The Daily Heller: Bob Gill Made History Making Books and Many Other Things

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After Bob Gill died last week at 90, I spoke to many colleagues and friends about his legacy. Each person began their personal remembrance by citing one of Gill’s many books—usually referring to it as the first design book that they had ever acquired. The most frequently mentioned was Forget All the Rules You Ever Learned About Graphic Design. Including the Ones in This Book. Such a great title. I wonder whether it would pass muster in today’s SEO dominated online metrics-driven bookseller’s world. It vividly represented Gill’s irrepressible, rebellious wit. But would it attract clicks?

His other books usually followed a similar format to Forget All the Rules. I call his books pedagogical portfolios. Gill effectively taught by example. His books and talks presented illuminating lessons based on his own work. When I received news of his passing, I pulled a different book off the shelf. The excerpts below are from Bob Gill’s Portfolio. The deliberately sketchy messy cover reveals Gill’s credo to “Forget All the Rules.” That is what I loved about it back in the 1960s, and still today. The cover design doesn’t just “forget,” it totally ignores the niceties of design. Niceties were never important to Gill. Solutions were.

He was a rebel to the end. I had not seen him since the COVID lockdown, so before writing this remembrance I looked at two (of many) online videos with him showing and telling. The first, produced for SVA’s “Subway Series” (directed by Nicolas Heller), is a capsule portrait of Gill without any filter; it speaks volumes. The second, a recording of his talk at the Dublin-based Offset conference, is a more indepth telling of his life’s story (in his own right) than I could write — and he’s hysterically funny too. I urge you to watch both. Now!

Gill had the reputation of being a difficult (read as uncompromising) hombre. He was incapable of doing work that rubbed him wrong. And since he did so much work, he was either able to bypass meddling art directors, or his solutions were always right. Of course, infinite success is impossible, and perhaps that is why his books often show the same examples, but it is inspiring to see his greatest hits.

He believed in design as idea. The idea drove the “de-sign,” he would say.

Gill inspired many and angered some. He was not known for pulling his punches. When he liked or respected something, it was clear from his bright eyes. When the opposite was true, he did not suppress his feelings, no matter how negative.

In an article I did ten years ago on the staying power of octogenarian designers, I asked Gill, co-founder in 1960 of Fletcher Forbes Gill (the forerunner of Pentagram), designer of films, musical events (“Beatlemania”), commercials and author of 19 books, including the omnibus Bob Gill, So Far, if turning 80 had any special significance. From the title of his book, I should have anticipated that his answer would be “No!”

Undeterred, I asked whether he ever imagined he would still be working this long. “I have no memory of ever thinking ahead professionally,” he said. “I went to Europe on a whim and stayed 15 years. I returned to New York also on a whim, and I’m still designing, teaching and thinking about books because there’s nothing I’d rather do.” Then he added with a touch of pride, “and I still encourage my students to think independently, instead of regurgitating what the culture decrees to be trendy.

For the next 10 years he continued to work and conceive more book ideas. Despite a fight against cancer, his indefatigable contrarian spirit kept him going strong.