David King and the power of graphics – an appreciation of the late designer’s work

He was many things – a typographer, a designer, a picture editor, a writer, a collector. But, says Domenic Lippa, to me David King was one of the first designers to open my eyes to the power of graphic design

Although I didn’t know him, David King (who died in May this year) was, and continues to be, a strong influence on me and my work.

I became aware of his work long before I became aware of the man. He was the designer whose posters I had stuck up on the wall in my bedroom during the late 1970s. This was during the period of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League, who had used the potent combination of direct action and music to fight the rise of the racist National Front.

King had been responsible for both organisations’ work, applying a rousing, muscular and political approach to graphic design. I had their posters, badges and t-shirts. I still have a couple of those posters and badges, but the yellow Anti-Nazi League t-shirt has long disappeared.

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Carnival!!!!! Against the Nazis poster. Via gilburtandpaul.co.uk
Anti-Nazi League badge David King
Anti-Nazi League badge. Leo Reynolds, Flickr

His work woke me to the power of design and its ability to spread messages. It was the social media of its time. Both my parents were political and I had for many years been shown how powerful graphics could be used – but this was my discovery. To me the work was wholly original and memorable.

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Cover of Mayakovsky: Twenty Years of Work, the catalogue to the accompanying 1982 show at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, designed by David King. Image from The Photographic Archive, courtesy of Lars Dyrendom
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Spread from Mayakovsky: Twenty Years of Work, the catalogue to the accompanying 1982 show at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, designed by David King. Image from The Photographic Archive, courtesy of Lars Dyrendom
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Spread from Mayakovsky: Twenty Years of Work, the catalogue to the accompanying 1982 show at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, designed by David King. Image from The Photographic Archive, courtesy of Lars Dyrendom

I first consciously came across King when I visited the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1982. I was studying Graphic Design at LCP and a trip had been arranged to see the ‘Vladamir Myakovsky: Twenty Years of Work’, an exhibition designed by King. The graphic strength of the show and its accompanying catalogue knocked off my feet.

King’s approach was in total contrast to the prevailing graphic style of the time. The early 80s were dominated by a rather twee and gentle British approach to graphic design. Witty ideas were often the norm. This was the time of Penhaligon’s and Crabtree & Evelyn, where everything centred on wide spaced serif fonts. This never really appealed to me – I’ve always liked the more direct approach of using big sans serif fonts like a sledgehammer to the senses.

The work that King did for the Myakovsky exhibition and other shows such as ‘Alexander Rodchenko’ (1979) and ‘Art Into Production: Soviet Textiles, Fashion and Ceramics 1917-1935’ (1985) reflected his strong editorial background and interest in Soviet graphic history.

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City Lights covers by David King from magCulture’s Flickr set

King’s unconventional approach was not limited to politics and art, as demonstrated by his for City Limits magazine – the London listings magazine was set up by ex-Time Out journalists in 1981. Time Out’s design was itself no visual slouch, featuring covers by the legendary Pearce Marchbank, but David King brought to City Limits a typographic rawness that was so different to much of magazine design around at the time.

So much graphic design is gentle, unassuming even passive – it certainly was in the early 80s. King’s approach to his work was in marked contrast to this. His approach was powerful, direct and uncompromising. And it was recognisable. He was many things – a typographer, a designer, a picture editor, a writer, a collector. But to me he was one of the first designers to open my eyes to the power of graphic design.

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Cover of Axis: Bold As Love by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, 1967. One of a number of Hendrix sleeves designed by David King

As part of this piece I asked a few friends what they thought was the impact of David King and his work:

Jeremy Leslie, MagCulture:

“What I liked about David King’s designs was their organised urgency. His posters for RAR and ANL, and the City Limits covers, were all about delivering a clear message via block typography and bold colour, but they were also rallying calls, rabble-rousing emotional shouts. They absolutely reflected their content and were very sophisticated pieces of messaging. They were characterful but sparse, nothing was superfluous or mere decoration.

“I discovered the RAR and ANL posters and campaign material against a context of late hippy record sleeves – Hipgnosis x Pink Floyd etc – and they were a revelation.

“One of my first magazine jobs was in the City Limits studio and I remember working with Kings typography and trying to reflect his work in weekly one-colour poster versions of his front cover designs. Those covers looked instant but were very tightly composed. If you took one part out, the whole thing would fall apart.

“Only later did I discover King had worked at The Sunday Times through the 60s and 70s. I remember the weekly magazines and the artwork taxonomies of people, history and culture. That was King, and the work remains exemplary.

“It amazed me he gave it all up to concentrate on his archive.”

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Spread from Eye 48 feature on David King. Portrait by Anthony Oliver. Image: Eye

Simon Esterson, Eye Magazine:

“David King the designer gave the political left in postwar Britain its own graphic language. That language was his own rediscovery and reboot of Russian revolutionary graphics: tight-set sans serif all caps and bold rules. Two colour printing (as long as it was black and red) with type and pictures set at an angle. And even bolder rules. It was economic to artwork with Letraset and paste-up for simple litho print. The images didn’t have to be perfect: they just had to tell the story and a crude newspaper dot screen gave them energy where they lacked beauty. And then there were the boldest rules you had seen since the Bauhaus.

“David King the author/designer/photographer went to Russia, China and America for The Sunday Times magazine. Shot, edited and designed a photo book about Muhammad Ali and began collecting images for his books on photo manipulation in Stalinist Russia [The Commissar Vanishes]. He made narratives, not just a pretty sequence of pages. He was concerned about content as much as form.

David King the collector built and then donated his fine collection of Russian graphic design to the Tate Gallery.”

See Eye’s profile on David King here

The Commissar Vanishes, David King
Cover of The Commissar Vanishes, David King’s exploration of the use of photo manipulation to remove purged Soviet politicians and bureaucrats from official images. Tate Books
MUhammad Ali David King Rumble in the Jungle
David King’s photographs of Muhammad Ali were taken in 1974 at his training camp for the legendary George Foreman fight, held later that year in Zaire. The photographs were originally published in the Sunday Times Colour Magazine (of which King was Art Editor from 1965 to 1975) and then featured in King’s biography of Ali, published by Penguin. The Valerie Wade gallery has prints of a number of these images available for purchase. Image courtesy Valerie Wade.

Roger Law, artist and co-creator of Spitting Image:

“David and I met at The Observer newspaper in the early 60s. We had many ideas we wanted to try out but David didn’t get the opportunity until he was headhunted by Michael Rand of the Sunday Times Colour Magazine. It was brand new with a healthy budget and Rand gave him more freedom to strut his stuff than it is possible to imagine these days. I also went to work for the magazine. To be honest we had an irresponsible ball.

“David threw his Bauhaus training to one side and became fascinated with its origins, Russian Constructivism. He introduced strong photographic images and plenty of Franklin Gothic bold headings that took up half the page! I think he was the first to print full page and double-page spreads of photo-journalism in full-colour black, which gave more power and depth to the images. I saw him lay out a Don McCullin picture story spread about the war in Vietnam in minutes. His selection of photographs was spot on and told the whole story, which hardly needed captions. As you turned the pages the story unfolded with shocking impact.

“Please remember in those days some of the magazines were 98 page issues, which a very small art department used to knock out weekly. You had to understand the story and relay it clearly to the reader. David was uncompromising and after a while he researched his own stories for the magazine. And because he could tell the story with pictures he connected with the readers.

“When working on the magazine became difficult, because the advertising began to dictate the content, David left the Sunday Times Magazine and used his talent to produce posters for causes he believed in – people and politics. He became a collector of images from the Soviet Union and taught himself Russian. He used his collection to tell many visual stories that hardly needed words. This was his talent.

“So the collection and his knowledge and understanding of journalism and design is what made him different. Many young designers have been influenced by his style but it isn’t just style it is content. When we worked together and did something we thought was OK, David would cross his two index fingers into an X and shout ‘style and content!’.”

Domenic Lippa is a partner at Pentagram in London. The Valerie Wade gallery has a selection King’s Muhammad Ali prints available for sale. Details here. Further reading: Mike Dempsey’s excellent profile of David King from his Heroes series for Design Week can be read here

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