The Daily Heller: Keith Godard, Pioneer History Teacher, Dies

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Last week, designer, author, teacher and friend, Keith Godard, passed away. He is rightly credited with developing, indeed pioneering, the earliest contemporary graphic design history courses with Louis Danziger, which were later codified in exhibitions, conferences and books used in colleges and art schools throughout the U.S. His was the first design history lecture I ever attended (sponsored by the AIGA in the mid 1980s). Two years ago when I was editing Teaching Graphic Design History (Allworth Press/SVA) I requested that Godard (who lectured on design history at the SVA MFA Design program for almost two decades) write an essay recounting his contributions to the field and the early days of the history “movement.” As a commemoration of his life as practitioner and educator, below is that essay.

Keith Godard

Pioneering Graphic Design HistoryBy Keith Godard

It started about 1970 after I was invited to come to the California Institute of the Arts to co-start a course in graphic design within the newly formed Design Department. I discovered whilst I was teaching a studio course in typography that most of the young Californians and adventurous students from other locations believed that Helvetica was the be-all and end-all of modern design and that sans serif was invented yesterday.

Thus, I embarked on investigating how to start a history of graphic design lecture series. I did not have much to go on, except in my youth ad the London College of Printing, Harry Beck (the inventor of the London Underground map) came to our classroom one afternoon a week to tell stories in a most engaging way. The hearsay and gossip of the cutting of the fonts, along with the nuances of the lives of Nicholas Jenson, Bodoni, and the notorious Eric Gill—the last made some of my classmates giggle, further making his lectures memorable.

I had no academic history training. I recalled the architectural lectures by Vincent Scully that I had attended at Yale were so flamboyant, opinionated, and occasionally enhanced by hitting the screen with his pointer to stress details; this was very effective. As he did all this without notes was remarkable, an experience that changed my thinking that academicians were dry, boring and even induced sleep.

I realized that if I hereto invent this lecture series, it had to be personal, intriguing and somewhat theatrical. On remembering my arrival in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, and meeting Louis Danziger, one of the important influential designers of the ’50s and ’60s, I recalled that he had a large library with a green pool table in the middle of the room along with a copy stand in a small closet in his studio. His house was airy and open, being one of the first designed by Frank Gehry, and was a good environment as a starting point for research.

Abandoning the attempt to teach studio design, I embarked on formulating 16 weeks of one-and-a-half-hour lectures, expanding from the Industrial Revolution to the Modern International Style of the 1970s. Each week, I copied examples of design, making 35mm slides from Lou’s books, and read ideologies about various movements—cultural, social, politic implications and those that were artistically influential. I recorded, in my voice onto cassette tapes with appropriate foreign accents, the thoughts on design and manifestos of El Lissitky, Walter Gropius and F.T. Marinetti and others from their various writings. I played these to the students as if authentic, enthralling and motivating them to remember important philosophical aspects of history. At the end of the lecture, I revealed the impersonator. They seemed to look forward to what would be coming in the following weeks.

My belief is that the best way to explain to students the somewhat nebulous discipline of this practice of graphic design, which emerged out of commercial art and over the past hundred years has been coined graphic design, is done by practicing designers, knowledgeable of their heritage, rather than by art historians. Why? Because the practitioner brings a biased way of working and seeing the world as a designer of practical function and social responsibility, taught as a helping hand coinciding with students’ studio coursework.

Recently, in one of my lecture courses, Graphic Design Studies and History, I gave an assignment to students to choose one particular designer’s work or a movement from one of the past decades that I had shown as a sample that we had discussed. It had to be either a work that they admired or with which they had an affinity. They were asked to use the actual text and visual subject matter of that design of the past and to redesign it for today’s audience in contemporary typography and updated imagery.

To conclude, here are some points related as to why studying the history of graphic design is so important:

1. To help students find role models that relate to their work.2. To realize visual solutions are often repeated over generations of time, especially with the advancing of production technology.3. To search for appropriateness in creating solutions.4. To understand which designs are based on literal concept ideas to communicate their message and which by abstraction imagery to evoke an emotional response.5. To be able to tell the difference between eclectic, minimal, derivative design, et a la mode en chaque epoch.6. To do good work.