Harriet Atkinson of Centre for Design History recently interviewed Graphic Designer Gavin Ambrose about his research
Harriet Atkinson: how would you describe yourself?
Gavin Ambrose: I’m a Graphic Designer and educator, working as Academic Programme Leader for Visual Communication at the University of Brighton while running my own design practice studio245 and the off-shoot publishing house from this: www.unseensketchbooks.co.uk.
HA: What are some of the ideas you’ve been thinking about in recent work?
GA: I have been particularly concerned with the role of play (or lack of it), in current design education. I have been exploring ways of introducing, or allowing this into the way we teach and have extended this thinking into my own design practice. I work and function as what I would describe as a traditional Graphic Designer. That is to say I organise projects. I have always had an uneasy relationship with the term ‘Graphic Designer’. If I’m honest I think it is misunderstood and hard to articulate. This is something that after I graduated from University I continued to be concerned with. Brian Webb who, at that time, ran Trickett & Webb articulately expressed this concern when he said:
I would show my jobs to my mother, and she would always say the same thing: “That’s nice dear” and then she would say: “Did you write it or do the drawing?” or “Did you take the pictures?” I’d always answer “No”, then I realised the problem. My answer was then: “I made this happen – it’s called design”.
This role of being someone that organises, as opposed to makes, was in my design background. As with Brian’s description of a designer, I constantly had the same difficulty of explaining to people what Graphic Designers do. An example would be the work I did for the Design Council, where large numbers and information graphics were ‘designed’, but I didn’t actually make any of it. In this instance I didn’t even do a drawing, it was merely a phone conversation, which seems absurd really. But to ring a fabricator or manufacturer and ask for a six-foot tall red number 3 is the way it went.
I always tell my students that design, and Graphic Design especially, is contradictory. So I guess my position changes. One day I’m all about organising and not doing any physical work, the next its all about process and hands on, with ink, etc, and both of these positions are valid for me, but equally I go through phases of dismissing them. I like to think I find or see opportunities. I see this as a key skill of a designer, to see something others might have missed. I also like to think I’m open and inclusive in my process – I always look for others’ skills and qualities. Not to exploit them, but to let them rise to the surface. Some of the best projects I have worked on have involved other people. As an example of this collaborative approach, when I first started teaching at Brighton, I got to know Jim Wilson, who works with PhD students on technical project support. I worked with Jim on the Design Research Society (DRS) conference held at the University in 2016. I really like the way Jim works. I mentioned to him one day I’d love a portable office, in part inspired by Archigram (the 1960s avant garde architectural group), and he sent me this sketch. When I showed the sketch to Peter Lloyd, then Associate Dean and convenor of DRS 2016, he funded it as part of the conference. And it reminds me there are people who are doers, people that just make things happen and I tend to gravitate towards them. I have subsequently undertaken several projects with Jim, identifying areas of need or opportunity. And most times these consist of conversation > sketch > make.
HA: Let’s discuss the ideas behind your most recent project Unseen Sketchbooks (https://www.unseensketchbooks.co.uk)?
GA: I started with the intention of looking beyond finished work. We live in a world saturated by glossy, finished images, and I was keen to see beyond that, to what people were really doing. I’ve always been interested in the way people work, the process they put in place, and even the physical spaces they work in. Some people use a literal sketchbook, others a wall, a desk, a camera, etc. They are the point where ideas are taking place, where people are thinking, where there is freedom, before all the restrictions and finality of finished work takes over. If you think of traditional publishing, it is planned, focus group driven, and worked out by finding a need (often just copying one that already exists), costing it out, and then finding someone to do the project. My ‘business model’, if you can even call it that, is different. I intentionally don’t interfere, don’t really edit or direct, and instead choose just to let the project happen. That isn’t to say there isn’t planning going on, but for me it is about facilitating rather than controlling.
HA: Was this a lock down project? If so, how has the pandemic shaped it?
GA: In part it is a lock down project, but I was working on it before lock down and will carry on afterwards. When lock down hit I decided to do a series of interviews with creatives that I post on www.unseensketchbooks.co.uk in the journal section. This was something I’d wanted to do for a while but never found the time. I’ve become more interested in ‘why’ people make work, and especially why people who are self-taught and just finding their own way through it make work. I hope one thing that comes out of the pandemic is a realisation that the arts offer something important, and something beyond a ‘service’. It can help us process things, help us make sense of the world, and make us feel better. That isn’t to say it is a silver bullet, it can’t necessarily ‘cure’, but it can help.
HA: I’ve been interested in watching how graphics have been used by businesses and governments for Covid-19 public communication. Do you have any thoughts about this?
GA: I think generally the use of design by governments is poor, and guess there was no surprise in the pandemic being any different. It is generally quite generic, scare tactic based, and neither engaging or informative. One thing I have noticed is the home done graphics are again better than ‘proper’ graphics. The many rainbows on doors and gates of the nation is the positive I’ll remember this time by. Graphic symbols are also very powerful. I noticed early on that this felt like a time of being told by graphics what to do. All the arrows on the floor, directionals, etc, are quite oppressive and something we aren’t used to. I suspect the impact of these might be more long lasting than we realise now. It is also interesting that in the latest edition we did with Erik Kessels, ‘Let’s Get Shitfaced – it’s free’, the arrow rubber stamp became the icon of the book. I didn’t choose this, the designer Chris Bigg selected it, and at the time I didn’t think about it, but considering it now it makes more sense. We are living in a time of restrictions and orders, and I hope Graphic Design plays a role beyond that, and isn’t simply there to tell people things. I would hope it is there at the forefront of making things better, or if that isn’t possible, at least making things more understandable.
HA: What role do you think graphic design could play in addressing the big contemporary challenges?
GA: I think it is a complex issue and not easy to answer. I think in part, yes design should have an influence, but as a white, middle-aged, (what would be perceived as) middle-class man who works in a University, I clearly have a position of privilege. The Black Lives Matter, Climate Change or the Me Too campaigns for example, are coming from a position of dis-balance, or lack of agency, ownership and power. In a way, the strength of those campaigns is that they have come from a position of anger, or struggle. People being so fed up, overlooked or marginalised that they had to do something. The strength of this is that is comes from a position of truth. Arguably the best examples of communication come from the grassroots. If you think of the protest graphics of Sister Corita Kent, the handmade posters of the young climate change protestors or the simple black instagram square, they are all very iconic. And they are all probably better for not having a trained Graphic Designer trying to make sense of it because by its nature, graphic design appropriates. That in a way is what makes it work, as graphic designers have to understand the codes and languages that we use. The danger here though is that designers re-appropriate these languages and codes to the point that they just become styles. If you think of the iconic images shot by Ernest Withers of the workers fighting for respect and freedom, with their homemade plaques. Visual language has now become so mainstream, that these epigram style posters are found in kitchens and living rooms – completely loosing the intensions or integrity of the statement.
Sanitation workers assemble in front of Clayborn Temple for a solidarity march carrying “I Am A Man” signs in Memphis, Tenn., in March 1968. Photo: Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr. courtesy of the Withers Family Trust Credit
HA: Are there particular designers or illustrators (past or present) whose work has shaped your own thinking?
GA: Absolutely. I was lucky enough to work for Alan Fletcher while he was at Phaidon Press, and I really liked his approach to design. It was very much an anything is possible approach and although he had a formidable reputation he had a real generosity of spirit. When I finished my MA at Central Martins I worked for Morag Myerscough and that was very influential on my thinking. Morag changed my perception of what I considered to be ‘Graphic Design’. Again, she had the anything is possible attitude that I still seek out in people I work with and try to instill in my students. I ended up teaching at Brighton in part through Ken Garland, the great British designer. He introduced me to the course, and without him and Andy Haslam (who taught me on my MA) I wouldn’t be at Brighton now. I now do the job Andy used to do, and have Ken’s granddaughter as one of my students, so it is a small world!