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Spark Magazine


Colin Forbes
in part two of the spark interview, colin forbes touches on the relationship between designer, printer and client. and we try out his theory on the acceptability of lower case type.

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Autumn 1999, Spark Magazine



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

“we wanted to be the most prestigious design firm in the world. i think we got pretty close.”

Part two. From the Autumn 1999 issue of Spark Magazine
moving from the process of design to dealing with clients and suppliers, have you found that deadlines have tightened over recent years? “one of the things that happens is that people sometimes want a short cut on a larger job – on the analysis of the problem, for example. they won’t give you the time to go and make enough site visits or whatever. if it’s a question of putting a lot of complex things together, sometimes there is just not really enough time to do the work thoroughly. but often, in terms of the creative sense, if it is to do with an idea, a short deadline’s good. to a certain extent the short deadline makes a job more profitable. just come to decisions faster and get it done.”

whose criteria should be used to decide whether a deadline is short or not – the client or the designer? “you have to be secure in yourself to the extent that you know ‘this is the minimum time to do this’. usually the client side is totally arbitrary – they’ve taken three years to decide to do it, and then when you’ve done your part, they sit on it for three months.”

does bringing services that are traditionally outsourced in-house increase profitability? “anything that somebody else can do as well as you can, you should let it go outside. you should know what business you are in. some people think: ‘well if we do the artwork in-house we’ll make more money, because why put that out and let somebody else make a profit.’ i think that’s wrong – you are going to build an organisation which is more unwieldy because it’s larger. in the macro sense, i think it’s gone the other way. shell used to have its own advertising department; now virtually no corporation in the united kingdom has its own advertising department. a lot of companies have in-house designers and so on, but even those are getting fewer and fewer.”

what is the best model for the structure of a creative agency and the designers in it, then?“i think that nobody knows exactly what the right model would be; the idea of the communications conglomerate does not seem to prove very successful. the advertising agencies have tried to get into corporate identity, but they’ve never really competed with people who specialise in identity. the big issue for pentagram was that we were graphic designers and we decided that we would bring in crosby, who was an architect, in the ’60s. we felt that everybody needs an environment: many of the clients who were stockbrokers had no product, but they all wanted offices. that meant an immediate shift to take pentagram away from just being graphic designers, to a company that could take on broader jobs for the likes of cunard or bp, in those days.


Colin Forbes laughs

“we’ve always taken the attitude that design is broad enough as it is, and we still don’t cover everything. we do branding rather than packaging. there are whole areas – point of sale display, for example – that are all in some way or other specialised. we do restaurant interiors, hotels. there are still specialists in all of those areas.

“no matter how intelligent the business person is –an mba or whatever – when it comes to analysing a problem, they don’t come to it in the same way a designer does. but a designer may need more of those business skills than he will admit. currently a lot of mbas do some analysis, then hand it over to the creative who has never had the experience of being at the front. so i’m all for designers learning more about business and public relations. i think you’ll find that pentagram partners need a business manager but also have some marketing skills.”

what happens when a designer is poorly equipped to talk to high-level clients? “the extreme version of that is the artist who wants to live in a cottage in cornwall and has an agent calling round to see the magazines and sending him stuff down by fedex. i think if you have to do that, you make yourself a second-class citizen. it’s really a question of the contact. in my younger days when i was working for an advertising agency, we suffered from the whole process of account executives coming back and just saying: ‘the client doesn’t like it.’

“i think you also have to read. you have to have an interest in business and the economy. When you have a conversation with a client, you’ve got to understand the terms he’s using. it’s really not rocket science. if you have no idea about marketing, or the function of banks and you are trying to talk to a banker... that’s where the weakness comes from.”

do you think clients generally misunderstand designers? “the thought of the creative as some thick guy with the 2b pencil who can’t spell – unfortunately sometimes that’s true. i think you need to prove that you add value to someone’s business.”

what about suppliers? the relationship between printer and designer, for example, must have shifted over the years... “when i first started you could hardly get a print rep to return your telephone calls. they weren’t used to getting work from graphic designers who were a potential business. gradually, the change in the marketplace – graphic design became moreand more powerful.”

do you still see any friction between designer and printer? it’s somewhat of an accepted premise that printers are always ready to be negative when faced with a problem thrown up by a designer... “you can understand that. you get the 55-year-old guy who’s spent his whole life on a printing press and then some 25-year-old from art school tells him the colour’s not right. i know that andrew (coppe – colin’s son-in-law, and a print broker by trade) still has that. he certainly complains to me sometimes about that problem. at pentagram some of the senior partners are not interested in production process and think that can be handled by somebody junior who doesn’t actually understand. i think the same problem exists with architecture or industrial design. there’s a lovely story: one of my partners in industrial design was in japan and his client, the chairman, was having dinner with him after the presentation. the client said: ‘mr grange, we were very pleased that you have designed a product that is almost impossible to produce.’ grange replied, ‘from all of my other clients, that would be a criticism.’ the client said ‘no you don’t understand. when we have solved the problem it is that much harder for our competitors to copy us.’ they were keen on the technical challenge, rather than saying ‘it can’t be done’.”

it seems that so many of the pitfalls we have talked about could be overcome with a change in design education. do you think that design graduates are under educated? “no i don’t think that’s true at all. i shudder to think of my portfolio when i graduated... how little i knew when i was 20. you’re constantly adding to your knowledge, so it’s not fair to judge. i think in the main, the next generation have a harder time than we did. the challenges are greater and intellectual standards are higher.”

finally, as we said at the start of this interview, you’ve been in the business for 50 years. can there be anything left for you to aspire to? “i think you should have asked me that 20 years ago, because i’m 72, so there’s going to be change – certainly downhill physically! one thing that i’m on about all the time, is that where we came from is light years away from where we are. when we started pentagram, first we decided we should have an office. then we joined together because collectively we could afford a xerox machine (which was the best technology there was at the time). i think we then felt that we wanted to have two images – one was that we wanted to be respected amongst our peers and get into magazines and win awards. on the other hand, we didn’t want to see all the major jobs going to walter landor! we steered a course down the middle of those, thinking we could get large jobs which were more culturally oriented. rather than consumer packaging or something, we would certainly win on identities for museums. that was successful for us. we wanted to be, not the largest, not the most profitable, but the most prestigious design firm in the world. that was where we wanted to go, and i think we got pretty close.”

Spark Magazine


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Spark Magazine


Do you remember being 14 years old? Picture yourself in a classroom at school during the lesson you least understood. Remember your frustration at having no idea what the teacher was talking about?

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