Adrian Shaughnessy on Ken Garland, a “disruptive and questioning spirit”

Paying tribute to the pioneering graphic designer, his iconoclasm and enduring legacy.

Date
24 May 2021
Reading Time
5 minute read

Ken Garland has died at the age 92. He was a pioneer. A transformer. An occasional disruptor and a delightful human being. He left a legacy that affects almost everyone practising graphic design today.

To understand how Ken Garland’s legacy lives on in contemporary design, we have to look at his many accomplishments and attributes. They make dizzying reading. He was an A-list graphic designer. His work for Galt Toys, Design magazine and CND is firmly lodged in the graphic design canon. An early proponent of Swiss design at a time when it was dismissed by many British designers as un-British, he was also an admirer of vibrant American mid-century graphic design. His work can be viewed as a fusion of these two strands – something he called structure and substance.

He was the founder in 1962 of Ken Garland & Associates, and whenever he talked about the studio’s work he stressed that it was the product of teamwork and not him alone. He was also a photographer, publisher, toy designer and board-game designer.

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Ken Garland: Galt Toys logotype, 1961 and playful version of logo on cover of catalogue, 1969–70. Photographer: Harriet Crowder (Courtesy of Unit Editions)

Ken Garland was an influential teacher. From the 1950s onwards, he taught in leading art schools. Invariably wearing his familiar embroidered hat, his rough hill-walkers’s tweed jacket and CND button on the lapel, he left an indelible mark on countless students – many going on to become influential figures in British and European design.

Fraser Muggeridge was taught by him on the famous typography course at Reading: “I can remember one of his projects, it was to make typographic hats, with a fashion show at the end of the day. He was always up for people having fun. He sometimes wrote the briefs backwards – he could do mirror writing with chalk on a blackboard. And he’d do things like stand on a table.”

Another of Ken’s student, Mafalda Spencer, now a design tutor herself, regularly invited Ken to lecture to her students. “He once did an entire lecture on typography only using slides of teapots,” she recalls.

This eccentric behaviour will be familiar to anyone who saw one of Ken’s lectures. He was a high-energy performer. A podium iconoclast. Ken Garland lectures were not the usual po-faced design sermons or self-admiring portfolio reveals. It was not unusual for him to leap off the stage and wander among the audience. As part of a lecture he famously dropped his trousers on stage, and on another occasion smashed a mobile phone. In his early days he fired a fake pistol – something, as he told one interviewer, he later regretted: “This was back in 1964 or ’65, and I think it was a stupid idea and I would never do it again.”

A brilliant designer and teacher, he was a political activist at a time when designers kept their political views to themselves. He was a confirmed socialist and an active supporter of CND from its inception in the late 1950s. In his 80s he visited the famous Occupy camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where he talked to protesters and admired the handmade banners on display. He urged designers to study this new mode of agile, informed and politically charged graphic expression.

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Ken Garland: CND Easter march poster, 1962 (Courtesy of Unit Editions)

But it was as a thinker and commentator around questions of ethics in design that Ken’s legacy will be most enduring. Yet he was no dour moralist. And although he rejected the label “Design’s Mr Ethics”, his authorship of the First Things First manifesto is what many designers best remember him for. Published in The Guardian, and eulogised by the left-wing politician Tony Benn, it has echoed down the years as the ur-text for ethically minded and politically motivated designers.

A careful reading of the original document, however, reveals that Ken was not advocating revolution. He, and the manifesto’s co-signatories, were making the observation that if designers only lavished their attentions on designing consumer commodities (“cat food, stomach powders, detergent, hair restorer, striped toothpaste, aftershave lotion, beforeshave lotion, slimming diets, fattening diets, deodorants, fizzy water, cigarettes, roll-ons, pull-ons and slip-ons”), they were not making the best use of their talents.

Ken was not saying that these “consumer commodities” should not have the benefit of good graphic design. Nor was he saying that designers should not engage with the commercial world. Instead, his manifesto advocated “a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication” such as designing public signage and instruction manuals.

But the design boom of the second half of the 20th century meant that the appetite for questioning commercial orthodoxy was confined to the peripheries of the design profession. And throughout most of the 1980s and 90s, FTF was a forgotten relic of 60s idealism.

Until that is, in 1999, when a group of designers and commentators who shared FTF’s spirit, published an updated version. And in the following years, FTF found a new audience amongst rebellious art and design students who questioned the role of design in global capitalism and consumerism.

Ken’s political views and activities might tempt some to think that he was a grim-faced political apparatchik. Not so. He was an idiosyncratic character with a wide palette of interests and a non-doctrinaire approach to life and work. He was as likely to be concerned about the treatment of the poor in Mexico, or the plight of Bangladeshi children, as he was about the state of contemporary graphic design.

Pretty much everything Ken Garland did can be seen as breaking new ground for the practice of graphic design. And it’s the fruits of that pioneering spirit that lives on in today’s designers. Without Ken’s disruptive and questioning spirit, our inheritance would be less rich.

Above all else, he was a joy to know. He was witty, playful, provocative and perpetually interested in other people. Young designers meeting him for the first time were often surprised and flattered to be quizzed by someone genuinely interested in their lives and ideas. As the outpourings on social media attest, once met – in person, in the classroom or in the lecture hall – Ken Garland could not be forgotten.

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Ken Garland: First Things First Manifesto (Courtesy of Unit Editions)

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Ken Garland: Covers of Design magazine, 1957–63 (Courtesy of Unit Editions)

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Spread from Unit Editions book, Ken Garland, Structure and Substance (Courtesy Unit Editions)

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Spread from Unit Editions book, Ken Garland, Structure and Substance (Courtesy Unit Editions)

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Spread from Unit Editions book, Ken Garland, Structure and Substance (Courtesy Unit Editions)

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Ken Garland in his studio (Courtesy of Unit Editions)

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Marc Eckardt: Portrait of Ken Garland (Courtesy of Unit Editions)

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Further Info

Unit Editions’ long-sold-out comprehensive monograph of Ken Garland’s work can be downloaded in full via the publisher’s website here.

About the Author

Adrian Shaughnessy

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