In November, GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years will see the Royal College of Art stage an exhibition of student work by a range of its graphic design graduates from the past five decades. In as much as the work charts the beginnings of the careers of many well known names in graphic design, the assembled projects also mirror the changing nature of the subject itself.
In a sense, the foundations of the show also go back half a century. In 1948, Richard Guyatt (1914-2007) became the youngest ever professor at the college and was integral in reshaping the institution as a place for readying students for modern, professional design practice. In 1963, on the 15th anniversary of what was then the Graphic Design course, an exhibition looked back on the progress made – that year now acts as the starting point for the Fifty Years show.
According to co-curator Adrian Shaughnessy, Guyatt’s vision and his philosophy of “head, hand and heart” threads through much of the work made in the intervening years.
Remarkably, the RCA hasn’t previously produced a show of this scale dedicated solely to its graphic design output. The subject has been part of broader shows at the college (it is now a strand of the Visual Communications MA), but not the focus of a larger exploration. That said, graphic design at the RCA seems to have had a way of making its presence felt. “Looking back, what amazes me is how it actually forced itself through the cracks,” says Shaughnessy.
The team putting the show together is a mix of graduates, current students and staff, including professors Teal Triggs and Jeff Willis, and senior tutors Richard Doust and Shaughnessy. Together, they connect up the RCA’s graphics history: Doust exhibited in the 1963 show, external advisor Michele Januzzi graduated in 1992 (forming studio Januzzi Smith a year later), while student curators Abbie Vickress and Natasha Trotman represent the RCA’s current intake.
The show has four loose themes – ‘craft’, the ‘college as client’, ‘cultural and political’ work and ‘social life’. These reflect the fact that while the RCA commissions work from its students, as do the student-run events and societies, an awareness of societal shifts are also explored through self-initiated practice. The influence of the RCA’s various heads of school, from Derek Birdsall to Neville Brody, is another element that will no doubt reveal itself within some of the work on display. Work, too, that tests the boundaries of what ‘graphic design’ is – most evident in the move towards art practice, theory and research-led work.
Getting to “the essence” of what graphic design is at the RCA is part of the ambition, says Triggs, but it is not mere introspection – the list of exhibitors reinforces the college’s reputation for fostering talent: from the late 80s and early 90s, for example, there’s Morag Myerscough, Amelia Noble and Jonathan Barnbrook, and a succession of collectives such as GTF and FUEL. ‘Graphic design’ is a term that continues to require interrogation and, over the years, the RCA has done just that. That at the same time it has generated such a vibrant list of graphic design alumni – a whole community, if you like – is surely worth celebrating, too.
GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years runs November 5-December 22. graphics50.rca.ac.uk