On a wall in James Goggin’s north London studio hangs a poster for the forthcoming Tate Britain exhibition by Scottish artist Peter Doig. It’s the latest Tate project from Goggin’s studio Practise and shows a section of Doig’s painting of a roadside tunnel framed by a rainbow. The artist’s name is centred so that the shape almost echoes the curve of the original rainbow which disappears off the left-hand edge. It’s a very unconventional crop of Doig’s painting and the ‘I’ in the artist’s name is from a different font to the rest of the letters. It’s daring, unconventional and, as such, typifies Goggin’s work for Tate.
“We’d decided on a different image but I was always drawn to this one with the rainbow,” says Goggin of the decision to choose which Doig work should go on the poster. “On the day before my presentation, I still liked it, so I shifted the painting to the side, cropped the rainbow in half and, immediately, that seemed to be the poster.” Armed with just this one version in hand (he admits to carrying others in his bag just in case) Goggin recalls the latest of his meetings with director of Tate Media, Will Gompertz: “Is this the one James?’ he asked. ‘Yes, this is it,’ I said, ‘you’re not going to beat this one’”. After five years of working for Tate, Goggin is confident of what is required.
His fruitful working relationship with Gompertz has lasted even longer: Goggin first worked with him at publishing venture, Purple House, as art director of the later issues of the ZOO visual arts quarterly. Following a two year stint in New Zealand, Goggin and family returned to the uk in 2003. Newly installed at the Tate and aware of Goggin’s strong portfolio of work for cultural clients, Gompertz asked him if he’d be interested in working on projects for the institution, initially on material for a Wolfgang Tillmans show at Tate Britain.
Goggin of course said yes. But while delighted at the prospect of designing a poster for one of his favourite artists, for one of the most famous art galleries in the world, he was also aware of the implications of working for a large museum that had such an imposing ‘brand toolkit’ to adhere to. “Tate has a very recognisable logo and that’s a great achievement for a contemporary art gallery,” he says. “But it was also something I was worried about as I’m always wary of galleries being spoken of in corporate terms. You design an ‘identity’ for a gallery and, if people feel a kinship with it, then that’s just a good job on the gallery’s part – it’s not something you can work on, call a ‘brand’ and apply it on the gallery. If the Tate brand is all the elements that people think of when they think of the Tate, then they’re doing a good job. But, for me, that’s not what the identity does. So my immediate reaction as a designer was the same as any time I’m handed a set of rules to work with: I don’t necessarily want to rebel against them – I’m interested in ticking all the boxes so that, on paper, you’re not breaking any rules, but it looks like maybe you are.”
Goggin’s first poster immediately went against some of these rules: he created a new, unauthorised version of the Tate font, which he called Tate Stencil, to evoke the self-assembly nature of Tillmans’ installation process, and also made use of an off-brand process magenta colour. Even more unorthodox was his treatment of the famous Wolff Olins Tate logo which, naturally, would be a requirement on each piece of design he worked on. “There were all these Photoshop layers that I was supposed to use,” he explains, “but I found a folder called For Fax Use Only which contained a half-tone bitmap version of the blurred logo that
I thought was a much more honest version.” His bold move paid off. “I was a bit worried as the first meeting was with Will, Stephen Deuchar, the director of Tate Britain, and Tillmans’ gallerist. But we spent most of the time discussing the one line rule I’d put between Tillmans’ name and the title of the exhibition – the magenta, the overprinting of the logo on the photograph and the stencil weren’t mentioned at all! It was only several projects in that people started asking questions about the fonts I was using. That started an ongoing process with the Tate, playing around with the identity as a set of modular elements rather than a set of precise rules.”
Another test for the work Goggin had been doing at Tate was at the first bi-annual appraisal of the entire graphic communications with Brian Boylan of Wolff Olins. “The funny thing is that in a very self-conscious way I was priding myself on how rebellious I was being,” says Goggin, “not as a motivation for doing things, but designers do enjoy getting around the rules a bit. And I had some trepidation about meeting Brian, knowing that it looked like I’d been disregarding them. But he said he loved what I’d been doing with the identity. I was pleased that he was so into the ideas but also slightly disappointed that I wasn’t being as rebellious as I’d thought! So Wolff Olins didn’t see what I was doing as something negative but more as an understanding of what they’d done and a recognition of its inherent modularity.”
In 2007, Goggin’s breadth of work for the Tate includes far more that just printed materials. He’s created the identity for the gallery’s recent podcasts initiative, TateShots, cleverly employing a pattern of halftone dots to reference the overall identity, and has worked on a range of different signage applications for shows, for example rejecting vinyl and dry transfers in favour of a dot-matrix display more commonly found in a train station.
With his tenure as art director of the Wire coming to end, Goggin will have even more time to be involved in the Tate’s ongoing visual development. And despite his rebellious instincts, the work he’s produced to date shows that a considerable part of the gallery’s visual output remains in a very safe pair of hands.