A Man of Substance
Ken Garland in his studio, from the new Unit Editions monograph by Adrian Shaughnessy
Ken Garland: Structure and Substance
Written by Adrian Shaughnessy
Designed by Spin
328 pp., $40
Adrian Shaughnessy has written a 54-page profile of the U.K. graphic designer Ken Garland, collected Garland’s graphic work, and assembled the two into a 326-page monograph with the subtitle Structure and Substance. It is as simple as that. Amazing, isn’t it, that one’s work could be the be-all, end-all of a book? No need for reality-TV humiliations, infelicitous e-mails, racy affairs, publicity stunts, vanity projects, skeletons in the wardrobe, or tempests in the teapot. It’s just the Work.
And the Man. Shaughnessy presents Garland as an affable craftsman and a playful purist, humbly principled, apt to wave off compliments and gruffly dismiss hyperbole, and, now in his eighties, soulfully grateful to have devoted his life to graphic design. It’s almost as if Ken Garland were . . . a genuinely nice guy. It’s almost too much for a tech-savvy, world-weary, post-postmodernist designer of 2013 to accept, unqualified and sans finger quotes. But it appears to be true.
Shaughnessy has penned a pretty straightforward profile of Garland, mainly because Garland is a pretty straightforward human being. Throughout his career, he appears to have been persistent, curious, client friendly, self-critical, honest, and happy. (It really is too much to take.) He made his career primarily in the world of print. He designed magazines and books, took photographs and wrote essays, started a design firm, and then kept a client (Galt Toys) satisfied for 20 years. Twenty years! Instagram that.
His career should stir a broth of disbelief and envy in the soul of any young designer today. Shaughnessy evaluates his work with a critical eye, identifying the highs and lows. The portrait is especially helpful in defining Garland’s place in the history of graphic design for an audience of the young and the American. “More than any other British 20th-century designer,” Shaughnessy argues, “he has encouraged designers to question and interrogate their motives and practices.” Certainly, Garland was remarkable for having added to the métier of graphic designer the roles of outspoken critic, influential writer, and entrepreneur.
The cover of Ken Garland: Structure and Substance
Garland’s writings are not included in this book (nor even excerpts)—an omission that furrows the brow and sends a crooked finger into the scalp—except, that is, for one piece of writing: the manifesto.
In 1963, Garland, attending an association meeting, scribbled his thoughts on a piece of paper and then, being asked to speak, read them aloud—to “wild applause,” Shaughnessy notes. Garland reworked his thoughts, and the result, the “First Things First” manifesto, was published by the Guardian in January 1964. A cri de coeur of principle, the manifesto expresses a humanist sentiment and declares an intention to guard the borders of graphic design against the zombies of advertising’s bad faith. Respect people within commerce, not profits over people—that’s his point in a nutshell, and it’s rather uncontroversial.
The manifesto, now 50 years old, has become a zombie in its own right, resurrected so often (in 1999, in 2000, and during the Occupy Wall Street events) that Garland admits embarrassment at the perennial attention. And a manifesto is not an argument, an essay, or a constitution. It’s akin to a moral throat-clearing, and while “First Things First” is a touchstone in the history of graphic design’s self-criticism, it’s odd for the throat-clearing to go on so long, as if one were unsure about what to say next. Its longevity, as a practical matter, is due to its weaknesses: the manifesto is short, vague, funny, sentimental, clunky, and easy to misread. That is to say, it’s a manifesto. So its misinterpretations are what keep it alive.
The recurrently willed “timeliness” of the manifesto brings up, rather impolitely, the decay in relevance that is design’s fate. Design is of the moment—briefly useful, then not. Regard Ken Garland’s work gently, not as art, but as artifact; not as timeless, but as rooted in time. Aged design gives us pangs of nostalgia, not only for another’s life lived but for an age we (most of us) did not live through. His life could have been ours. Our lives could have been his. It is, for all graphic designers, only a matter of time.