Andrew Slatter

Radical Modernist

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, Barbican Art Gallery

'Last Kingdom', 2012. Damien Hirst. Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2013

‘Last Kingdom’, 2012. Damien Hirst. Image: Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates © Damien Hirst and Science Ltd. All rights reserved, DACS 2013

It is too easy to be cynical about this show at the Barbican, after all most of us collect (or have collected) ‘things’. There was little that surprised me here, some of Martin Parr’s postcards made me chuckle, and the large spiders in Damien Hirst’s Last Kingdom sent shivers down my spine, but what struck me was the amount of stuff that humans produce and consume, some of it rational, some of it bonkers.

Making connections between the collected objects and the oeuvre of each artist was down to the viewer, introductory text panels provided some insight. Does it matter that we know why someone collects elephants, in varying sizes with geometric patterns, not really. The value of the exhibition was that these objects have been revealed to us just as they revealed themselves to their respective owners before they became consumed by them.

I didn’t buy the catalogue, somehow it seemed fitting to let these objects fade from memory, some more than others.


Filed under: Art, Design, History

History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain, Hayward Gallery


Richard Wentworth selected this British-designed Bloodhound missile as part of the cold war section of the exhibition. Photograph Andrew Slatter.

The stoic concrete mass of the Hayward Gallery is a fitting plinth on which to exhibit a cold-war Bloodhound missile. Dare to step out onto the roof terrace and be dwarfed by this six-tonne – show-stopping ‘sculpture’. Its scale and potential reflects the idea behind History is Now, so enormous is the task to select from 70 years of post-war history, it’s no surprise that seven artists were each given a slice of curatorial cake. When photographing the missile against the blue sky of this cold March day, I was struck by the sobering realisation that, had this defensive weapon been deployed, it signaled Britain was under nuclear attack. The pessimism surrounding the object’s intent, set against the optimism of the blue sky suggests the mood of the exhibition. Writing in The Guardian Maev Kennedy cites curator Cliff Lauson “there are many questions, some answered, some unanswerable.”

It was Roger Hiorns meticulous research, storytelling and modernist graphic presentation of the development, and subsequent outbreak of BSE and vCJD, that provided the visitor with a unified and historical account of a medical condition that incited ‘a collective sense of dread’ according to Hiorns.


Glyndebourne opera-goers

'Out of Sight. Out of Mind', 1991. Damien Hirst.

‘Out of Sight. Out of Mind’, 1991. Damien Hirst.

Hiorns complements the vast quantities of text-based material with two works – a black and white photograph of consumers of high culture in the countryside, and two tanks filled with formaldehyde, each containing the head of a cow. These works are clever props within the archive, they are immediate and caused me to ponder humankind’s relationship with these delightful ruminants, something that I hadn’t thought much about since the 1990s.

Writing about the exhibition in The Telegraph Alastair Sooke suggests “it offers a multifaceted vision of our recent national identity so complex and kaleidoscopic that it risks leaving visitors bewildered, bamboozled, and exhausted.” I didn’t feel  bewildered or bamboozled, a little exhausted maybe, there’s simply too much to take in on one visit. I sympathise more with Adrian Searle’s benign appraisal in The Guardian “this is exhibition as time machine.” It really is as simple as that.

Filed under: Art, Design, History

RCA50: What is graphic design and who is it for?


Michael Johnson

Tonight I attended the last in the series of talks celebrating 50 years of graphic design at the RCA. As the title promises so much, did the contributors deliver?

Michael Johnson of Johnson Banks delivered a retrospective of his studios output and then focused on the ethics of designers working for corporates (profit) and charities (common good)  a tiring theme that the evening couldn’t really shake off. The graphic design discourse needs to move beyond the spectre of  First Things First. In his rebranding of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Johnson spoke of the need for him to be involved in design that has more meaning ‘one poster cannot change the world’ he quipped, hence his work for DEC has been instrumental in raising ‘millions rather than thousands’. When pressed to define graphic design, Johnson gave a pragmatic response ‘it’s a delivery mechanism from an agreement with a client’. There’s a truth to this, but I was looking for something more existential.


Lucienne Roberts

Lucienne Roberts, in part, provided a more emotional hook, and told us that she was going to talk mostly about ‘her intention’, quoting Woody Allen’s maxim that ‘his work is a quality distraction from the problem of being alive’. In a candid admission that she is from a family of depressives, Roberts aims for her work to have soul, to do work that ‘touches people and moves them’ and, in the words of Philosopher A. C. Grayling, ‘make the experience of being alive more aesthetic’. Roberts then went on to define graphic design, using visuals which provided aesthetic stimulation, ‘graphic design is everywhere, apart from where there are no people, and not in small groups where ideas can be disseminated one-to-one. It involves everybody, with the exception of new born babies, and the blind (although she qualified this with a caveat that other senses can communicate graphic ideas). In essence, graphic design is for everyone who can respond to words and images. Then we were told about everything, the special relationship that graphic design has with (almost) every other subject. This is where Roberts plugged her publishing venture Graphicdesign&. In conclusion Roberts’ definition is pragmatic: ‘graphic design is for everyone – not about graphic design in and of itself, it’s about other people’.


Andrew Brash

Second year RCA student Andrew Brash asked some poignant questions, such as ‘what are the contemporary conditions? No time, no money. What forms does this result in? Repartition, standardisation, copies’. This theoretical position manifests itself in the Graphics Interchange Format (GIF ) an animated image that is prolific on World Wide Web, and has become epitomised by Vine, the application that allows you to ‘explore a world of beautiful, looping videos’, Brash argues ‘the image doesn’t exist as a GIF if it isn’t being viewed’. He suggests that the GIF is hauntological, a theory posited by Jacques Derrida in that it has a spectral quality, because of its looping, revisits the past, from which the present can never escape. This repartition, according to Brash, is Brechtian, a distancing that is constituted by the repeating of a single gesture. Brash suggested that certain graphic design motifs such as the use of the slash, represent this cyclical disposition to re-present marks that, in themselves, become tropes of tropes of tropes, what Brash calls ‘poor images’ in relation to Hito Steyerl‘s definition as ‘a copy in motion’. In conclusion, Brash believes that GIFs have a mutability, they are a collected resource ‘their gesture of use is not limited by their content’. In terms of a broader philosophical approach to defining graphic design and who it is for, Brash provides us with ideas surrounding the pervasiveness of images that since the introduction of the Web, can be created with graphic design in absentia, illustrated by a quip from Neville Brody at the end of his segment: ‘no graphic design was used in the making of this GIF’.


Neville Brody

Neville Brody echoed Johnson’s thoughts on the poster as a vehicle of communication ‘where is the poster relevant today?’ he asked. In a series of soundbites, he told us he ‘loves strategy but hates structure’ that the Anti Design Festival nearly bankrupted his studio, and graphic design is one of four disciplines that asks ‘Where am I?’ The other three being: art, research and education. ‘At the heart of it [graphic design] is a broker, a negotiator between spaces’ say Brody, it can persuade for good or for ill, it is an enabler, and it is not unbiased, in fact it is bias itself, ‘remove the designer and you are left with a box’. In an attack on consumer culture Brody suggests the world has changed and it’s the fault of graphic design, that there’s too much design for design and there is a graphic design industry for the graphic design industry, a slight on the culture of awards. In terms of what happens next in the profession, he answered an audience member with a lasting thought ‘new is unrecognisable, if it’s new you wouldn’t recognise it’.

Brash was the most provocative and the closest to providing an innovative critique of the state of the profession, adding a level of theoretical underpinning, of which there is still a paucity in discourse. These talks have been illuminating, in parts, however they commit themselves, through the venue, into the exclusivity of the RCA ‘club’. The Senior Common Room is, as the description suggests, ‘an exclusive members’ club and provides a venue for private dinners of up to 76 seated, or receptions for 200 guests, in an environment of art and design excellence’. Holding the exhibition and the talks solely within the RCA is logical, however why not make this anniversary a spectacle, that could be enjoyed by the masses? There’s nothing inherently wrong with private members clubs, but in this sense, holding discussions of graphic design in the Senior Common Room is a reflection of Brody’s view of the poster ‘where is it relevant today’. This could have been a traveling exhibition, and maybe the talks will be made available as podcasts, making them reflect the true spirit of graphic design, as Roberts suggests ‘it’s for everyone’.

Filed under: Design, Education, Visual Communication Design

GraphicsRCA: RCA Design Start-ups and Book Launch

Panellists: Kirsty Carter (A Practice for Everyday Life), Philip Carter (Carter Wong), Erwan Lhuissier and Valerio Di Lucente and Hugo Timm – not in shot – (Julia).

Tonight I attended a panel presentation and discussion ‘RCA Design Start-ups + Book Launch’ as part of the ongoing exhibition of Graphics RCA: Fifty Years Exhibition of Graphic Design Royal College of Art.

The theme of graphic design start-ups explored the ongoing success of RCA graduates who form collectives either while studying or upon graduation.

Phil Carter of Carter Wong showed us their logo for Formula One, and discussed their passion for craft.

Kirsty Carter from A Practice for Everyday Life (APFEL) met Emma Thomas while at the RCA. Kirsty told us that while studying together they made a shrewd business move, they designed a catalogue for the Goldsmiths Curating Course, whose graduates became clients of APFEL. This vital aspect of being proactive while enroled in post-graduate study, was emphasised by Erwan Lhuissier from Julia.

Julia ‘cares about’ the work they do. When asked about how they were able to make a living when starting out, they replied ‘we got through the first four years because we didn’t know what we were getting into’. ‘It leaves physical marks’ said Valerio, and an array of changing hairstyles it would appear.

Adrian Shaughnessey ended the discussion with a lackluster promotion for the book that accompanies the exhibition.

There was nothing revelatory here in terms of how these design groups were formed. Maybe next weeks discussion on ‘What is Graphic Design and Who is it for?’ will be less warm and fuzzy?

Filed under: Education, Visual Communication Design

GraphicsRCA: Fifty Years and Beyond: Graphic Design Education Now

The panel exploring what constitutes graphic design education today

The panel exploring what constitutes graphic design education today

Tonight I attended this panel discussion at the RCA in the Senior Common Room. Professor Teal Triggs opened the discussion, framing it with Professor Richard Guyatt’s 1948 proposition that art school students should employ ‘the head, hand and heart’ a maxim that originated from Ruskin.

Phil Baines RCA alumnus 1987 told us that out of the three forms of education – by a person of higher authority, by a person of lesser authority, and by a person of equal authority – the later ‘being the best’. He also told us that students bring agenda’s to MA courses and there are of course, institutional agendas. He asked ‘what is design?’.

Sophie Thomas RCA alumnus 1997 and founder of Thomas Matthews framed her ideas around waste and sustainability, asking ‘why do we stop when we graduate?’.

Professor Bruce Brown RCA alumnus 1979 told us many insightful things, namely that graphic design at the RCA is (or should be) the flagship, that there is a real poverty of imagination, and utility is more important than creativity. A brief history of visual communication followed.

Cathy Gale RCA alumnus 1993 spoke of dissent, the offshore art school and quoted Donald Schön (1992) ‘design is a reflective conversation with a design situation’. Gale says ‘design education is a situation in need of critical reflection. Students are the participants and end users of this situation – let’s imagine them as crew’.

Brown suggested that universities should be outside the mainstream and should foster dissent, that ‘design is a virtue, it reconciles paradoxes’ and paraphrasing impact case studies ‘graphic design has not sorted out research in the discipline’.

Gale told us that design education has become conformist.

This was part nostalgic reflection for some RCA alumni audience members, and part enquiry into the state of the discipline, however it was Brown and Gale that provided the most searching questions and reflections.

Filed under: Education, Visual Communication Design

Bill Gaver – research through design keynote lecture, PhD by Design Conference

Intro slide

Intro slide

Tonight I attended the PhD by Design keynote by Professor Bill Gaver at Goldsmiths, University of London. Bill compared and contrasted the research methodology of social science, with that of Design, stating clearly that design is not social science, and that Design always has a relationship to other disciplines, but differentiates itself through its ability to generate outcomes (ultimate particulars), and theories merely annotate them.

What is research in design?

What is research in design?

An example of this would be the Eco Babble.

Eco Babble

Eco Babble

We learned about idiots:

The Idiot, Mike Michael (2011)

The Idiot, Mike Michael (2011)

…and theories of theory:

Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour

The lecture was useful in consolidating my decision whether to pursue a practice-based PhD or a traditional PhD by thesis. There are still many questions, however given my interest in the performativity of sexuality in visual communication, the thesis route seems the most logical.

Filed under: Design, Education, Philosophy, Writing

Graphicsrca: Fifty Years. Exhibition of graphic design. Royal College of Art.




This evening I attended the private view of this exhibition with RCA alumni Barrry Hurd. I was thrilled to find this publication from 1989/90 featuring the distinctive silhouette of my friend and design hero Geoff White.

I also had a reunion with my CDT colleague Rebecca Foster (who graduated from the RCA along with Barry in 1992).

The publication to accompany the exhibition will be available to purchase from the 25 November. Given that the exhibition was two years in gestation, it’s a shame the book wasn’t available tonight.

Filed under: Education, Visual Communication Design

David McCandless lecture at LCC

David and his infographic

David and his infographic

Tonight David McCandless gave a lecture at London College of Communication. He is an engaging speaker, whose background in journalism informs his approach to data visualisation.

I was, and remain, skeptical surrounding the functionality of this type of visual communication. Often words are efficient in their ability to communicate numerical concepts, however, McCandless did provide some examples that provoked gasps from the audience, simply because of information design’s ability to demonstrate extremes of scale, this is where the medium comes into its own.

McCandless has carved out a niche and has amassed some esteemed clients. Students enjoyed the talk, but I was left wondering how useful are these scalable shapes, motifs, silhouettes and geometric stimulants, when words perform more economically.


Filed under: Visual Communication Design

LCC School of Design Lecture Series poster by muirmcneil

Lecture Programme Poster designed by muirmcneil

Designed by muirmcneil

I love this poster by muirmcneil, it’s great to see aspirational design reinforcing modernist principles, I look forward to seeing this on the walls at LCC.


Filed under: Education, Visual Communication Design

‘It’s cold out there, in here it’s warm.’ A tribute to Peter Rea

Peter Rea. Image taken from the Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication Prosepctus 1992, which Peter designed under his company name: Archetype Visual Studies.

Peter Rea. Image taken from the Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication Prospectus 1992, which Peter designed under his company name: Archetype Visual Studies.

This week I learned of the death of designer and educator Peter Rea (1938–2014), whose funeral will be held this Tuesday in Ashford, Kent.

My first encounter with Peter’s work was in the form of the ADAR (Art and Design Admissions Registry) catalogue of 1991:

ADAR catalogue for 1991. Registration scheme for applicants: BTEC Higher National Diploma in Design & associated studies and CNAA first degree BA & BA (Hons) courses in Art & Design

ADAR catalogue for 1991. Registration scheme for applicants: BTEC Higher National Diploma in Design & associated studies and CNAA first degree BA & BA (Hons) courses in Art & Design

Peter’s designs from this period made explicit use of stepped elements, rules and letter spacing, most commonly associated with the work of Weingart, whom Peter admired.

A student on my BTEC National Diploma brought into class the Ravensbourne prospectus Peter had designed, and I remember how distinctive his design was, I can’t recall why I didn’t apply to Ravensbourne at that point in time, however this publication made a lasting impact on me.

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication prospectus designed in 1991, updated in 1992.

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication prospectus designed in 1991, updated in 1992. Designed by Peter under his company name Archetype Visual Studies.

Peter was head of the graphic design school from 1988–1991. During this period Peter brought in some influential speakers as told on page 34 of the prospectus:

Page 34 featuring Peter

Page 34 featuring Peter

The caption to Peter’s image reads: ‘Visiting specialist in applied design studies, Peter Rea introducing an exhibition of the work of April Greiman. Recent visitors brought into the school as part of Peter Rea’s input have included Wolfgang Weingart, from Basel, Switzerland, and Erik Spiekermann, MetaDesign, Berlin, West Germany’.

When I visited Ravensbourne in April 1993, I was given a tour of the college. I remember seeing Peter teaching in the third year studio assisted by Andy Lawrence. Peter was animated and appeared intense and enthusiastic. When I began my degree at Ravensbourne in September 1993, unfortunately Peter had left so I never had the opportunity to be taught by him.

Peter’s identity for Ravensbourne (colloquially known as ‘the Bromley Bauhaus’) was formal and restrained, when I received my first correspondence, it confirmed my desire to study at this distinctive institution.

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication symbol, 1993

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication symbol, 1993

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication Compliments Slip, 1993

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication compliments slip, 1993

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication letterhead, 1993

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication letterhead, 1993

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication receipt, 1993

Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication receipt, 1993

Peter wrote the Introduction to the 1993 Visual Communication Degree Show catalogue and an essay titled ‘Time for hard facts. It’s cold out there, in here it’s warm’. This is the essay in full:

‘Our education world is virtually a fantasy and someone else pays the bills. We don’t parody reality through our teaching but try to give our students an approach to design which will carry them through or above the daily dilemmas or drudgery. Design may be a job but it can also be a way of life. We don’t deny that designing is hard work, with moral and ethical issues to face. But ‘the artist is the editor of their own portfolio’ and must be prepared to face such decisions in addition to those of ‘form and function’ ‘Study’ is not for today or even tomorrow, study is a source of life in the future, designer or not, come good or hard times.

It is a difficult concept to grasp that today’s study is education for the future, when the enthusiastic designer naturally has one eye, or both, on the employment market. It is often easier to emulate the average visual standards which we see all around us in the high street, on the breakfast table, in the magazines and it is more difficult to grasp longer term principles such as: good communication means ‘think with the head of the audience’ or ‘we are what we design’ , or ‘it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it'; maxims which can help you through life whatever you do. Tell this to today’s students and they understand, don’t tell them and they are betrayed later when their inner resources run dry. Students are the new visionaries, the pioneers and the avant-garde who struggle to use the computer as a creative instrument to make design.

How many times have our students quietly blasphemed as the computer crashes or the wrong key is struck, the time-code slips, the processor doesn’t process or the rub-downs don’t rub down …and of course ‘it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!’ Hard fact: nothing is perfect, only virtually so.

What state is ‘virtually so’ a virtual reality? ‘Virtual’ technology visualises what we cannot perceive until it is made a reality. Is the student designer just a rough for the real thing–in all their shapes, sizes and colours they are embryonic designers seeking their next step into the real world.

A long journey and a long one if you let the good book of knowledge drop from your hand. It can be a testing process, taking the final responsibility onto oneself. These students have sound foundations, they have planted their roots deeply and are ready for growth. Time to work out a strategy for survival, to develop a greater conscience: design for need and design for the public sector–design that is needed as a move towards balancing our work for commerce and industry. Where is the school of thought?

Exciting times. Perhaps we are moving to an electronically supported neo-medieval do-it-yourself serfdom. Equipped with global communications systems, fax machines, Macs and personal computers, television. We are becoming the neo-medieval electronic scribes of a changing world. We may become the designer, compositor, reader, pressman working from our own individual strips of land. Exciting realities.’

Peter wrote an essay ‘Where is the School of Thought?’ published in Octavo 87.3 (1987). It is likely this essay was an abridged version of that which appeared previously. Re-reading Peter’s words, twenty one years on, allows us to reflect on our developing and symbiotic relationship with technology. The premise that students are warm while institutionalised, and face the cold hand of reality upon graduation still resonates, although student fees and the high cost of living, mean that today’s students are subjected to the cold well in advance of graduation.

I last saw Peter at the DIY Design symposium at St. Brides in 2010, he accompanied Weingart who stated, according to Farrelly: ‘“…students need to know the rules, otherwise it is all egotism”. He advocated providing access to letterpresses and trained technicians, teaching the basics, and then letting students loose to play’. I couldn’t agree more, and I’m certain Peter would have agreed.

Filed under: Education, Visual Communication Design




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