Dialogue with Malcolm Garrett

by Andy Polaine on January 19, 2007

I have been writing articles for various design magazines for over eight years now, mainly for Desktop in Australia/NZ, and felt sad that many of the very interesting conversations I have had with people over the years are just languishing on my hard drive. So the folks at Desktop have let me re-publish older articles on my blog here. There are over 90 of them, so I’ll add them from time to time – I hope they prove useful and interesting to people. They’re rather long for the blog format so you’ll need to click “Continue reading…”.

The first is with Malcolm Garrett slightly randomly chosen, but I also felt that it is interesting to read some views on the future of TV and communications design that are a few years old given the recent releases from Apple.

Typography is Boring - Fuse

Malcolm Garrett

Malcolm Garrett has been a key figure in the world of graphic design for almost 25 years. Since the early 80s Garrett helped define a generation’s visual identity with his influential artwork for bands such as The Buzzcocks, Duran Duran and Simple Minds. He became interested in the emerging new media of the 90s and co-founded AMX Digital in London in 1998.

Garrett is a Visiting Professor for Interaction Design at Royal College of Arts in London and Chairman of Judges for the annual Design Week Awards. He finally left AMX last year after it had merged with Zinc to become Arnold Interactive. Here he discusses the roles of experience, television and what they have to teach us about the design process and new media.

AP: You are one of a group of people, of whom there aren’t many around, who have been involved with interactive media for quite a long time. How does your long experience as a graphic designer influence this?

MG: The very first interactive project I did was at the Design Museum at the beginning of 1990. So, yes, thirteen years. Looking back at a lot of my early print work I realise I was trying to do things that I didn’t have the skill to do, but I had a desire to extend my visual range or master more visual languages than those that just came easily to me – the old joke was "fluorescent orange triangles". I have always had this attempt at a kind of "negative discipline" –trying not to pre-judge what the right visual aesthetic is until I know who the audience is.

AP: As a medium interactivity is still very young. I have often said it will be when my children (and I don’t have any yet) are in their twenties that the technology will become invisible, because they will have grown up with it. I noticed that this is what you have been discussing recently too.

MG: The generation who are twelve years old, or younger now, will be the only generation that have grown up with fully interactive broadband media on screen in the sitting room – all the time. They will have never known a time before it.

AP: Yes, I have never known a time before television and I really notice that generation gap, less so, perhaps, because television is so broad and has percolated into everyone’s lives.

MG: Well I’m very interested in television because of that. I would argue that television is a more important interactive medium, probably than the computer, because of this resistance to the computer. Of course the two will become the same, but as they do so they will still be called TV because it has got a screen on it and it sits in the sitting room now.

Computers on are becoming anything but television – they are mobile phones, PDAs, they are in the car, in the fridge, in the washing machine. Computing things are becoming much more focussed and task orientated and they are just a peripheral thing to a central store of data. The other thing about television is that it has always been a distributed medium, and as we go increasingly online all of this data is being stored in other places, not on the thing that you carry around with you – it just an access point. That is what TV has always been.

AP: Do you think that wireless technologies will go back that way? After all, one of the nice things about having an Airport card in your laptop is that instantaneousness. And as minor as that sounds, I remember the first time someone showed me one a few years ago, they came home from work and wanted to show me, wirelessly on their laptop, a website they had been working on and it was a weird experience. Of course they were firing up a browser, which was still a bit clunky, but it was a bit like just turning on the television. The Internet just became something that was in the air and you simply accessed it. It was a very different experience to the wired version.

MG: That’s why I keep on saying, "Well, it is TV isn’t it? It is just TV that you carry around with you." Most people carry around their laptops as well, even if just to write emails. Blackberry, the hand-held emailer is a great example of a move to devices, why carry your laptop around with you when that’s going to do the job for you? My point is that desktop computers, or even laptop computers, are required less and less in the field as you have more and more task-oriented devices with you. But you will still have a kind of central entertainment resource with you that will have much greater demands placed on it.

AP: In a way you are talking about convergence, but really it is divergence in the sense of the chip that is a computer is now everywhere.

MG: The hardware is diverging, but what is converging is the overlap of disciplines. I think that is what individuals, like craftspeople, and businesses are finding really hard to deal with, because they are both about finding your pigeon hole and being really good at it, whether it is publishing books or carving widgets. But convergence is actually bringing together people and disciplines not, as most people think, bringing together hardware so that you can do everything on one platform. Like you, I think hardware is diverging as computers become much more task oriented.

AP: In terms of lifestyle, that actually makes things quite a lot worse. There are multiple ways of doing the same thing and even simple things like diaries (I have three now) become really difficult to manage.

MG: Yes, and the problem is losing track of where you are. Which, again, is why I think people are slowly learning (although there is a lot of distrust) to keep that information all in one location. Again, it is what you grow up with. Technology is what didn’t exist when you were born.

AP: In terms of human/device interaction, what do you see as the designers role? At the moment it is a slightly confusing and difficult space to be working in.

MG: Well, it all goes back to why I became a designer in the first place, and that was this interest in everything. I have always seen myself as somebody who needs to understand and master language and languages, rather than be someone who creates beautiful objects. I think the graphic designer has always been in a prime position to expand into more and more of these overlapping disciplines, because that is what we have always done.

Going back to when you had to do artwork, you had to understand language to get good typesetting done, you had to have a visual aesthetic, and a weird technical brain to put together all these black and white layers and imagine what they were going to be like in colour. You had to understand the printing process, you had to understand paper engineering, how photographers and writers worked and how to brief them and work with them.

So, there have always been these two kinds of graphic designer. One who is more like an illustrator with type, who sits in the corner and doesn’t want to be bothered talking to clients and just wants to do what they want to do. Then there is what the bulk of graphic designers are, which is this kind of mediator between all these different kinds of people and disciplines. Now there are just more media, people and technologies to embrace.

AP: I am interested in the fact that you said coming from a graphic designers point of view allows you to do manage those overlapping roles, because I usually argue the opposite. I feel that the disciplines most close to designing for interactivity are product design and architecture because they deal with that quite intangible, but very real, essence of feeling. You pick up a pen and think how nicely weighted it is in your hand or that it feels pleasant to touch, or you walk into a building and have a sense of how it feels inside that space. This is similar to interactivity in which things are really engaging sometimes just because of the way they make you move the mouse. Other pieces you find they look nice, but they are just really dull.

MG: I am inclined to agree, but less so, with product designers because I think they are focussed by default on creating an object as an end result, which is a real and tangible thing. Whereas interactive communications and the control of virtual information is a difficult concept to get your head around, even when there is an end result.

Architects I completely disagree with, because they are complete megalomaniacs. They just want to make their mark and impose their vision on society in the biggest and most obtrusive way possible.

AP: But there is a great deal of thought that goes into the architectural process because of that permanence.

MG: I’m not disagreeing with the level of thought but, and this is a massive generalisation, the type of personality that becomes and architect is quite different from the type of personality that becomes a true graphic designer. The true graphic designer actually likes to sit in the background and make it all work on behalf of the person who is trying to say something and the people to whom they are saying it. I think there is a genuine desire to be an invisible part of that process.

AP: But that has shifted now hasn’t it?

MG: Well, I have always been against the whole 90s thing of the star designer. All of my writing over the last few years has been about undermining the star. But I have worked with architects with graphic design problems, i.e., designing temporary exhibition spaces. The first architect I worked with, his actual solution was to put in a false floor with little glass windows in the floor through which you could see the objects, because he was concerned with the room and the building and he didn’t want the object cluttering up his space.

That’s completely the opposite of what an exhibition is about. An exhibition is about liberating all of those objects, contextualising them and making them understandable for the benefit of the general public. That, I think, sums up the difference in the mentality of why someone becomes an architect and why someone becomes a communication designer. It is not the designer’s place to make a value judgement on those objects. It is the designers place to properly contextualise them and make sure that context is understood in the most legible manner.

AP: The distinction I am making, and this is what we were always interested in at antirom, is that the moment of interaction with interactive media is much more akin to the experience with a product. That interactive moment with the screen and devices is very poorly understood.

MG: I think graphic designers have got three jobs to do. One is to deal with the aesthetics, second is to deal with actually getting the job done, and third is to explore, in an adventurous and inquisitive way, the media they are working with in order to be able to better do the job in the future. It just so happens at the moment, with the tools and technology, that the room for exploration is vast.

That is where antirom and Tomato have done fantastic stuff, where they have just gone "well, what can we do here?" But, if you like, that is kind of research in order to get the job done. But too many designers, especially the star ones, in getting the job done really are relying on other people’s research to just deliver some aesthetically pleasing result. So ultimately it is falling over and not doing the job.

AP: One of the things I recently wrote about was the tyranny of software upgrades. With this large set of complex tools that are constantly changing, designers never get on top of their craft and end up doing all the things that are easy to do with the software, so everything looks the same.

MG: All software has its own built-in set of styles, which is fine because that has always been the case. One of my first lessons in typography was just using different tools to design letterforms, to see how the tool dictated the shape of classical typography. Whether it is using a dip pen or a hammer and chisel or just using geometry, they all made your basic letters look completely different from one another.

One of our tutors when I was at college was a guy called Ralph Bayer who was a stone carver. He had done the stone carving at the re-built Coventry cathedral after the war. His father was the late, great Herbert Bayer of Bauhaus fame, so he was a fantastic guy to be taught by. He was just completely horrified that someone had taken the typeface that he had developed and designed, which had been dictated by the need to carve it in stone, and used it on a tin of cat food – and that illustrates what it is all about. Some things are dictated by the means of production, but when the software develops so that the access to a different aesthetic is much broader, then is it a good thing or a bad thing?

AP: I think that is the question I am really bringing up here. Is it good or bad?

MG: I’m not sure. I have battled with it for ages and it is a double-edged sword. I have another saying, "There is no substitute for knowing everything." That’s what keeps me going – the thirst for knowledge. There is always something to do, something to see, more to find out. But I am also conscious that some of the best endeavours in any discipline come through a sort of blinkered naivety from people who didn’t know any better and therefore ended up with some crazy results. Finding that balance between needing to know everything to be able to make more informed decisions, versus the less you know, the less constrained you are by heritage and history and previous ways of doing things is a conundrum.

AP: A fundamental difference now though is the level of production values. Previously, if you hadn’t mastered your craft, your work would look terrible. Nowadays the difference, in terms of production quality, between an amateur piece of work and a professional one is much more flattened. A student can design a magazine and print it out on a great DTP system and good paper and it will look the same as a magazine on the newsstand. Previously that was never possible because of the money and effort involved to get it to that level. I believe that what tends to happen is that people equate production quality with good design process and that is a real problem.

MG: Yes, but the danger in going down that route with too much worry is that you run the risk of being a design fascist. It is a little bit like saying we can’t let people have typewriters because not everybody is a great author. I would rather people played, made the effort and did something, and out of it somebody discovers he is a great author who hadn’t previously imagined he could string a set of words together because he was dyslexic or had no hands or whatever that may be.

AP: Yes, true and I would never restrict someone’s access to those things, but I am talking more about the critique of that work afterwards. I mean not hailing eye-candy as great design.

MG: Which is why I think you have to go back to not looking at the design, but asking, "What was the job? What was it trying to do?" Because it is as acceptable to create aesthetic eye-candy if the designer had that in mind at the beginning and a lot of this designer-as-author that Rick Poyner at Eye discusses is dealing with that. I think that is legitimate if you are clear about those aims. If you are trying to guide people around an airport in mainland China and you produced a bunch of eye-candy, then you would question the aesthetic value there. But you have to always take a step back and ask what the person was trying to do and who was supposed to understand it? Who was it aimed at? If the object of the exercise is eye-candy for designers, then so be it. I’m not going to be excited by it and you are not going to be excited by it but it is okay for somebody.

AP: So where are you heading now, having gone through this stage of understanding that technology is evolving much faster than culture’s ability to assimilate it? Have you got to another point now?

MG: Well, my objective is never to become and old fart and never to dismiss something that is exciting the next generation just because I don’t get it. I sure as hell won’t always get it. I’m a designer in interactive media, but I don’t think necessarily a very good one, nor will I ever become a very good one because of that generational shift. But that is not to say that I don’t think it is the most exciting area for the next generation of designers to be embracing. I see my role, if you like, as being enthusiastic about it rather than being old school and dismissive. Frankly, most of the established graphic design industry is still scared of this stuff.

AP: The awards tend to demonstrate that, interactive media are lumped in as "oh, and there’s this other stuff here too."

MG: Exactly. So my role is to be the enthused establishment, if you like, and to bring the benefit of what experience and knowledge I have to assist, where appropriate, the blinkered naïve enthusiast. As I said earlier, there is so much to be said for blinkered naivety because it produces magnificent results. But if it is appropriate for me to be able to work with people and say, "Do you know, it would be useful for you at this point to know this?" because I happen to know it because I have been around 25 years and it might help, then that is really useful.

You learn all that stuff and that defines your life and I think it is really important, for the new generations that are learning all of this new stuff that is still finding its way, that we work out ways of helping them do it and understanding that it can only be beneficial for mankind for them to not be isolated by technologies that previous generations don’t understand.

AP: Do you think that one of the things that the Web does is to make people into star designers globally, but in a very narrow band. Does that add to that isolation you mentioned because people can become stars just from their websites?

MG: Well the isolation that I am talking about is one of isolation within your own industry. You develop an interest in something and it is based on a technology that the establishment doesn’t think is a valid area to be working in then the industry becomes polarised. That’s the isolation that I am worried about. If you are talking about the fact that anybody can put up a website and anybody can be a star designer and anybody can have their fifteen minutes, in the old Warhol cliché, well that’s okay. I think the fact that more people can talk to more people is interesting. There is always a balance – the better something gets, the worse it gets. What it means is that is the easier it is for anyone to have their voice, the harder it is for anyone to be heard because everyone is talking at once

I feel a genuine part of a community that is defined by interest, which is global. I feel a stronger sense of allegiance to that community than a geographic community, such as living in London or England. My location is one of interest, a cerebral location, and that’s what I love about the digital tools that I am working with – the ability to travel amongst cerebral locations and connect with others.

AP: Is there a certain area of technology you are particularly interested in having worked in so many different areas? I know you did a lot of work with broadband at AMX.

MG: Yes, I am very interested in that simply because of what we have been talking about, which is really populism versus elitism. I am much more geared towards the populist, but I believe that populist can be a sort of "elite populist" if you like ­– a high quality populist. You know, design for the masses doesn’t have to be crap and the masses don’t have to appreciate and comprehend the stuff of intellectual quality. That is why I have always been interested in broadband as a medium – television or film, for example, is way, way more popular, or more influential on most people’s lives than print. Most successful print is easy to read and throw away. Quality print tends to sit on library shelves. We’ve got this mental concept that TV is entertainment and books are knowledge.

I have been trying to analyse what it is I am trying to do. Even though TV is over 50 years old, there is still distrust. There hasn’t been much of what I would call quality graphic design in TV, i.e., communication design rather than TV idents, which are no more than the icing on the cake. Communication designers have not trusted it, not like liked it and it is controlled by people who basically make moving photographs or sell things.

What I want to do is bring that quality, integrity and depth that you associate with the printed word into an environment that is seductive and sensual and has greater access to a population. I think that is what interactive media are doing. Media is the right word because it is mediating information in the distribution medium of popular choice.

Endnote

Now that Garrett is a free agent he has been working on a variety of projects, the most recent of which was to work with the Science Museum, Casson Mann (London) and Immersion Studios (Toronto) on the redeveloped visitor centre at the Sellafield Nuclear Power Plant in Cumbria. The Science Museum took full editorial control to open up a wider debate about world energy problems, and the context of nuclear power.

He has also been involved in a multi-player arts installation with the former fashion designer Helen Storey, called Whisper and a screen based information system for Warwick Arts Centre.

N.B. This article was originally published in Issue 187 ofDesktop Magazine. ©2003 Niche Media Pty. Ltd. & Andy Polaine

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