John Lloyd is one of Britain’s great graphic designers. From his early days at the London College of Printing in the 1960s to his three decades at the helm of LLoyd Northover, he has consistently produced clear, communicative graphic design and branding for a prestigious range of multinational clients including the RSC, John Lewis Partnership, National Rail and BAA. Having recently launched a retrospective website featuring some of the highlights of his design career, we decided to pick his brains and have a look back at an illustrious creative history.
What was going on at the LCP when you studied there?
I was at the London College of Printing as an apprentice lithographic artist from 1960-64 and as a graphic design student from 1965-68. It was an extraordinarily stimulating time to be a design student in London – we were surrounded by a surge of creativity in all the arts. It was a time of unbridled experimentation and great optimism. With every new project, you felt you were breaking new ground, and the LCP was at the centre of it all. My years at the LCP were the most creatively stimulating of my life.
How did it shape you as a designer?
The main focus of the London College of Printing was to serve the printing industry and so the tradition of teaching typography and printing as highly sophisticated arts and crafts underpinned everything. Allied to that, the LCP provided a classic Bauhaus-influenced art school training and, as a result, I was directly influenced by the early twentieth century pioneers of modern graphic design, and it was as a student that I first came across the work of Saul Bass.
I was struck by the simplicity and power of the images he created. His quest for the pure and essential idea has been a source of inspiration ever since. I am a modernist at heart; for me less is definitely much more.
How do you approach a new project?
I always start with an open mind and no preconceptions and I try to get as far away from the computer as possible. Computers can restrict the creative process. Use other media – drawing, painting, collage, photography – to stimulate ideas. Get out of the studio and look around. Try techniques involving randomness and chance. A designer needs to present himself with as many alternative options as possible from which to develop the most effective solution.
Creativity in design involves original thinking applied to solving the client’s problem. It is not about being crazy, wacky or “off the wall” for its own sake – to be effective, a visual identity needs to be distinctive, legible, timeless, identifiable at a glance, and memorable. The best designs achieve these aims through simplicity and clarity of form. It has nothing to do with a designer’s self-expression.
How has the industry changed since you’ve been practicing?
I think there are two key differences. The first is to do with technology. When we started Lloyd Northover in 1975 the Mac was still nine years away (it was invented in 1984). In 1975, graphic design practice was very much a craft-based activity. All our presentation roughs were made by hand – we sketched visuals, mixed paints, laid colour washes and hand-lettered the type. Final specifications were made by marking-up typescripts, casting-off type, and arranging galley proofs on pencil-drawn layouts.
Our finished artwork was made by hand too, using overlays for colour separation, and paste-up of text. The studio was stocked with pens, pencils, brushes, paints, inks, Letraset, and Cow Gum. The Mac quickly swept all this away; now, I’m hard-pressed to find a pencil in a graphic design studio. If we add to this revolution the internet, email and smartphone, there is no doubt that technology has transformed the way we work.
The second key difference is the rise of design management. In 1975, working relationships between client and designer were usually close. Clients tended to respect designers as talented specialists. We were embraced by client organisations, taken into their confidence and treated as partners. Now, there is often someone between the client and the designer – a design manager. As a result of this, design has come to be viewed as a commodity. Bidding and selection procedures have become much more methodological, the designer is kept at arm’s length, and the relationship of trust between client and designer has, in many cases, been eroded.
One of the high points of my career came shortly after the sad death of Saul Bass in 1996. Herb Yager, Saul’s surviving business partner, decided to look for a sympathetic design business with which to merge the Saul Bass practice in Los Angeles and he chose Lloyd Northover. So, in 1996 I became, with Jim Northover, the inheritor of the design practice of one of America’s greatest graphic designers, the man who had inspired me as a young apprentice 36 years earlier, and who had provided a creative guiding light ever since. That was quite a moment!