SEGD Symposium: A Few Words with Malcolm Garrett
Malcolm Garrett’s early work for musicians such as Buzzcocks, Duran Duran, Simple Minds, and Boy George made him one of the world’s best-known designers. His pioneering work in interactive media design—from early collaboration with Peter Gabriel to recent co-direction of the interactive gallery guide for New York’s MoMA—earned him the title Royal Designer for Industry in 2000.
Garrett, partner and creative director in the London-based communications design group 53K, will lead the “British Design” session—with fellow RDIs Kenneth Grange, Dinah Casson, Alex McDowell, and Mike Dempsey—at the 2012 SEGD Symposium: Design, Innovation, Collaboration April 27 at the V&A.
He spent a few minutes with SEGD recently to talk about music, technology, and how his perspective on innovation has changed over the years.
Q We can’t help asking: What was it like working for famous musicians like Duran Duran, Simple Minds, and Boy George?
It was great. I’ve always been obsessed with music. I bought my first record—the Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love--when I was 7. And that was it: from then on, I was a music person.
At university, I naturally hung out with guys who played in bands, and I was lucky enough to hang out with guys who were successful. Buzzcocks were my friends.
When you’re a teenager, music is a lifestyle. And it was an exciting period in time. But doing something pioneering is a double-edged sword. It’s only 30 years later that people look back and think it’s impressive. It was hard work, making your voice heard and arguing for things. People never like to do things in a way that’s unfamiliar to them.
Malcolm Garrett’s first record sleeve was for the English punk band Buzzcocks in 1977. The photomontage image was by Linder.
Q You know a thing or two about innovation, the focus of the SEGD symposium. In the late 70s and early 80s you were designing groundbreaking record covers, and went on to pioneer interactive media design. What does innovation look like to you in 2012?
Back then, it was difficult to get clients—even music industry clients—to take risks. Innovation takes guts or stupidity, or arrogance, and that’s what you have when you’re 18 or 19.
As I get older, I don’t have that same arrogance innate in me anymore, but at least I should be receptive to it when I see it in those younger than me. I try to support innovation in that way.
What you have to do is use your knowledge and experience to ask more intelligent questions of the situation you find yourself in. When you’re young, you use naiveté as a weapon. As you get older, your intelligence is your weapon for change.
I do things instinctively. I always just ask questions. Innovation is about never taking things at face value, and in my case, not always fully comprehending why. I am just naturally contrary. Innovation comes about through a refusal to do things the ordinary way.
Garrett was art director of the music/lifestyle magazine New Sounds/New Styles, launched in 1981. He still works with Kasper de Graaf the editor) at 53K.
Q Tell us how you made the transition to interactive design, and why?
It was quite gradual in that I was always interested in the technologies I was using as a designer and noticed that if I became more knowledgeable about them, I could better challenge them and push their limits.
We started to use computers in the studio early in the 80s. We had a client who was developing software for the first generation of Apple computers. In order to understand the software, we acquired a couple of Apple IIes. Our client, Robocom, had developed a joystick for controlling what happened on the screen (this was before the mouse, of course), and we started using their software to draw our own work. In 1986, another client, the band Heaven 17, bought a Macintosh and we borrowed it and fell in love with it. For the next couple of years we used that to experiment with bit map and vector graphics. At the same time we began working with digital typesetters and digital page- planning. Many different technology platforms were popping up, and we wondered how they might all fit together.
In 1990 I was commissioned to design the graphics for an exhibition at the Design Museum in London. Apple had donated computers to the museum and a company called Cognitive Applications (out of Brighton), had developed a digital guide to the museum to run on these early Macs in the gallery. It was the first piece of interactive multimedia I’d ever encountered.
As part of the exhibition, Sport90, the museum also asked me to design an interactive guide to the exhibit itself, as a complement to the conventional print graphics. Working with Ben Rubinstein at Cognitive Applications, we used a piece of software called HyperCard, which came installed with every Apple computer, and formed the basis for a lot of the early CD-ROMs done by pioneers like Voyager in New York and AntiRom in the UK. (Remember, this was a good four years before Mosaic, the first visual browser for the Internet. Up until that time, almost all interactive work was distributed on CDs. A lot of the things happening now with the iPad and web apps are only now approaching the kinds of work being pioneered on CD-ROM in the early 90s.)
From that point on, my head was turned and I was looking toward the future and how the publishing world might evolve. I was ready for the challenge.
Garrett’s first interactive project was a multimedia exhibition guide to the Sport90 exhibit at the Design Museum London, 1990. It was created using HyperCard and designed with Ben Rubinstein of Cognitive Applications.
Garrett’s design firm Assorted Images produced the identity and sleeves for Peter Gabriel's Real World Records from 1989 to 1994. This was the packaging for his first interactive CD-rom.
Q What do you think of the V&A's exhibition on British design? Is it a good representation of the British design world?
I’m a little bit disappointed if I’m going to be honest. It’s a very difficult job the curator has taken on. In this country, everybody considers him or herself an expert. Trying to put on an exhibition of British design for British designers is difficult.
On the one hand, it includes a lot of obvious things and then some odd quirky things. There are so many stories to cover in that 60-year period, and it feels like this only scratches the surface. Then there is an entire room devoted to Damien Hurst, at the expense of leaving out other great British designers. What has Damien Hurst got to do with British design?
I understand that 80% of the exhibition is drawn from the V&A’s own collections. To me the hidden message is they had no budget, ran out of time to research further, or were simply lazy.
Q What does it mean to be a British designer? Is there something uniquely British that has informed design?
That is the $64,000 question, and hard to answer without talking in platitudes. Conventional wisdom says British design is very inventive, likes to break rules, and do new things. It manages to be very effective and very challenging and often very entertaining.
To me, Vivienne Westwood is the archetypal British Designer. She’s an absolute, out-and-out rebel who has inspired me since my university days when I was a punk and wearing her clothes in the late 70s. But not only is she a rebel who questions everything and whose work always shocks you, she combines that with an encyclopedic knowledge of British culture and fashion technology. And she uses her knowledge to do something very different every time. I guess that is British design at its best: challenging convention through understanding how to get the most from convention.
Q You put together the SEGD Symposium session on British Design. What informed your choices of panel members?
Because the SEGD event is being held in concert with the British Design exhibition, Alex Wood [Holmes Wood, London, a member of the SEGD Board of Directors] wanted me to do something about British design. Her brief to me was, come up with a thought-provoking piece that is not specifically about environmental graphic design.
Since a lot of pieces in the show are by Royal Designers, I decided to invite a panel of British design icons who would represent a wide array of disciplines. So we have Kenneth Grange representing product design, Dinah Casson for exhibition design, Alex McDowell for film production design, and Mike Dempsey, who represents a long career in graphic design. Together, they have a vast amount of experience in the UK and around the world in different fields, and they’ll bring a wide range of perspectives, challenges and, I expect, some great conversation.
Q When all's said and done, do you want to be remembered as the designer who created provocative and ground-breaking album covers, or the designer who helped pioneer interactive design--or something else?
During the late 80s and early 90s when Assorted Images, and then AMX, the division I started with Al Scott, were beginning to experiment with interactive media design, I actually thought to myself, very consciously: ‘Do I want to carry on being known as that guy who used to design record sleeves, or that guy who is fascinated by computer technology and where it is going to take the communications industry?’ And that’s the direction I moved toward.
In 2007, Garrett designed the website for Future of Sound, a non-profit that sponsors events for new and convergent sound-art forms. The program, hosted by Martyn Ware of Illustrious Company and founder of The Human League and Heaven 17, introduced a wide variety of artists and designers working with sound.
The 2012 SEGD Symposium: Design, Innovation, Collaboration is made possible by Rivermeade Signs (Presenting Sponsor) and Principle Group (Sponsor).