Rick Poynor on 60 Years of RCA Graphic Design

175 Years of Design at the RCA

In the second interview from the RCA's 175th anniversary interview series, critic and visiting professor in Critical Writing in Art & Design, Rick Poynor, discusses the College's contribution to some of graphic design's defining moments with Gina Lovett.

Ark, the Journal of the RCA
Ark, the Journal of the RCA

The graphic design programme underwent several name changes in its 60-year history. Why is this?

The process of renaming was, and is, a constant challenge that the programme faces in keeping up with the changing state of the profession. The name needs to reflect the current concerns and future possibilities of design practice. Tutors might sometimes have felt that a particular area needed more emphasis. If you take the term ‘art direction’, for example, which was used in the course name for a short time, it reflected the interests and emphasis of professionals then teaching at the College.

The most fundamental name change came with the fusing together of the Graphic Design and Illustration courses to create Communication Art & Design under Professor Dan Fern. That happened at a time in the 1990s when there was talk about the blurring of boundaries between disciplines, and not just in the College. It was a key theme of the era. Students were arriving with ambitions to cross boundaries freely, and not be restricted by the traditional categorical distinctions between graphic design and illustration, for instance. Why couldn’t you bring art into your design work and create a hybrid form of practice? Communication Art & Design – recently renamed Visual Communication – produced a very significant shift in the RCA’s graphic culture.

How was this shift greeted by industry?

Right from the inception of the Graphic Design course in 1948, under Professor Richard Guyatt, art was always seen as vital to the education of graphic designers. Some industry people came to the College over the years and found projects with a lot of personal content and approaches to communication that you might liken to art. Critical observers have certainly asked whether this was adequate preparation for the world of work and how RCA designers would fit in. But what actually happened, particularly from the late 1980s, was that a lot of students left the RCA and went straight into studios of their own.

Why Not Associates, founded in London in 1987, was the first to be seen to do this. The three of them set up their studio with its wacky name straight after graduating without spending a few years learning the ropes at an established design company, which was the usual path. It sent a very noticeable, and for some people, possibly controversial signal. They got publicity and were unapologetic about it, taking the view that ‘no one would employ us anyway’. They rapidly went on to do some of the leading work of the time, finding clients and building a successful practice that is still in business today.

Their highly visible example opened the floodgates and this became a normal way of graduating as a graphic designer from the RCA – setting up with friends who you had worked with on the course. Others to emerge around this time were Graphic Thought Facility and Fuel, who were also trios of men. Later came teams of women designers such as Kerr Noble and A Practice for Everyday Life.

It took RCA graphic design a number of years to gain recognition. At what point did this happen?

In the early days, under Guyatt, the department was still working out what graphic design education should be in the post-war era. Guyatt and his staff brought a strong pre-war illustrative, fine art tradition to their teaching. They could all draw beautifully and had great technical skills, but when you compare their bookish work, with images of the countryside or traditional English life, to hard-edged continental modernism, it might have looked rather twee. Good as it was, it wasn’t work that reflected the urgent conditions of the contemporary world.

Students drove the change. This 1950s generation could see the way society, business and commerce were changing. Their interest in photography can be traced in early issues of Ark, the college magazine, which was a forum for so many developments and ideas. To some of the staff, photography was an unacceptable shortcut. They still felt you should draw the image.

At the end of the 1950s you start to see really challenging work. One student, Anthony Bisley, made wonderful experiments with light trails in the air through moving the camera and long exposures. Work like this had found an authentic contemporary wavelength. And because there was no stopping the students, over time they brought their tutors, perhaps slightly reluctantly, into a new era.

By the early 1960s, the period of RCA Pop, which spanned both fine art and graphics, the School of Graphic Design was bursting with confidence. The ‘Graphics RCA’ exhibition of 1963, which presented 15 years’ of work, was a tremendous indication of the impact that graphic design from the RCA was making.

What have been the most memorable moments in RCA graphic design? 

Ark magazine, founded in 1950, is really important in the history of the RCA. It provided graphic design students with a fantastic training ground in editorial design and advertising design. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Ark was well edited and intellectually challenging, and managed to attract serious writers from outside the RCA and find an audience beyond the College. People like the critic Lawrence Alloway and the artist Gustav Metzger were interested enough to want to write for it. The graphic design students produced many excitingly designed issues.

I’d also single out a period of significant change beginning in the mid-1980s when the Dutch designer Gert Dumbar was visiting professor. Dumbar wasn’t at the College very long, and he may not have done much hands-on teaching, but he provided an example of contemporary practice at the cutting edge of European graphic design. He was an inspiring role model and a very playful character – anarchic and emotional. All of this had a strong catalytic effect on some of the students.

Up until then, RCA graphic design had been ticking along. Suddenly, designers started to treat graphic design as a medium for a more personal kind of expression. The thinking was that you could still work for a client, but also make a statement of your own using visual means. Why shouldn’t it be possible to do both things at once in the same piece of communication? Wouldn’t that make the work richer and more engaging for the viewer?

How did these graphic designers develop a recognisable handwriting?

RCA designers such as the Why Nots, Phil Baines and Jonathan Barnbrook were excited by the experimental possibilities of typographic and graphic form: why shouldn’t you break up the page in interesting ways, or set the words at extraordinary angles, or build up intricate fields of type? Why did an image have to be rectangular? According to the conventional rules, typography is just the container, the crystal goblet that holds the wine but that you look straight through. You don’t pause to examine the goblet. The experimentalists constantly drew attention to design itself.

By the end of the 1990s the mood had changed again. The worry for some graphic designers at the College was that advertising had commodified what had once been a radical style. A new group of designers were reluctant to make self-assertive and strongly visual gestures. They wanted to empty things out. It was a kind of cleansing.

A key figure at this time was Daniel Eatock, whose work was much more about the concept than about visual expression. He put as little on paper as he could. Everything was there for a purpose. He produced a series of functional greeting cards with plain typography and boxes. One multi-purpose card listed everyone you knew from your mother to your ‘enemy’ and required you merely to tick the appropriate box.

The cards looked bureaucratic at first sight but they had a quirky humour. For Eatock, it was about the elegance of the idea. As a student, he had his own slogan: ‘Say yes to fun and function and no to seductive imagery and colour.’ The world of advertising and digital media had become overloaded with manipulative imagery.

The need to distinguish oneself as a designer remains strong at the College. The culture of graphic design is so sophisticated and yet instantly available and rapidly consumed. One challenge now is to find a way of breaking out of the straitjacket of non-visual conceptual design back into new and meaningful visual form.

Read the other interviews in our series:

"Students drove the change... And because there was no stopping the students, over time they brought their tutors, perhaps slightly reluctantly, into a new era." Rick Poyner
"The ‘Graphics RCA’ exhibition of 1963, which presented 15 years’ of work, was a tremendous indication of the impact that graphic design from the RCA was making." Rick Poyner