Graphics RCA: Fifty Years Traces a Baseline in Graphic Design Education at the RCA
The exhibition traces the development of graphic design at the College, from the game-changing influence of Professor Richard Guyatt, through the diverse approaches of such communication-world luminaries as Abram Games in the 1950s, Bob Gill, Jock Kinneir and Anthony Froshaug in the ’60s; Ken Garland and Herbert Spencer in the ’70s, Gert Dumbar, Derek Birdsall, Margaret Calvert, Tony Cobb in the ’80s, Dan Fern in the ’90s, to current Dean of School Neville Brody.
Naming the School of Graphic Design in 1948, Guyatt’s adoption of a term coined by W A Dwiggins in the 1920s (thus helping to bring it into common parlance in the UK) is representative of his culturally informed, open approach. Over his 30-year stewardship, Guyatt manoeuvred a determined shift away from purely illustrative design towards a deliberately outward-looking, cross-disciplinary pedagogic strategy that embraced photography, collage and other media.
In 1963, Guyatt staged the first exhibition of graphic design at the Royal College of Art. GraphicsRCA: Fifteen Year's Work of the School of Graphic Design looked back to the founding of the School in 1948, as part of a drive to bring about greater professionalism, and as a period when the School taught some of the most recognisable names of the next generation – among them Alan Fletcher, Ridley Scott, Raymond Hawkey, David Gentleman and Len Deighton.
The 1963 show aimed to capture the new direction of the craft as it emerged from its Victorian roots in the pre-industrial world, and adapted to the newly professionalised landscape. It also marked the culmination of a pivotal period in British history, where Modernism gave way to Pop, and the beginnings of the rise of Postmodernism.
But Guyatt's suggestion in 1963 that the boundaries of graphic design were 'vague, shifting and far-flung' could equally be attributed to current Dean of School Professor Neville Brody, who has said recently, ‘…no area of cultural activity is more challenging than the field of communications.'
He added: ‘There is a remarkable tradition of graphic design at the RCA. The College, under various illustrious heads of department, has produced many of the leading and most innovative practitioners of the modern era. We take great inspiration from the past both in the way we run the programme today and in our determination to create the dangerous minds of the future. This show will demonstrate how rich the heritage we draw on is.’
Graphics RCA: Fifty Years uncovers the ways in which Guyatt’s emergent cross-disciplinary strategy became a signature of the School, embracing sound and new media as they emerged, and how his acknowledgement of the role of artistic commercial work in the developing visual language of the later twentieth century became an approach that was actively not responsive to industry, but rather aimed to train critical thinkers and practitioners, who would leave the RCA as creative leaders.
Jeanne Verdoux (1988–90), graphic designer/illustrator, and founder of Jeanne Verdoux Studio, Paris and New York, remembers: ‘The RCA did not teach me what to do, it allowed me to be myself as a designer and an artist.’
Fifty years after Guyatt, graphic design education and the profession find themselves at a crossroads once again. In the context of the complexity of the contemporary social and technological landscape, the role of graphic design is – of necessity – in constant flux. Graphics RCA: Fifty Years traces both a design narrative and the story of the development of the School from where the 1963 exhibition left off, through the impact of digitisation and the influence of RCA graduates on the creative industries, and looks forward to the role of graphic design in the future.
Senior Tutor Adrian Shaughnessy expresses his impression as a co-curator: 'The one constant feature of 50 years of graphic design study and teaching at the RCA has been intense scrutiny of the discipline; each new generation of both students and tutors has asked the question: ‘What is graphic design?’ That process of interrogation and reflection continues unabated.'
The exhibition also highlights the under-explored experiences of prominent women graphic designers who trained at the College. Avril Hodges, a GUI designer for Apple and others, remembers her experience, ‘It was the early ’60s. I was 19 and the only girl in that year of the graphics group. Anthony Froshaug was first-year tutor and he expected total commitment, but his analytical approach to design set the standard for everything that followed.’ The strength of influential work by female graduates, including Liz McQuiston, Marina Willer, Morag Myerscough, Amelia Noble and Frith Kerr, Sophie Thomas and Kristine Matthews, Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas, and Astrid Stavro, indicates the extent of the cultural shift that followed.
Seen through the prismatic filters of four broad themes – craft; the College as client; student-led activities; and cultural, political and social work – the exhibition features original, rarely seen works from the RCA archive, including designs made at the College by RCA alumni who have gone on to become leading practitioners. Other exhibits include RCA Film Society posters, stamps commissioned for the Royal Mail, the influential student magazine Ark, and exemplify typographic experiments, the rise of interest amongst students (and staff) in social issues such as sustainability and consumerism, and early examples from pioneers of digital design and print. In recent student work, we see analogue/digital/traditional juxtapositions taking place, which operate generatively in the spaces between programming and typography – feeding off themselves and each other – and point the way towards an as-yet-unimagined future.
Featured works in the exhibition include: John Pasche’s 1971 lips and tongue logo for the Rolling Stones, commissioned by Mick Jagger whilst Pasche was still a student; Jonathan Barnbrook’s typographic experiment from 1990 using early font design software; FUEL’s (Peter Miles, Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell) newspaper from 1992 – a social commentary on President Yeltsin’s era of free enterprise Russia; a digital showcase designed by current PhD student Kyuha Shim, where all participating alumni work will be featured.
Further graduates selected for the exhibition include the industry-defining studios that are a pronounced feature of RCA alumni: Studio Dumbar, Why Not Associates, North, Studio Myerscough; Graphic Thought Facility, Barnbrook, M&M Paris, Kerr Noble, A2/SW/HK, Thomas.Matthews, and through to a new generation of designers: Åbäke, Julia, A Practice for Everyday Life and Jack Llewellyn.
Professor Teal Triggs, Associate Dean of Communication and co-curator explained: ‘GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years is more than an exhibition of artefacts. It is the result of a two-year process of working together with an amazing network of alumni, staff and students; looking at the past but always with a view toward continuing to shape the future of the profession.’
GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years
5 November – 22 December 2014, 10am – 5.30pm daily
Upper Gulbenkian Gallery, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU
The exhibition is curated by Teal Triggs, Adrian Shaughnessy, Jeff Willis and Richard Doust, with staff and students from the RCA School of Communication. There will be a series of events to accompany the show: for more information, see graphics50.rca.ac.uk.
To pre-order the publication GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years and Beyond (published 25 November 2014), go to graphics50.rca.ac.uk/book
GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years is endorsed by Icograda (The International Council for Communication Design), and the British Council. Media partners are Creative Review and The Times.