Patrick Burgoyne will be blogging from the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town this week
Design Indaba has often been referred to as the best design conference in the world: it certainly attracts the big names, this year being no exception as the event kicked off with a presentation by (and I think for once this term is genuinely applicable) a living legend of graphic design, Ivan Chermayeff.
Celebrating 50 years of working with partner Tom Geismar, Chermayeff (above) noted that in the early days, when people would ask him what he did at parties he used to tell them he was a commercial artist: “they didn’t know what that was but they left you alone, which was good.” Now he says he’s a graphic designer “and they say ‘Oh, my niece is studying graphic design’. But they still don’t know what it means and they still leave you alone. Which is also good.”
Despite leading the field since the 50s (he spent eight years “recovering from my design education”), Chermayeff said he finds it harder and harder to describe “what the hell graphic design is about”. But “mostly it’s about enjoying yourself and getting paid for it”.
To illustrate this he showed a sequence of his collages made from leftover envelopes, found tin cans and various other “garbage” – his “litle treasures” – which were very reminiscent of those of his contemporary, Alan Fletcher and, it seems, motivated by the same curiosity and playfulness.
Chermayeff then walked us through some of the 300 logos that his studio has designed (and showed the film above), some of them still in use 40 years after they were first designed, although not always as intended – he later revealed to me that his Chase Manhattan mark (below), for example, is currently being somewhat poorly treated by its custodians.
The work stands out for its enduring modernity, its simplicity and confidence – clean, strong lines and not a swooshy line or a 3D shiny blob in sight.
Bizarrely, the only question to come from the audience was “which computer programmes do you use?” Chermayeff proudly declared that he is the only designer he knows who has neither cell phone nor computer, “but I do have friends”.
Next up was Bosnian art director and illustrator Mirko Ilic (above) who recently worked with Milton Glaser on the book The Design of Dissent. In a serendipitous bit of scheduling, Ilic showed how some of the logos created by Chermayeff at a time of optimism and belief in the American Way have now come to symbolise a set of completely different values – that Corporate America is now often cast as the villain not the bringer of freedom. That logos such as that of NBC, designed by Chermayeff & Geismar in 1985 but originally created in 1956, is now used to represent corporate brainwashing and the stifling of debate rather than merely representing the miracle of colour TV.
It neatly illustrated how we have gone from a period when, if no-one else knew what a graphic designer was, at least designers themselves did, to a time when everybody has heard of graphic design but its practitioners are now confused and uncertain of its role, certainly when it comes to its relationship with big business, the very bedrock on which careers such as Chermayeff’s was built.