“D&AD? That was all my idea”

50 years ago, a group of designers and art directors came together to create a platform for showcasing the best work in London

Like any great creative project, the invention of D&AD can be traced right back to formative and collaborative years at college. Central School of Art, now part of Central Saint Martins, was the place where the bright young British minds that co-created D&AD learnt their trade. Seminal figures in design history such as Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes and Derek Birdsall all studied ‘Publicity Design’ under typography tutor Anthony Froshaug, with Terence Conran, Ken Garland and Theo Crosby all contemporaries. This golden period at Central in tandem with the MA course at the ‘College’ – the Royal College of Art – was to form the backbone not only of D&AD, but of the British creative industry over the next half century.

The story begins with an unlikely collaboration between rival principals of what were to become two of the most important design studios of the 1960s, Birdsall Daulby Mayhew Wilbur Associates (BDMW), and Fletcher Forbes Gill (F/F/G). Reunited from Central School in competition for clients such as Mobil, Penguin Books, IBM, and Pirelli, these two pioneering ‘design groups’ put their energy and enthusiasm to the age old problem of any fledgling studio: getting known. Their work spoke volumes, but to get hired in Europe and in the US, something deeper was required. A way of showcasing the very best work in London.

After forming BDMW in 1959, Derek Birdsall set in motion a chain of events which ultimately went on to create D&AD. With encouragement from friend, client and landlord, John Commander, art director and man of many talents from Wisbech-based printers Balding+Mansell (B+M), he founded the Association of Graphic Designers, London (AGDL). BDMW rented studio space at the London office of B+M, and Birdsall and Commander often spoke of the need to show the world the revolutionary work going on in Britain at the time.

Early members of the association included Birdsall’s partners at BDMW, Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes pre F/F/G, and a selection of some of the most important designers and art directors of the time, including Dennis Bailey, Romek Marber and Arnold Schwartzman.

Significantly, the fledgling creative industry of late 1950s Britain existed in a void. There were no design competitions of real note and only one, largely unsatisfactory, gong remained available in advertising – The Layton Awards. A situation so different to the crowded industry mantelpiece we have today. In design, there was the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA), headed up by fabled publicity designer FHK Henrion, and boasting luminaries such as Mischa Black, Abram Games and Milner Grey amongst their dusty, but respected ranks. As Bob Gill recalls, “they were very much the rolled up umbrella and bowler hat brigade. I came to England in 1960, and I’d already judged a couple of times for the New York Art Directors Club. When I arrived in London I thought, why can’t we have something similar here? London had nothing comparable. So we thought we’d better do something about it. We wanted to find a way of showing the best work.”

Wonderful dumb luck

Gill, a bold young art director and illustrator from Brooklyn came to London to work short term for advertising agency Charles Hobson, but stayed 15 years. “It was just a wonderful bit of dumb luck. I was going on a holiday to Europe, and there was an ad in the New York Times saying there was an English agency hiring an art director, and I thought it would be much more fun to work in Europe than just have a holiday. They hired me, and I never looked back, it was just the most wonderful experience.” Gill fell in love with the city and his drive lit the fire that still burns inside D&AD today.

With enough energy to set the 60s swinging on his own, Gill decided to leave Hobson’s – hiring his own replacement before resigning. He then began working with a young but prolific Alan Fletcher, fresh from freelancing at Time-Life in New York, and recent head of school at Central, ex-student Colin Forbes. Fuelled by the relative success of the first AGDL initiative, ‘12 Designers’, the exhibition, ‘17 Graphic Designers, London’ was planned by Birdsall, Fletcher and then AGDL chairman, John Commander at the Time-Life Building in Bond Street in London’s West End.

Young turks

At around the same time, an impatient Gill persuaded his new partner Forbes (fresh from the formation of F/F/G on April Fool’s Day in 1962), to go on stage against Henrion in a debate about membership of the SIA.

“Because we were obviously the young turks, they asked us to join. I knew … these people weren’t the right vehicle to make some magic happen, so I suggested we have a debate for the fun of it,” Gill says. “I suggested ‘The SIA is Full of Shit’. The SIA didn’t like the title, so we compromised on ‘Why join the SIA?’. Forbes took the negative argument and we had a debate at a hall in London.”

Forbes remembers the SIA well. “Anybody could join. When they had an exhibition, there were no juries. It wasn’t very well organised. When we did our exhibition we did it at the Hilton, and they were at the Seymour Hall Swimming Pool!”

The young Ken Garland (ex-editor of Design Magazine and by now of Ken Garland Associates) was there. “I was at the back of a conference room when there was a sort of debate going on about why younger designers should join the Society of Industrial Artists (SIA),” he says. “I went along because some of my chums were going, but all I wanted to join was a trade union.” Garland’s famous First Thing’s First manifesto was drafted in that room, encouraged by the debate. “The manifesto was written in the heat of the moment. [It was] meant to be an alert to the fact that monies, which were pouring into visual communications of all sorts, seemed to be going down the wrong channels. There were all sorts of things that we could have been about and we weren’t. I hardly expected it to raise any interest but I got this terrific reception.”

Gill’s importance in the story is confirmed by his recollection of a meeting in the summer of 1960 with yet another Bob from New York now working in London, Bob Brooks, from advertising agency Bensons. Gill remembers, “Bob couldn’t get enough of us guys, he wanted more US art directors in his agency. He asked me to get the word out, so I put an ad in the New York Times in September 1960, asking for US art directors to join us in London. I held interviews in a hotel room in Manhattan. One of the first guys I saw was Lou Klein, and I hired him (to replace me at Hobsons).”

Alan Fletcher, then 30, was intuitively socialising with art directors in London’s advertising agencies, seeing no division between skills. Famously inclusive and generous, Fletcher’s easy friendships with his contemporaries uncovered a shared impatience in London’s advertising scene. With only the printing and block supplier’s Layton Awards to win, advertising was also desperate for a bigger platform for its work and envious of the developed awards schemes in the US at the time. The Layton Awards shone a light only on the agency itself, and not on the individuals whose work was rewarded. Dissatisfaction with this lack of individual credit was discussed in a meeting with Fletcher by Bob Brooks, and his friend Colin Millward, ex-Colman Prentis & Varley and by now creative director at an important new London agency, Collett Dickenson Pearce. “We got together,” says Brooks, “and Colin bought in Malcolm Hart, another art director with Bensons at the time.”

Hart remembers the circumstances leading up to meeting the designers well. “I was at an agency [Bensons] where the writers were called the ‘Literary Department’. I was group creative head, but I had a typewriter. I wrote down ideas, rather than try to illustrate these dreary bits of copy. I nearly got fired because of my arrogance and attitude. Until Bob Pethick came from Canada, that’s how it was. He was appointed group copy head and he had to work with me. The ‘Literary Department’ put out a pamphlet explaining how advertising should be created which circulated in the agency. Pethick took out his cigarette lighter and burnt it right there and then. That was the spirit. We were very determined.

“The designers had the same difficulties in a way. All their ideas were contrary to common practices at the time. We both had that going for us. The designers of that time, Birdsall, F/F/G and so on, they regarded themselves as artists. They looked disparagingly at us art directors-we were the hucksters you know, doing commercial stuff. The differences soon disappeared and nobody gave a shit whether you were a designer or an art director after a time,” Hart says.

This important meeting is recalled by ex-D&AD president Mike Dempsey, then a young designer of just 21. “I remember Alan [Fletcher] telling me that there was a graphics exhibition on the back of the ‘17 Designers book’. (Around that time) he met with some advertising guys about setting up something.  He was dubious as they seemed to want to run the show!”

The first show

Finding broad agreement, Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes, Bob Gill, Derek Birdsall, Bob Brooks, Colin Millward and Malcolm Hart devised the early systems which were to define the new Design and Art Direction Association of London (DADA). Colin Forbes remembers tight times. “We were all beginning and nobody had any money.” Birdsall confirms, “It started off very much being graphic designers, but the advertising agencies took over mainly because they had all the money!”

Fletcher re-worded a NYADC entry form and Forbes designed the famous D&AD logo, as Fletcher once described: “He found a cube of wood, stuck the four characters on adjacent sides and photographed the angulation. John Commander was elected chairman (with Derek Birdsall honourable secretary) and the first show was held in June 1963 and mounted by Bob Gill and students overnight on the mezzanine of the Hilton Hotel.” Birdsall recalls Commander’s chairmanship, “Balding+Mansell commissioned a lot of work through F/F/G and us (so) he became a focal point. He undertook the role with enthusiasm. He had worked for the Design Council, so he had a real knowledge of the arts. He didn’t come from a background of art or design, but he evolved into a very good commissioner of design.” F/F/G designed the call for entries and BDMW partner George Daulby designed the very first ‘annual’, a 16 page A5 pamphlet with no pictures at all.

The first DADA show in 1963 featured 403 items of print and 38 films from approximately 3,500 entries. The first judging panel was a mix of AGDL members featured in the forthcoming ‘17 Graphic Designers, London’ show; Derek Birdsall, Jock Kinneir, Romek Marber and Germano Facetti amongst others and US art directors Robert Brownjohn, Bob Brooks, as well as John Pearce of CDP (Colin Millward’s boss), Bob Geers and Bob Gross. Just one DADA gold Award was bestowed, upon a short film for Shell by Geoffrey Jones, with 16 Silver Awards presented at the Hilton by Lord Snowdon.

The original DADA Awards were probably designed by designer Marcello Minale in 1963. Actual size black pencils, beautifully presented in a black ebony pencil case, were made in two varieties with a gold and silver leads by The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. The Pencils were referenced in Minale’s subsequent design of the 1964 and 1965 Certificates, featuring an early precursor to the world famous Minale Tattersfield Provencialli ‘scribble’ of 1968.

“The sun shone, everyone could see what everyone else was doing. Standards were established. Clients became engaged. Creativity acquired value,” remembered Fletcher.

Mark Bonner MA(RCA), co-creative director at GBH and D&AD Executive Committee member conducted new interviews with Derek Birdsall, Bob Brooks, Edward Booth-Clibborn, Mike Dempsey, Colin Forbes, Bob Gill, Bob Gross, Ken Garland, Malcolm Hart, Michael Johnson, Bernard Lodge and Quentin Newark during Spring 2012 to attempt to achieve a definitive account of D&AD’s formation. Information has been consolidated from D&AD annuals, as well as numerous books and magazines. Mark would also like to thank John McConnell, Pentagram and Sarah Fakray for their generous help.


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