese audience without having to explain the history of alternative political and cultural tendencies in Britain in the 1970's and 80's. Essentially, the collective was part of a independent national network of organisations that were concerned to develop alternative cultural practices and the political strategies to support them. I was invited back to the Gulbenkian in 1989 and it was on this occasion that I met my future wife. This of course explains why I choose Portugal but doesn't explain why I left England. Living in London is stimulating in many ways but I never felt it was the best place to raise a family, unless you are very wealthy. Portugal seemed an interesting choice but I always saw the move as a change of base rather than a change of ambitions and objectives.
On moving here I discovered a design profession just getting off the ground – in the sense of the formation of designated university courses. I had already visited the newly created ESAD (Escola Superior de Artes e Design, Matosinhos) when my wife and I were living in London and after a few visits and a couple of projects with students the directors invited me to teach on a permanent basis. The study of typography was virtually non-existent and so it's development became an obvious priority. Also lacking was any specific study of graphic design history and students could graduate without knowing who Paul Rand was, or even Sebastião Rodrigues. In compensation I sensed a genuine enthusiasm and hunger to learn.
The Personal Views series have become a reference point both nationally and internationally. How did you manage to create in Portugal, outside of Lisbon and without notable sponsorship, a series of conferences with such depth and importance?
I guess it's a combination of three factors; initiative, contacts and finances. It's common practice in the UK to have visiting lecturers and invited speakers at art & design schools. It didn't seem to happen here which I thought was strange. Any school needs to expose its students to as many outside influences as possible – like a cooking pot, always on the boil and constantly adding ingredients. There's no school in the world which prepares its students to face every obstacle they are likely to encounter as professionals or that equips them with all the knowledge they will need, but witnessing first-hand, the work, experience and ideas of professional designers does at least help to bridge the gap between academic study and the real world whilst providing inspiration to boot.
The Personal Views series was the culmination of a rationale I began to pursue not long after arriving at ESAD. In part, it was an attempt to combat a style of design teaching which seemed to me to be heavily individual. I began by devising collaborative projects in which I invited people from outside the school to act as jury members. This always acts as a stimulus for students and helps to build the sort of collective spirit which is essential to the dynamism of a school. Learning needs to take place in an environment which is intense, which is sometimes unpredictable and creates an energy which feeds off itself. That's the job of the teaching staff and its no good complaining about students supposed lack of interest. Teaching isn't about regurgitating facts and information, its about creating the conditions for the process of learning and exploration to take place.
I continued by organising events, mostly around typography, which as I said, was virgin territory when I arrived here. There was a typography week and exhibition with Jon Wozencroft from the Royal College of Art and Ed Macdonald from Central Saint Martins, then I invited Dave Dabner from the LCP (now the London College of Communication), Paul Stiff from Reading University, and then contacts I had through my membership of the International Society of Typographic Designers, John McMillan and Mike Hope, then Catherine Dixon from Central Saint Martins. There were more collaborative projects. I tried also to establish the practice (and the tradition) of degree shows and respective publications but sadly this seems to have faded since I stopped teaching.
These were all attempts to animate the learning process and to create an environment which stimulates both students and staff. But environments are not solely intellectual. I've always believed that the physical environment is both a reflection of and a stimulus to the intellectual environment and so attempts to get students to claim the school space, to have their own exhibitions, to put work up on the walls was an important parallel objective.
It's important to say all this because it's important to understand that the Personal Views series is not the result of some sort of one-off, bright idea, a mega event devised to attract prestige, to place things and people 'on the map' as is so often the case. When the series first began in fact, it was planned as a special initiative specifically for final year students. Before long it had grown into a much more general event.
It's true of course that the personal contacts I had in the UK and elsewhere enabled me to establish unique links – I used my network to bring people here. Undoubtedly, the series has also benefited from the phenomena of 'snowballing'. All the speakers have expressed their enjoyment in coming here and taking part in the series, in turn they talked to other designers and gave me new contacts. As the list of speakers grew so did the credibility of the series. By the third year the list of previous speakers was enough to persuade new people I was contacting that something interesting was taking place here. The series has grown in a way that I hadn't anticipated. Ken Garland once referred to it as a huge international design conference, only in instalments.
The willingness of the school to finance the series and to give me 'carte blanche' in organising it has been fundamental. They were unsure at first but by the end of the second year were actively encouraging me to continue. And it hasn't been cheap. The final count will be 45 speakers sometimes accompanied by partners. That's a lot of flights, hotel nights and meals. Plus the fee's they receive for the book essay. I doubt whether a public school would have the financial (or academic) freedom to do this.
At the end of five years and 44 seminars, what evaluation do you make of the series?
It's been great. And it opens up lots of potential for the future. Though it hasn't always gone according to plan. I set out to explore what it means to be a graphic designer today and asking what sorts of skills and knowledge such an activity requires. For a number of years I'd heard students express a certain confusion. On the one hand what seemed to be taking place was a fashionable conceptual fusion between art and design but never in my opinion based on any defined cultural strategies or social ambitions, more as a reaction to shifting ground. As a result I listened to students saying how interesting design could be if they didn't have to work with clients(!) and at the same time expressing the need for direction, for clear objectives to guide them and above all the desire to learn concrete skills – as opposed to the prospect of being continually intoxicated with ideas. So that was really the thought behind the series and I invited the speakers to address these issues in an attempt to map the territory of contemporary graphic design. The talks were never meant to be 'showcase' talks in which people simply turned up and showed their work. The naivety of this ambition didn't take long to expose. The reality is that many of the designers I invite, because of their status, are already on the international 'tour circuit'. They receive many invitations to speak and for understandable practical reasons, have pre-prepared talks which they take from venue to venue. Writing a specific talk takes a lot of work. After a while I stopped being frustrated that they weren't addressing the issues I outlined in a direct way and accepted that by default, their values and priorities were evident simply through the work they showed and they way they talked about it. This simply reinforced my conviction that the book, containing essays from the speakers, is fundamental to the project as it provides the opportunity to cover issues in a more direct way.
The series has exposed students (and others) to a rich variety of approaches and possibilities. It's contributed to the sort of intellectual and creative environment I've always believed is so important and even though it wasn't an objective, it's put Porto on the international design map. But it's only a beginning. More things will follow and they will have been made easier because of Personal Views.
In the text that accompanied the first series you wrote ‘from time to time, professional activities, undergo periods of self-examination. This need not necessarily be a consciously organised process. It may manifest itself as a period of ambiguity and uncertainty, of ‘soul-searching’, in which what once was held to be true and fundamental, becomes open to question and challenge, a period in which differing sets of values and theoretical models relating to the activity compete for acceptance.’ What references and values are you referring to and and what form does this questioning take?
The way we make things, i.e. the tools we have at our disposal to create and assemble visual communications, have a profound impact on the nature of the messages we are able to construct. Within graphic design the Macintosh computer and desktop publishing have revolutionised those tools and therefore the ways that graphic designers work. And because changes in the way a language is constructed leads to changes in what one is able to say – and consequently think about – people soon learn that they are able to speak in ways they hadn’t previously imagined. Once this happens they also begin to question what it is they’re meant to be saying. This produces all the right ingredients for a classic identity crisis.
One evident area of questioning has occurred in the field of typography, a fundamental component of graphic design. Before the Macintosh, there were typesetters on whose skills designers were dependent. Designers would specify through careful and sometimes elaborate instructions how they wanted the type to be set and arranged, then wait patiently for the bromides to arrive before gluing the strips of paper into place on sheets of gridded paper. The arrival of the Macintosh virtually ended the role of the typesetter and allowed designers to set, arrange and even design their own type. Type could now be stretched and pulled and overlapped with speed and ease. Things could be done with it, and to it, that would have previously taken great skill and patience, but more significantly, things could be done that would have been difficult to imagine beforehand. As a consequence all the rules and conventional wisdom about the use of type became open to question, not simply in technical terms but also with regard to notions of legibility and readability. The structure of type as a visual form, as a fixed system of signs, as language made visible with established hierarchies of organisation was challenged by new means and methods made possible by new ways of making.
Typography has always been an area of creative possibility for designers but as in all things, physical and technical characteristics condition the nature of our interaction. The fixed physical properties of type as it used to be necessarily influenced creative responses. Digital type has no physical properties, it inhabits a world which is one pixel thick and the flux and fluidity of its form is reflected in our imagination; how we conceive the possibilities of its use and application. The teaching of typography as a consequence has had to re-evaluate its premises and certainties both in formal and perceptual ways.
If technological changes have provoked a questioning of form-making, they have also had an impact on how the form-makers see and position their activity. I often use the way that language works, as a simile to the way graphic design functions. Language allows us to think and to share thoughts with others, it allows us to describe the world around us, it allows us to develop thinking into action. And although it may be difficult to prove that thinking is completely dependent on language, we can say that thinking takes place through the use of language, and that our view of the world is conditioned by the language we have at our disposal. Whether spoken or written, language is the tool, the medium, the mechanism that directs not only the way in which we are able to think, but also the things we are able to think about. The process of making affects the maker of process.
When you're involved in a process of production that depends on the active participation of a number of other people with different skills that come into play at different stages in the process, like design used to be before computers, you have a sense of being involved in a collaborative process. It follows from this that you tend to think like someone involved in a collaborative process, mindful of interdependence and shared responsibilities. But when you are involved in a production process in which, through a single, albeit complex tool, you have control of all the different and once specialised tasks, the possibility is created for you to think in a different way. It becomes possible to view your activity as an act of individual authorship. You have a notion of a more centralised, more independent process. With the changing of possibilities comes the changing of expectations. It followed that designers would question their position within the hierarchy of creation and production. In resisting conventional descriptions of designers as ‘facilitators’ or ‘problem solvers’, of simply fulfilling a client brief, some began to describe themselves as authors in their own right, taking charge of content as well as form and in the process blurring the distinction between design and art process. Hence the previously orthodox view of the designer as a neutral component leaving no visible traces of his/her presence became another questionable value.
Education of course is always the interface – and often the battleground – between accepted knowledge, methods and changing realities. And it's in design education that differing sets of values and theoretical models compete for acceptance. The perception of type and image as components that inform and direct the messages we create and the ideas we express, together with the nature of the designer's role in this process have been challenged by technological developments that have made design in general a subject of renewed interest, experimentation and debate. But moments of transition are always accompanied by dilemma and uncertainty. It's within this framework that Personal Views and the mapping of territory was conceived.
Personal Views began in February of 2003 with a talk by the British designer Ken Garland. author of the First Things First manifesto (1964), which in 2000 was subject to a new version to which you were a signatory. Was choosing Garland as the first speaker an attempt to place a social and political reflection on design at the centre of the series?
In a way, I wanted to organise the series in a way that simply assumed this dimension. I take for granted that all communication design involves a search for visual forms that express messages, ideas and information, that every choice of image, every graphic combination, every visual solution, becomes a way of saying something, a visual language that is part of our cultural dialogue. This language that surrounds us every day is important as both a tool and a medium. It's a means to express ideas, both trivial and profound, to describe our understanding of the world around us and is a reflection of our changing realities and priorities. So the nature of what is expressed in public communication, and the interests those messages serve, is a matter that concerns us all. This has always seemed obvious to me which is why I find it strange when the social dimension of design is raised as if it were a special topic of interest, like a specialism akin to information graphics or book design. I made a deliberate point of including speakers for whom this is a given factor. Notwithstanding, I have above all tried to choose speakers with a strong body of work and enough experience to be able to have developed some clear ideas and approaches to design.
The relevance of the FTF manifesto, as a test of consciousness within design with regard to its priorities and values, seems to characterise this first decade of the 21st century. Even Bruce Mau, who decided not to sign the FTF 2000 manifesto, raised the question 'Now that we can do everything, what is it that we should do?'… You have said that the intention of FTF 2000 was to politicise design discourse and to encourage a political stance. Your curatorship of Personal Views (and of the Idioms exhibition series) appears to be part of a 'design agenda'. Within this logic the choice of people like Ken Garland, Tony Credland, Steven Heller or Adrian Shaughnessy seems self evident, but speakers such as Ricardo Mealha or Experimental Jetset, linked to a more 'trendy' design seems less clear. What are the criteria you used for inviting speakers?
The 'politicisation of design discourse' was something I referred to in a piece I wrote for the 'Design Anarchy' issue of Adbusters. It was in response to Rick Poynor suggesting that I lay at one end of the political spectrum and I expressed it as a personal objective rather than a stated intention of the FTF Manifesto or of the other signatories. I wasn't so much suggesting that designers should adopt a political attitude but that they should recognise that design practice is not a neutral social discourse.
I am reminded of something we stated in the 1986 Culture and Democracy manifesto (*), in which we said that politics and culture are both ways of describing social activity. They are not separate and containable activities that are voluntary or optional and from which people can be excluded or can exclude themselves. They are not something that can be added to, or taken away from social relationships. On the contrary, they are the defining characteristics of such relationships. So you may choose to detach your design from politics but you cannot remove politics from design.
However, there are many different design practices and approaches in existence and not withstanding my personal orientation, it would have been negligent not to have reflected that variety in the choice of speakers. This is not a diplomatic option. The truth is that I am not a purest, on the contrary, I don't have any difficulty in finding merit in all sorts of approaches. Some designers have particular interest because of the way they direct their skills and energy and the way they contextualise their practice. Others are fascinating because of the way they arrive at creative solutions and the critical thought this involves. Of course this doesn't mean they have to be one or the other.
It's interesting that you list Ken Garland, Tony Credland, Steven Heller and Adrian Shaughnessy together in one group and Ricardo Mealha and Experiemental Jet Set in another. It's not the sort of grouping I would make. I would suggest for example that Experiemental Jet Set have a stronger sense of social theory than Adrian Shaughnessy and have little in common with Ricardo Mealha. Steve Heller is a liberal intellectual (an objective description not a label) whilst Tony Credland, closely linked to various forms of political activism, has a design activity that couldn't be further from that of Heller's.
Why is it that only 3 Portuguese designers – Ricardo Mealha, Henrique Cayatte e Heitor Alvelos (4 if we include Robin Fior, resident in Portugal for many years) – were invited to take part in the series?
There were others on my list. One declined, and the other didn't reply. But as I say above I was looking for speakers with a strong body of work and experience, and when I started the series there weren't many more to choose from. Since then, other Portuguese designers have established themselves. In any case I was never too concerned about being geographically representative. If I thought that there was a particular approach or vision characterised by Portuguese design I may have thought differently. But there isn't.
The graphic identity of Personal Views has changed over time, appearing to parallel visual tendencies within design practice. What was the rational for the change?
To be honest, the design of the graphic materials have been a little haphazard. I didn't foresee the series lasting as long as it has and the design had to be adapted from series to series. There was a definite break in the design of the materials in the third year when two of the speakers objected to having their photographs on the materials so an alternative had to be created. At the end of the series, this year, I'm planning to produce 5 posters designed by five designers, each one documenting and celebrating each year. These posters will be in a pack containing a general text.
The Personal Views 'phenomenon' with the ESAD auditorium frequently full to capacity and with people coming from all over the country, encountered full velocity perhaps with Neville Brody's seminar. Do you think that the series managed to capture new audiences and educate the design public in Portugal?
Frankly, I find this difficult to assess. Within the design student population and within the profession, it has no doubt had an impact, but outside of the practice, design, as in most other countries, is still a topic with a small public profile. Despite designs' omnipresence in our culture it seems difficult to create or maintain much public engagement. Where this happens it's usually because of a logo that is particularly controversial, such as the new London Olympics logo. Rick Poynor suggests that because the roll of graphic design is in most cases to communicate quickly without much ambiguity, detailed critical interpretation is simply not required by the viewer, especially as most graphic communication points towards a much lengthier, more involving experience elsewhere, i.e. the event, product or service it is meant to communicate. He goes on to suggest that the only branch of graphic design which viewers may regard as an end in itself – and therefore worthy of discussion – is the sphere of graphic authorship. The frustrating aspect of this is that much of the real power and cultural significance of graphic design lies in its collective presence, a visual environment that has a large impact on our perceptions and expectations. The content of this visual environment – the messages it contains and reinforces – does not originate within graphic design of course but graphic design gives it a voice, an expression which also becomes part of the message.
You have announced that this current series is the last, and that there will be a publication – a book – about the series. When do you envisage this book will be published? Will it consist of transcripts of the seminars? Is a DVD in the planning?
The release of the book has been delayed for a number of reasons. Originally there was to be one book per year but delays in getting texts meant I had to rethink this idea. I am hoping to get all the texts by September and to be able to publish the book before Christmas. The pieces I've asked speakers to write will not be transcripts of their talks but especially written essays. In this way I hope to be able to cover points that speakers may not have addressed in their presentations.
I recall, in Rick Poynor's seminar if I'm not mistaken, when the audience was questioned, only a few at the time were familiar with the Looking Closer anthologies, Eye or Design Observer. In the recent seminar by Jessica Helfand and William Drentel, most people had become familiar with such design references. What do you think has changed with design culture in Portugal between 2003 and 2008?
The Internet is probably the biggest influence here. Students spend a lot of time visiting design sites and blogs. They seem to find this easier than consulting books – which it is of course. Design Observer for example has grown hugely in influence and has become a major reference. And here in Portugal design blogs such as yours and that of Mário Moura have also added to a growing interest in design not simply as a career option but as a creative and rewarding practice with a history and theoretical issues to be debated.
* Another Standard 86: Culture & Democracy, the Manifesto was published in 1986 for a conference that took place in Sheffield, England in the same year. Produced in book form, it was essentially a discussion paper for the conference and dealt with the relationship between culture and politics. It developed ideas that evolved as a result of debate and discussion in a series of seminars and workshops in the years preceding the conference, organised by The Shelton Trust, a national community arts organisation.