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Spark Magazine

colin forbes. part one.

“In the days of razor blades and Cow Gum, it was almost like slavery, people just did corrections all day…”

Archive Articles

Autumn 1999, Spark Magazine


Paul Nicholls

Given the opportunity to interview Colin Forbes for the first issue of Spark Magazine was one that any designer would jump at. Colin exuded confidence and calmness and I'll always remember his wise insights on design past, present and future.


Colin Forbes

“You always get exceptional people; innovators that are separate from the routine.”

Part one. From the Autumn 1999 issue of Spark Magazine

Whether or not you like the work that Pentagram has produced over the last thirty years, you can’t deny its huge influence on the worldwide design industry, and on the perception of the role of designers. Colin Forbes has been instrumental in setting the paradigm within which all graphic designers work.


Obviously, Forbes has seen many changes to the design industry in the fifty years since he left the army and enrolled at the Central School. Spark was keen to wring as much of this experience out of him as possible on one of his rare visits to the United Kingdom.

Firstly, the introduction of the Mac fifteen years ago has transformed the way designers work – ostensibly in a positive way. However, not everything is rosy. Some complain that the graphic designer has become a ‘Jack-of-all-trades’ digitally equipped to complete typesetting, photo retouching and artwork in tandem with design or art direction. Others, that concentration on Mac skills in colleges has lead to a decline in basic design thinking, or at least the ‘craft’ of design. Had he experienced any of these things?

“Yes, but I don’t look at it at necessarily as good or bad. Mostly, if you have a good idea or a bad idea it is not effected by the Mac at all. If you have a concept for something, the Mac helps with production, multiple choices and speed etc. When I started you had three instruments: a pencil, brush and a ruling pen – a monstrous instrument. I used to draw 8 point Gill or Bodoni with a pencil and you could tell the difference. When you went to proofing you couldn’t make a mistake because the typesetting was so expensive.

“However, one of the things I have observed, looking back historically is how elegant a 17th century book looks. One of the reasons it looks so elegant is because of the restrictions; there was only one type face available, there weren’t that many fonts and virtually all you could do was play with sizes, italics and so forth. Automatically it looks elegant by today’s standards.

“One of my typography teachers used to say ‘type is not India Rubber’ – it only had to be a millimetre out and you had to reset it. Whereas with today’s equipment, you can stretch type to fit without altering the spacing; you might think that nobody would notice; and it’s almost true, but the unity has been lost.

“However, there is no sense in going backwards and not using the technology that is available. In our company, we are probably two or three times as productive with half of the staff we used to have. In the days of repro proofs, razor blades and Cow Gum, it was almost like slavery, people just did corrections all day. Now you can change the face and make corrections on your Mac in seconds, which is wonderful.

“I think some of the problems can be solved by education. There doesn’t seem to be knowledge of where our letterforms came from, how important the Trajan column is, or the various historical developments in type design.”

Does he see a day when the old terminology or skills of typography are no longer relevant, and are superseded? “No. In the same way that phrases like ‘bit between the teeth’ or ‘sailing too close to the wind’ remain deeply woven into the language from horse riding or sailing. It probably making more sense to measure type in millimetres, but printing terms are too ingrained. Secondly, it used to be essential to be able to judge copyfitting, but you know, any word processor tells you how many words, and characters used. So it would be silly to teach people the techniques of casting off ˝

What does he think about the distortion of type so prevalent in modern graphics? “It’s not a moral issue; there is no right or wrong. Legibility is what you are used to. However, in order to understand how you can communicate then you need to understand how type fits into our history. In Eric Gill’s ‘Essays on Typography’ he talks about the letter ‘A’ when is an ‘A’ not an ‘A’? You can distort it into a triangle but it will read as an ‘A in the right context’. If you ask a 14 year-old in Brazil, or in Sweden, for example, to draw an ‘A’ they will both draw almost the exact proportions of the ‘A’ on the Trajan column. The roman alphabet is very deeply ingrained in Western culture. You can vary it for amusement or the practicalities of wanting to get small type in a newspaper, but these symbols for sounds have a historical base. There will always be development and changes; there have been arguments about serifs and sans serifs over the last century.” Arguments about legibility go back to the Bauhaus – Bayer’s experiments with all lower-case alphabets... “In Germany every noun was capitalised; there was a big incentive for Bayer to use all lower case. The logic of having only one alphabet with 26 letters instead of 52 letters is obvious. It never caught on but strangely, because the Internet has shown that most words are not case sensitive, it may be that lower case will become much more common. We won’t see it as strange when reading our names in lower case.”

How does he think that new technology has effected the clients’ perception of the designer? “There was a piece in the Wall Street Journal that said, ‘what the new technology has done is to make it very easy to produce very ugly documents’. One of the issues is that design is no longer the area of the specialist. The weaknesses of this is that visual awareness is so lowly rated in our educational curriculum. I talk to clients about a serif typeface, and you have to explain to them the reason for the serif, and the thick and thins etc. Most are fascinated. It seems to me that there is a need for general education in type selection; the ways to think about a change in either size or emphasis, or changing typeface. You can have fun at the expense of legibility but you need to at least understand why you’re doing it.”

Does he think that type designers will become marginalised or obsolete? Software makes it easy to create a working typeface and the Internet is groaning with shareware fonts. “I don’t think most graphic designers really have any idea how to make 52 letters consistent. What Mathew Carter and Adrian Frutiger do is a specialised business; your average designer could not compete. Frutiger said “I once gave a lecture on the letter ‘o’ and it took an hour and a half.” That really is specialisation.”

Going back to the issue of design education, does he believe that graduates emerge into the job market equally prepared? “I was president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts for 3 years and have been involved in the other professional associations, even industrial designers, and they’ve been talking for a long time about accreditation of both schools and designers. But nobody died from a bad letterhead (laughs). You could have people who are accredited technically, yet, still not think straight. So, despite all the talk, I don’t believe in accreditation. There’s no question, though, it matters what school a graduate went to.

“However, someone like Neville Brody could have come from anywhere. If you’ve ever taught, you know, there are two or three students in a class of thirty who actually excite you because they give something back rather than just trying to take it all in.”

Speaking of Brody, do you think that designers like him, and say, David Carson are the last to move any boundaries? “You always get exceptional people; innovators that are separate from the routine. There have been several important movements in graphic design in this century. The artists who were interested in commercial art – from Lautrec to the Beggarstaff Brothers. Then, I think the movements that made the difference were De Stijl and the Bauhaus – you began to get architects and artisans who were not only artists but who brought an intellectual rationalisation to their work. They were designers rather than artists.

“I think the third thing that’s affected us all was the 50s and 60s in America. You get idea-generated design – from George Lois’ Esquire covers to the Volkswagen Beetle ads. Rather than thinking small they developed the ‘concept’ in advertising. Then I think we had a reaction to both of those with the new wave – another interest in decoration. But psychedelia for example, fell quickly by the wayside, whereas Modernism in my view is still relevant.” The boundaries will continue to be pushed. (Continued in the Autumn 2000 issue)


Spark Magazine


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Spark Magazine


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