Ken Garland in his studio

An interview with Ken Garland

Ken Garland, who has died aged 92, had a phenomenal impact on the design industry and British culture. In this interview with CR from 2013 he reflects on 60 years of “structure and substance” as a graphic designer, writer, teacher and photographer

On arriving at Ken Garland’s studio in Camden, the designer tells me he has been looking over a new version of the London Underground map that came in the post that morning. The design, by Mark Noad, is based on Harry Beck’s 1931 original and attempts to reconcile his diagrammatical drawing with above-ground geography. At 82, and something of an authority on Beck, Garland has seen a few of these attempts in his time. But this one, he says, tracing a finger along one of the tube lines – less rigidly structured than in Beck’s map – is the best he’s ever seen. While clearly grateful for the gift, he will devote some of the day to checking its accuracy, he says.

Garland has been living and working in this same building since 1964. The walls of the ground floor studio are covered with examples of his and others’ work, “the product of an accumulation of work done and interests noted. It’s like the cities of Troy,” he says. But much of what surrounds him has now been collected, edited and organised into book form. Written by Adrian Shaughnessy and published by Unit Editions, Structure and Substance covers some 60 years of work, and is Garland’s first comprehensive monograph.

Example of Ken Garland’s early typography work
Ken Garland in his studio

In as much as the book tells the story of Garland’s long working life as a designer, writer and teacher, it ends with images that reveal an ongoing concern of his: photography. He is still taking pictures – “formalising” images – and one of his most recent large-scale photographs, taken in Italy, is propped up on a desk nearby. But then, as Shaughnessy’s book confirms, Garland has always been so much more than a graphic designer. He still teaches and remains committed to the lecture circuit, both as a speaker and, more regularly, as an (often vocal) audience member.

At London’s Central School of Arts and Crafts in the mid-1950s, Garland was part of a new generation of designers who, Shaughnessy writes, “were to build the foundations of modern British graphic design as we recognise it today”. Fellow students included a host of recognisable names – Alan Fletcher, Colin Forbes, Derek Birdsall and Ken Briggs – while tutors Anthony Froshaug, Herbert Spencer, Jesse Collins and Edward Wright would prove influential in their teaching of typography and graphics, introducing the young Garland to the new forms of Swiss design. (Froshaug lent Garland his copy of Jan Tschichold’s Typographische Gestaltung; the student then sought out a rare edition of the earlier Die neue Typographie for himself.)

Poster by Ken Garland

“I became immersed in it,” he says of the Swiss work. “But I was never an absolute devotee – I had my reservations – and when I spent a month in Switzerland in 1960, my enthusiasms were there, but some of my suspicions were confirmed; that these designers were using the subject matter as their toy, they got off on it. Their formalism overrode the caution they should have shown to the material they were working with.”

Reflecting on his first-hand experience of the work of Max Bill, Hans Neuburg, Max Huber and others, Garland published his first essay, Structure and Substance, in the Penrose Annual of that same year.

This proved to be a significant turning point for Garland who, by the time he undertook his journey to the home of the new graphics, was mid-way through his tenure as art editor of Design, the journal of the Council of Industrial Design. While maintaining a respect for the modernist designers’ sense of structure and, he says, their “absolute conviction [and] thorough involvement in the act of printing and of publication”, he believed this should be combined with a humanist sensibility to be truly effective. This was a direction he had seen evident in the graphic design coming out of the US for several years – in the work of Herb Lubalin and Saul Bass, for example – and also in the subject matter of the magazine on which he was gaining invaluable experience, with its focus on ergonomics and human factors studies.

Spread from a Galt Toys catalogue

Garland coupled this progressive drive with a desire to sweep away a “slightly muzzy Englishness”, a phrase of his from the book that covers everything from the private press movement to the design establishment of the time as represented by typographer Stanley Morison – things that, several decades later, he now admits he has more time for. “We were to make ourselves subservient to the text, we were not to intrude on it, we were not to transmogrify it,” he recalls of the traditionalist approaches he had found problematic and so fought against whilst a student. “We weren’t supposed to do anything except just put it into some decent shape. Well stuff that. We wanted to get to grips with it. We wanted to be part of the creation.”

And become a part of it he did. While nearing the end of his work on Design, he began to seek out his own clients, eventually leaving the magazine in 1962 to fully pursue his own interests as an independent designer with the launch of Ken Garland Associates. Ideas and convictions which had formed at the Central School, and to a certain extent been tempered and then applied to the pages of Design, were now able to fully take shape. And two years later, the building that his wife Wanda suggested the couple buy in Camden, also played a vital role in determining how this nascent design business would unfold.

“It did commit me to something that I wanted to be committed to in any case: to restricting the size of the business,” he says of the house and studio. “Ken Garland Associates, I decided, would not be more than four people. Three could work in here, one on the mezzanine. I didn’t want it to grow bigger; I didn’t want to be the boss, going to big meetings, not doing what I wanted to do, which is designing and photographing, and writing and teaching.”

Garland says that right from the beginning the studio had plenty of work. “Within a month or two I had to get someone to help me. And within another few months, another person, until there were three of us here for three years, and then we became four.” As jobs came in Garland would “formulate a concept, often in discussion with my associates, but usually I was guiding it. Then I would give it to one of them. With every new client, I would start the operation, but sometimes I would hand over even the beginning of it. The logos, some of them I gave straight away to somebody else. I wanted them to feel that they were right in at the beginning, that they were totally involved.”

design by Ken Garland
Design for London College of Communication

The way the studio initially organised its client work was through a series of consultancy agreements and this led to his long relationship with the newly formed toy manufacturers, James Galt and Company. “With my first client, [toy shop] Paul and Marjorie Abbatt, I had an informal arrangement,” he says. “They knew I would be designing all their printed matter. I didn’t at that time do their toys, but I would be doing catalogues, advertising, leaflets, exhibitions. They weren’t going to ask anyone else. With Galt we had a formal agreement: that they would pay me so much every year and I would commit myself to their work and not do any work for a competitor. I gave them a discount on my hourly rate for design, in exchange for their annual retainer. It wasn’t a very big amount, really the purpose of that was to make a commitment.”

Garland says the studio then made similar arrangements with, among others, Barbour Index and the Butterley company. “With the furniture designers,” he says, “I was not prepared to be exclusive, because I knew it would be an area I would want to enter into. So I had arrangements with three furniture designers; they didn’t mind.”

The studio’s work for Galt is among its most widely known. The Manchester-based toy company remains KGA’s longest-serving client (20 years) and the studio produced its widest collection of work for them, from bringing a new identity and photography style to its public-facing material (instead of studio shots, children were shown playing at home and in the street), to coming up with designs for games, puzzles, even furniture. And as far as the communication design for the British toy market appeared at the time, the Galt look was radical.

“I have to give credit to Adrian,” Garland says, pointing to the book, “as he picked up on my first freelance client, the Abbatts, and I had not realised how much that early contact meant. It introduced me to the toy trade and to aspects of good toy design – an island of probity and true concern for children’s play in a morass of bad toy design. [The work] was as important to me as the preoccupations I had on Design magazine; my preoccupations with the real nitty gritty of design. Play for children is where it really resides.”

CND poster

It’s revealing to hear Garland talk animatedly about the importance of design for play when, to many designers, and indeed to many people outside of the profession, it is perhaps Garland’s more serious political work that informs their idea of him. It’s certainly rare to hear a designer discussing adventure playgrounds one minute and CND or the Occupy movement the next. But that is what makes Garland and his work so interesting: he embodies the universality of good design, which when used appropriately can be applied to a child’s game or a protest banner. The 1960s brought that out in him, too, as only a few years after he began his association with Galt he wrote the document which will be forever associated with his name: First Things First.

That is what makes Garland and his work so interesting: he embodies the universality of good design, which can be applied to a child’s game or a protest banner

In 1963 the Society of Industrial Artists were keen to ensure that there would be another generation of members, Garland recalls. So the designer FHK Henrion called a meeting which, he hoped, would enable the SIA to put forward its case, while allowing Garland and his contemporaries to state their concerns with the organisation. “So here we all were, our generation and the younger one, ready to be converted,” he says. “I was sitting at the back. I got bored but I didn’t want to be rude and leave. So I thought, ‘There must be something else that concerns me?’ If we were a trade union, which I always thought we should be, this would concern me: What’s the nature of our work, who are we working for, who are these clients? And what clients would we like? And are there people who we would like to work for who might not be able to afford us?” When the audience was asked if anyone had anything else to say, Garland walked to the front of the room and read out his text.

Galt Toys Leaflet by Ken Garland
Galt Toys Leaflet

First Things First is now almost a mythic document, in the sense that it has come to stand for many different things, when in the face of “the high pitched scream of consumer selling” he and his co-signatories simply believed that “there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on” and hoped for a “reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication”. Shaughnessy points out that in the document itself “the language is suggestive rather than coercive”, it is “not specifically anti-business, or anti-advertising”, and that, in fact, it “grew out of pragmatic concerns rather than high-minded notions of ethical conduct”.

Having spoken recently at the ‘social’-themed TYPO London conference, Garland’s reputation as the embodiment of ethical concern is clearly still a talking point. But it also provides him with a chance to subvert this image, as he managed to do in London by reciting five of his own poems (alongside a series of related images) in place of a slideshow of past work. There is a flow and overlap between his interests, which perhaps suggests why performing poetry at a design a conference was, for him, just another way of communicating to people. When talking about his most recent photographic work, connections to poetry (“with my camera I draw out the metaphor”) are close at hand. “Progressively,” he says, early on in our conversation, “my photographs have become less a straight description and more an evocation. I realised, in fact, they always have been.”

Spread from Abbatt Toya Catalogue

In Garland’s studio there is a photograph of an Irish vocal group singing in what looks like a dimly lit pub. “It’s grainy and so on, but it’s an exact evocation of the way they sing,” Garland says of the image, which he made some 15 years ago. All three singers have their eyes closed. “And their mouths are hardly open,” he notes. “With Irish singers, sometimes you can’t even see their mouths moving; there’s no crescendo, no vibrato, and at the end they often just say the last phrase, they speak it, throw it away. Isn’t that marvellous?”

Something of this rings true with Garland’s wider body of work. Much of it is measured, plain speaking yet thoughtfully arranged. It communicates and connects. And like the sound somehow captured in the grainy photograph, it is evocative of a unique voice.

Ken Garland: Structure and Substance by Adrian Shaughnessy is published by Unit Editions; £35,