Ken Garland is one of the most respected and important British designers in over the last fifty years and a hero of mine. Everyone we’ve spoken to so far has been wonderful, but when you talk about Ken Garland, you’re talking about a free spirit, someone who understood the balance of paying your way in life and retaining your soul.
His work spans five decades and counting. If you don’t know about The First Things First Manifesto, go read about it. With freedom of speech under threat as the gagging law is stabbed into British law, it’s more relevant to the arts than ever. Here’s a little snippet:
‘In common with an increasing number of the general public, we have reached a saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise. We think that there are other things more worth using our skill and experience on. There are signs for streets and buildings, books and periodicals, catalogues, instructional manuals, industrial photography, educational aids, films, television features, scientific and industrial publications and all the other media through which we promote our trade, our education, our culture and our greater awareness of the world.
We do not advocate the abolition of high-pressure consumer advertising: this is not feasible. Nor do we want to take any of the fun out of life. But we are proposing a reversal of priorities in favour of the more useful and more lasting forms of communication.’
As an aspiring illustrator, I wrote my piss-weak degree dissertation on Graphic Activism and despite its literary inadequacies, it was during the research phases that I became enthralled by Ken’s manifesto. It was signed by many other prominent designers at the time and was republished in 2000 by Jonathan Barnbrook. I arrive in North London at Ken’s studio, excited about meeting a man I have held in high regard since my studies.
Now in his eighties and still as driven as ever, I sit back with the best cup of tea I’ve ever held as Ken tells me about his beginnings in the arts,
“Of my sister and I, I was the one who would always be drawing. I was going to do something in art. I also showed much promise in academic subjects. I was regarded with much scorn by the grammar school teachers, because I wasn’t prepared to go for a county scholarship and then apply for Oxford or Cambridge university. They thought I was wasting myself by going to art school. I have always resented that attitude. When I come across it subsequently – it still exists – I am very angry about it because I think it can lead people the wrong way. I told them to go and get fucked. It may have been ‘get stuffed,’ at sixteen but I had an absolute conviction that the thing these well-meaning people were telling me to do, was the very thing I should not do. Going to an art-school was what I wanted to do. My parents supported me. They urged me to opt for commercial art so that I could earn a living. That’s a very understandable attitude… There is still something in the background of our academic teaching that does not allow the teachers themselves to get their mind around the idea that going to an art school can be a really serious form of studying. They think it’s just playing around, almost that it is a nest for pop groups and nothing to do with serious study. That being said, it is feasible that one could go to art school and immerse themselves in art and design, neglecting the wider study of film, music and drama and I’ve always felt anxious that people who went to art school should be given a wider education.”
Over Ken’s illustrious career, he has seen much change.
“Some time in the sixties, the business of art and design education underwent a big overhaul.” He says. “All art schools were examined and those that were felt to fit a degree status were accredited academically. Many artists disagreed and felt that it didn’t belong in the academic field. There were those of us who felt that this wasn’t so and decided to go along with it and see what happens. Having done some work in design, I was recruited to be a part of these visiting teams who went around to see if art could be taught to this level. Subsequently, we did a television program for the BBC called ‘Art To a Degree?’ At the time it was quite a startling and new thing. Suddenly subjects like product design and Graphic Design had a place in academia, given their history. Craft and the likes of furniture design and ceramics were brought under this umbrella. It is still a matter of discussion today. I was a part of that early transformation.”
Like any self respecting young, naive artist, I threw my toys out of the pram when I had to pick up a pen and write, yet if it wasn’t for such projects being forced upon me, I would probably never had enjoyed the experience of sitting in Ken Garland’s studio, having this chat. On his own inspirations he says,
“Early exponents of related studies helped me to discover William Blake who has been my godfather in every sense, since I discovered his words, images, poetry. His fusion of words and pictures is, in a sense, what I do in graphic design. How lucky to have been in touch with teachers who showed me new things and pointed me in the right direction.”
How does Ken feel about the pressure now placed on tutors to fill places on university courses, given the high tuition fees introduced by the government? I tell him that many institutions have begun to abandon quality control because they are desperate to bring in enough money to survive, whatever the standard of the student.
“I did a chat recently for students,” he says. “They had invited me to come down to the talk which was organized by South Korean students. They are so vigorous and so intelligent. I thought, ‘these students have got here, perhaps on the basis of wealthy parents, given the ludicrous tuition fees for foreign students.’ But they are so valuable too, so there are two ways to look at it. On one hand, we are wary of this huge influx of foreign students. There’s a big debate about what happens to our native students when they can’t afford to study. It’s also worrying to think that people are being accepted on courses when they never stood a chance, just to take on their fees. We’re not going to get rid of these horrible fees now, because they’re embedded.”
Do these times of adversity urge a greater creative response?
Ken says, “If you have to fight, you feel better about results, provided you win. But I have a type of person in mind and that’s the gentle, shy person who is talented but cannot shout too well. Unless the talent in those people is nurtured, it will not see the light of day, so I don’t think it is only the pushy person who should be respected here. It’s tougher than it used to be, but will the ones who really want to be successful and press for it win the day? No! It’s not that simple! The sensitive people need recognition and they need tutors who respond to the insipient talent and ensure that kind of person receives the training they need. I’ve seen quieter colleagues flourish with the right support. There’s a big problem here for the people with parents who don’t fancy a future of owing money. It’s hard now because even the jobs stacking shelves in supermarkets are scarce.”
Today, in the midst of the recession and times of deep mistrust in authority, does Ken agree that his 1964 ‘First Things First Manifesto’ applies to today’s world? He says,
“My manifesto was not about benevolent design, but more about the misappropriation of public wealth. I believed that we had a huge amount of surplus wealth, created by the workers, which had gone into the pockets of people who were misapplying it. A lot of the time and skills of people like us; designers, photographers and artists were being misapplied because the funds had been distorted. People who were manipulating huge amounts of funds didn’t deserve the wealth or know how to use it. I wanted it better used. It was never an ethical decision, more a political one. I was basically talking socialism in design. This turned itself, in people’s interpretation of the manifesto, into me being ‘Mr.Ethics,’ which I wasn’t. We all have our ethics and morals, even the villains with their distorted ideas. Historically, there is always this body of opinion that says our skills have to be applied to the right subject, for the right cause. I support causes, obviously. I wouldn’t be wearing a CND badge if I didn’t support that cause and others. But I still maintain that what I was and still am talking about is what we do with our surplus wealth. That’s kind of odd now because surplus wealth has almost disappeared. The bloody bankers have gone and squandered it. Now we have to build it all over again. There is a big debate going on at the very moment, with the Mayor of London understandably championing banking as being London’s major industry, which it may be. But I think it stinks and it’s a misapplication of everyone’s money. We’re just gambling. It’s vile, so I have a political view about that. There is an ethical background too. Every political position has got to be shored up by ethical and moral values but I don’t regard them as being the first thing. My first thing is a Marxian notion of surplus value. The workers create value and it is taken from us by people who do not deserve it and dedicated to things that we don’t think it should be. If anybody asks me as a graphic designer, what the first thing I’d get rid of, I’d say Trident. (British Military nuclear weapons program) I say this because you and I, as designers, are people like anybody else and we can use our vote to upset and rearrange things that have gone badly wrong. Spending billions and billions of pounds on creating an unusable nuclear weapon is utterly pointless. I can’t disguise that and I shouldn’t disguise it.”
How does Ken express himself through his creativity? He says,
“Currently, my main interest is photography. I take photographs as a graphic designer.”
He asks me to pull down a tall book from his ceiling high book-shelf. By this point, I’m off somewhere, my mind bent out of shape at this surreal experience. He continues,
“This book came out in 2001 or 2002 and was my notion of how word and image comes together. I took the photographs and I wrote the text. Within the book I expressed all kinds of socio-political views.”
Ken directs me to a certain page within the book containing photographs from a device on a golf course in Coachella Valley, California. Ken says,
“I was at that place on several occasions. I have relatives who have a condominium there so I like to see what they’re up to; these people with their indiscriminate displays of water. Do you know, they ran out of water from all the aqua-furs underneath the desert. It dried up, they sucked them all from the nearest mountain ranges and they are now importing water by truck in from British Columbia, Canada. That is a thousand miles! The water is put into reservoirs and sprayed over the golf courses three times a day, so there is a moral position for you! It’s also a political one. Quite a few of the photographs in that book draw out metaphoric significances that have social or political relevance. This one too… (Turns to a page featuring photos of a huge tower building and a small run down area) This was an image of a stoop in the ghetto area of Houston, Texas. It towers above the city and overlooks down town. It is a bank and it looks like a cathedral. This was my point. Here, Houston was worshipping money. On the basis of it’s oil explorations, which had gone worldwide, Houston had got itself lost in manipulating the money that comes from oil. Here was a bank that was not even mining oil anymore, just shoving around the money that comes from oil exploration. Then there is a shack in the middle of Houston, one of the world’s great cities, crumbling and derelict where poor people had to stare up at this immense wealth from their torrid abode.”
In the original manifesto, one line reads, ‘In common with an increasing number of the general public, we have reached a saturation point at which the high pitched scream of consumer selling is no more than sheer noise.’ I am eager to know how Ken feels about the saturation of noise in the digital age, the incessant spray of fucking irritating adverts on every video you want to watch. He says,
“One reaction to all of this information overkill is that people shut off and retreat into a mental limbo. Some will use music as an outlet. Others may turn to pornography or some kind of experience that shuts out what they no longer want to recognise. We have to be selective and understanding of people for who these social revelations are an anathema. For some people it is simply just too much. My own personal experience of this is that I don’t read daily newspapers. It’s more overkill. At my age, I have become less and less keen to tune in to yet more awful things. I know they are there, I’ve seen them! I’m not retreating, but filtering the huge output of information, down to only what I want to see. We cannot be all things to all people and social consciences can be very heavy things to hang around ones neck. What we can do is find out what we can do as individuals. I support my own causes, Water Aid do wonderful work and water is the thing that life is built on. A small contribution is still a contribution. I can’t change the world but I can change some part of it. If enough people take care of little bits of it then we can make a difference. It’s about acquiring skills, finding people who need those skills who can pay you for them. What you do with your surplus money is up to you.”
Xpress is a campaign that only happened because my team of creatives. We are all earning a living from our skills and we all want more. That is the world we live in, yet we give lots of our time to helping the less fortunate. You have to, or we all lose. Ken has a love of his clients, he says,
“I enjoy working for my clients who have commercial products. I like it more when I like their products and services. Of course I wouldn’t work for someone who is the wrong political party of someone who sells cigarettes. I was invited out to Barcelona to open an exhibition of manifestos – would you believe? On the way there, I wrote something called ‘Last Things Last.’ I said, ‘what is the thing I have neglected in supporting various issues, including the First Things First Manifesto? It was my clients! I wrote a thank you to my clients. The audience was bemused!”