The notion of the designer as heroic soloist, the designer as artist, the designer as author, reached a crescendo in the 80s and 90s. Latterly, however, the primacy of the individual practitioner has been challenged by a more inclusive, collaborative and public-minded approach to graphic design. Today, social design and co-design, have acquired a new currency and value in a world where design is no longer just about dressing up products and services or star designers flaunting their talents.
In the work of Lance Wyman we find both strands co-existing. Wyman is a distinctive ‘soloist’ with a recognisable graphic signature (although he has had many accomplices over his long career), but he merges this with a strong social and inclusive approach to his design. Everything he does is “out in the street” – to use his phrase – and nowhere is this more strongly expressed than in his two great Mexican projects: the graphics for the 1968 Mexico Olympics and his extraordinary identity, signage and map for the Mexico City Metro.
Wyman’s Mexico 68 work has been extensively chronicled, but his work for the Mexico City Metro is less well known – at least to a non-Mexican audience. While still employed by the Olympic Committee, Wyman had an idea for a logo for the new Metro system that was then in its planning stage. Through his friend and frequent collaborator, the eminent Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, Wyman met some of the engineers working on the new system. They advised him to finish his work for the Olympic Committee before considering doing any work for the Metro.
But soon after this first encounter, the Metro, while under construction, commissioned a giant mural to welcome visitors to the Olympics, and Wyman was asked to design it. This was the beginning of a project that ranks amongst his most enduring public works, and a project where he was able to implement his embryonic theories around purely visual and non-linguistic communication.
As he began to work on the system’s graphics, Wyman recognised the need for station identification symbols that could be read not only by people with poor or non-existent literacy skills, but also by visitors from non-Spanish speaking countries. Wyman also spotted something else, a factor that was to shape his entire philosophy of visual communication: it wasn’t enough, he noted, just to have a symbol for each station; the stations had to be represented by symbols – or pictograms – that could be expressed verbally. In other words, if you can’t say what a visual symbol is, it will need to be accompanied by language.
“It is hard work convincing people that they don’t need a translation of names for certain types of wayfinding,” notes Wyman. “If you use an icon that can be understood in any language the translation is built in. That was really the beginning of the programme, and once the idea of the station icons was accepted, I started designing.”
Wyman’s philosophy is illustrated by the symbol for the Metro station in the district of La Candelaria. It is an area where a lake had once existed, and it was also an area inhabited by criminals, who were known locally as ‘ducks’. The station was called Candelaria de los Patos (Candelaria, the District of Ducks). This led Wyman to use a duck as the station’s symbol. He did this because the duck was both a visual and a verbal identifier. Wyman reasoned that an abstract symbol, or one that could not be expressed verbally, would have been far less effective. His methodology rendered written language redundant; the symbol was all that was needed.
Wyman had already proved the effectiveness of non-verbal icons in the sporting iconography for Mexico 68. He wasn’t the first to use pared-down symbols – pictograms had been around since the beginning of time, and the Isotype Institute was set up by Marie and Otto Neurath in 1940 – but with the Mexico City Metro iconography, Wyman emerged as a highly influential master of the art, and it is not hard to imagine his work pinned to the walls of graphic designers at an address in Cupertino, California. Wyman is not alone in spotting a link between his Mexican icon work and the symbols and layout of an iPhone screen.
Today it is routine to find Wyman’s icons used by local traders in Mexico City as shop signs and signifiers of location. This form of adoption is commonplace, and is a source of great personal pleasure to Wyman. It is also commonplace for him to receive letters of gratitude from people who have grown up surrounded by his symbols, and who have come to regard them not only as emblems of their communities but also as important elements in their lives. Lance Wyman really is the public designer par excellence.
Adrian Shaughnessy is the co-founder of Unit Editions, publishers of Lance Wyman: The Monograph (edited by Shaughnessy and designed by Spin). The book is available to order from uniteditions.com (£75)